By Eileen Schell
I have been running longer than some have been alive: 42 years. Inspired by my older sister Anita, who was a talented 5:20 high school miler, I started running on my family’s farm at age 12. I ran with no training program and no teammates through our family orchard in faded blue sweat pants for a mile or two. I joined the track team at age 13 and the cross-country team at age 15 at my rural school in Washington state. My first running shoes were the early models of the Nike waffle trainers in blue with the yellow swoosh.
Our high school cross-country coaches, who led our girls’ varsity team to three state meets, had us run through apple orchards, up and down hills and rural roads and on the banks of irrigation canals (a precursor to Erie Canal running). On our runs, which ranged from 3 miles to 10 miles, we sometimes dodged unleashed farm dogs, snakes, pick-up trucks, and farm equipment. I lost toe-nails, developed blisters and heat rashes. I loved it! Our work-outs were hard, but always fun because we were together having adventures and supporting each other. Our cross-country season started in August with 95-degree days and ended in November with 20-degree weather and often rain at the state meet in Seattle.
Running as a teenage girl gave me a sense of freedom and movement and a sense of possibility. I loved that the boys and girls on my cross-country team ran the same workouts. We suffered and sweated together, and it was my first true experience of gender equity in sports. Our high school team colors, like Fleet Feet Syracuse Racing Team colors, were also orange and black!
I took running and that sense of freedom and motion with me to college and graduate school. Eventually, my academic career led me and my husband to Central New York and Syracuse University. A postcard came to my house one day with an invitation to marathon training with Coach Brendan Jackson and Team in Training, the charity running team for the American Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. I decided to try it out. Brendan coached our team through a magical Syracuse fall and winter marathon training program and through the Disney marathon in 2000. I’ll never forget our team’s 20-mile snowy training run on the Erie Canal in December 1999. Coach Brendan didn’t realize the towpath stopped at a certain point, and we ended up bushwhacking and running along rural roads until we found the trail again. Getting lost on a 20-miler definitely built resilience, and all of us made it to the finish line in January 2000. In addition to the marathon, we also fund-raised $3,000 each for leukemia research, a meaningful endeavor.
Running with Team in Training and with Coach Brendan was a great experience, but eventually running had to take backseat to work and family for a few years. In 2009, missing the camaraderie of a team, I started a Facebook running/exercise group Take the 100 or 1,000-Mile Challenge, which became the anchor point for the December Challenge, a running challenge where participants cover 100 miles in a month or decide to run 1,000 miles per year. The group has been active for a decade now with a loyal following from runners, cyclists, rowers, and walkers across the U.S., many of them professors like me, and we meet up sometimes at academic conferences. Through the group, I’ve been able to encourage people to take up running, share training tips, photos of places of group members’ runs, and celebrate each other’s accomplishments.
In 2013, I signed up with Fleet Feet Syracuse for half marathon training. I discovered, much to my delight, that the team was now coached by my former student Mandy Howard, who took my creative nonfiction class at SU a few years earlier. (Keep writing, Mandy!) I was hooked after one season of half-marathon training and began regularly attending the Hot and Cold Feet runs and took part in two seasons of marathon training for the Marine Corps Marathon and the New York City Marathon, both of which I finished. I have met a group of inspiring teammates, including the #NastyWomen runners, who have become wonderful friends, always willing to organize costume runs and celebrations.
Fleet Feet also gave me the courage to attempt 50 plus miles on my 50th birthday weekend. First I ran a marathon staged by a friend on the Erie Canal Towpath outside of Rochester, NY, and then rode 26.2 miles on my mountain bike the next day with my family and friends. Even the family dog ran alongside us for 15 miles. This running/cycling feat made me think I could attempt a triathlon. With the Fleet Feet Triathlon Team and some serious support from Della Pierson and Fleet Feet coaches, I finished my first triathlon last year: the Cazenovia Sprint Triathlon.
Running, though, is my first love. With running I can take a break from home responsibilities, student papers, dissertations, and academic meetings and enjoy being outside and moving. I can’t thank Fleet Feet enough for keeping my running life going strong. I’m currently training for the Boilermaker and a fall marathon. Someday I hope to run as many years as the Old Goat has. He is my role model.