My love affair with running started at an early age, as you can see from the grainy post race photo below, circa 1994. This picture was snapped at my hometown's annual 4th of July road race, a 2 mile jaunt along the main through way of quintessential suburbia. Every year a few weeks before the race, my dad would ask who wanted to run. Some years my siblings opted to ride on the fire truck in the parade (my grandfather was fire chief in our town), but I always elected to run. Even then I relished the feeling of achievement that accompanied running, and my performance usually earned me a gift certificate to the local ice cream shop for placing well enough in my age group. In middle school I competed in an annual tradition every spring dubbed the 'mini marathon,' a mile race around the grounds of the school, finishing on the track in full view of a grandstand teeming with cheering parents. Each year I placed second to a close friend. These early tastes of competition were exciting, but I was never a standout.
In high school I tried out for the field hockey team in the fall, wanting to earn the coveted plaid skirt that the most popular girls in school masqueraded around in on game days. With no real skill or knowledge of the game, I was one of three freshmen selected for the JV team. On the rare occasion that I got playing time, I was completely hopeless as a positional player, preferring instead to just chase the ball around the field. I tried hard and was aggressive, but I was bored by the game: too many whistles blowing, too much stop and go, too many rules.
In the winter I decided to try out for the track team. The team's coach had a reputation for being rather curmudgeonly, but I had some friends who were also trying out, and figured at the very least it would be more exciting than field hockey, where I had spent the majority of the season standing on the sidelines. At least this sport guaranteed that I would be in on the action. On the first day of practice the coach threw all the freshmen into a workout with the veteran runners. It was a dreary late fall day in New England, and the high school track was littered with soggy leaves. As we lined up for the workout, I took note of the fact that some girls held back in an apparent act of deference, allowing other girls to start up front. There was clearly a hierarchy on the team which everyone seemed to know about but me. I lined up in the back of the group next to a fellow freshman with frizzy blonde hair and glasses. But the moment the gun went off, I charged to the front of the group, quickly passing all but one of the older runners. At the end of the workout the coach pulled me aside. Rather than praise me for my performance he cracked a smile, eyeing my worn out Skechers. "Curran", he said, as a means of introduction," you should probably invest in some new shoes."
Finding my way on to the track that day changed the trajectory of my life. High school running taught me so many invaluable lessons. Looking back, I honestly don't remember a single class I took in high school. What I do remember is an incredible group of girls who I battled alongside every day, who became lifelong friends. I remember the little grove of trees on a hillside by the high school that we gathered at before practice. I remember victories and stinging defeats with the same degree of clarity and gratitude, both were indispensable parts of my education.
In the summer of 2005 I reported to West Point for'beast barracks' a seven week indoctrination period designed to transform civilians into cadets. The training was overwhelming at points. It was like being stranded on a foreign planet, trying to learn the language of the locals, while simultaneously being put through a series of tests that you were destined to fail at, while all the while you were belittled, tired, hungry, and made to feel unworthy. My saving grace during this time? Running. I had been recruited to compete for the academy's track and cross country teams and when we were afforded the opportunity to practice I relished the chance. During this period of my life running became more to me than merely a pastime, or a pursuit that I was relatively good at. Running became my refuge. Amidst all the things that were foreign to me at the academy, running, like an old friend, was familiar. As I struggled through my first year at the academy, I excelled on the cross country course, eventually being named the 'Patriot League Rookie of the Year' and carving out a spot as my team's number two runner.
Over the course of my time at the academy, I began to experience something that many runners contend with at some point: burnout. The stress of West Point, coupled with anxiety about commissioning into the Army as an officer, began to take its toll on me by my junior year. Feeling completely overwhelmed, I started dropping out of races and lashing out at my coaches and teammates. Something I had once found so much joy and happiness in, had somewhere along the way become a chore to me.
When I graduated from the academy in May 2009, I threw myself head first into the Army. In March of 2011 I applied for the chance to attend a tryout for a first-of-its-kind team that would deploy qualified women alongside special operations forces in Afghanistan. I made it through the tryout and was selected for the team, finding myself in Afghanistan a mere five months later. Thrust once again into something completely unfamiliar to me, I slowly began to run again. Stationed at a small camp on a dusty plateau in northern Afghanistan, I would run lap after lap on a 200 meter running trail alongside the airfield. On these runs I often had no idea how far I was going. I would run for the pure joy of it, to feel as free as I possibly could behind the hesco barriers of the camp. I would run until I was tired, or until I could get the images of a particularly terrible mission out of my head.
In October, just as winter had begun to settle over our camp, I received some devastating news. One of my teammates who had been assigned to a camp in southern Afghanistan had been killed on a mission. The next day came more news: I had been selected to replace her. I arrived at the camp near Kandahar and began to unpack my belongings in the room that had just days before belonged to Ashley. Her things had been removed, neatly packed away and packaged up to send to her grieving family in Ohio. However, a few things remained: a tiny bottle of lotion, a candle, and her running shoes. Sitting on the bed of my new home, I stared at the shoes, they were going to be difficult to fill. I learned Ashley had been training for a marathon.
In May of 2012 I returned from Afghanistan and resumed training to race competitively. My journey with running has taken on many forms over the years, and has been filled with joy, despair, refuge, and growth. I have run 5 marathons to this point, inching my way towards an Olympic Trials qualifying time. My goal is to be standing on the start line in Atlanta on February 29, 2020, shoulder to shoulder with the country's best marathoners. I am committed to this goal, but conscious always that running is a gift, a choice, and a teacher. I am immensely grateful for the role it has played in my life, and eager to continue the journey.