It was seven months.
Seven months of torturous unknowing. Seven months of never-ending fatigue and sluggishness for George C. Marshall High School alumna Natalie Bardach. Seven months of doubt and disappointment. Seven months of just surviving a sport she had once thrived in, helping to win team conference, regional and even state titles.
For a high school athlete with only four years — twelve total seasons — of running available to them, seven months is 20 percent of their career. It feels like an eternity.
“I [didn’t] even know what to do anymore,” Bardach said. “I [was] training so hard and working so hard and I [was] not feeling any better. I was telling myself that it was my fault.”
For Robinson Secondary School alumna Seneca Willen, it was three months. A three month long agonizing descent from a freshman phenom who was running at the front of the pack to a slumping sophomore languishing in the back. Three months of “it’s all in your head” and wondering if freshman year was her peak.
“It was very sad,” Willen said. “I thought it was all mental and just thought, ‘I’m never going to get any better.'”
When I got to the D.C. Road Runners Track Championship at Dunbar High School, the final meet in the Eastern Track League series, the women’s masters mile was starting.
As a high school runner, I race from September to June. These weeks in between seasons are for following dramatic professional races and the pursuit of record breaking performances. My morning routine now consists of checking Twitter to see which all-time mark went down or which finishing kick dazzled the day before.
I have the entire world of track and field at my fingertips whenever I care to look, and that is exactly why I could not pass up the opportunity to drive an hour into D.C. to watch the this meet in person. I wanted to move beyond the times and splits on a static results page and the occasional suspense-free race video that broadcasts the winner and time in the title and instead experience track and field first hand.
It’s 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning. Music blaring from a DJ breaks the sleepy stillness of the open field. Underneath the foggy haze of a fall morning, hundreds of high school runners are awake and ready. A mass of bodies squish together along the line, experiencing the thrill of adrenaline, nerves and anticipation.
And then the gun goes off. All you can hear is the tidal wave of cries from spectators and random cowbells clanging. The race is a blur of hills and turns and ups and downs. Sand and mud and grass.
And then it’s over. Runners stagger across the finish line; many collapse into the waiting arms of volunteers. The music is still pounding; the finish line announcer is calling out names and times. What began as a competition, intense and focused, takes on the air of a festival. Athletes wander around searching for food and friends. No longer competitors, racers from all different schools come together to hang out and enjoy the amenities.
Sophie Tedesco runs for George C. Marshall High School and started writing for RunWashington in 2018. She wrote this summer about the difference it makes for young runners to see high-quality races up close. Read more of her work here.
Name: Sophie Tedesco
Self-described age group: High School
Residence: McLean, Va.
Why you run: I started running to meet people before starting high school, and I now I run because I love the joy I feel and strength I discover from pushing myself. I also love my team and being surrounded by people with similar goals and drive.
When did you get started running: I started running my freshman year of high school when I joined the cross country team.
Have you taken a break from running: I take a short break in-between seasons, and I took two months off from running last summer because I had tendonitis in my knee.
Training shoe: Saucony Freedom ISO 2
Coach or training group: Darrell General, George C. Marshall High School Cross Country, and Track teams.
The hardest race you’ve ever run: My first ever cross country race was on a sweltering hot day in late August, and after a blazing first mile I completely died. Struggling through the last two hilly miles was probably the most painful experience of my running career. Even my competitors knew I was hurting as people were patting me on the back as they passed me. If nothing else, it was an introduction to the wonderful community and camaraderie running creates.
Most adventurous decision you’ve made with your running: I started trail running with a teammate this past winter. For someone who had only run on pavement and cross country courses before, it felt like an adventure, but I absolutely love it.
Running mentors: My coach, Darellel General, is a running mentor and inspiration to me because is truly one of the most hard-working and determined people I have met. He has helped me find and harness the same drive and determination within myself.
My favorite place to run in the D.C. area is: Roosevelt Island and the Mount Vernon Trail
Favorite local trail: The Cross County Trail
My best race was: 2017 Octoberfest Cross Country Race. I felt relaxed and focused throughout and ran a personal best.
Ideal post-run meal: A smoothie and a bagel.
Goals: To focus on the positive elements of every run and harness my competitive nature in racing.
Your advice for a new runner: Set goals that excite you and find people whose company make running an activity you look forward to.
Favorite running book: First Ladies of Running by Amby Burfoot
Have you dealt with a major injury: I had tendonitis in my right knee that kept me from running for two months a year, but after focusing on hip strength I have not experienced any other injuries.
Running quote: All it takes is all you got
Why is the D.C. area a great place to be a runner: There is a huge variety of terrain and trails nearby, from woods to urban sidewalks, that add fun diversity to running if you are looking for it.