Amanda Parrish a runner on the Oiselle team. She lives and trains in Connecticut. She is an English teacher and also coaches track at her school. She loves to travel and she explores her destinations while running.
By Amanda Parrish
The kids on the track team that I coach like to say that I tell the same stories over and over again: my favorite is the one about how I used to be the worst girl on my high school cross country team.
Growing up, I took ballet lessons and occasionally played outfield for a losing softball team. I was overweight and teased about it. I tried out for the volleyball team, and despite the fact that I spent the week before tryouts practicing serving a soccer ball, or the fact that I am only 5’2 now and likely didn’t reach above 5’0 then, was shocked when I did not make the team.
After a few solid hours of wracking sobs, I came downstairs and told my mom I’d like to join the cross country team. She and my dad have both told me several times how proud they were of me in this moment. Only recently did I figure out why their pride sort of confused me. I did not decide to do cross country because I considered myself too tough to let a bad day get me down, as I think they must have assumed, but because the skinniest girls I knew were on the cross country team.
No waif now (often told that I “don’t look like a runner” by someone I’ve outkicked at a local 5k), I looked less like a runner, or an athlete of any kind, then: twenty pounds heavier and mostly free of muscle, I had to walk on all the runs we did the first week of practice (the longest my group was assigned, if I remember correctly, was two miles). I finished last in the mile time trial, at 8:12 and finished my first 4k in over 25 minutes after walking a significant portion of the middle mile.
I tell myself that I tell this story to my athletes because when they express admiration for my 12-season college running career, the mileage I still put in, my marathon PR or my willingness to hammer a long run with the varsity boys, I want them to see that running, particularly distance running at the high school level, requires a lot more tenacity than talent.
There is another, more complicated reason I tell this story, though: I have been running away from that overweight, frizzy-haired girl who used to put ice cream and sprinkles on top of Enntemen’s Pound Cake when no one was home for almost 16 years.
When, as a graduate student, I first started coaching high school students, I made myself a promise that I would stop some of the bad habits I’d developed over the years: no more standing in front of the mirror punching myself in the stomach when putting my finger down my throat failed to induce vomiting, no more ordering laxatives online to avoid the shame of purchasing them in person, no more finagling Celebrex prescriptions from my physical therapist so I could keep running 70 miles a week…I had the sense (which I still feel was correct) that somehow this behavior, and this treatment of myself would wear off on the girls I was charged with guiding.
I’ve always run for and coached teams with a no-cuts policy. It is, of course, this no-cuts policy that allowed me to become a runner. If I’m being completely honest, this policy can sometimes be frustrating: there are kids on the team who don’t really want to be there (“doing a sport will look good for colleges!) and there are kids on the team for whom a splinter is a welcome excuse for a cross training day. In more abstract terms, the fact that we don’t make cuts does have the effect of lowering the esteem of the track team, at least in the eyes of some other athletes.
Yesterday, one of the other coaches was talking about how many of the “girls who can’t run” have quit. Everyone present (all adults) expressed relief—after all, 90 kids is a lot to keep track of, and ones who don’t want to be there tend to require more attention. I thought about my 14-year-old self, just cut from the volleyball team, mostly friendless, walking during races, probably exaggerating the pain of my shin-splints to avoid the humiliation of chugging along behind everyone during interval sessions. How would I treat her if she were on my team? How did she deserve to be treated? How do I deserve to treat myself?
I often tell my students and my colleagues that I simply love running. I do. Running makes me feel energetic, capable, free, proud, like I’ve stolen a vacation before anyone else is even out of bed. Most of the time running lets me feel like I deserve to fuel my body. Racing gives me a much-needed competitive outlet, and most often, both training and racing, even on bad days, remind me that I’m tough, that I’m the kind of person who is willing to put it all on the line. I love running for where it has allowed me to travel, the people it has allowed me to meet, and the person it has allowed me to become. There is something, though, that I have not quite yet been able to do, even in the healthy adult role model mindset that coaching genuinely has fostered. I have not been able to forgive that fourteen year old girl.
Yesterday, I thought about why I love coaching. It gets me outside when I’d otherwise be correcting yet another set of essays. It lets me get to know my students in a new way. I have company for tempo runs and fartleks and everyone knows that long runs go by much faster with company (especially when that company is rattling off a long series of hilarious one-liners). Maybe coaching is starting to move me toward forgiveness.