Reclaiming a runner's identity

    I ran, sliding headfirst into a pile of mud. It was pouring rain, but I didn't care. None of us did.

    In the Bronx's Van Cortlandt Park, my cross country team made a dreary, cold October invitational meet into one of the best Saturdays I spent in high school. The course wasn't even a standard 5K, so our pacing was off. I wasn't used to running varsity races yet, so I cracked under pressure. We all sucked. There was no reason for us to love that 2005 meet, but we did anyway. It was those sorts of moments that brought us together: mudsliding, dumping a McFlurry on my coach's head and frantically trying to keep our tent from blowing away in the wind.

    I started running cross country and track because I excelled at them, earning a varsity letter my first season. I continued because I found a crucial stress release and a way to have fun.

    As a high school freshman I was undeniably shy. Even now I still keep to myself, but back then getting me to have fun and let loose with other people was a struggle. There's no way to stay sane on a 9-mile run, at least not that I've found. People trip, joke, laugh, place bets and sing old pop songs, among other things. Sure, tons of people don't need to test their endurance in order to transcend their awkward, early teenage shyness. But I did.

    Joining a team of pranksters and outgoing goofballs was exactly what I needed. I learned to laugh more. One of my trademarks became singing love songs to the girl with the same pace as mine at the beginning of workouts, hoping she'd laugh, falter and that I'd edge her out.

    By the beginning of my junior year, I had to stop running and almost all physical exertion. In a bizarre medical case, I needed surgery on a ruptured tendon in my right ankle just six months after getting it repaired. I laughed with my doctor when he told me that the only people who ever needed this surgery are middle-aged, obese women. I was 16 and thin.

    It's been six years, and I still experience pain while walking, standing and sometimes even sitting. In college, I've identified myself as a writer, a student, a friend, but never as an athlete.

    When I moved into my dorm, I felt like a different person. Miles away from my torn up, brick-red track, my team and my spikes, I didn't have a full grasp on who I was.

    I'm not sure why I lost that sense of myself. It's not that my personality changed much when running was removed from the equation. I guess I felt like it should have. I felt weird acting the same when I didn't feel the same or have the athletic outlet I used to. Sometimes it still hurts knowing I'll never run again, other than for brief moments to dodge cars when I jaywalk. That sadness has stuck with me under the surface in a way that I only now feel is finally dissipating.

    The thing about losing a piece of yourself, though, is that it's not gone forever. I didn't realize that until last month, when my roommate announced she was going to train for a 5K. I'm 98 percent sure I was more excited than she was.

    Within hours I started drafting her workout schedules for running, crunches and push-ups. I'm not a drill sargeant. Hell, I barely tolerated push-ups in high school. I'd be that kid collapsing in the middle of a set after trying to count through my laughter at my own incompetency. If I were to tell my old coach I average 100 push-ups per night right now, he'd laugh, then look me in the eye and say, "Kliegman, you've lost it."

    Helping my roommate reach her goal is strange. She'll never have a passion for running. To her it will always be a way she can stay in shape and nothing more. I won't even be able to help her much in a couple of months, when we both leave Evanston. She'll always laugh at my high school stories, but will never know what it's like to have been on that team. I don't care about that.

    What I care about is that – and I can't say this without making it sound like I'm ending a cheeseball Chicken Soup for the Kid's Soul story – having running in my life again, albeit temporarily, makes me feel whole. I'm re-owning the athletic side of myself, and it feels better. It's funny that as I get ready to graduate college, I'm just now understanding that it's OK to be frustrated by my injury and still own that athletic identity I built up years ago. I can still be a runner at heart.


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