“Stadiums are for spectators. We runners have nature and that is much better.”
~Juha Väätäinen 🇫🇮 Gold medalist 5,000-meter and 10,000-meter, 1971 European Championships
Once a Runner
Identifying as a long-distance runner was very important to me when I was in high school in college. When I was competitive, I experienced modest success, earning several All-Conference and All-State awards in both high school and college. As a coach right out of college, running retained a special place in my heart, and was still one of the most important parts of my day. When I made the decision to return to graduate school to study exercise science, I spent a lot of time thinking about what my perfect job would look like. My “list” included:
- Coach at a small college or university
- Coach at a long-distance running only program
- Coach at a school where I could take field ecology courses
- Access to enough trails so all practices would be off of the track
- Access to a park where I could host an annual cross-country camp
- Head cross-country coach, and assistant event coach in track and field
Did you catch it? Because I didn’t for a long time.
Ever a Naturalist
In December 2002, my friends and I watched the high school National XC Championships in the commons. After watching, our coach happened to walk by. I shouted at him, “Hey coach! Want to take us to the trail for a run?” “Sure!” he shouted back, and we piled into his Honda Civic to run the 4.2-mile loop at Shiawassee Natural Wildlife Refuge we all knew so well. It was uncharacteristically warm for mid-Michigan, low 40s, with some snow on the ground. I rounded a curve at one point and saw the white tails of two deer bounding away into a thick hovering fog. Stopping, I basked in the serene co-existence of man and beast.
I experienced a similar moment in college at Flandrau State Park, Minnesota. Running alone on a secluded trail, I saw a buck posed 100 yards away on a ridge, proudly displaying his profile while keeping his head turned to me. I stopped for a moment as we looked at each other before I went on my way, feeling fortunate to be welcome (or at least tolerated) in his home.
I could write dozens of posts on the times that natural spaces formed the backdrop for the sport that defined my youth:
- Pre-race meetings at “Indian Point” at Flandrau
- Goal setting at “Conference Bridge” on one of Flandrau’s out of the way trails
- Evaluating racecourses based on the extent to which they were secluded in the woods
- Resurrecting my high school’s cross-country camp where we stayed in tents for a week of running and camping
- Helping create a high school cross-country camp at Prince William National Forest for the team I coached in Virginia
And the list goes on.
I made some of my most treasured memories on the trails with my friends. As important as running fast was for me, I realized later that it was the woods that brought me peace. What I didn’t realize, was that those hidden experiences would set the stage for a new direction in a time when I found myself directionless.
My aspirations to be a full-time coach didn’t work out (at least not yet). In my post-doctoral frustration, feel that that seven years of graduate study hadn’t worked out, I often said to myself, “I don’t even know if I like this stuff anymore.” Reflecting, I reconsidered what had led to my pre-occupation with sport. Was it really the sport itself? Or was it the moments that the sport had afforded to me? My opportunity to Thru-Hike the AT is something I wouldn’t have if I was a full-time coach. So for now, I welcome the new direction and recognize the opportunity to explore my orientations in a new way – to see if this new path brings me back to where I’m from, or to a new destination that’s even better than I could have imagined.