Corrales, New Mexico, August 2001. Sweat dripped down my brow, stinging my eyes. The desert heat was intolerable. Only idiot teenage travelers like me ran across New Mexico’s scorching plains at midday in August. But I was not miserable. Running was my time to “bug hunt” and clear my head to find solutions to problems. Bright flying insects whirled between twisted cacti. A stray lizard scurried from the cover of sagebrush to a yucca, burying itself back under the sand to escape the sun’s glare. Long baggy soccer shorts protected my thighs from sunburn, but reminded me of the question I still could not answer. It wasn’t like me to be indecisive.

Ned had already decided for me. After finishing 10th at Nationals in the 1500m in my college debut last spring, the track coach assumed I was done playing soccer at Amherst College and named me to the fall cross country roster. But he never asked me. I still wore soccer shorts.

Girls don’t look good in shorts.

I thought it was a small ask when I inquired if I could race in the men’s team running shorts instead of the skimpy women’s bikini bottoms, like another girl in our league from Connecticut College. Ned’s abrupt retort left me speechless.

Ned was a revered and technically skilled coach who had been an 800-meter prodigy, just missing the Olympics. His workouts were brilliant, especially the blind ones. But he didn’t seem to know much about women. He wasn’t concerned when I told him I’d skipped a bunch of menstrual cycles. After a national championship race, Ned and I were the only ones that ordered burgers, while the rest of the team, including the woman assistant coach, ordered salads with dressing on the side. Later, my anorexic teammate wound up in the hospital. Ned had praised her all season long for her good performances, apparently oblivious that her fast times were a temporary result of starvation. Ned also seemed oblivious to the way the men’s team treated women runners. A guy on the men’s team, Rusty, once told me how the men catalogued the entire women’s team and divvied us up for sexual conquest.

I felt lightheaded. Maybe it was the desert heat, or the prospect of another season of uncomfortable conversations with Ned about my body. Sweat poured down my cheeks in rivulets. I had transferred from Stanford University to Amherst after freshman year because my athletic career had unfinished business . But as I paced through the New Mexico desert, I couldn’t help but wonder what would possess me to give cross country another dance. I felt like a battered woman who keeps shuffling home.

When my body suddenly matured junior year of high school, I stopped winning races. My coach Selena called me whiny. My father called me a choker. No one explained this was a natural trajectory for girl runners. No one told me not to be ashamed of temporarily losing to runners I used to beat, because in a year or so I’d grow out of it. The only guy who softened the blow was my teammate Chase, who told me girls are supposed to be a little squishy and insisted I looked better. Running on the track team was Chase’s punishment for getting caught with weed. When he asked me what I was being punished for, I shrugged.

Selena crushed a 2:50 marathon and our star boy runner Jarrett van Tine got faster every year. But a chimp with a typewriter could draft the boys team’s workouts and the guys would still get faster each year. Testosterone and muscle mass are a boon. Girls develop differently.

The sands began to blur and the Sandia mountains waved on the horizon like wheat fields. I was either succumbing to the extreme heat or I was on an acid trip. Gazing at the tendrils of clouds brushing the horizon, time and space melded and bent and I saw what I had to do. I always assumed my athletic career would end my senior year of college. Instead, I saw a running timeline that stretched decades into adulthood, winding through mountains and streams. I had never heard of trail races; I only knew sports that were in the Olympics. Back at school, Aparna was my only college teammate willing to tromp up mountains through fresh snowfall and count it as our Sunday long run. But more of our ilk were somewhere out there, beyond the mountains. I decided to suck it up and wear bikini shorts that autumn, because college was just a short train stop along a longer journey.

When I returned to Amherst from New Mexico, I helped the women’s cross country team finish 7th in the nation, its best finish ever. Then I told Ned I was studying abroad in Australia the next semester and he fumed and insisted I owed him for his role in my admission to Amherst and needed to run as payback. He couldn’t force me to stay at Amherst, but he could refuse to return the framed All-America award he had taken to get calligraphied. I became the second number-one runner on Amherst’s women’s cross-country team to bow out during my time on campus.

My senior year I ran the New York City marathon with my soccer friend Katelyn, beginning a new chapter. Free marmot. Over the next two decades, my decision to keep running on my own overdelivered. Trail running distilled the best of running: the wild, fun bumbling through woods and canyons for hours with friends. One fellow bumbler even married me; now we’re making junior bumblers.

In 2015, the Amherst College newspaper published the men’s cross country team’s explicit sexual guide to the women runners, with spreadsheets (“Men’s Cross Country Maintained Misogynistic, Racist Email Chain“), resulting in a full team suspension and Ned’s downfall. He lost his job after 20 seasons and never coached again.

As adults, Selena and I discovered we shared a fondness for trail running in DC’s Rock Creek Park. After transferring from our public high school to an elite all-boys private school, she was tormented by entitled, misogynist boys until she quit teaching and coaching altogether. Under the oaks, we laughed about the times she called me a whiner and I called her a tyrant, yet somehow became peas in a pod.


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