Why We Play: Hannah Martin

Junior Hannah Martin chases her next starting line. Courtesy of Larry Levanti via Vassar Athletics

I have many answers to the question “why do you run?” I run to move through space. I run to develop an awareness of my body’s abilities and limitations. I run to see cool parts of the places I live or visit. I run to feel emotional highs and lows, and, as George Sheehan describes, I run for the “potential for more and more life” (“Running and Being: The Total Experience,” 1978). I run because I love the empty feeling that sits heavy in my legs after a hard workout. Few other activities create the calm clarity that a run leaves in my mind. I rarely feel worse after a run than when I started. Racing pushes me to confront parts of myself that I would otherwise ignore. In racing, I confront my capacity for change. As proud as I am of who I am at any given moment, it seems like a waste of my time and opportunities to risk complacency. Why not find out what the absolute limit is? Why not explore what else I can give?

My favorite parts of cross country often come back to my team—and my team had an incredible season last year. Judging by the results and times, we’ve met or exceeded our goals and prior standards. The women were the first cross country team in Vassar history to qualify for the national meet, and that didn’t happen because of any one runner’s results. Cross country is a “weak link” sport; we sink or swim depending not on our strongest runner, but on the strength of our fourth and fifth runners across the line. Even if the performance itself is an individual experience, the collective effort matters more than the individual. I don’t see a cross country team that doesn’t truly care about its teammates being sustainably successful.

Although we train together and cross the start line together, the team has to trust each other to make the personal improvements and commitments that only the individual can control. While I enjoy running and what it allows me to do physically and mentally, I won’t deny that running and racing suck sometimes. The goals I set with teammates I love and respect make it so much easier to push through the pain, the puking, collapsing and losses of bladder control in front of hundreds of strangers while wearing what is essentially spandex underwear.

Writing out these “whys” makes me realize how often I have taken advantage of the joy that my sport has brought me. Ultrarunner Katie Arnold in her book “Running Home” captures what I love about running: “I’ve put it in my body so it will stay in my heart.” Cross country has taken the basic physical activity of running and turned it into a meaningful part
of my life and my identity.

For the last 10 years, each run has fit into a larger training plan in preparation for a future race . Running had a purpose tied to goals that were connected to my social group. This semester, however, I am abroad in Kenya, which means I’ll be missing this track season and my next competition is more than eight months away. My schedule is much more regimented here than at Vassar, and my access to safe running routes, free from rogue motorbikes and crowded roadside marketplaces, is limited. I had anticipated some difficulty in my ability to train the way I would at home, but I had not anticipated what this distance from competition would feel like mentally. Even before I left, I felt aimless during my runs. Now that I’m here, I still feel that way. I have managed to fit in a few runs after classes, and I have deeply enjoyed that time on my feet. Still, the heat, road conditions and my schedule all make anything more than a basic shakeout difficult.

I have spent so much of my life running that sometimes I struggle to appreciate a slower pace. This past weekend, I went on a long hike in Kenya’s Kakamega Forest National Reserve with three friends from my abroad program and I frequently found myself daydreaming about what a run on the trails we were walking would be like. I had to keep reminding myself to enjoy the walk I was on. Being away from my sport and my team this semester has been a wonderful reminder for me of all the reasons why I run. Although I’m really enjoying my time in Kenya and I’m trying to stay present, a very large part of me is still looking forward to the next long run with my teammates, the next workout on the farm and the next starting line.

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