It was May of my freshman year, and I vividly remember sitting in Coach Vergote’s office next to a box of tissues. I was lucky number 49. For those that might not understand what the number 49 means to a Division One Track Athlete, number 49 on the East Regional Performance list, after all the scratches have taken place, is the first person NOT to qualify on to the First Round. It’s the person that is almost but not quite. It’s the person that sits in their coach’s office crying and feeling sorry for themselves and awkwardly trying to smile and laugh and hold back tears all at the same time.
My ever-wise (and incredibly patient) distance coach spoke to me through my tears and shared with me one of the harshest truth’s of running and athletics in general:
“Rachel,” she said, “Running track and running cross country is like 100 punches to the face for just one bouquet of roses. You’re gonna get punched. And knocked down. And then punched again. But we don’t do this sport because it promises us a painless ride into victory. We do this because at the end of the day, we believe that we’re going to get that bouquet of roses in spite of being pushed to the ground 100 times.”
Over the past four years, I’ve been figuratively knocked down and punched by this sport more times than I can keep track of. There are pages and pages in my log that detail every single bump, bruise, and cut that have been caused by this thing called running. Besides just being number 49 my freshman year, there was the Cross Country Season of 2014, where I was forced to deal with the mental and emotional injury of my parent’s divorce and Dad’s alcohol addiction. There have been hamstring injuries. There have been periods of time that I have been sidelined with the instructions of no physical activity under any circumstances. There have been periods of time when I’ve been stuck and can’t seem to break a certain time barrier. There have been mental struggles and times when it seems to be me racing against my brain instead of me racing against my competition. There have been times when I literally have ripped up my log out of frustration and then tapped the tear-stained pages back together because I can smell the bouquet of roses….. just to name a few.
Last Outdoor Track Season ended with another punch to the gut. I was sitting outside our hotel after the NCAA Regional recapping the season with Coach. She was giving me the you-need-to-freaking-race-like-you-deserve-this-and-just-freaking-do-it speech that she didn’t give me my freshman year but probably wanted to when I was upset in her office about being 49th. I was holding back tears. I had been knocked down again, and was trying to pick myself back up.
“I feel like I have had a million-trillion punches to the face, Coach. Like, too many punches to even count. But I’m still just waiting. I’m waiting on this bouquet. I feel like I’ve gotten a couple of singular roses. This team has had some great moments. But I haven’t gotten my bouquet.” I told Coach Vergote.
I went in to my senior year of Cross Country determined that this team was going to get that bouquet. We were going to go to Nationals. Those punches and moments that had knocked all of us down were all going to be worth it because we would have that bouquet.
At team camp at the beginning of the season, I knew we had a special group of women that were going to toe the line this season. We had 20 women that were all on the same page. 20 women that were willing to put it all out there for each other. 20 women that understood that it was going to take everything, including some punches to the face, to make it to nationals. 20 women that were ready to roll.
And we did roll. Right through the punches. We had people sidelined because of injury. We had people dealing with life stuff. We had people dealing with relationship stuff and family stuff. We had people running with one shoe on at The Big Ten Championships (Lilly you are such a stud). Just like every other team in the NCAA, we had people dealing with punches. And we took care of each other through these punches.
The women on this team are some of my best friends because I get to see how tough they are. I get to know their stories, their backgrounds, their experiences. Being on this team, we get to see each other’s real pain because of the punches of running and of life. And we get to pull each other though that pain. We get to laugh until we cry. We get to cry until we laugh. We get to talk for 16 miles at a time. We get to dance to Rebecca Black on a Friday workout day. We get to share life over cups of coffee and Dunkin’ Donuts post long run. We get to know each other’s families and hometowns without actually visiting. We get to encourage one another and build each other up. We get to give each other weird nicknames which incidentally are usually some kind of food. We get punched together, we get up together, and we focus on getting that bouquet together.
This past Friday, we were ready to get that bouquet and punch that ticket. And it made sense in our minds that it was going to happen. Every workout, every race, every practice was on point. We truly believed that we were going to get that fairy tale ending; we were going to get that bouquet. That’s what made all of the other punches worth it. We just hadn’t even considered the possibility that maybe we weren’t going to be the ones that got it. When you’re getting knocked down, you’re never thinking about the fact that maybe it will all be for nothing. That maybe the sacrifices and pain you are putting yourself through just wouldn’t be enough. That maybe you’ll never get the bouquet.
