By Sarah Peterson, 15, Flintridge Preparatory
Print This Post
Sarah says that cross-country fit her personality.

For the longest time, I was sure that soccer was my sport. I dreamed of playing on the national team. I was so taken with the sport, my friends took to calling me "Soccer Freak"

Unfortunately, the soccer community was too much for me, even if the sport was the one thing I loved. The coaches were great, but almost all of my teammates wanted to be the star of the team. The parents were no better, just stage moms with water coolers. Only a few months after being accepted at Flintridge Prep, I left my soccer team.

One day, a flyer came from my future school, advertising an informational meeting for the cross-country team. When I arrived for the meeting, I received training schedules and some general information about the team. The entire team was the largest athletic program in the school, and the varsity runners had gone to State Finals last year. I left feeling motivated and excited. Not only would I have a chance to stay in shape for the winter soccer season, but I would also meet some of my future classmates. I started running on my own in June, also altering my eating habits. Soda and chocolate would have to go.

Our very first team workout was short, pleasantly so, even though it was at 6:30 in the morning. Talking to my friends later that day, I laughed at how easy it had been. "Tell me," I giggled, "How on earth can a team go to the state championships when they only run a mile a day?"

Two days later, I ate my own words. The coaches told me and some of the other freshmen to run with the varsity runners. They were kicking our butts. It was early in the morning, I was exhausted and sick to my stomach, and I could tell that for them, this was an easy run. What have I gotten myself into? I kept running, wondering if it was too late to join the cheerleading squad. For a minute, I considered how cute I might look in a pleated skirt. I must have been dehydrated or something.

In the following weeks, the long runs (anywhere from 2 to 7 miles a day) felt easier. I got to know the others, and we would talk throughout the runs. By nature, a group of girls is chatty, and we learned to understand "runner speak," which sounds suspiciously like English, just interspersed with labored breaths. We found common interests (running, Marvin Gaye, certain male members of the senior class, and tropical smoothies, to name a few personal favorites), sang songs, and talked about our summer plans. On long, slow distance runs, it’s nice to have someone to talk to. The scenery in La Cañada (oversized houses, oversized lawns and a wealth of oversized SUVs) can be mind-numbing, enough so that the unabridged version of your teammate’s life story seems, comparatively, as fascinating as can be. By August, I knew a bit about each girl’s family and friends. Likewise, they knew what books my sister was reading, what classes I was going to take, and what my middle school had been like. I found that I wasn’t as nervous about school starting. I had some friends now, so I wouldn’t be alone in this new environment.

In mid-August, we spent a week training in the Mammoth resort area. The idea was to train at a higher altitude to get stronger. We were supposed to run in the mornings and in the late afternoons, resting between workouts. Driving up in big white vans, we situated ourselves in the three condominiums that we had rented, leaving time to go for a two-mile jog around the lake that evening.

Five miles uphill?

With her varsity teammates, Sarah (far righht) warms up for a race.
Photo by Managing Editor Libby Hartigan

Our first morning run, called Old Mammoth, was the hardest. It would be almost five miles uphill, steep enough to last for about an hour. I didn’t think it would be too hard. I was wrong. Even the flat part before we actually start running uphill was difficult. It was soft, like running on the beach. Then the climb started. I was relieved to finish this difficult run. I drank some water, and then jogged about a hundred yards back down the hill to cheer for the other girls as they came up. I liked the team’s emphasis on support. Nobody is done until everyone is done, and until then, we support each other.

At the end of the week, we ran the Old Mammoth trail again. The night before, the coach gathered all of us to congratulate us on our hard work, to motivate us for that last run. Before we left the condos the next morning, I found a Sharpie and wrote on the inside of my left arm "give it your all … no regrets!" It was something he had said near the end of his pep talk, and it stood out amongst the usual hokey clichés.

We stood together quietly, waiting to start the run. The sun was already baking. The whole reason we had spent a week up there was to improve our times. This was the test—could we run faster than before?

The first half-mile is always the hardest. My legs felt weak and I needed more air. Eventually, I fell into a pace and my breathing evened out. At some point in the beginning, I pulled ahead of my friends and didn’t see them again. I was more or less alone. Midway through the run, my stopwatch stopped. I didn’t know how long I had been running. All I could do was keep going, just give it my all. I pushed harder, pumping my arms. Kinetics dictate that a runner’s legs will keep up with her arms. I even tried visualization, pretending that I had wings that would somehow just lift me up the hill. Working my hardest, I tried to keep my thoughts positive as the incline worsened.

What made that run amazing was that I found something inside of me, something that motivated me enough to run with mettle that I had never known. When I arrived at the top, I felt calm and happy. It had been a run to remember. I think I had genuinely tried my hardest, and had found my running style: perseverant.

