My brother is more than eight years older than me, which is another way to say that I spent a majority of my early childhood going to one of his many sports-game-things. I think they’re called matches?
Anyway, as fun as it was to sit next to my mother while she yelled at full volume — sometimes at the zebra person, but mostly at no one — I would usually wander down the fiberglass bleachers and find myself in the company of this group of young women speaking and moving in sync. I was entranced by their never-ending smiles and matching outfits and pleated skirts.
I knew immediately, I was destined to become one of them.
My pre-adolescent self wasn’t just obsessed because they all seemed so pretty and happy, or because they usually had really good treats after the game, or because they taught me how to spell a lot of words like aggressive and defense. No, I was so gravitated because they took me under their wing, and showed me that there is more than one way to be a part of the team.
I will say, though, the brownies and cookies definitely helped.
When I came to college, I decided to make a drastic change by not participating in anything performative or theatre-adjacent. But that meant not being part of a cast or crew, and not having a director expecting more of me, and not getting that rush after the lights went out to the sound of applause.
I was aimless, and completely riddled with all the anxieties about the self that all 18-year-olds feel. During most of my first semester, I felt like I was one person in two-thousand, rather than part of any group. So one day during winter break, I walked over to the athletic center, and into the head track coach’s office to see if he’d like me join this Division III ragtag group of runners. I’d seen them jaunting all around campus, like a school of fish weaving through everyone on the sidewalk, and felt the same way I did with the cheerleaders more than a decade before.
The coach was wearing this oversized khaki fishing vest, and looked more like someone’s bumbling uncle than someone that would be pushing me to go faster. But at the end of our conversation, he pulled out something from one of his million pockets: this hunter orange beanie with bright blue block letters MAC TRACK & FIELD, and said to me, Welcome to the team.
And for the next three and a half years, I spent every weekday afternoon and every Saturday morning being a part of something. I mean, I was coming in last in almost every race, but at least I was the last of something. And the best part was, that track meets are all-day events. So even though I would be in absolute pain for a couple minutes, I would get to spend the rest of the day eating rice krispie bars, and cheering on my best friends by sometimes screaming at them, but mostly at no one.
And then, one day in May, I walked across the stage and that camaraderie evaporated.
I tried to keep running by myself, but it was never quite the same. It wasn’t the same to go out for a snowy winter jog, without the footprints of those faster in front of me. It wasn’t the same to cross a finish line, without seeing someone wearing the same colors as me, passed out on the ground, knowing I would soon have the same fate.
I tried to cheer myself through a marathon, but again, it felt like I was just one in two-thousand.
This Saturday, though, the Endurance crew kicked off their outside runs.
When I saw the post about Adam leading a group for a three-mile jaunt to the Guthrie and back, it was like walking up to a movie marquee and seeing my name in bright, big block letters.
I even woke up — in the morning — to join.
And just like it always happens, we left at the gym in one big group, but slowly, we started to separate, until we eventually all paired up. Luckily for me, my pace fated me to run back to the gym with my #HunkPatrol teammate Josh. And it felt like college all over again.
But rather than talking about what papers were due tomorrow, or how boring that lecture during calculus was, we schlepped the last mile discussing how much everything hurt, and how sore the Open workouts made us, and about the improv show we had later that night, and how the performance went last week. And that’s when it clicked like a Rubik’s cube I wasn’t even trying to solve. Somehow in the last year or so, I’ve become part of something again. But this time, I didn’t go out of my way to seek it, so I didn’t notice it.
Until we turned the corner from the greenway towards the gym, for that last 100 meters, I could hear it before I saw them: the applause, teammates catching their breath, my cheerleaders.