There’s an argument runners will have over the fierceness of their love for the sport. Can you call yourself a runner after the first personal record at a race or when you want to get your long run in so bad that you weather rain, snow or heat? Every step of freedom, the feeling of conquering, the rush from achieving, makes the sport move quickly from a love to an addiction. I drank deeply the Gatorade of loving to run after watching my sister compete in high school cross country. I tried out for the middle school team soon after and a year later, we raced together (and against each other) for our high school. Every sweat soaked, vomit inducing mile of our 30+ mile weeks half the year made me happier than I knew high school could be.
I’m still close friends with a few of my teammates today. There’s nothing more bonding for a group of athletic girls than to lose yourself to your sport time and time again and be pulled forward by the teammates by your side. Every summer we had a week of intense cross country training in the northern Indiana Dunes on the beaches of Lake Michigan, called “Dunes Camp” by both the girls and boys team. We’d bring tents and bug spray and spent a week running up and down the sand dunes and boogie boarding in the water, only to stay up talking all night in our shared tents. I was never more sand crusted and mud splattered, but I was also never more sure of my love for running than during those weeks at camp.
To my coach’s frustration, I wasn’t competitive and I was told often that I had the potential to be good if I just applied myself. I didn’t care; I wanted more the memories of team dinner nights followed by the team cheering at the Friday night football game together than I wanted trophies.
When high school started, I was in a big hurry to graduate. I tolerated all the drama, all the gossip and all the mood swings, but I didn’t for a second buy into the small-town-Midwest creed that high school is the best time of your life. “Yikes, I hope not,” I’d think whenever someone mentioned they needed a certain dress for prom because these are the best days we’ll ever know. I was also part of a group of friends that already knew life was shorter than our invincible spirits told us they were.
The majority of our middle school began attempts at being an adult much too young. I learned the smell and effects of marijuana before turning 13, which was considerably older than most of the people I knew. The acrid smell of vodka and vomit would seep from the bathrooms of middle school dances. I learned how to sneak out of houses during sleepovers to meet up with boys and swagger down streets like we had outsmarted the world. We drank our newfound independence deeply but hadn’t grown the tolerance needed to stomach it.
One of our own died of an overdose before middle school ended. The cement under highway passes were strewn with graffiti tribute to our friend and tender skin of both girls and boys in the school were cut with his initials. We moved like zombies through school, the viewing, the wake, not fully understanding the implications in own life. The overwhelming fact that one of our own was gone was all we could handle. There was no sobering realization of our own fragility, but in fact the opposite. We took to the summer and then to high school this fierce dedication to avenge the death of our friend by exploring deeper, partying harder and stretching our limits to find any semblance of meaning.
Of course, the ending of that story is heartbreakingly predictable and equally horrible. And so horribly predictable. But that’s a story for another time.
As a teenager, I split my time between being who everyone wanted to me. That summer before high school I learned how to be a social chameleon, fitting in with any crowd but belonging to none. I was who I needed to be in order to gain the acceptance every high school student craves. I spent the week and weeknights running my hardest at cross country practice, thinking of and executing girls team pranks on the boys and learning how to take a washcloth sink bath so you don’t stink.
But on the weekends that summer and for all weekends later, I stayed out for late nights in a gray haze of smoke and cruising through town with the windows rolled down. The basses of our cars vibrated our headrests and knives made quick work of soda cans to produce a bong. We laughed at the world and scoffed at the adults who tried to contain our wildness. The summer night air was scented with the intoxicating rebellion of youth, but we all denied the stereotypes of teenagers. There’s nothing that will make an adolescent angrier than dismissing their behavior as teenage angst. We thought we were mature for our age, advanced for our generation and given the duty to live as hard and as freely as we possibly could.
But in the stale, cramped locker room of cross country, I was surrounded by girls who understood instead that being the best meant working the hardest and listening to the advice of our coach. We could roll our eyes at her determination to convince us that winners were never the ones to drink on the weekends, but in our hearts we knew she was right. And it only took one race where we came out in front of the person we’d been chasing for two mile, finished 15 seconds faster than our previous personal record or even beat the time of the last person on varsity, ensuring your place in the top seven and a letter for the next race to convince us that no rush from a party could beat the high of winning. There’s no greater example of hard work and dedication paying off than having a crowd cheering you on as you come in for a sweat soaked, blood pumping victory.
