Running has the reputation of being a solitary event. Just you and the open road. You compete against yourself, you push yourself, you might even reach inward to find yourself.
But that's not at all the way I was introduced to the sport. In fact, my first experiences with running-on the middle school track team-were anything but solitary. And I know it's no coincidence that I ran my first runs with Julia. It was a transitional time; we had only recently left the comforting walls of the elementary school, and it seemed like everyone and everything was changing. It was during that time that I first got to know Julia -- running around the gravel track behind the high school, amusing ourselves with story after story, growing closer with every lap. We were just starting out, learning which events we liked, and getting acquainted with what it meant to be part of a team. I didn't know it then, but this was only the beginning of our running days together. It was the start of a friendship that I would always cherish.
High school brought with it a whole new set of challenges; different rules, more school work, and of course, a new track team. My freshman trackies and I quickly realized that this wasn't going to be child's play. We were going to train rigorously to be a part of this team and compete against other track teams on Long Island. I remember that first day of practice, sitting cross-legged on the enormous high school football field, listening to our new coaches Omo and Adam give their first talk of the year. And truth be told, I was scared. Well, petrified. And I knew Julia was scared, too. We exchanged jittery glances with our fellow freshman teammates. We all stifled nervous giggles. We pulled relentlessly at the grass under us. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. All those lengthy practices and away meets and tough workouts; Could we really do it? But by the end of that first cross country season, sore legs and all, we knew that we had joined not just a team but a family. And that family would not have been complete-would not have been half as strong and wild and wonderful-without Julia.
Julia excelled at pretty much anything she tried, and running was no exception. Whether she was high-jumping, or leaping over hurdles, or sprinting around the track for a spectacular 400 meter race, she was a joy to watch compete. Her focus and drive were amazing. And it's almost hard to believe, but off the track, Julia was just as brilliant. Her passion literally had no bounds, whether it was directed towards her writing, children's causes, dissecting the lyrics to a Pink Floyd song, or a marathon game of Scattergories - she was equally excited about it all. She had an enthusiasm that was completely contagious and made us all feel lucky to be around her.
But somehow what I remember most of those track days (as competitive and focused as they were) were the wackier moments. I remember running laps around Kings Point Park and coming up with ways to entertain ourselves to break up the monotony. One day we had run out of games and ridiculous stories to share, so Julia decided we should have what would be the first of many spitting contests. I am not ashamed to admit this secret that every runner shares... yes, it's true, we did often spit. And so, that day we ran lap after lap, hidden from public view by the park's thick, opaque trees, and competing with each other over who could spit the furthest; the most beautiful loogie. I can't remember who won in the end, but I think we laughed more than we actually ran. Our coaches might not have approved, but I can safely say it was well worth the stitches.
While few people were actually aware of the spitting contests, absolutely everyone knew that Julia loved to run in the rain. Anyone who had ever met Julia, even just briefly, knew this about her. She got excited when it rained at a track meet; so excited that she might have performed better on those days. She would get groups of teammates together to go out running on rainy days; days when most people would be happier inside on a treadmill. Sometimes she would convince us to run up and down hills while it rained. And that euphoria she felt, that happiness and thrill she felt, it somehow rubbed off on all of us. We all suddenly shared her passion for getting soaked right through our running sneakers -in typical Julia fashion, we all found her excitement to be infectious.
The first year of Julia's Run for Children was held on a Sunday in April of 2000. While April is an unpredictable month weather-wise, nobody expected it to snow. But somehow it seemed so appropriate. It was perfectly Julia, to run four miles through a light yet steady dusting of snow. That year, everyone was still aching from missing Julia and her huge smile and the joy she felt that always seemed to transfer, as if by osmosis, on those who were close to her. We might have been scared, even, to start this annual tradition of remembering our dear friend. But as the race came to an end and each of us reached the finish line one by one, all of that fear faded away and we felt a sense of close togetherness that only Julia could have inspired. Whether you knew her as a talented writer, a lover and champion of children, a gifted student, or a devoted friend and constant cheerleader, Julia's optimism and love and pure goodness had once again rubbed off on all of us - just the way it always did during those rainy day runs.
And now every year, I look forward to the run on that Sunday in April. I wonder if it's going to be cold or hot out, if it will rain or even snow again. I look forward to seeing Julia's family, friends from our track family, and Julia's many other friends who I've come to know over the years. And I always know that all of us coming together for this particular run, on this particular day in April, will be anything but solitary.