“Even though I felt awful, and I knew beforehand that I was going to feel awful, it was still an exciting thing. I look back on it and I still get excited thinking about it.” This is how Hannah Martin ’21, a member of the Vassar women’s cross country and track teams, described her experience of running her first marathon.
Some people are baffled by the idea of training for months just to force your body to run 26.2 miles continuously. Many don’t understand the gratification that comes with not just discovering your physical and mental boundaries, but courageously pushing them. “[The marathon] was a total unknown. I had no idea what was going to happen,” Martin said. “With my personality and social settings, I don’t do that many risky or super exciting things. Running gives me a space to challenge myself.”
Martin has been a runner for 12 years now. When she was a little kid, she had an abundance of energy and was difficult to control. To try and keep her in check, Martin’s mom had her run laps around the house. Later, during the summer prior to fifth grade, her parents sent her to a sports camp where she chose to partake in cross country. She felt no strong desire to continue with it in the fall, but was too nervous to tell the coach she wasn’t interested in racing, so she stuck with it anyway. But, once she ran that first race, she ceased just being someone who runs, and became a runner.
At her small Lutheran school in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Martin lined up against kids from the other Lutheran schools in her area. She raced side-by-side with a chatterbox of a boy, who kept nagging her with questions throughout the entire race. She remembered a moment where she thought to herself, “We’re supposed to be racing. Stop talking to me.” That was the first time she took running seriously, discovering that she had a knack for it. It boosted her self-esteem to be able to keep up with the eighth graders as a ten-year-old. She had found her own thing that wasn’t just school work.
Similarly, Augusta Stockman ’23, also a member of the Vassar women’s cross country and track teams, fell in love with running at a young age. When she was a rising sixth grader, Stockman began to go on runs with her mom over the summer. “It didn’t take long for me to be able to leave her in the dust,” she recalled. Stockman relished that first taste of victory, but when the fall came around, she enjoyed racing and being on a team even more. “I liked being good at it. As an awkward kid, it was nice to have a block of time where I knew exactly what to do.”
For Stockman and Martin, running is therapeutic. After lacing up her size 9.5 Hoka sneakers, Stockman will tune into a podcast or music, using running to help escape “deep and hard thinking.” Alternatively, Stockman sometimes reflects on the day or replays conversations in her head.
Similarly, Martin also looks back on her day when she is out on a run by herself. She often runs in the afternoon, but over the summers she gets up early and runs before work. She spends the first 15 minutes or so trying to wake up, then just shuts her brain off and speeds ahead, focusing on her surroundings. “Running lets me connect with an area in an intimate way,” she said. “Some of those summer jobs were not so amazing, but I still have fond memories from those summers because of my runs everyday.”
For people like Martin and Stockman, the social aspect is also an integral piece of their running experience. “It is easier to talk to someone when you are running together and don’t have to look right at each other; you can just talk. It is a good space for connecting,” Martin pointed out. But running can link people even in the absence of words; there are very few times in life when you are working as hard as you can and leaving it all out there alongside someone who is doing the same. Stockman explained, “Workouts make me feel solidarity with my teammates. I have a very clear visual in my head of every teammate from behind, their ponytail, their shoes, the letters on the back of their shirt, their distinct stride.” Likewise, Martin said that she admires and respects someone a lot more when she knows they are enduring and pushing through the same pain she is.
But for people like Stockman and Martin, running as a hobby isn’t enough; they need to compete. When I asked Martin why she races, she told me she loves to challenge herself and she feels proud when she knows she did her best. She explained, “My high school coach taught me the ‘mirror test.’ Basically, at the end of the day, if you can look yourself in the mirror and be proud of what you see, if you know you did what you could that day, did your best and left it all out there, then you pass the mirror test.” Martin says she enjoys running fast times and placing well at meets, but the real prize is something even more enticing: a state of meditative concentration and tranquility. “My goal is always to get what I call ‘race brain,’ which is when I am so caught up in the moment that it is all consuming. It is like nothing else is happening, other than what is directly in front of and in me. I know I am giving it everything I have and I am totally in it. Race brain has only happened in a handful of races during my life, but that is what I am always chasing.” Another reason runners love racing is because it is a clear-cut opportunity to be better than you have ever been before, which is a rare and addicting experience. Stockman concurred: “I remember the feeling of crossing the finish line in one of my high school races, looking at the clock and not believing the time I just ran. Knowing I had never run faster before and that I did everything I could during that race was really cool.”