I confessed to Dusty one night during my first year as a paraplegic that I felt like something was missing. At the beginning, during the crashing waves of realization and grief that the rest of live will be in a wheelchair, almost every part of daily life felt like it was suddenly gone. Knowing how to talk on the phone while simultaneously putting on pants was suddenly gone from my skills set. Being able to into a pot on the stove to check if the water’s boiling was simply not going to happen. But during that first year, pieces of familiarity began to return and joined together to form a new picture of daily life. New methods of changing clothes were developed so I could once again multitask because I overslept like usual. Changes in cooking were made and my abysmal culinary skills were restored to a “possibly-edible” state. But still, something in my heart was missing.
It was running. I missed running, the freedom that a single pair of sneakers can bring and not much more. The frenzied excitement of a road race and the community of fellow crazies were simply gone from my life. After I confessed this loss to Dusty at our dining room table, I looked out the window to the street of our subdivision. We were living in upstate New York at the time, on the Army base, and snow was piled high on either side on the sidewalk. It was early but starting to get dark outside, one of the signature conditions of living in the north. It seemed perfect for a crisp, long run. I remembered what it felt like to start jogging with goosebumps running up and down my legs because of the cold, seeing my white breath from underneath my hat and (burka). But by the end of the run, sprinting back home, my back would be sweatsoaked and my cheeks burning with heat. But no more, I thought.
Dusty wasn’t having any of my wallowing. He allowed me 15 seconds of self-pity before he had me watch clip upon clips of paraplegics racing in hand cycles and racing wheelchairs, speeding through off road trails and whizzing past runners in road races. I knew about accessible sports and had been introduced to both hand cycles and racing wheelchairs at Shepherd Hospital in Atlanta. But I had held back from jumping into an adaptive sport because I wanted to still believe that one day I wouldn’t need the adaptations. Denial is a poisonous drink that only gets tastier the more you sip. It was time to try something new.
Before we left New York for Germany, Dusty and I both spent hours researching where and how to buy a hand cycle. We learned how popular hand cycles are in Europe, how widely used and accepted the cyclists are in road races and how many hundreds of yearly races have hand cycle divisions. I was hooked and within one month of moving to Germany, I purchased my first hand cycle used from a professional cyclist in Munich. Watch out, world.. I’m back.
Or so I thought. Until I actually took my bike out for a test drive with Dusty the first time. It was absolutely terrifying; the ride is so low that the headlights of oncoming traffic are actually taller. How was I going to steer this super long, super heavy bike away from any car if that car can’t even see me in the first place? Dusty rode in front of me or to the side, patiently trying to teach me how to change the gears and watching out for traffic. (**Note: A hand cycle is the adaptive equivalent to a road bike. It’s got anywhere from 10 to 30 gears, front disk brakes and three wheels with the main wheel in front. A racing wheelchair is a simpler chair and is closer associated to running. Which, at the time, I didn’t know and didn’t have access to one.) It was a difficult skill to learn how to steer, change gears and stay alert at the same time, but the more harder challenge was how dispirited I became. This wasn’t as free and simple as simply putting on sneakers and heading out the door for a run. Was I ever going to feel that free again?
A few months and the end of winter later, I was beginning to feel comfortable going on a ride by myself. Just a few blocks from our apartment was a connection to an old gravel road named “Tank Trail” from its’ previous purpose of being the path tanks would drive 15k between US Army bases in this part of Germany. No cars drove on Tank Trail and it was a safe, wooded trail for me to find my independence and hopefully freedom with my bike.
A mixture of cobblestones and gravel crunched under my tires and vibrated my small headrest as I bounced along the trail. My eye line was halfway up Dusty’s back tire in front of me and I tilted my head to try to see around him. Suddenly, a very loud pop sounded from the front of my bike and I felt the front tire jump from my handles. “Ahh!” I yelled, true to my very tense and easily startled nature. I downshifted and eased my bike off the path, feeling the ground crunch even harder under my front tire and hearing the metal rim scratch against the gravel rocks with every turn. I transferred out of the seat to the ground so I could examine the front tire. I couldn’t see a break, the tube inside was fully deflated. I didn’t have a tire kit with me; I reached for my phone to call Dusty.
