In the fall of 1986 I joined the Army ROTC program at my University. The classes weren't so bad but the early morning runs in the wet and cold were not my idea of fun.
I can remember our very first run. It was 6am, cold and the grass around the football field was wet. We had to run two miles, circling the football field. I can vividly remember passing under one of the goal posts at one end of the field and seeing the leaders of the pack crossing the finish line under the opposite goal posts 100 yards away. I can also remember making a vow to myself right then that by the time the school year ended, I would be the one crossing the finish line first.
I had never ran track but began training every morning. There were mornings when it was so cold that we would come in from our runs with icecicles hanging from our hair, ears and nose. The sweat from the run had frozen as it dripped down.
My running times improved but still nothing that would draw any attention. I didn't forget the goal and I thought about it every time I trained.
As the school year came to an end, the day arrived for the last 2 mile timed run of the year. This would be my last opportunity to achieve my goal.
As the run started out, everyone had grown comfortable with their abilities over the year and fell into their groups of runners. There was the leader, who always finished first, then a group of three runners who ran as a pack, then behind them, everyone else.
And I was usually one of the Everyone Else group. But not on this day.
As the run started I slipped in behind the group of three runners who were always the lead pack behind the lone lead runner. I stayed right behind the third man, keeping my eyes focused on the small of his back, never looking up, back or to either direction. I was focused on my pace and my breathing and drafted behind the group.
The track was a 1/4 mile so the run was 8 laps. For seven laps I never strayed from my spot, tucked in directly behind the pack of three. As we started the last lap and entered the first turn, I slid to the inside and picked up my pace to move to the front of the pack. It was tempting to stay there, with the others, but the leader was in sight. j
I came out of the first turn, approaching the leader on the inside. He could hear my foot steps as I gained on him. And in the middle of the back stretch I caught him. Both of us were running flat out, pushing each other. As we entered the final turn and I began to pull ahead, I felt exhilirated, but after a few more moments, the reality of the situation hit me and everything changed.
It was like I hit a wall. Or like a stiff wind was blowing against me, and only me. It became harder and harder to lift my legs and keep going. Coming out of the final turn I could see the finish line, but rather than inspire me to push harder, it discouraged me. My mind began to tell me that I couldn't do it, that I was never going to make it, that I should give up.
And then I heard the pounding of the footsteps and the heavy breathing of the leader who I had just passed. He had one more push in him and he was going to catch me. At that moment, all the voices, doubts and fears were swept away as I reached inside and took off with a burst of energy. I didn't look back but could hear his breathing, which had been drawing closer, but once I began to pull away again, he receded behind me.
As I crossed the finish line, I felt like a world champion. I staggered over to the chainlink fence, and while hanging on so as not to fall down, I cried. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever been through. I had set a goal, I had worked at it, pushing myself, and then I had run the race of my life, coming across at the end the winner. My 2 mile time was 11 min 23 secs. And at the end, I just sobbed with emotion of pushing myself to do something amazing.
When I get discouraged, overwhelmed, or begin to doubt that I can accomplish something that I think is hard, I look back on that experience, remembering what I was able to accomplish, and it gives me the strength to keep going.