The Starting Line
To find the beginning, you would need to rewind a long way.
All the way back, in fact, to 3rd Grade at Preston Smith Elementary School. There you would find a little girl dealing with a troubled home life and a P.E. Teacher at school who found joy in comparing her students to each other – publicly. Every year she would line us up in rows class by class and call students a handful at a time to the front of the room for the annual fitness test. I was always the loser, but even back then, a grade school fit-test was the least of my worries. My teacher would scowl at me, exhale a deep, loud sigh, and then scribble some notes onto her clipboard. We would continue the humiliation outside, where we ran our annual mile test. It was no test for me; I could not complete it.
With every lap around the track, she would hand out or pick up a popsicle stick for each student. We would fight to earn 2 sticks, then hand them back in one lap at a time. I always had to walk in my last popsicle stick. The result: every year she would shame me louder and louder. She might have been kinder to me if she had known all I was going through. But instead of encouraging words or a hug, “Well, you’ll never be a runner” was all I would hear. To me, this failure was more than humiliating, and to add insult to injury, my dad was a well-known area cyclist. I was supposed to be an athlete. But instead … well I was just pathetic me.
The good news is, I was born with defiant tendencies. Somehow, they finally kicked in, and I accepted the challenge. I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and set out to run a lap around our local park. One lap. Half a mile. And if I had to walk part of the way, well, no one was watching. Before long I could run it with ease -- meaning I could earn 2 of my 4 popsicle sticks. One lap extended to include the circumference of the neighborhood school. One expanded lap – a mile now -- which eventually led to 2, which led to 4, which led to 8. By the end of junior high, my best friend would walk down to the park with me and wait with a bottle of water for me to pass every mile. She would scream and dance like an idiot whenever I came around her corner. The miles stretched on, and finally my mental popsicle pile grew quite large and gave me the courage to line up next to my dad for my first marathon at 16 years old.
Early on, I branched into cycling, and I loved it. To me, there is still no sound better than a bike tire spinning on the open road. When I close my eyes, I can hear it in my mind. Cycling and running slowly married. And they stayed together for a long time. I spent my teenage years on the highway in any way I could, often exploring the little country roads around Lake Brownwood with my cousins or Mr. Merritt, the friendly old man with a motorbike, who was a neighbor of my grandparents. Even on the rural roads, being a young girl, I was rarely allowed to go alone.
Fast forward. I met, quickly fell in love with, and married a young man who loved the outdoors as much as I did. Together we would spend our Saturdays riding our bikes as far as we could outside of town. Until one day, in college, when I was training for a triathlon. I was doing interval training, and it was scheduled down to the last second. During my sprint, I rode as hard as I could in my aero bars, but when it was over, I could sit up tall, to rest and recover for a few brief seconds. This back-and-forth game went on for many miles.
On this particular day, I had managed to put a fair amount of distance between myself and my husband, but I was still within his sight. A beat-up old truck pulled out between the two of us. Of course, I never saw it, or the pile of pipes the man had carelessly stacked in the back, which shifted around and now hung more than 6 feet out the side of his truck, completely overhanging the shoulder of the highway. My husband had a helpless perfect view. By some miracle, I finished my interval seconds before impact. Instead of taking a pipe to the base of my skull as my husband feared, I sat straight up to stretch my back and tightly held my handlebars. Then I took the impact of 3 pipes square across my back at 70 miles per hour. And never saw it coming.
The man driving the truck did not even bother to stop, and neither did anyone else. Whether he never saw me – or just didn't give a damn – I will never know. In a time without cell phones (yeah, do you remember?) it was left to the two of us to figure out how to make it back to town. And in a time when a young married couple could not afford health care, we were left to ride out the aftermath for the weeks to come. The hit was a narrow miss to tragically altering the rest of my life, but was dead-on target to threaten my future as an artist. With an arm which now barely and painfully lifted above my shoulder, it would prove to be a long recovery.
The wounds on my body and shoulder healed. But to this day, the injury in my husband's mind has left its scares. Coupled with the unwanted attention that a woman alone on the road would often garner, he became increasingly uncomfortable with my being out alone.
But, this is not a plea for pity. Instead, this is a public platform to thank the man in the truck who hit me, and all the other ones since who have felt the need to scream obscenities out their windows, to honk obsessively, or – my personal favorite – to throw their trash in my face as they passed me on the road. I now express a sincere and heartfelt thank you.
Thank you for finally driving me off the pavement, onto the trails, and into the mud. I think that just might be where I was meant to be all along.
And to my P.E. teacher and all the others who have privately or publicly humiliated me with their ‘I can’t’ challenges … Thank You.