Annalise Davis is a 5-time letterwinner in cross-country for Saint Michael-Albertville. She is a multi-time conference and section champion, and has achieved All-State honors six times in cross country and track. She was a captain on the Knights team for two years, and has just finished her high school running career. She will be running at Lehigh University in the fall.
When I think about my running journey over the past five years, I think about love: falling into it and then fighting for it, no matter what.
Loving to run is easy when it's going well. When you're racing fast and feeling good, running is a beautiful thing. It's soul-altering and it's simple--just you and your head and your legs, in control of how far and how fast you're willing to go.
Running is harder to love when it hurts. When you aren't racing fast or feeling good, the pain in your legs and ache in your heart tend to overshadow everything else. After a while, it's easy to get tired. Tired of hurting, tired of feeling bad, tired of disappointing yourself. In those times when you want nothing more than to give up, to stop trying and therefore stop hurting, running is difficult to like. Those are the times when you have to fight for it. Because I've learned that while those bad runs and tough races sting, they put everything else into perspective, allowing the good days to feel that much better.
Loving something is a choice. I choose everyday to love running, even the bad days. It's easy to wish them away, to want to go back to a time where running felt simpler, easier. The little eighth grader I used to be had only experienced that beautiful side of running, of PR's, fresh muscles and fearless races. The person I am now has experienced it all--great days, hurt legs, broken hearts, crazy races--and I'm stronger for it.
When my legs hurt and my heart ached, it was easy to question my choice to run, my choice to love it. There were days when I no longer even liked it. But that ache meant that I still cared, that I couldn't stop loving it. At the end of the day, that ache made those great days feel greater, and those crazy races feel crazier, because while running can frustrate at times, it only takes a few good moments to make it all worthwhile, and I run for those moments.
The summer before my eighth-grade season was the first summer I started to take running seriously. I'd run middle-school cross-country in 7th grade, and I'd won races, but I had no clue what I was doing. I had never gone on a run longer than three miles, and had never even heard of a running watch. When I decided to start running regularly in the summer, it was all new to me. When I looked at my running calendar and saw that I was supposed to run at least three or four miles every single day, I laughed. But I did it. I got out there every morning and I ran. I went for my first five, and then six, and then seven mile run. I got stronger and faster with every week.
When cross-country season started, I had no expectations, no clue what I could do. I didn't know how to race, so I just ran. I was fearless, and I was fast. With every race I finished, I felt like I was unlocking more doors, learning how to push harder and hurt longer. I got out exactly what I put into my training and my races, and I loved that. I walked up to each start line confident I was going to have a good day, because I'd never had a bad one. Running, and racing, were simple: try hard, do well. There were no other options, no other possibilities.
I finished my season at the State Meet with a 13 second PR. It was magical. I wrote on the back of my bib, "BEST DAY OF MY LIFE". I was racing fast. I was feeling good. I was in love.
After that season, I was hooked. Cross-country seemed poised with potential and possibilities, and they were all positive. Running hadn't let me down yet, and it didn't seem like it would. I knew what I wanted, and I was willing to work hard for it. That seemed like all I needed.
That limitless feeling of potential didn't last forever, however. Over the next few seasons, I stopped PRing every time I stepped onto a course. I had my first mediocre race, then my first bad race, and, at the State meet my freshman year, an awful race.
I was shooting for All-State. It had been my goal all year, my mantra during hard workouts, my motivator on days when I wanted to give up. After a breakthrough race mid-season, my goal finally felt tangible, right at my fingertips. All I needed was a good day.
On race day, I died. I finished 43rd, nowhere near where I wanted to be. That race devastated me. It was the first time that running had broken my heart, and the first time I realized that good intentions and good workouts don't always equate to a good day. My illusion of the miracle of racing had crumbled. I moped for a week, mourning the loss of my dream and coming to terms with the unfairness of an off day.
After that week, I pulled myself back together. I put the past behind me and I moved on. I realized I still loved to run. In fact, I loved it deeper. It had disappointed me, and I had still chosen it, deciding to keep fighting for what I wanted. That love was stronger, realer, than the love of the innocent eighth-grader I used to be.
Throughout my sophomore and junior seasons, I ran well, having more good days than bad days. My team was amazing, and together, we were great. We won Conference and Sections, and my junior season, we finished third at the State Meet. It was another magical day. I finished the season more in love with running, and my team, than ever.
That love was tested when my shins started to ache. When that happened, running stopped being simple and started to become stressful. It was my senior cross-country season and I wanted to run no matter what, so I gritted my teeth and kept running, ignoring the signs of a developing stress reaction. But running stopped being fun. During my runs, I no longer cared about how far or fast I went. Instead, I was only focused on surviving so that I could limp my tender tibias to the ice bath. I had lost that feeling of control that running used to give me. My body was letting me down. I wasn't getting out what I put into my training, and I was no longer fearless. I'd had so many bad days and bad runs that when I got to a start line, I could think of nothing else. After weeks of this, I stopped being able to remember what it felt like to run without hurting, and that made me not want to run at all.
When I couldn't take it anymore, I went to the doctor. I had two stress reactions, meaning I was done for the season. I was crushed. I was also relieved. Somewhere in the middle of all of those painful miles, I had stopped liking running. It had morphed into a punishment. That "BEST DAY OF MY LIFE" felt far away.
I took a long break from running. It was a break that I desperately needed. I didn't know if I loved it anymore, after so much pain and disappointment. But sometime over that break, those feelings shifted. I started to miss it. I missed the anxious excitement that comes before a race and the hurt of a hard workout. I missed my crazy fast team, who'd had an incredible year and won a State cross-country title in my absence. Above all, I missed the ordinary runs. I'd taken those easy, feel-good days for granted, and I wanted those runs back more than anything.
I came back to running more in love with it than I'd ever been before. I'd realized that I needed it. I didn't feel like myself without it. When I got on the AlterG for my first run in weeks, I couldn't stop smiling. I felt like I'd been given back a piece of myself, a piece that made me whole again, and I was happy.
The road back to normal running was long. It was hard. It was humbling. Some days I felt good, like I was making progress. Other days all I felt was frustration at how far away I was from the girl that I used to be. However, even on the days I was frustrated, I appreciated the run in a way that I never had before. I didn't care about the pace or the distance, I just cared that I no longer hurt. That was enough. After my return, everything was put into perspective: what I'd already accomplished, and what I had lying ahead of me, and I was more grateful than ever.
I still don't think I'm back to where I was before I got hurt. I'm not yet the runner I used to be and I haven't PR'd in a while. Yet I still love this crazy, humbling sport. I've made the conscious choice to love it. The girl I used to be, who didn't know what a stress reaction felt like, also couldn't understand the happiness of racing for the first time in six months, or the pride of rediscovering what 7:00 pace feels like. She loved running, but she only loved half of it. The girl that I am now loves it all: the good days and the bad days, because I've been through it all. The good days have been rewarding, but the bad days have been motivational. I've grown from the tough runs and the slow races. They allowed me to appreciate everything else. Those days turned me into the runner I am today, a runner who loves what she does, not because the journey has always been easy, but because it's always been worthwhile.