I’ve been here before.
My best friend and I used to eat this hill for breakfast. Technically, we ate it after breakfast, lunch and a full day of school. This hill, my high school nemesis, still taunts me at 36. I’m only slightly bigger and not at all faster but this morning I ascend it with ease, on strong legs and too little sleep.
I can feel the dirt inside my socks; a thin layer coats my legs. Before I begin my descent I take a picture of the valley below. A picture proves it happened, right? Maybe not. I have no pictures of all the times Em and I raced up this hill but I know it happened. When I stop to think about it, I have to remind myself it didn’t happen yesterday.
I never thought I’d be here.
I’m wearing heels on the cross-country course. That’s the first clue I’m not racing this afternoon. This is my son’s first middle school cross-country meet. It’s the first time I’ve been a spectator at this race rather than a participant. Twenty years ago, give or take, it was me toeing the starting line at my first high school race.
The kids line up at the start and I tell myself I know what they’re feeling because I’ve felt it before. I know they will take off in a wide open free-for-all before the course narrows and the leaders pull away from the back-of-pack runners. I know the smart ones, the ones who have raced on this course before, will hold back at the start to conserve energy to climb Killer Hill later in the race. I know the last quarter mile of this course and how punishing it is, not because it is particularly tough but because the finish line is visible and with every footfall hurryhurryhurry repeats on a loop in my head. I’ve run marathons but last quarter mile is worse than every 26.2 I’ve ever completed. Even now, when I run the annual Thanksgiving morning Turkey Trot, I get anxiety flashbacks when I hit that point.
Running was central to my high school experience and now it looks like it is shaping up to mean the same thing to my son. At 12, he already loves the sport. I was only here ten hours ago but this is his race. This is his time.
I’m still coming to terms with raising my kids in my hometown. Our move back here was an abrupt U-turn two years ago and sometimes my life here still seems surreal. This is one of those times. Even if I could picture a future with a son who runs, I would never have thought he would compete on this same course, navigate this same terrain.
My son doesn’t look like me. I don’t understand his lackadaisical attitude toward school or his passion for technology and cars. We disagree about what his responsibilities at home should be now that he’s in middle school and I will never understand why he prefers Mexican food or Subway sandwiches over the restaurant that serves only grilled cheese sandwiches. I mean, come on, how could you choose anything else when grilled cheese is an option? But. We share this. This sport, and this course, connects us.
Yet, his experiences here will be his own. We run our own races. When I run here I move forward, yes, but I can’t help but see what lies on the road behind me: summer practices underneath the punishing sun, league championship meets, the Turkey Trots I’ve returned to run as an adult. These are my mile markers. My son races forward into his own future, his mile markers yet to be determined. I can’t run his race with him. But I understand. For all of our differences, we do have this. This, we will always share.