Long Distance Winner

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This post originally appeared on Bed Crumbs.

I started running when I was 11. I was a kid who wanted to go out for every sport, so when I was old enough to, it was a given that I would join the middle school track team. But it was more than that. Running felt natural, it felt right to me. It felt like something I was meant to do.

After school, I would hurriedly change into shorts and a tee shirt, lace up my Nikes, and headed out on a mile long loop that circled my house, the nearby elementary school, and community gardens. It was my time. For awhile, there was no pressure. No one made me run but myself. I was a latch-key kid; I could have just as easily sat on the floor in front of the TV and inhaled all the sugary cereal (which I did on occasion). It was my choice to head out the door every day.

When it came time to pick our events for track, I knew the mile was mine. I was little and quick, and reveled in running suicides during basketball practice, but sprinting races intimidated me. The sprinters were bigger than me. More confident. It seemed like everyone wanted to be a sprinter. Everyone but me.

The crowd was decidedly thinned for the mile. At the time, it seemed like a long distance. Having traumatized so many kids after years of dreaded gym class fitness tests, only the seemingly insane willingly chose it as their number one event. I was one of them.

Roughly 1600 meters make up a mile. Four laps around a standard sized track. When the gun went off, I shuddered, shocked, then cautiously took off. Even as time went on, my reaction remained the same. Surprised by something I was expecting, then nervously bolting.

Here’s the thing about racing. Like life, there are leaders and there are followers. There are those who sprint at the sound of the gun and those who hang back with the crowd. For a long time, I was in the second group.

For the first two laps, I would hold my own, watching the girls who flew wildly at the start fade away. One by one, I passed them until it was just another girl on my team, Molly, and I stretching away from the rest.

The distance between the two of us ebbed and flowed. Sometimes I was right on her shoulder. Most times, she had a solid 200 meters on me and I focused on her back like a target, imagined myself catching up and blowing by her. When we rounded the track into the final 200 meters, I would pull out my not-so-secret secret weapon: a kick. A burst of energy where I sprinted as hard as I could, felt my legs go numb and just flew.

Still. A late burst couldn’t make up for a hesitant start. I was second place, always. Often, mere seconds separated us. But still. Second place burned. It wasn’t first. I wasn’t the best. I forgot about all the other girls behind me, instead focused on the race as existing solely between Molly and myself, and I lost.

“Where do you get that kick?” my coaches would ask, bewildered. Who was that girl I became in the final showdown, and where was she for the rest of the race?

The sprinter was confident. The slow starter was not. She was overly cautious and afraid to fail. What if’s plagued her mind. What if she started too fast, couldn’t hold it, and failed spectacularly? Cautious Carrie hated second place, but she far preferred it to last.

I didn’t win my first race until the day before my 21st birthday, nearly ten years after my second place streak. I set my personal best, running a 5K in less than 20 minutes. That morning, on the way there, I didn’t think I could do it. I knew it was in me somewhere, but I was afraid. “Go out strong,” my dad said sternly. “Have some guts.”

Have some guts. Don’t be afraid. Lead, don’t follow. All lessons that apply to both running and life. All lessons I have come to embrace. But here’s another lesson that I’m just now learning: have guts, but pace yourself.

Months before that middle distance win, I ran the New York City Marathon. I finished faster than my goal time — fast for a first timer, period — and still, within hours after it was over, regrets plagued my mind. I could have done better had I pushed myself more. If only I had started with my actual pace instead of underestimating myself. If only I hadn’t stopped to pee at mile 18. If only I hadn’t walked through that one water stop. If only, if only, if only.

Looking back, even with all those nagging questions still in my mind, I won that day. I had guts. I was fearless because I finished. Sometimes being cautious is a good thing. What if I had gone out hard? Maybe I could have finished faster, but when you’re running a 26 mile race, is that a chance you’re willing to take?

This is why people make that “life is a marathon, not a sprint” analogy. It’s long. The pace changes. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. It’s not finished in one fell swoop. You’re in it for the long haul.

“You’re only on mile six of your marathon,” my dad told me recently, when I was in the throes of a quarter life I am not accomplishing my dreams and goals yet crisis. “You’ve still got a long way to go.”

Whenever I feel impatient or dissatisfied with things, I remind myself of that. Think of how I felt at mile six, still in Brooklyn with three more boroughs and twenty more miles ahead of me. It seemed mammoth. Possibly insurmountable. So far away. And yet, so close, and so achievable. I could picture myself crossing the finish line, just as I can begin to picture my future now. Have faith in the long distance winner.

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