“First popped tire, huh?” Dusty jumped out of the front seat of the car that pulled up. I didn’t recognize the driver, Dusty introduced him as another soldier in the unit who had been driving by and offered to help out. “That’s all that was?” I asked incredulously, having been sure we’d just run over an uncovered WWII land mine or something. It’s apparent now that, having never been a cyclist prior to my accident, I knew absolutely nothing in the way of bicycles. “Yeah, see, here’s the break. Ok, well, I’ll teach you how to do this because you’ll need to know when you’re out for a run by yourself.” By myself? Running didn’t have popped tires as a part of the sport. There will be popped tires to think about whenever I go for a run from now on?
I watched Dusty change the flat, demoralized. I missed running. I missed pulling on a pair of sneakers and heading out the door. I missed being able to climb hills of beaten trails and jump across streams. The tires, the helmet and gloves, the extra inner tube kit.. These were the chains keeping me on the ground instead of dancing through the air in a runner’s high.
The first time I took Ethel to the track with me, wagging her tail and wearing her purple Service Dog vest, I was nervous and a little apprehensive. So far, whenever I’d go for a ride, Ethel would be content in a “down, stay” position on her bed with a Kong full of peanut butter. But recently I’d gotten the opportunity to train for races in St. Louis on a track and Ethel would be accompanying me, so she needed to learn how to stay in a down position and watch me zoom around the track. Dusty helped me transfer into my hand cycle and Ethel stood by me, ready to work. I held the end of her rope leash and pushed the arms of the hand cycle to inch forward, telling Ethel to take a step. She did. I kept moving forward and together we began to walk to the track.
Dusty sat with Ethel by the side of the track after I’d gotten her in a “down,stay” and had begun to ride. She was corrected by Dusty a few times, wanting to stand to watch me go around the curve and into the straightaway on the other side. When I came around the bend towards her, she started to bark. I kept going past her and I heard the bark turn into a whine. I felt my heart breaking under my shirt, I couldn’t bear to hear that sound. But her trainer Kati had told me to ignore behavior like this, that she had to learn to sit and watch me. So I kept going and biked my workout.
I returned to Ethel, who gave a short bark and wagged tail. I took off her lease and asked her to “walk on” with me to the track and we began to walk around. The corners of Ethel’s mouth were pushed into a smile and I began to roll a little faster. Her tail wagged harder. I started to ride faster, a pace I’d begin a ride at, and she transitioned from trotting next to me to doing what I can only describe as a happy gallop.
Buh-dong, Buh-dong, Buh-dong, she galloped beside me with her tongue flopped out the side of her mouth. The realization of her happiness with being able to freely run made my eyes widen in surprise. This was the freedom I was missing. Ethel’s pure joy in feeling the wind push back her ears was the same bliss I had loved so dearly in running. We weren’t moving very fast, yet Ethel was elated to feel the track under her paws and keep up with me. I watched her purple Service Dog vest bounce along with her stride and the straps pressing around her middle. She was burdened with gear, like me, but she didn’t seem to notice it at all. Her joy in just getting the chance to run was stronger than any attention to the vest and straps she wore. Maybe that freedom I missed from being able to run wasn’t out of reach after all. The chance to speed down a hill, to feel the wind and sweat from the sun, is all I should need to feel that freedom once again. I watched Ethel slow down her gallop to happily trot beside me as we ended our run. She was free. She was happy. Maybe I could be too.
Moving to Missouri, I was introduced to an organization dedicated to providing athletic challenges to people with disabilities called Disabled Athletes Sports Association (DASA) in St. Louis. The team is made of people so motivated and positive, making me feel immediately empowered in our first interaction. I joined the triathlon team and swam the first portion of my very first triathlon for my team this past weekend in New Town, Missouri. The intensely muscled and brightly suited community of triathloners around me laughed, yelled, breathed deep and sweated their love for the sport, for the challenge and for the freedom. And hearing the humming buzz of freedom in my ears for the first time, I jumped in the lake for the start of the race and joined them.