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Why I Run

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As much as I enjoy playing and competing in tennis, running will always be my preferred sport. Winning a 10k in my age group last month was my happiest moment of the year.

I was the fat kid in school, pushing 150lbs as a 10-year-old. I grew up in a household that made meat and potatoes or spaghetti for dinner every evening that we ate sitting in front of the TV watching Star Trek. My parents were not the least bit athletic, didn’t have any hobbies or do much but drink. My treat from my father was a trip to the Sears Candy Counter to get $10 worth of bulk candy which I would eat over the course of a couple of days. I was a loner and used to being the last picked for any team sport like basketball, softball or the worst grade school sport, dodge ball. My parents worked so I couldn’t do after school activities that they would have to drive me to so I got into horses because the stables were across the street from the mobile home park we lived in. As a child, I didn’t have enough money to do that sport well either and instead just went to work as a 12-year-old cleaning stables and feeding horses.

But I grew up in a basketball town and I was tall so I played badly in middle school with an awful coach who screamed and yelled so much he spit on us while yelling at us. I can still picture him. I quit the team because I was yelled at enough at home, didn’t need it after school also. He didn’t care if I quit. I wasn’t a star player to him anyway.

The summer before high school, I went to a summer basketball week for the private high school I was going to, St. Joesph Catholic High School. This high school produced state championship basketball teams on a regular basis. Coach Hearn had us running back and forth, I was the slowest and probably the clumsiest. I also couldn’t shoot. Coach Hearn wasn’t rude but he said, “Vanessa you probably want to get fitter before school starts.” I was pushing 180lbs.

I went to the local Footlocker and bought $19.99 Nikes that were brown and tan. I still so remember those shoes. I bought Runner’s World magazine and Frank Shorter was featured because he had won 2 Olympic medals at the marathon. I got up early in the morning, around 5 am, lifelong habit, and started to run. I couldn’t run all the way down the street but I loved it. I had a little transistor radio with 3 stations, sweats and just me and the roads and I could just run. I ran farther every week and went to the library and got every book on running I could. I was obsessed.

And I ran. With no one to judge me, no one to watch me, and no one to compete against. I just ran. By the end of the summer of 1980, I was running 11 miles a day and had dropped 50lb. I got to high school a changed person. Not just the poor fat girl with a dad who couldn’t keep a job, but a thin tall confident girl who laughed. I had a job, money and got straight As, something I had never done before. Running had relieved me of the poor is me syndrome, and I now had a work ethic and a positive mindset.

I did cross country and track, but we had a horrible school teacher coach who had no knowledge of running as a coach. (This is why I stay a high school tennis coach but more about that later.)

But high school sports weren’t my focus, I knew I was training for a marathon. My first competitive race was a 10 miler from Guadalupe to Santa Maria and I was in pain and more joyful at the finish then I had ever been in my 14 years. I completed something hard that most people can’t do!! Just me and I did it to the best of my ability. I slept in that T-shirt and wore it until it fell apart. The t-shirts from races still mean the world to me.

Big shout out to my mother who passed away. She was the worst cook ever but made huge efforts to help me. I was going to high school full time, working 20 hours a week in a western boot store, taking care of my horses, and running 11 miles a day. I was 123-127lbs at 5′ 11″ and desperate to keep weight on. She tried to make every recipe in those Runner’s World Magazines and always had breakfast ready for me at 6:30am when I would finish my morning run.

But back to my real ambition. I wanted to run marathons. The marathon was everything in my mind.

May 2, 1982 was my first marathon. By this time, I had run a couple ½ marathons and knew I could finish a full marathon. I wasn’t very focused, was obsessed with watching people jog around and warmup, like why would you jog around before running 26 miles? I finished in 4 hours, in pain, bleeding feet and hooked on how to do the next one harder and better.

And I trained. I ran sprints, I ran intervals, I ran over 100 miles a week.

I entered the Santa Monica Marathon the summer of 1983. I had never done a big race like this, I was from a small town and the races I had entered were always a few 100 people, mostly men. There were 1000s of entries for this race in all the divisions. My father was a smoker and very nervous for me. This was a world he was very uncomfortable with; a daughter who didn’t speak to him and was going to run a marathon, something he knew nothing about and athletic people who he had nothing in common with. But he insisted on driving me and my mother down for the race. We stayed at my sister’s house who laughed at my extreme running.

The morning of the race I walked away from my parents and stood by the 8-minute mile sign. Everyone else seemed to be joking and hanging out with friends waiting for the race to start. I was alone watching people, something I had done all my life, like watching a movie, I had accepted my loner mentality. The crush of the start was shocking and I just got into a pace. I didn’t think, I just ran. People passed me, I passed people, cheering people were at water stations. At mile 10 I clicked, I was now in a grove and running faster passing lots of men. I didn’t see many women. And I just ran. My feet fell asleep, a problem I had often in my teens in long runs. There were now very few runners with me, the slog of people had greatly thinned out. Then I got delirious. I saw people sit down on curbs and quit, I saw people just barely walking, I saw people at the water stations ask for rides back. I got scared. Scared of the fact that I was going to fail. That all the hours I spent running, running away from a family I hated, running away from a small town that judged me and didn’t like me, running away from everything, running away from the fat and depressed girl I had grown up being, and now I was not going to finish this marathon, I was a quitter.

I started to walk, this was just too much and I was crying, hiccupping hysterically. At the water station a guy got in my face and yelled, “You are 6th!!” And I started to sit down, what I thought, I was only at the 6th mile, I screamed “This is only the 6th mile?” There was no way I could finish, then an older man in his 50s, (was old to me then) said, “No honey you are the 6th woman overall, let’s catch #5.” I stared at him in awe as he kept running.
He kept waving at me and talked me into breathing again and we raced. We raced hard and fast and I couldn’t feel anything and he smiled at me and laughed and I just ran. I ran in pure joy and pushed my body to the extreme, relishing the pain. I ran then around the corner and saw 100s of people on the sidelines and the finish line. Standing to the side of the finish line was my father leaning on a light pole with his back to me smoking a cigarette, and then my mother saw me and was screaming at my dad to turn around. I ran over the finish line, and don’t remember anything until I came to in an ambulance with an IV in me. I was dehydrated, my shoes were a bloody mess, my thighs were bleeding from rubbing together. My parents looked very concerned and I was in bliss, absolute bliss. I knew I had finished and run to the best of my ability. As I got out of the ambulance, barely able to walk, leaning on my mother, a man came over and asked if I could come over for the awards ceremony now, did I feel well enough.

“Why would I?” I asked him. I had never placed in a race before. In fact, every other race I had done I think they gave out the awards before I had even finished.

“Honey you are the 3rd place overall woman and of course the 1st in the under 18 category.”

I collapsed then on the ground in tears of hard work and accomplishment. I asked my father to find the man who helped me over the last 6 miles and my parents looked at me confused, “Vanessa we saw you the last ½ mile, you were completely alone passing everyone, just running so fast, what man are you talking about?”

34 years later I still don’t know if that man was just a hallucination and never will. I just know someone, or something, helped me push myself past my capabilities and showed me what I could accomplish.

Running will always be my go to drug, to show myself what I can do with hard work. Running fights off negative emotions and helps me find inner peace.