517 days. There were 517 days between my two most recent races. All the way back in November 2019, I crossed the finish line at the last cross country race of my freshman year. It was not one to remember; I didn’t run very well and I was ready for a break. Finishing a season on a sour note is never fun, but I didn’t sweat it too much since I knew I would be able to follow it up with a great track season just a couple months later. I was a freshman with my whole college career ahead of me, and I assumed that once a year had passed and I was into my second college cross country season, I would have totally forgotten my less-than-stellar performance. But I was wrong. I will never forget that race
I will never forget pushing my legs to go as fast as they could around the big field before I made the turn to the finish line, with Coach Ron yelling words of encouragement as I inched closer. I will never forget this race, not because anything particularly extraordinary happened that day, but because I would later worry that it was my last one ever.
By the time March had rolled around, I wasn’t in Arizona on the team track trip, I wasn’t running personal bests on the track, I wasn’t even running on a track, period. I was locked in my parents’ house, hundreds of miles from Vassar, isolated from my friends and unable to even access a typical 400-meter loop since every school nearby had locked their gates. At the time, I thought it was just a minor inconvenience that would soon be over, but as we all know, I was dead wrong. My short, planned offseason extended into the spring, then the summer, until eventually, by the time I finally got to take to the track again on April 9, 2021, 517 days had passed since my last race.
But my first college track meet was nothing like the race that preceded it by 517 days. On April 9, instead of facing off against hundreds of other runners with tens of screaming fans (mostly the moms of the competitors) to watch me as I breathed in the cold November air, I was running against eight other people, I had a mask covering my face and the modest fan presence that cross country runners expect was reduced to zero. On top of all that, I ran terribly, certainly my worst college race. But despite all that, it was a momentous occasion that I couldn’t possibly be more grateful for.
That may seem ridiculous; why would someone be excited about having to run a race in a mask, with 90 percent of the competition absent? Why, after dealing with all those setbacks and having nothing to show for it after running a horrible race, would I be grateful for the experience? The answer: I got to be an athlete again.
I consider athletics a significant part of my identity. For as long as I can remember, I have run nearly every single day of my life. If I let multiple days pass without going on a run, I feel terrible. My energy goes down, my anxiety goes up and getting through the day just feels harder. I have met some of my closest friends and mentors through running, formed relationships that I will be grateful for until the day I die. Running is the foundation of my social life, it keeps my mental health steady and it is my biggest competitive outlet. I love talking about running, I love reading about running, I love watching others run and most of all, I love running myself. I don’t just love to run; I love to compete. Running allows me to compete not just against other people, but also—and I know it’s cliche—against myself. No matter how many times I get a new personal best, I will always be pushing myself to run even faster the next time. I get great joy out of setting an ambitious goal months ahead of time and putting in the training every single day to achieve it. Don’t get me wrong, some days training is miserable, whether it’s 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity, or I have gotten very little sleep the night before or am in a bad mood. But those days are always outweighed by beautiful Sunday morning long runs or the completion of a grueling workout that leaves me not only exhausted, but accomplished and excited for what is to come in future races and practices.
All of this training and goal-setting culminates in a thrilling, nerve-wracking race day. Sometimes it ends with a massive personal record or a victory over a rival, and other times it ends in complete failure. But it is always worth it. Nothing can compare to the momentary silence when you are at the starting line waiting to hear the gun. Everything around me seems to freeze. I’m so excited and so nervous that I no longer notice the difference between the two. In that fleeting moment, before anyone has moved a muscle, I’m presented with something that is uncommon in daily life: a clear-cut opportunity to be better than I have ever been before. It doesn’t happen often, but just the possibility that I will run like I have never run before—whether it’s by dropping tens of seconds off my personal best, surging past my competitors at the end of the race or just having a gutsy performance from start to finish as I battle with other runners, the clock and my own limitations—is addictive. It is a rare opportunity to feel true elation at my accomplishments. Everyone loves to ace a test or nail an interview or have a great first date, but for me, none of that compares to the power and strength I feel from having that big performance I have been working towards for months or years with no guarantee that it will ever come.
For a while, I really wasn’t sure I would get the opportunity to feel that again. Maybe it sounds overdramatic for a 20-year-old to be contemplating the end of his athletic career, but the truth is, for most college athletes, this is the final stop. There is no professional league opportunity waiting for us when we graduate (I don’t expect I will qualify for the olympics unless they take a few minutes off the qualifying time), so we have to make the most of our four years before they pass us by. Sure, I can still race after I am out of college, but it isn’t the same. I’ll never get to be on a team like this again, I’ll never be able to surround myself with great coaches, training facilities and trainers. I will never again run a real cross country race after I graduate from college. Most heartbreaking of all, I won’t get to cross the finish line next to my teammates, celebrate their accomplishments with them and help pull them back up when they get knocked down.
That’s why I was excited beyond belief to wake up at 8 a.m. for my pre-competition antigen test, put a piece of cloth over my nose and mouth that makes it harder to breathe when I am trying to breathe like I’ve never breathed before, line up next to a handful of competitors with almost no one watching and run one of my slowest races ever. Because for 517 days, I had to experience what it was like to lose that feeling that I cherished so much. For 517 days, I couldn’t compete, all while the calendar kept changing, graduation inched closer and closer and doubt that I would ever be able to truly get my racing career back increased. I wasn’t ready; I have a lot of unfinished business and a newfound appreciation for the entire process, including the shitty races. I don’t know what the future holds; anything is possible, nothing is guaranteed. There could be injuries, bad luck or even another pandemic (god please no). But 517 days was enough for me—today I have another opportunity.
Even though there are a lot of aspects of competing like this that are frustrating or upsetting, I am grateful for these chances and I plan to make the most of them. Hopefully, if all goes according to plan, I will get to have two more years of racing opportunities at Vassar. I am incredibly lucky to have another chance to compete here. I plan to give it everything I’ve got, and as the pandemic wanes into what is hopefully its last weeks, I urge everyone to take advantage of their opportunities. After all, you never know when you will have to endure 517 days without them.