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A Prize Greater Than All

Stopping midway to stretch (of course mom takes a picture)

The summer sun rose slowly over the arching trees that shaded the gravel trail. My feet hit the ground, one after another. I looked over at the spokes in the wheels that were slowly spinning alongside me. My parents pedaled my younger siblings, Ethan and Abigail, in a red carrier gliding behind their bikes.

Their support fueled me every Saturday. I trained by myself throughout the week, but when it came to nine-mile long-runs, they were there. I smiled to myself thinking of the reward that followed the long run. I thought back to what used to be the reward after racing.

In March 2020, the sports world came to a screeching halt. Every sport stopped because of COVID-19. That meant no games, no practices, and no communities. Before the pandemic, I was training for the one mile and 5k races in track. Every day my team and I would run countless miles together. We kept our eyes set on the ultimate goal of making it back to NCAA Outdoor Track Nationals. In order to achieve this, that meant I sacrificed “the typical college life.” Instead, I did extra sets of abs and slept at least nine hours every night. Then, I got the news. I remember thinking, "this isn’t real.”

Colleges shut their doors, and parents opened theirs. It was a blur how I made it home. Everything was so rushed. Daily runs with the team stopped and I was left by myself. After all the hard work that was put in to reach my goals, the race was taken away. My emotions went from confused to anger. I was constantly reminded while training alone, on the trails I grew up learning how to ride my bike on, that the 2020 track season was over.

No one knew much about this virus that shut down the world, except that isolation was the best way to avoid spreading it. In my home retreat, my coach told me to take a break from training for the mile and 5k and start training for the 6k, which I run in cross country. After my break-which felt like years-was over, it was officially time to look forward and stay motivated. It was hard. I still hadn’t heard much from anyone about returning to campus. There were no answers.

No one knew if college classes were going to return in-person in the Fall, let alone team sports. With no teammates to train with, this left a community-sized hole in my heart. I was longing for someone to run with me. I was tired and becoming unmotivated. Before the Pandemic, I had never trained alone. I took for granted having my teammates next to me every day. I missed the sound of my coach’s voice feeding me ways to improve. I came to this realization too late though. I was alone on an isolated trail and tried to distract my loneliness with the sounds of music. I ran pointless miles every day without the promise of a chance to actually compete. I was getting my body back into shape, but my head was not yet up to the challenge. I was training six days a week, running over 30 miles, and spending countless hours alone. When I was on trails around my house, others looked at me like I was the virus. People would avoid eye contact, ignore my hello, and move as far away from me as they could. Even in my hometown, I was alone, with no one to even say hi to anymore.

Every day my parents would ask me how my run went. I would try to hide the mental side of running and instead tell them my mile splits to diverge the conversation. They knew something was off though. I was tired of blasting music in my ears or listening to the latest Crime Junkie podcast, while I ran. My mom came up with an idea to keep me company on my long runs, that I dreaded doing by myself. “Obviously we can’t run with you, but biking is something we can do,” my mom proposed, thinking of solutions.

The following Saturday, my parents got out their bikes. They wrangled my little siblings, we drove to a gravel trail just outside of town, and they biked alongside me while I ran. It was in these moments where I remembered my roots. The loneliness faded away. This is after all, how I started this sport I love. I always ran with my parents when I was younger on our trail behind our house. They introduced me to running and I never looked back.

Little by little as my family rode alongside me on my runs, it gave us a deeper bond. Music would fill the air, but that didn’t stop the constant conversation from happening between us. My little siblings were champs throughout the rides as well. My 3-year-old brother would watch the trees zoom by and now and then tell my dad to pedal faster. My one-year-old sister would start to whine when my brother “accidentally” bumped her, but he would always become a hero when he found her pacifier to bring her back to peace.

Slowly as the ride progressed, my sibling’s eyes became heavier and they’d give in to the temptation of sleep. Towards the end of the run, when it was harder for me to talk, my parents would encourage me, tell me that I was almost finished, and reminded me of what was to follow. They said things like, “I see the finish line,” and “think of the reward that you get afterward.” I could almost smell the prize. Instead of a medal, like one typically receives after finishing a race, I was rewarded with a meal. It was the best part of finishing my long run. My parents would cook eggs, bacon, and serve it with a freshly brewed cup of mom’s coffee. We would sit down together as a family and enjoy the best meal of the week. The laughter and conversation would continue. It wasn’t the food that was the ultimate prize though. It was my family by my side, even when I felt at my lowest. It truly goes to show that family is the best team around.

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