Why I Run: Vidal Gutierrez

“Why we play” is a weekly installment in which athletes write about what their sports mean to them. This week, we feature men’s cross country runner Vidal Gutierrez, above. Courtesy of Joe Cilfford.

When I was in middle school I didn’t understand what competitive running was. I just did it when my P.E. teacher told me to. It felt good. I was good at it. One might even say I was the best in my eighth-grade gym class. But I never thought I’d keep on running.

My entire life had been about another sport: soccer. My dad loved it. I loved it; ever since I was four years old, I’d been playing on high level travelling teams. I played for two years with the L.A. Galaxy youth squad. I was damn good at it. My future high school coach even knew me by name and told me I didn’t have to try out. I remember after our first conversation him telling me, “I think you’ll be a good influence on our team.” I didn’t know what that meant. I knew I was a good passer and decision-maker, so maybe that was it. But then I met the team.

I was born and raised in South Central L.A., a pretty rough place to grow up. However, I was sheltered. My parents didn’t allow me to play with the kids on my street—I couldn’t even play soccer with them. I was in the Magnet programs at my elementary and middle schools, so I was only around nerds. For high school, I went to a big school that had a lot of rough kids. Most of those rough kids were on the soccer team. As a 14-year-old, I couldn’t handle it, so I quit.

I needed to play something, at least that’s what my dad said. I knew I liked running, and I knew I was at least decent at it. So when the cross-country coach asked if I would be interested in joining the team, I said sure, why not.

I hated the first few practices. Running in 90-degree weather was not pleasant. I got into a lot of fights with my coach about making us run in terrible breathing conditions. I have asthma. His motto was, “If you’re not dead, you’re not trying hard enough.”

That was my mindset for high school, and it made me fast in a short period of time. As a first-year I nearly qualified for Nationals. I was excited—I now loved running. Long runs through the forest were beautiful. I made so many great friends along the way and even met my (now ex) girlfriend of four years through the team. I loved it more than I ever loved soccer. I was really good for my age. Four years and eight injuries later, I’m not anymore, and that’s okay with me. I did what made me happy, and the results are insignificant to me.

My time at Vassar so far has been quite turbulent. I’ve sustained two major injuries that sidelined me for much of first year and the beginning of sophomore year. My only real competitive experiences have come over the last few months. I started the cross-country season very poorly and was pretty upset with myself, even though the reasons were out of my control. But I started getting better, and that made me really excited. And for the first time at Vassar, I felt like I mattered to my team.

But I’m not going to sugarcoat it. I haven’t been able to adjust to the team. Maybe it’s my fault, and it’s just too different a group from my high school one, and I never figured it out. While I can connect with individuals and have developed truly great friendships on the team, I can’t help but feel excluded from the group as a whole. When I’ve looked for belonging and camaraderie is when, at times, I have most felt like an outsider.

There’s very little that a coach can do in these circumstances. At times, I feel ashamed for feeling different, and that maybe it’s all in my head. Whether or not it’s real, it seems as though very few of my teammates are willing to do anything to help me feel better. I can’t help but feel that they believe that everything I’m feeling is crazy. I feel that since I joined the team, I have been assumed the worst of in most contentious situations. Maybe some of it is warranted, maybe some of it is not. And maybe this isn’t the venue to share my thoughts, but maybe it is.

This has been a really hard year for me, and I don’t know if I can continue surviving in a space that brings me such anxiety and sadness. I still love being part of a team, and running for that matter, but my running career may be drawing to a close soon. And I’m okay with that. Although there’s a part of me that feels like if I quit, I’m letting “them” win. That I’m letting others’ shortcomings dictate my actions and plans, and I feel like I should be stronger than that.

Nevertheless, I truly hope that everyone on the team has successful athletic and academic lives, and whether or not I continue on the team, I will always be my friends’ number one fan. And team or no team, South Central or Poughkeepsie, I’m always going to be a runner.

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