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Young Writers Project: Discovery

The Young Writers Project is working with some young writers who are working hard to succeed at something they are passionate about. In the first of a multi-part series, Autumn Eastman writes about becoming one of the state's best long distance runners.  The Champlain Valley Union High School senior has been keeping a journal of her experience.

by Autumn Eastman
Grade Twelve, Champlain Valley Union High School

I wake up to that familiar feeling in my gut, a turmoil that reminds me of the challenge that I am about to face. It’s race day.

I didn’t sleep very well last night. I tossed and turned, and when I did sleep, I dreamt about running and racing and outcomes good and bad.

I get up and unfold the red, black and white uniform that represents me as a runner, my accomplishments, the team’s accomplishments and the races to come. I dress in my “lucky”outfit – we runners are quite a superstitious bunch – which means the same socks, same sports bra, same hair ties and includes the same breakfast, same routine every race day so we can reassure ourselves that this race day will be a good race day. All of this is mental, I know, but racing is a huge mental game. And whatever helps me cope with that stress of not knowing the outcome of the race before I race, I go for it. …

It’s been a long time since I first started to run, since I discovered that this is something that could drive me so. When I was really young, I remember on bright, cool, fall days, watching my Dad tie up his mangled sneakers and head out the front door for the occasional run.

When I turned 8, I told him I wanted to tag along with him. His face lit up. We jogged down the road a little ways and came back. My stride was three times as short as his, so I struggled to keep up. But we kept at it.

I went through the same generic sports most young girls go through: ballet, soccer, horseback riding, the occasional tag and hide-and-go-seek.

It wasn’t until middle school that I discovered cross country running. Hayley, my best friend then, told me to do it with her. … At first, I was in the same mix as everybody else, but then I grew, seasons passed and my reasons for running changed. I was no longer running for friends, I began realizing I was good at it.

In eighth grade, when I ran with my Dad, I was no longer slowing him down, I was right with him, and I felt good doing it. And during races I started developing my own little methods for coping with the stress; every runner I passed or was with, I would either talk to or exchange a “good job.” I was a one-girl cheering squad roving through the woods, and, for some odd reason, each time I offered a word of encouragement to another runner, a burst of energy entered my body, and I kept furthering my strides to the next runner.

And then there was this one race. As we were milling around in the open field, we spied tables covered with trays of cookies and other sweets – prizes, we learned, for the winning runners. I decided. Hinesburg Community School was going to win one of those plates.

…I strode to the front of the pack and soon led the team and then the race. And as I sprinted toward the finishing stretch, I began lapping a couple of the boys in the back. Crossing the finish line, a gray-haired woman ripped the tag from my bib and sent me on my way.

A short time later, at the awards ceremony, they called my name to receive a huge plate of cookies. I was overjoyed. And grabbed a couple.

“Aren’t you going to share those with your team?” my Dad asked.

I admit to just a twinge of reluctance, but agreed. Within moments they were gone. But the sweet taste of victory made the wheels turn in my head; I wanted more, I wanted the feeling of another win.

My freshman year at Champlain Valley Union High School was nerve-racking and unpredictable. But one thing was predictable: I was going to run on the 2010 CVU cross country team. The first day of preseason I was in the midst of all these scary looking high schoolers. However, a sophomore named Julienne came over and loosened me up. She wore black shorts and a colorful, pastel tank top. Her sunny personality and personable attitude made me feel comfortable. For our first run, Summer, a senior, Aleksey, another sophomore, Julienne and a couple other girls showed me around the school. I began to feel welcome. But what I most remember was that two weeks into practice, I was doing workouts harder than I had ever experienced. As my body soon would tell me.

One day, after practice, every strand of muscle and tendon pulsed on the bottom of my foot. As I curled my foot up for one more step, my arch screamed. The pain streamed up to my calf to the back of my knee. I placed a cold plastic bag of ice on the area. And I was beginning to understand that I was not going to be able to run for a while. As a newcomer, I hated having to step out. For three weeks, I spent every night massaging the bottom of my arch with a golf ball and icing it with a frozen can of green beans.

I missed the Essex Invitational and the Burlington Invite. I watched other races from the sidelines. I cheered my teammates on the side of the trail but every part of me wanted to run again. I finally was able to race again at a weekday race at Burlington High; it was invigorating to get back on my feet. I changed up my sneakers, got inserts and when I crossed the finish line, a huge adrenaline rush flooded my body -- I felt great. My time was OK, but I was running with the junior varsity.

