Eleanor Wikstrom is a senior at Skyline High School in Oakland, California. In this essay, Wikstrom, who will continue her education at Harvard, writes about what distance running means to her, what it's taught her and why it will continue to be a strong staple in her life.
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"You've given me all of this, and you've given me things that are almost impossible to name: the way time beats to the rhythm of my strides, the illumination of my world in technicolor, the feeling of poetry in motion."
By Eleanor Wikstrom
At age four, I learned about flight the same way that everyone else did: by falling. My father smiled warmly as he rubbed Neosporin onto my scratched and bleeding palms after my first attempt to launch from the play structure at our local park, explaining the limitations of human aerodynamics with the candid practicality of an engineer. Flight was not in our design; weightlessness was only temporary. That was fine with me. My domain was the ground: the courtyards where I played tag, the blacktops where I ran pacers, the trails where I jostled with dogs and walkers and bikers -- and eventually, the 400-meter-long rubber oval where I fell deeply and irrevocably in love with you.
In the four years that I've been on my high school's cross country and track team, I've given you my time, my body, and my sanity. And you've given me so much in return: school records, Section titles, state medals. You've given me plank-offs, pace-pushers and pasta dinners; you've given me lifelong friends, new families, and an unbreakable community of teammates and coaches whose smiles and laughter feel like home. You've pushed me to exalt my community by trailblazing in areas previously unknown. You've shown me that stepping up to the starting line can be an act of resistance, that systemic change can come from placing one foot after another around a 400 meter track that was once banned to people like me. You've taught me to dream. You've taught me to love. You've given me all of this, and you've given me things that are almost impossible to name: the way time beats to the rhythm of my strides, the illumination of my world in technicolor, the feeling of poetry in motion.
And you've given me things that have broken my heart, too: Season-ending ankle sprains. A senior-year stress fracture. The destruction of three late-autumn wildfires and the pain of watching my last high school track season become consumed by a pandemic.
The equal & opposite reaction is both the sweetest and the cruelest, isn't it?
And through all of the screaming lungs and burning legs, all of the moments of doubt and isolation while racing into the unknown, you've taught me the loneliness of the long distance runner: the incredible burden of choosing whether to push harder or to settle back, to advance further into pain or to retreat into safety. In the sacred period between the gun and the finish line, when I am tested at my most vulnerable and raw, when I am the only thing left in the universe, I am the ultimate executor of success or failure -- and thirteen years after my first attempt at flight, I am still afraid of falling.
But after four years of trusting you, this is what I know for certain: goals are not achieved the day of. They are achieved months in advance, in breezy long runs through the hills and in weight sessions after practice and in the last 400m rep of a brutal Tuesday afternoon workout. Success in running, like all things, is not the product of one perfect moment; rather, it is the product of being present for everything.
So rip my ankles out from underneath me. Fracture my bones when I love you too hard. Fill my lungs with smoke, end my season with a misstep, deliver me to the starting line at State held together only by tape & faith for two years in a row. Go ahead and break my heart again. I'm here -- and I always will be.
Because today, when my toes hit the line and I stare into the face of the unknown, I no longer feel afraid. I no longer feel isolated. Instead, I understand what I have known all along: that every stride, every mile, every moment spent loving and living and gasping for more -- It is always inside of me. It is always there.
This is what I feel the moment I push off one foot across the finish line, arms pumping in the air, body launching toward the sky: I have been able to fly all along.
Skyline High School senior
Photos by DeAnna Turner and James Leash
CONTRIBUTE TO THIS SERIES
For whatever your passion, be it running, jumping, throwing, hurdling, et cet., if you are a track and field and/or cross country athlete or coach interested in contributing to this series, please send your essay to firstname.lastname@example.org.