As we stretched, most of us quiet and a little tired, our coach told us "Now you are runners." I liked it. Here was a new identity, something I grew to like as I tired of soccer. So long Soccer Freak, hello Runner.

I made the varsity team and our first two league meets were strong victories. Though I preferred training and having fun, I still loved racing. I loved feeling the support of my teammates even when they were running too hard to say anything. Our team strategy is to race in a pack. It keeps the whole team moving, and the team that comes together in a race wins together. With our team dynamic, our spirit and determination, it seemed like nothing could go wrong. People at school started recognizing me as one of the freshmen that had made the varsity team. They would ask me, "Why would you run?" "When you go out on runs, why not just walk? Nobody’s watching." "Do you like being that sweaty?" It bothered me that they had the nerve to ask rude questions. I didn’t ask the baseball team why their sport was so boring, nor did I tell the football team that nobody really watched their games.

My knee was injured

Things were going well. But while running back to school one October afternoon, my knee gave out underneath me. I went to my doctor, who gave me the bad news. No running for 10 days. It felt like the rest of my life. We had two races in the next 10 days, one of which would be our most important league meet. The other was the Mount San Antonio College meet. I had never raced at Mt. SAC, but I wanted to. More importantly, though, what would happen at the league meet?

That week, while the team went running, I stayed in the weight room and did leg raises. When the rest of the team would come back from a hard workout, they would complain about how tiring it had been. I envied them.

At the league meet, I assisted the coaches, keeping score and timing runners. We didn’t win. We were all shocked. The bus ride was quiet as soon as the coaches were done expressing their disappointment. I knew I wasn’t being reprimanded, and that was what bothered me. I hadn’t raced, so I wasn’t to blame. I wanted to share the blame. That’s what teams do.

By October 19, my knee had healed enough that I could run with the JV team at Mt. San Antonio College. It was nice to be back.
After league finals (both varsity and junior varsity finished second in their respective races) the junior varsity team was finished. Now it was down to eight or nine of us, the varsity. Now we were racing against teams all over Southern California. The workouts were more focused, but we still had fun. We were running in the mornings again. Not only that, but the coaches set guidelines to keep us healthy. We couldn’t kiss anyone, had to wash our hands, and were required to go to bed as soon as our homework was finished. We couldn’t afford for anyone to get sick now.

We were part of the arsenal

Our California Interscholastic Federation prelims went well. Glancing over the summary for our race, my name popped out on the page. I read on: "The (Flintridge Team has) welcomed frosh talents Sarah Peterson and Hannah Vaughan to their arsenal."

"Hannah!" I pointed to the page. My friend and I laughed. "Frosh talents." It was too much. We were part of an arsenal? What were we, cannons?

Continuing to the CIF Southern Section Finals, we started to feel some pressure. We needed to place at least fourth in the race to continue to the state finals. When the race was over, we listened carefully to the loudspeakers. We had made it. We were going to state.

In the next few days, I didn’t think about TV, the holidays, or even boys. I would stare at my desk and wonder what the course would look like. From what I knew, the hills were small. The race was in Fresno. Would it be hot? All that mattered now was that I ran hard, ate well, and slept enough.

The day after Thanksgiving, the team met at school. We used shoe polish to write our names on the van windows, with drawings of us running. Waving goodbye to our parents, we began a day’s drive to Fresno.

When we arrived at the course the next morning, it began to drizzle. I felt cold and miserable. We warmed up underneath a canopy of trees, trying our best to keep our muscles warm. We watched the Division I runners speed by, going faster than some of our boys. I wondered if I would be strong enough. Would I give up? I told myself not to worry. I was going to have to race, and I might as well do it with some composure.

At the starting line, we reluctantly stepped out of our warm sweats and into the rain. It felt like a bad sports movie, one where the hero overcomes all the odds and braves the rain.
It’s almost painful for me to recount what that race was like for me. My knee gave away in the first mile, and from then on it was all I could do to keep running. It was probably my worst race yet, and I knew it. I kept going, though. Flintridge Rebels never walk.

We didn’t win, but we were still glad to have raced. We were cold, though, and getting colder. When we got into the vans, we broke open a big container of rich brownies. Remember how chocolate was off-limits? The season was over, and it was time for chocolate.

Our vans headed home. The rain was easing up, and half of us were asleep. Still awake, listening to my headphones, I thought about how disappointing the race had been for me. However, I realized, the season had been anything but. In the end, cross-country wasn’t about the races, it was about running with great people and having some fun whenever possible. Besides, I thought, looking at my teammates with chocolate crumbs in their laps, their wet shoes in a pile by the driver’s seat, there’s always the next season.