In 2020, I started high school at a small public school in New York City. With dozens of other freshmen, I joined the cross country running team, made up mostly of boys. I bonded with the few girls over being a minority on the team, and found lasting friendships. But as the trees lost their leaves, I lost them too. By early winter, all of my friends had quit and practices became more intense. I gave up on building relationships with my teammates and pushed everything into my running. The team that used to be dozens of jogging freshmen became five or ten athletes exploring New York City’s parks. As the training progressed, I ran faster and longer than ever before, then walked home and fell asleep a few feet inside the front door, the rough seagrass carpet transforming into a plush heaven. I accepted the exhaustion, assuming it was the natural cost of pushing myself.
While my male teammates discussed the importance of eating enough, they were not the same size or even sex as I was, so I didn’t even consider that it would apply to me. A few months into the school year, I broke my toe. I was afraid to acknowledge my injury and appear weak, so I told no one and learned to favor my left leg. I thought I had a responsibility to prove that girls were just as committed and capable as the boys. I blamed myself for not having the willpower to overcome my pain and exhaustion, so I continued to spend two hours every afternoon warming up and running along the oblivious, sparkling Hudson.
After months of keeping up with (and occasionally surpassing) the boys, despite my worsening injury and constant fatigue, I always felt my coach’s surprise when I did well. On a chilly winter day in Central Park, the team gathered for practice. The typically gray roads were a deep and reflective black topped with freshly melted snow. Three-foot-high white mounds bordered the roads, indented with the small footprints of children and squashed under the weight of hurried adults. I stepped onto the road with the rest of the freshmen, only to be held back by my coach, because if I slowed the boys down I would ruin the drill. Even though I started thirty seconds after them, I saw them turn a corner just a minute later. I followed them out of sight for a mile, afraid of slowing them down, but eventually I gained confidence and caught up to them. Soon after, I sped ahead and ended the workout sprinting alongside my fastest teammate. A month later when I was playing frisbee with twenty boys at the track, my coach commented that I “played well with the boys.” I took his compliment as something negative. No matter how well I performed, I was worried my coach saw me as the team’s weak link and that his comment showed he didn’t think of me as an equal to the boys.
When my coach named me “Rookie of the Year” during the team’s spring end-of-season picnic, I realized that he noticed how hard I worked. To my surprise, my drive and accomplishments were also recognized by my teammates, with my role model telling me that I was “awe inspiring” and “incredible” at everything I tried. Their support gave me the confidence to connect with my teammates. I started making a conscious effort to eat more, and felt my constant lethargy flicker away. Soon after, during my sophomore year, a dozen more girls joined the team, and I finally felt like a part of it.
A few months into the new season, I was getting injured more than my friends. During one of my coach’s lessons, he mentioned how small imbalances and asymmetries in running form often led to running injuries. I realized that my constant injuries were not random, but caused by a serious running imbalance. I was forced to stop pushing myself during practice and races. I was upset that I couldn’t continue running, but I finally gave myself permission to take a break. While my teammates trained for races, I hesitantly switched to yoga with my injured teammates and watched the bags. Instead of running through the beautiful parks of the city, I dutifully pulled out lilac yoga mats from the tightly-stuffed classroom shelf, laying them down in a small grassy area nearby. When my teammates and I ran together, we were too out of breath to speak, only able to sneak in conversations when we rested. But the injured group was completely different because there was nothing to do but talk. I wanted to prevent the freshmen from making my same mistakes, so I talked to them about the importance of giving themselves time to heal instead of hoping their issues would disappear.
A month later, I was finally able to compete without injuring myself. I learned that taking time off didn’t mean that I was weak, but that I had the maturity and self-respect to realize when I needed to slow down. And, the wealth of knowledge my peers held taught me to respect my classmates and teammates. Being on the team gave me more than an extracurricular for applications or physical fitness. It gave me the opportunity to grow in ways I didn’t even know I needed to.
As soon as I learned that I could write a personal essay, I knew I wanted to write about my experience on the running team. It was the first thing that really forced me to struggle and grow. I started writing by dumping my feelings onto the page, and thanks to my mentor was able to turn those thoughts into writing. It took a few weeks to find the the theme of the essay, and then my mentor showed me how to polish my essay to really show that idea.