We finished 6th as a team in the NCAA Great Lakes regional. After finishing that race, the weirdest 90 minutes of my athletic career ensued. Our ticket to nationals, our bouquet, was completely dependent on whatever happened in the other regions. It felt like we were just stuck in this place of not being able to control anything and just having to wait and hope for things to shake out in our favor. We cooled down, did our strides, and then we all followed coach around like little ducks. She knew how to interpret the results of the other regions. She believed we had a shot, and that’s what kept our hope alive. We sat in front of our tent while coaches continued to refresh results. Some of us just sat around and nervously laughed and chatted. Others (freshman) laid on the ground and ate goldfish. We all were waiting on a bouquet.
And that’s when it hit me. I didn’t want to go Nationals just to say we made it to Nationals. I didn’t want to go to nationals to get cool gear. I didn’t want to go to nationals because I believed that it was the end all be all to my existence. I mean, I kinda wanted to go to nationals so I could dramatically throw my spikes in the shoe tree at Terre Haute. But the real reason that I wanted to go to Nationals, the reason that I wanted all of this so badly, was because I wanted to buy myself another week training with these women. I didn’t want the season to be over yet because I wanted to spend three hours a day at practice with them this week. I wanted another week of Antrim loops. I wanted another week of van rides filled with laughter.
I wanted another week of Abby crawling around on top of the lockers. Of Kaitlyn updating all of us on the current events and going out of her way to serve everyone. Of Lilly making sarcastic jokes. Of Brittany yelling, “Dooooooood!” Of Emily being the epitome of “Very British Problems.” Of Grace laughing at herself and telling stories about Annie. Of Olivia thinking of ways to make people feel awkward and also having a dance that goes with everything. Of Erin cheering, “Have a nice run, ladies!” Of Rachel L. asking questions and talking about skinny calves. Of Maddie and I twinning and looking identical as we run stride for stride. Of Sarah calmly encouraging us, “three minutes to go!” as we near the gazebo on the back of the Antrim loop.Of Claire being the most thoughtful person and giving the best hugs. Of Kelsey’s unexpected joke that comes out of nowhere but is perfectly timed. Of Annie’s drawn out stories that she tells all of us.Of Courtney being the best artist I’ve ever met and talking about creative ideas. Of Devin loving nature and picking up the bugs instead of stepping on them. Of Christine being a fighter, a mamma bear, and a kind friend all at the same time. Of Jess answering all of our health questions because she’s gonna be a freaking awesome nurse one day. Of Lainey being a mini Lilly and giving some of the most mature advice and encouragement.
I wanted another week of us. I wanted to go nationals because at the end of the day, getting the bouquet was never about going to nationals. The bouquet was about extending the time of doing what I love the most with the people I love the most. I’ve had my bouquet this whole season. In fact, I’ve had my bouquet for the past 4 years.
Turns out, we lost on a tie breaker with UCLA and we were one of the first teams NOT to qualify to Nationals… which is a feeling I’ve become pretty familiar with over the years. It sucks, every time. It is a punch to the face, every time. But standing there on the top of the hill at Wisconsin, I didn’t feel the punch to the gut like I normally do. As the women around me huddled together, I felt like I was being handed the most beautiful bouquet of roses. Yes, we were sad, we were heartbroken, but we also were encouraged. We were encouraged by the future potential of this team. We were encouraged because we were the bouquet, and I had been missing it all along.
Always in life, God offers a sweeter bouquet. He knows my heart far better than I know my own.He takes our almost but not quite moments and turns them into something beautiful. Sure, I knew God had blessed me so incredibly much with the people that He had put into my life on this team. But I didn’t realize that these people were the bouquet He was choosing to offer me so graciously. And if these people are my bouquet, I will take 10 trillion punches to the face for them, because they are worth every single hit. They are worth every single knock down. They are worth every single almost but not quite. They are my bouquet.
After 4 years and several thousand punches to the face later, I would like to modify Coach’s statement she made in her office from my freshman year. Running track and cross country is not one hundred punches to the face for one bouquet of roses.
Running track and cross country is so many punches to the face you won’t be able to put a numerical value on it. But every single punch, every single hit, every single knock down is worth it as long as your team is your bouquet.
Ohio State Track and Cross Country, thank you for being my bouquet.