When someone finds out she’s a runner, Jessica Hoover watches as they try to put the puzzle together.
As running comes up in casual conversation at Starbucks or in a finance class, she knows it’s time to brace for impact, to brace for confused looks and a string of disjointed questions.
How far do you run, they ask. Do you run the mile or the marathon, they wonder. Do you think I could beat you, they say with a smirk.
“It happens a lot. And it’s kind of like how do I navigate this conversation in a way that will actually get anywhere,” Jess says.
The worst question, the unexplainable one, is some version of this: Wait, uh, why do you do that to yourself? Why do you run?
Jess, along with all of her teammates, knows the drill. Runners get a lot of questions and with a sigh, they try to fill in the blanks. But there’s often no real answer, because running is a thousand-piece puzzle that doesn’t quite fit.
To really understand the “why do you run” question, it seems, you have to go to the end. You have to go to the finish line.
At the end, Jess crosses the line and her legs slow to a stop, retreating from a sprinting motion. She take big breaths as if inhales and exhales are in limited supply. Her arms swivel and reach her hips. Her limbs ache and want to crumble.
To call a race a success, Jess has one rule. She wants to be able to say she gave it her all.
“But if you really sit down and think about that —giving it your all — it means having nothing left in the tank… and that’s a pretty scary thing,” she says.
After a few seconds, Jess turns around and her tired eyes search for her teammates’ faces. One by one, the girls find each other. Some faces are stained with happy tears, some are throwing up, some don’t want to talk about it.
“Everyone is experiencing this intense sense of relief and anything goes.”
If all goes well, there are hugs and smiles and bursts of giggles in between talk of soreness, numbness and all sorts of physical pain. It makes no sense at all. It’s like they all know the same secret.
“There’s just a feeling of yes, this is what it’s about. We raced. We really lived.”
On a fundamental level, running is about the numbers. The sport is a constant quest to lower them.
Whether it’s scribbled on a notecard or sharpie-d into the corner of a journal or stuck in the back of her mind, most runners adorn their personal space with a magical set of minutes and seconds.
Every distance runner has a number in their head of how fast they want to go on their best day.A personal record, or a “PR,” can define a runner’s fitness. No matter what they do in practice, most runners crave breaking that record again and again.
Running 101 would include chapters on pacing and lap conversions and peak mileage, plus a pop-quiz on stopwatches.
It’s no surprise then that the best collegiate distance runners tend to have an affinity for details and routine. On Miami’s team, the lifestyle goes beyond “staying in shape.”
Girls who run distance events (ranging from a half-mile to a 6.2 mile race) subscribe to a lifestyle of structure. They typically run 60 miles a week, give or take. They do a mix of steady runs and workouts, a mix of repeats and intervals and tempos that might as well be a foreign language. They lift weights, take ice baths and keep careful tabs on how they’re ankles, calves, knees, hips and back are feeling.
“After awhile, they enjoy the process. They enjoy counting their miles up and calculating their paces. It becomes a part of your day,” says Jess.
They submit to early bedtimes, buy obscure vitamins, have a catalog of granola bars in their pantries and shop in the healthy aisles at Kroger.
“We may not be smiling the whole time, but we know it all makes us better, and that’s so worth it.”
When girls decide to really commit, Jess says, they enter into a mindset with no off-switch. They linger a little longer when deciding what to make for dinner. They can’t go to Brick Street during the season without feeling like they should be in bed.
“My college experience is not the norm,” she says, as she bites into an apple.
Jess and three teammates live in a house on North Campus Avenue called “WTF.” The red and blue house sign follows official Miami naming tradition and has more than one meaning. On the record, it’s short for Women’s Track and Field. But, in a way, the obvious shorthand makes sense.
“You have to be a little crazy to do what we do everyday,” Jess says.
It’s a house where generations of runners have kicked off their shoes after a mid-afternoon practice. The walls hold stories of sweaty summer training days and races gone badly. Maybe, just maybe, the walls hold the answers.
If you want to label yourself an outsider, say the word “jog” when the distance team is hanging out here. They hate the word jog.
“When someone says they saw me jogging, it’s kind of a like a stab,” says Jess, and her teammates would shake their heads in agreement.
“Jog implies easy. It implies slow. I would not classify any of our running as easy.
The collective opposite of easiness, the puddles of sweat, the chorus of heavy breathing — it builds bonds.
“There’s something different about cross country teams,” says Jess. “If you run miles and miles with people and you go through all of this pain together, you become very close.”
At practice time, the girls meet for an eight-mile run. They might be thinking about Chemistry exams, relationship drama or anticipating a looming race on the calendar.
“We know each other well enough where we can kind of tell, oh this person is having a really good day, this person seems quiet today,” she says.
Then, in groups of two or three, the girls disappear into the trails behind Yager Stadium. The tall trees shelter around their moving bodies, they feel the dirt and sticks and the leaves crunch underneath their Adidas shoes. Running side by side — with no cell phones in hand — opens people up.
A few miles later, Jess says, they figure everything out.
“It’s like all the barriers go away.”
Running is not like most team sports, where you have to be a superstar to keep it going after college. In the future, they will enter road races on the weekends or fit in a few miles before work and send texts to their teammates about their training. They will still run.
“Going for a run is the part of my day where there’s no stress and I let everything go,” says Jess. “I can’t imagine not doing it.”
They all have their reasons and each is a little hard to explain. To really get it, these runners want to say over and over again, you just to have run.
“I run because deep down in my gut, I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do,” Jess says. “And you only get so many chances to really see all that hard work pay off.”
The second before the gun goes off, a string of different thoughts circle around each mind. They reach for the hand next to them. They jump up and down. They tuck in their uniform tops. There are internal countdowns. Nerves. Jitters. Blankness.
With her toes leaning on the starting line, Jess inhales and exhales, in and out. She says a prayer. This is a gift, she thinks. Her feet shuffle back and forth. She lifts her head up at the empty road or the empty grass or the empty track; she soaks in the stillness of it. Together, they look up. Together, they brace for impact.
*Originally published in Miami Quarterly.