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The LEAP Student Blog

'Why Run?' by Turner Van Slyke, Walla Walla High School
 11/22/2022 12:00:00 AM

Turner Van Slyke
Walla Walla High School, Class of 2024

 A five kilometer race is hard. Really hard. More than three times as long as a mile, and drastically more intense than a marathon, the 5k occupies a fiery niche between mental and physical ruin. "Red lining" is a concept used to describe the 3.11 mile slog, during which the runner is never comfortable with their pace. 5k pace feels like a prolonged sprint, faster than is sustainable.

One mile into a 5k, it's common to feel a chill scuttling down your spine as you realize the implications of the pace you've committed to. With two-thirds of the course ahead, the finish line is a distant blip on the horizon and life gets downright ghoulish. After each hill, lactic acid puddling in your body takes longer and longer to drain, the lead in your legs radiates heat into your chest and head, vibrant pain swells and metastasizes, and your manic heaving rubs your throat raw. This is where the outcome of your race is determined. It’s the bloodiest battle in the mental war of the 5k.

Eventually, you reach the two mile mark and feel hope of relief. Soon, the finish line will beckon you, and the clink of enemy spikes on gravel behind you will whip you into a frantic dance: the kick. Pain imbues that final 800 meters with a kind of holiness, but a Cross Country runner in the midst of their kick doesn't demand that same reverence from onlookers. A sweaty wad of windmilling arms, flailing legs and a few asthmatic gasps: you scarcely move any faster than you did at the start of your race. The difference now is that your mind is ablaze.

With fifty meters to go, you barrel towards the finish line at top speed. Even so, the final dregs of your race stretch on long enough to seem cruel, like you're running on sand while the finish line waves at you from its moving golf cart. Finally, you cross the line, swipe at the film of sweat and gnats in your eyes, and gulp air. The impossibly kind volunteers move you through the finish tunnel, where you tear off your bib code and then find your teammates. You're filled with relief, regardless of how you performed. Later you might reflect more critically, but for now you take solace in the fact that you're done racing.

The ferocity of the 5k experience makes Cross Country a polarizing sport. Who would voluntarily put themself in so much pain? Arguments abound surrounding the physical and mental benefits of running, but I tend to advocate for our sport in different ways.

In his book Science in the Soul, Richard Dawkins discusses the "tendency to justify the expense of… space exploration by reference to spin-offs such as the non-stick frying pan- a tendency I have compared to an attempt to justify music as good exercise for the violinist's right arm." Dawkins raises a relevant point: utilitarian arguments on behalf of science tend to lack appreciation for the romantic nature of curiosity. Similarly, oftentimes arguments on behalf of running don't acknowledge the magic of traveling the world on your feet, or the thrill of accessing every secluded stream and mountain top in view.

Evolutionary biologists agree that humans are shaped to stride, to breathe, to globe-trot using the hardware they're born with. I feel this, the inevitability of my physiology, often. One early November evening, I ransacked my closet for some warm clothes and set out on a run. It was the coldest day in a long time, and the chilly air stung my nose and lips. After a while, I found myself at the edge of one of Walla Walla's many vineyards, looking out over the Blue Mountains. I stood silently and felt the sun set behind me, while tendrils of night reached out from behind the mountains and wind swirled through my hair. I felt very small, like an astronaut in the vastness of space. I was grateful that running was a way for me to access not only this beautiful place, but also a state of mind undisturbed by the haphazard scramble of daily life. I shivered, turned my back on the mountains, and followed an icy tailwind home.

Special things happen when this belief in the profundity of running is shared.

The first is that people learning to push themselves physically tend to grow more driven, naturally encouraging a team culture that welcomes ambitious adventures. There are not many places I would rather be than stranded on a remote ridgeline with a gaggle of fellow runners, separated from our car by no less than four windswept peaks, three bramble-choked ravines, and a raging river. My friend Tas Grimm and I plan to run our first ultramarathon this winter, and our primary motivation is inarguably to get bragging rights over who's run the farthest on our team.

The second consequence of a team's running habit is noisy. Running as a group cultivates a kind of humor which is entirely unique: a dorky, sometimes obscenely immature frame of mind that is notoriously resilient. Regardless of whether a Cross Country team is on an early-morning jog under the moon and street lights, their frosty breath billowing before them, or if they are being deep fried in sweat and chalky dust on a sizzling evening, the same clever banter unites them. The same overplayed, nerdy inside-jokes make them cackle, and their eyes glitter with the same spark. Cross Country humor does its job well, somehow maintaining its entertainment value over thousands of miles on the pavement, trails, and track.

A final effect of team running is observed as a powerful sense of unity. The nature of Cross Country is that every runner enters a race with the same painful mission, and few athletes are as vulnerable as runners are in the midst of a race. This common burden fosters sincere empathy towards fellow teammates. Cross Country athletes depend on each other, and their mutual suffering contributes to their tight knit bond.

For me, the joy of a 5k lies not in the race itself, but in the knowledge that we are capable of extraordinary grit as well as wholehearted camaraderie. Running, this great meditation, is both a challenge and a lodestone, a vehicle for contemplation and a mechanism for insight.

A wispy truth lingers, just out of view, as we run. Its transcendent force pushes us over the ruts and roots of life, always there, always on the move.


Dawkins, Richard, and Gillian Somerscales. Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist. Random House, 2018.

From: Charlotte Van Slyke 11/22/2022 7:56 PM

My knees hurt. My lungs are trashed. My brain is exhausted & I’m heading for the hills.
Very inspiring!??????????

From: Dawn Phelps 1/19/2023 3:28 PM

I love this article and think it is spot on. At my daughters school, they still do "Earn " in the volleyball program where the girls have to do "Drills" over and over until they complete a certain number of repetitions to earn each piece of their uniform. For example, the team has to serve 100 volleyballs in order to get their jacket. If anyone drops the serve as they rotate through the team, they have to start over. This lasted the first 2 weeks of the 10 week season. The girls that dropped the ball were embarrassed and humiliated by the more successful players. They were fearful and anxious to go back to practice everyday. They had to volley a ball for 5 minutes, etc. It was brutal. The girls hung out at our house and shared all of this with us, but were afraid of sharing with the intimidating coach. At the end of the season, I brought these concerns to the coaches and the schools AD - they said that it was not Hazing or bullying in any way and they have to plans to change in the future. I asked them to not call it "Earn the Right" and just give them their uniforms and coach them and how damaging these actions were to the coach/player relationship. They added that they were just innocent drills. I would love to get input from an outside perspective if this is still acceptable behavior or not.

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November 2022

11/22/2022 'Why Run?' by Turner Van Slyke, Walla Walla High School

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