I started playing soccer when I was seven or eight years old. I wasn’t very good. Okay, I wasn’t any good. But, I loved it, and kept playing until my senior year of high school when I didn’t make the cut for the varsity team. (Spoiler alert: soccer is not where the “personal best” part of this post comes from.)
Once I knew I wouldn’t be playing soccer in the fall of 1988, I decided to go out for the cross country team. It wasn’t completely a whim…that was the one sport where the coach welcomed everyone, regardless of skill. Coach Mark Cotton was an amazing coach. Quiet, encouraging and full of grace. Even when the stars on our team threw a fit, he quietly brought them back to a better place.
As I started training with him and the other runners before school started, he gathered us for a meeting before each practice. We stood around him on the field, he offered a few words and then we stretched. I was nervous. I’d never run before in my life.
To my mother’s credit, she didn’t spit out her coffee or fall over when I mentioned that I wanted to go out for cross country. She turned around and took me to the store and bought a pair of running shoes. Two days later when my feet were covered in blisters, she took me to a pro running shop. The staff there was amazing and we came home with a pair of shoes that didn’t give me one blister the whole season.
Our first race was a pre-season opener at the Oregon Coast. We rode a school bus all the way to Seaside. The people who had been on the team for a year or three were calm, cool and collected. I, on the other hand, felt as if I might lose my lunch and it wasn’t because of the curvy road. I ran the race. I survived. Running in the sand was difficult but my adrenaline and a strong desire not to come in last got me across the finish line.
On the bus home, Coach Cotton stood at the front of the bus. As usual, without doing much, he commanded our attention and the bus was silent.
“Today we have several personal bests,” he began. He started to list off the star runners…and announced their improved race times from the previous years. I was amazed. Their times were tens of minutes faster than mine. Had we really been on the same course?
And then I heard my name. Along with my time. I wondered: how could that time be a personal best?
“Congratulations to Liz — today was her first race. Nicely done,” he added with a thumbs up to me, seated with the other seniors in the back of the bus.
That was 23 years ago but the lessons remain.