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The Magic of the Trails

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A homeschooled 13-year-old’s perspective on running in the woods

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Photo of the author, taken by John Sloan.

I still remember the morning that my mom woke me up for my first cross-country practice.  A nervous knot formed in my stomach as we drove from our home on Old Stage Road in Southern Oregon to the nearby town of Gold Hill. The frosty morning slid by outside my window, but I hardly took notice.

When we pulled up next to Handy Middle School, the small school located in Gold Hill, Oregon, I sat there frozen in my seat until my mom coaxed me out. She nudged me toward a group of kids standing next to the playground and introduced me to Mrs. Harris, my new coach, as Halyn Gwaltney, a homeschooled kid who wanted to run cross-country.

Mrs. Harris welcomed me with open arms, then told me to join the others on a one-mile run. She then turned to my mom and asked if she would go with us.  My mom agreed. On that run I realized that this was going to be a good season.

By the time that school started, our team had doubled to 16. Our practices consisted of two-mile runs, hill repeats, challenging core workouts and relays. It was often near 100 degrees in the afternoons, and Mrs. Harris would run us until our muscles were on fire, our throats dry, our lips parched. She didn’t ease up until we were drenched in sweat and ready to collapse. Only then would she tell us we could take a break—or, more like a quick catch your breath and get some water, before doing it all again.  Mrs. Harris knew what she was doing, though; if we really wanted to do well in our meets and P.R. (which stands for Personal Record) we would have to push ourselves and dig deep. Really deep.

Before we knew it, it was time for our first meet—time to see if all the hard work and hills had paid off.  Mom dropped me off at the school so I could ride the bus with my team.  Once we were all loaded up in the bus Mrs. Harris told us to think about how we wanted our finish to look like, how today was the day that we needed to put 110% out on that course. I drank in those words, savoring each and wanting more.

As we got closer to Bear Creek Park, knots formed again in my stomach and grew tighter.  I had no idea how the course would be set up or how many people or schools would be there; all I knew was that I wanted to run as best as I could.

At the starting line, I felt sick from nerves. Sweat already trickled down my back. “Bam!” went the gun and there was a surge of bodies all around me.  I pushed toward the front so I wasn’t caught in a jam.

About halfway through the course my breath began coming in sharp, painful gasps.  My feet were hot and sore. My body screamed for me to stop, but I did my best of push past those feelings, knowing I would be thankful later if I did.

My dad stood next to the path cheering for me: “Good job Baby Girl you’re doing great, only a little more course left,” or “Pick it up Baby, I know you can! You got to find another gear now. It’s all a choice!” All the words of encouragement, time and advice that my dad had put into me and my cross-country season meant something very special to me. It showed that he really cared about me and my interests.

The finish line was in sight, and all the pain and struggle nearly behind me. I picked up my pace to complete my first cross-country meet of the season.

Mrs. Harris congratulated us, saying we’d done amazing! When she told us each of our times, she said how she expected us to drop 10 percent off that at our next meet. She asked us how we felt like we could’ve done better. My time for that week on the 1.86-mile course was 14:37. By the end of the season, I’d be running a 13:09.

When I started my season, I was a shy kid, never really pushing myself, always staying in my comfort zone. Everyone I met during my cross-country year taught me different things, pushed me to new heights and encouraged me in more ways than I can count. (I hope I helped them as much as they helped me.)

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Halyn with several members of her cross-country team in Portland, Oregon, for their state cross-country meet.

Now, I push myself. I love meeting new people and doing new things. I love to see what I’m made of and what I can do.  I’m not the only person who’s noticed the difference in me—my coaches, parents, grandparents, friends and even my little brother noticed a change.

I realized sometime during my season that running is a lot like life.  Yes, there are going to be steep hills, hard climbs, sweat and tears, and yes it’s going to hurt. You’re going to want to walk and give up, but if you can just get over that hill, push past that pain and not give up, you’ll find a stronger, more confident person going down the other side of that hill. I went up that steep hill an insecure, shy kid and came down a different person; I came down a runner.