When asked what her greatest moment as a runner was, Stockman looked off in another direction as she struggled to choose just one. Finally, she started to paint a picture of one of her favorite races. In late fall of 2019, during the last few months of pre-pandemic times, Stockman got some surprising news. As a freshman on the Vassar women’s cross country team, she had had a decent first season, but was not one of the front-runners. Following the Liberty League meet at Bard College, where the entire team was able to compete, Stockman became the alternate for the Regional championship, which only allowed seven runners to be entered. The seven runners on the team ahead of her included the experienced presence of Martin, her classmate Elsa Erling ’21, team captain Meghan Cook ’20, sophomores Anna Hennessy ’22, Sasha Allison ’22 and Keara Ginnell ’22 along with freshman standout Lily Digman ’23. Stockman had expected to take some time to rest and enjoy cheering for her teammates as they attempted to place high enough as a team to qualify for Nationals for the first time in program history. But before Regionals, Erling injured her ankle. Stockman’s season was not over yet.
“I was terrified,” she told me, smiling as she recalled being thrown into the race unexpectedly. As a freshman, she was already intimidated to be put into such a big race, but that season there was the added pressure from the team attempting to make it to DIII Nationals. She had not anticipated toeing the line when it mattered most. “I felt so much pressure to perform at least half of what Elsa was capable of.” She knew all seven of Vassar’s runners needed to come through if they were going to pull this thing off. “My mantra during that Regional Championship was ‘What would Elsa do?’ Whenever it got tough, I just told myself to be Elsa. I ended up running with my teammate Sasha most of the way. It was my best race of the year.” Vassar finished fifth as a team in that race and qualified for Nationals. Stockman was Vassar’s fourth-highest finisher. “It was a good feeling, finding out that we qualified for Nationals,” she recalled.
Martin also gazed off into the distance and struggled to find an answer when asked her to pick out her single greatest moment as a runner, but coincidentally she also ended up going with that race; just from a different perspective. As a junior, the 2019 Regional Championship was more than just a great race for Martin, but a redemption for shortcomings of years past. In 2018, Martin’s sophomore year, the team finished seventh, missing Nationals by a few spots following Martin’s literal collapse with the finish line in sight. She got up and finished the race, but the damage was done. Multiple runners had passed her by the time she was able to drag herself to the finish. So when she lined up alongside her teammates on that windy, single-digit temperature November afternoon in Canton, NY for the 2019 Regional Championship, she was seeking not just glory, but revenge. “I remember so clearly coming down the finishing straight away. First of all, making it across the finish upright. I was starting to go fuzzy again and told myself ‘no no no, we’ve gotta make it through the line’ and I did, I finished where I was supposed to.” But the moment was made so much sweeter by being able to share it with her teammates. “I’ll never forget how Keara on the other side of the finish line just hugged me as I came across. She was so excited. She had gone through her fair share of struggles and we had both made it to the finish. I was just like, ‘We did it.’ We didn’t know yet, everyone else was still coming through the finish line not far behind me, but like, we knew.” Hannah was the second-highest finisher from Vassar, placing 22nd overall (following Keara’s third-overall finish) and earning All-Region honors. After logging hundreds of miles and enduring way too many blisters and muscle pains, Martin’s discipline had paid off. She had reached the mountaintop of her cross country career.
Running seems crazy to those who do not partake in it. Non-runners cannot fathom why people willingly put their body through so much pain and their mind through so much struggle. But for those that do run, it is a truly wonderful thing. It creates connections amongst friends and teammates, physical and emotional exhilaration, an almost meditative outlet for stressful days and a unique opportunity to reach heights you have never reached before. I ended my interviews by asking “Could you live without running?” In the most literal sense, the answer was yes. “I have other things in my life that make me happy,” Stockman explained. “But whenever I am injured, I always miss it. I would not give it up willingly.” Martintoo has no desire to stop anytime soon. “When I was abroad last spring, I didn’t run,” she said. “It was nice to have a physical and mental break from competing and training really hard, but running wasn’t ever that far from my mind. Now that I am about to graduate, and I won’t have a team that I am responsible for or practice to go to everyday, I don’t think running will ever be as big a part of my life as it has been for the past 12 years. But it will never fully go away. I will always be chasing that feeling that I get when I am running.”