My high school was laid out so that the foreign language and English classrooms overlooked the athletic fields. The French rooms provided the best view of the track.
Because my family lived in Switzerland for two years when I was young, I’d been placed into an honors French class for juniors as a freshman. The placement was determined after a brief conversation, in which I was required, in French, to explain why I’d like to accelerate. The chair of the department put me in a class taught by the boys’ soccer coach that met last period. Now that I’m a teacher myself, I’m not sure if he was more annoyed that he had to teach last period, despite having away games at least twice a week, because the department chair had gone over his head and put a fourteen year old in his class of mature juniors, or because my French spelling, and grammar were atrocious.
I sat facing the windows and the fields beyond them. I had just started running cross country, having been cut from the freshman volleyball team. Because not only the run itself, but also our daily warm up was exhausting and embarrassing, the last period of the day was filled with dread. It was worst on meet days, but at that point, there was no such thing as an easy run, and so I dreaded even our pre-meet practices. My stomach hurt thinking about the warm up I’d have to run, and at the same time, I was excruciatingly bored. I remember pulling out pieces of my hair to stay awake and carefully shading in a circle throughout the period, calculating how fat of a wedge each minute on the clock should represent, to pass the time. (Now that I think about it, perhaps this was not as discrete a pass-time as I imagined then, and might have accounted for some of the disdain my French teacher harbored.) Slowly dying or boredom, I hoped the bell would never ring.
By my sophomore year I had lost twenty pounds. I was on the top 7. Our team was gunning for a spot at the New England championships. My only friends were my teammates. I drank liters of water a day and made a public display of stretching on my desk before class started.
I had the same French teacher, and now that our mutual distaste for one another was out in the open, and now that nausea only came on meet days, I developed a habit of timing the joggers I could see using the track or the kids running the timed mile. I would calculate splits for upcoming races, for my friends’ races, for races I thought I might run some day in college. I would calculate my weekly mileage and the average pace of various routes. (In the days before GPS, my best friend and I used to beg to borrow one of our parents’ cars and use the odometer to measure a run whose length we were particularly impressed with. Once we had to abandon the task and I fished for dimes between the seats while we coasted downhill to the nearest gas station.)
With French class being the sole exception, I was a serious kid in high school. As serious about grades and impressing my teachers as I was about PRing and increasing my weekly mileage. I went to a competitive high school where most students in honors classes were expected to go to Ivy League colleges and parents frequently hired not only SAT tutors, but private college admissions counselors. Talk of weighted GPAs, class rank, and US News & World Report was lunch-table conversation from sophomore year on, and even after running had brought brought a new sense of confidence and social comfort, the school day was often daunting. I slept little, worked hard, and worried a lot.
In college, our coach used to drive us an hour each way, in Chicago rush-hour traffic to find a hill. To get the most out of our trip. we’d do a 3.1 mile tempo run (really? a tempo run that happened to be exactly 5k long and it wasn’t going to turn into a race?), and then we’d run repeats up the hill, Mt. Hoy, (which was actually a land fill and on late August days, when the weather was hottest and our pain tolerance lowest, often reeked of garbage), and then do a fartlek and form drills. I can’t imagine doing all of this in one day even now that I’ve run marathons and more than seventy miles in a week, which must explain the French-class-like nausea, that cropped up each Wednesday.
At the top of the hill, when we still had the farltek and form drills to go, but the worst part of the workout was behind us, he would point to the Sears Tower, visible on a clear day, or hidden by dense Chicago fog and haze, and say “there are people pushing pens across paper who’d give anything to run with you right now.” The euphoria of having completed the hill must have kept me from my then-typical cynicism, or else it was, the visceral sense of escape that I’d longed for when looking at the track in French class, hoping to catch a glimpse of my coach setting up for practice or marking the course that made me carry my camera up the hill the last time we went my senior year. I have felt freer, more fully realized, sweaty, shirtless, in matching school-issued nylon running shorts, with my teammates on top Mt. Hoy.
Although I’ve never been told not to, I have a strong inclination that I’m not supposed to go running during the school day. There have been a few times when, on a day of a long track meet, I’ve used my lunch to sneak in a few miles, and always, these runs are exhilarating. I run faster than tempo pace and it feels easy. I land lightly on the balls of my feet, I’m smiling.
I’ve always been aware of the transformative and transportive (literally and metaphorically) power of running, and since finding out that I was accepted as a member of the Oiselle Racing Team in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about the freeing power of running. Oiselle’s motto is “Go Fast Take Chances,” and it’s name comes from the French word for bird. I love that. French class and freedom together again. Running as flight. To the top of Mt. Hoy or away from a pile of papers, light, fluttering, release.