After my freshman year, it was clear there was a solid varsity team of six returning – only one graduated – meaning there was only one opening. I was going to have to fight for it against two of my best friends, Cally and Carly. I spent the summer training long, hard hours, alternating between running, roller skiing for Nordic in the winter, hiking and biking. As the preseason approached, my stomach was twisted. We had “tryouts” and time trials. I had to be 7th or better if I wanted to prove that I belonged on varsity. I came in behind Cally in the 1 mile time trial, but finished ahead of her in the 2-mile. It came down to our first race at Red Rocks in Burlington. This was going to be the final determination for the last spot.

The gun fired and I shot out to the front and held my pace with the other two or three other girls who I was competing with to get on varsity. By the middle, I could no longer hear their feet hit the ground behind me. I was all alone in the front. I finished exhausted, but had a huge smile on my face. Later that evening, my Mom looked gave me a smile and told me about the conversation she had with my coach, Scott.

“He told me … he sees a lot of potential in your running this year. He thinks that you will be taking the spot on varsity.”

My heart leaped. I could not have been more excited. I was part of the varsity. I began to spend almost every waking moment with them -- Claire, Julienne, Taylor, Aleksey, Sophie, Adrienne – but I was intimidated, too. And, sadly, the friends that I had made freshman year were now replaced by my cross country friends. I found I no longer had time to spend time with anybody but with those six girls, my team. I still feel guilty about that, about losing touch with the friends I had, but cross country running consumed me. And every day, after school we spent all our time together training. Friday nights before races we had team dinners. We shared intimate details of our lives, and laughed until food spilled out of our mouths.

My first varsity race was at the Essex Invitational at Catamount. I woke up that morning with fire in my chest and butterflies in my stomach. When I got to the race course, I knew the day was going to be different. The sick feeling in my gut never went away. Before the race, Sophie came up to me and assured me that everything was going to be OK.

“How are you feeling, Autumn?” she asked.

My stomach growled. “I’m so nervous, I just don’t know what to expect.”

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. I remember my first varsity race. I was just as scared and nervous as you are, and I’m alive.”

I laughed. A puff of wind blew and her long blond hair in front of her face. She brushed it away, looked at me with her big blue eyes and said, “Just stick with me. Go out with me and you’ll find your place. You can do it.”

Soon we lined up, the gun fired and the girls seemingly carried me up the first hill. I did exactly what Sophie told me to do, I went with the crowd and started picking people off. I had no idea what I was doing, so it felt very much like trial and error. At about 2.5 K, I found Sophie.  

My coach yelled: “Come on Autumn! If you can go, go!” So I did. It didn’t feel right passing Sophie. I felt guilty. I wanted to stick with her; it was the only thing that felt familiar. Before I knew it, the race was over and we were in each other’s arms offering congratulations. For my first varsity race, I was off to a good start.

The following race was the Burlington Invitational. It was a hot and the sun was blazing. For some reason we were all nervous in warmups, but we vowed to bring our team to the top again. The gun went off and we sprinted out to the front, a big red blur as we went up the first stretch. Somewhere in the middle of the race, I not only passed Sophie but Adrienne, too. I was working my way up to Julienne. I could feel the tiredness in my legs. They didn’t want to move, but I forced them to. I tore up the gravel with my sneakers and cut away the air with my arms and legs. At the end of the race, my legs felt stepped on. Scott looked stressed and uneasy. The points between Essex and CVU were coming in really close. Scott was convinced we had lost. We were devastated. During our cool down after the race, a couple of the girls started crying, unable to accept the defeat. As a newcomer, I could understand why everyone was so upset but I couldn’t quite conjure the same feelings.  

At the award ceremony, they counted down the top 10 teams; as we patiently waited to hear 2nd place, all of the girls tensely watched the announcer. The announcer said,

“Sliding into second, by one point . . . Essex High School.” We all went crazy; no one could believe we’d won by one point.

“We should have lost that race,” Scott said later. “They were better than us today.”

The day steeled us. We never forgot. We never wanted to repeat those sensations. And I began to understand how cross country – the ultimate lonely, individual sport – is really a team sport. And I realized just how strong I felt, deep inside, that I wanted to win.

That year’s team went on to do great things. But at the end of the year, during the summer, I started to train for real.

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