My earliest memory was of my mother double knotting a bright pink pair of running shoes that she got from the second-hand store for half off. I sat in the grass picking dandelions as she ran circle after circle around me on the worn-down track of Frenchtown Elementary School. The school bell rang on her last lap and my two older sisters came out to meet us. Handing them the bouquet I had in hand, I kept one and met my mom at the finish so I could toss it at her in applause as she crossed the line.
I remember the day in fifth grade when I was the one to raise my hand and remind the gym teacher it was mile day. The entire class let out an agonizing groan and I could feel their glares piercing into me as I sheepishly put my hand back down. Choosing not to meet their eyes, I focused on double-knotting my laces so they didn’t have the opportunity to come untied in my attempt to break the 6:44 fifth-grade mile record set by my older sister two years before.
Looking back at high school, I will never forget the memories I made during the cross-country season. Waking up before the sun with the girls who became my family and setting foot on the woodland trails for our six-mile run. My best friend, Lizzy, and I always raced each other during the last mile. As we finished it, off came our shoes and socks as we jumped into the nearest mountain stream.
My twenty-first birthday was not the occasion I pictured growing up. I thought I would be wearing a pair of heels and find myself dancing the night away with my friends. Instead, I found myself staring down at my bright green long-distance racing spikes, anxiously waiting for the gun to go off at the biggest cross-country race of my collegiate career.
There was no settling down for me in my thirties. I began running marathon after marathon. Starting with the Missoula Marathon, I eventually found myself crossing the finish line thousands of miles away at the Boston Marathon. Of all the marathons I did, that one had to be my favorite. It was where I met the man who became my husband. I fell for him the minute he ran alongside me in the eighteenth mile and told me he liked my stride.
Midlife was not the letdown I presumed it would be. Although my mile time wasn’t a sub-six minute anymore, I found new joy in coaching the Frenchtown High School cross-country team with Lizzy. We enjoyed challenging the team to stay with us as we had them do their easy runs on the same woodland trails our coach used to have us run on. It took a few years, but they eventually caught up to their coaches and won four back-to-back state A championship titles. Watching them win gave me more joy than I ever gained from winning in my own career. I was so proud of them.
Old age is supposed to bring wisdom, but those in my life would say otherwise. When the doctor told me I could no longer run, I started doing speed walk competitions with Lizzy. Back in the day, the two of us used to compete for the number one spot on the cross-country team. Here, we found ourselves back at it, racing each other to claim victory in the senior age division.
Now, I sit on the porch of our family home, wrapped in an old quilt, swinging on the porch swing my husband crafted one Sunday morning while I was out for a long run. I turn my head to remind him our granddaughter has a cross-country meet this weekend, but the words never leave my lips. He’s not sitting next to me anymore. Reality sets in. I’m going to miss him. I sit there remembering our life filled with laughter, love, and running. As a tear trickles down my cheek, our youngest grandson bounds up the wooden steps. He kisses me on the cheek and hands me a bouquet of dandelions before sprinting off.
Grace Schwenk is a writer from the Bitterroot Valley of Montana.