“Running is an individual sport.” That’s the phrase I believed since I began my athletic career as the slowest person on my middle school cross country team. I did absolutely nothing to contribute to our team score. To me, despite being part of the team, victories were individual. If our team won, it was because our top runner had a great day. If I achieved a personal record, despite how our team did, I would view the meet as a success.
The next five years of my cross country experience were no different. As I got faster and started to score points, every race suddenly became a competition not only against other teams, but also against my own teammates. Sometimes running was more of a fight to keep my varsity spot rather than to beat our rivals.
This mindset seemed to make sense. Each runner was at a different level. Collectively, our team would never qualify for the state championships, only individuals could go. Individuals could break records. Individuals could be the “fastest.” Running was an individual sport.
But if my college experience has taught me anything, it’s that running is a team sport. The lesson didn’t come easily. Since 2019, thanks to a sudden streak of season-ending injuries, I could no longer be the successful runner I aspired to be.
With individual success no longer my motivation, I had to decide what would keep me pressing on — whether or not I would quit. This forced me to experience the sport in a way that wasn’t focused on myself. I grew more invested in my teammates’ performances, and for the first time their successes and failures felt like my own.
Not only that, but despite all my injuries and subpar running performances, I had a team that made me feel just as valued as if I had been the top runner. Despite my still-competitive spirit, for once in my life I no longer felt anxious about trying to run a certain time or achieve a certain goal. My team was my community and I didn’t have to prove myself to experience that.
It was freeing.
Injury is hard. But when faced with the decision to quit, I realized I couldn’t. It wasn’t my individual successes that made the whole experience worth it. It was the power of being in community and finding a place there.
In November, I competed in my last collegiate race. No, I did not run my best 5K time ever. We weren’t even running an official race since this year’s pandemic canceled our official season. Yet I was out there running alongside my teammates, each of us cheering for one another and celebrating the hard work we’d put in all season.
We were truly grateful to even be able to run together, all things considered. That made it a success in my eyes, and the perfect ending to 10 years of competition.
As I’ve had time to reflect on my career as a competitive athlete, I realize it’s much more than individual goals and successes that keep a runner going for so long. It is a team that provides constant motivation and encouragement. It’s the people cheering for you or running alongside you that make the individual race worth it.
Not only that, but having a team gives you a space to be disappointed when things do go wrong. You have people around you who can understand your perspective so that you don’t have to bear the weight on your own. Additionally, a team allows for an outlet to rejoice in the successes of others even when you fall short.
My experience has taught me that no matter how much you train and prepare, there’s always going to be an unexpected roadblock. There’s always going to be a moment when you have to decide if it’s worth continuing. For me, recognizing that running was so much more than just an individual sport made that decision clear.
Wheaton College, IL