I WASN’T THAT GREAT at running track as a teenager, and was not as good at it as I am now. In high school, I wasn’t motivated nor did I like to look stupid or get too sweaty. So I never ran as hard as I knew I could. I also never won. I joined the track team because I didn’t play a sport in the winter, only field hockey in the fall, and I had a few friends on the team.
The thought of running long distances in front of a crowd gave me anxiety, so I became a sprinter. I ran the 100- and 400-meter sprints. Then, on the first Saturday practice, our coach announced that he was looking for volunteers for the less popular events.
“We need high jumpers, long jumpers, pole valuators, and hurdlers. You’ll do your running event half the time and your special event half the time,” he said. I sat in the crowd thinking, “Run half the time. Run half the time. Run half the time.” And this is when I signed up to be a hurdler.
There was a very distinct separation in my head between being a hurdler and physically hurdling. I loved the former and could go either way about the latter. We ran less than the sprinters, we had our own section of the track, and no one watched us as we were learning.
When my dad bought me my first pair of cleats after a pancake breakfast in Princeton, New Jersey, I was proud to tell the cashier I would be using them to hurdle. But I was terrible at it, and my coach always told me I looked stiff.
The other hurdlers picked it up a lot faster than me. They seemed comfortable jumping, they had longer legs, and they just went for it. One boy on the team would kick every hurdle down as he ran. He wasn’t as tall as everyone else, so he had to either jump a lot higher or just kick them. He chose to plow through the entire line fearlessly, and when he was done, the hurdles would all rock back and forth in his wake. His style was the least graceful and hardest to watch, but he had a varsity track jacket, not me, so I couldn’t judge.
After a few weeks of practice, I had my first race at an armory in New York City. The bleachers were on the second floor looking down at the field. The longer races were on a track that went along the inside wall, the throwing events were underneath the bleachers in the back, and the short sprints, like my event, were in the center of the room. There would be very few seats without a view of my race.
None of my family came to watch, so I spent the time before my race with my best friend, a particularly good shot putter. Before the event, we walked around the building and talked about boys from the other teams. She seemed so relaxed.
Being so nervous, I felt like a fraud wearing the same uniform as her. And it was when my race began that I realized why: Hurdling, especially at top speed, is a little dangerous.
One second I was running as fast as I could at a large wooden obstacle, and the next I was completely airborne. During practice, when I ascended then descended over the hurdle, my stomach would drop like I was on a roller coaster.
At the armory, I let those nerves get the best of me. After my start, my toe got caught on the second hurdle, and I fell forward onto my hands and knees. It was a short race. By the time I was on my feet, everyone else was almost done. I walked over the next hurdle and got enough momentum to slowly half-hurdle over the rest. It was humiliating and painful and made me not want to ever attend practice.
For the rest of the season, I continued to run at the rear of the pack. Falling taught me that when you don’t trust your legs to sail you over a hurdle, they probably won’t. About fifty percent of the time I would run up to the first hurdle and stop. My coach would stand right next to me and yell, “Visualize it! See yourself flying over that thing!” And the girls would yell, “Don’t give up!” but sometimes I had to.
My body would freeze and after a moment I would realize that I hadn’t even tried to jump. I had just stopped. I wanted to tell everyone that I was visualizing, but what I was actually picturing was my body losing balance and falling into the next lane or missing the hurdle and knocking my teeth out.
Then during that winter break, when no one was around to watch, and for no real reason, I decided to move from five-stepping to four-stepping, a more advanced technique that requires the dominant leg cross each hurdle first.
Learning a pattern with one fewer step–and one that also depended on my weaker leg–was difficult, but I was undeterred. On one spring afternoon, my friend and I dragged the hurdles out onto the track. And on my third attempt to four-step, I fell. Hard.
It had been a while since I had allowed myself to fall. My back leg hadn’t tucked enough, and my toe grabbed the hurdle once again. I had almost forgotten what it was like to move so fast and then hit the ground so abruptly.
I had fractured my elbow, which was bad. However, in front of a group of basketball players and wrestlers, the school trainer told me he didn’t believe that I had actually hurt myself, which felt awful. But nothing felt worse than when my doctor told me I’d be healed by the next season and wouldn’t have to take any time off from running. Feature Image: David Morris
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