This piece was originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Our Jackson Home: The Magazine.
The air hovers thick. It’s almost too heavy with moisture to breathe in. The field is still green with summer’s gift of abundant rain and sunshine, but the leaves on the nearby trees are starting to shrink up, dry out, turn brown. Fall is coming soon, bringing with it the growing anticipation of a new cross country season.
The year is 2009, and I’m in high school at Trinity Christian Academy. It’s another oppressively hot August, but most people don’t notice too much since they’re properly air conditioned. It would be easy to stop running outside in the blazing inferno, to take to the indoor treadmill, but my coach doesn’t like treadmills. One of my teammates (the one who likes to throw pennies at my car window and hides from our coach when we’re supposed to be practicing) ran on a treadmill in July and developed shin splints. So we only run outside in frequently soaring temperatures.
For a while we only practice after school, which puts us at prime sunstroke time: 3 p.m. Then Coach Coble starts implementing morning runs. We pace each other as we pass through The Timbers, staring up at the giant shade trees that protect us from the sun like a father’s guiding hand. Coach Coble runs with us most of the way, his basketball shorts flopping with each step he takes. He looks pretty out of place among our sea of brightly-colored compression shorts, but he buys us Chick-fil-A breakfast out-of-pocket after our morning practices and plays Michael Jackson before our races to pump us up. It doesn’t matter that he’s only a few years older than us and likes basketball better than running. He turns out to be the best coach I ever had.
It’s not until my junior year of running that I realize how much I love all of it. By then I had been running cross country and track in West Tennessee for five consecutive years. I’d seen everything from the perfectly manicured course at Union University to the boggy, unmarked maze at Big Sandy. I’d watched girls knock each other down with pointy elbows, and I’d seen girls stay behind to help a fallen opponent. I’d stood on the sidelines and cheered for older runners at the Heritage Run 5K, and more often I’d been the one flashing by supporters with my eyes on the path ahead of me.
But something about my junior year stands out among all the other countless seasons of racing. 2009 is the year my team formed into a family. We had our first cross country retreat, where we rafted the Ocoee River and rode around in a sweltering school bus that poor Coach Coble had to drive. We joked around during our practices, forgetting our side stitches and sweat-stained clothing. And then, when fall rolled around, we started winning. By the end of the season, we were the top-ranked team in our region, and we placed well at the state championships. And while the season was a grand success for us in terms of personal best racing times, trophy accumulations, and begrudging respect from the football players who had always put us down, I think the true success came later. The true success came when, even with the season being over, most of my team still wanted to run together after class. Running. For fun.
I think running, just for the hell of it, is something Jackson mostly supports. I feel lucky to have grown up somewhere with multiple 5Ks to choose from every year. It also helps that Jackson is pretty flat terrain, which makes the physical act of running a lot easier. If you’re driving to work in the city, still waking up with a coffee thermos in your cup holder, it’s guaranteed you’re going to see someone running on the side of the road. Who knows what hour they woke up to go punish their body? And then, when you’re headed home for the day, ready to sleep, you’re going to see another runner, slowly making their way through the grass beside the stop sign. I’ve lived in Jackson for nearly my entire life, and I’ve seen runners everywhere from Campbell to McLellan.
Why is there always someone running in Jackson, no matter the time of day, no matter how much their joints hurt or their lungs feel like they’re going to give out? I run (yes, just for the hell of it now that I’m no longer in school), and I can’t even tell you why runners do what they do. But there’s always a welcome spot for a new runner in the community. People get together and run at Performance Running in Jackson. Charity 5Ks pop up every year all across West Tennessee. And then there’s me. If I like you well enough, I’ll try and convince you to run with me. And if I really like you, I’ll slow down to match your beginner’s pace. Running isn’t just for your individual well-being, although running in peaceful solitude is surely one of life’s greatest gifts. Running builds community, a fellowship that spans race, gender, and even location. No matter where you go, if you’re a runner, you run.