The itch of the grass takes me back. Cartwheels in the school yard. Daydreams and ladybugs. Only I’m not nine. I’m nearly 40, lying in the center of a college track, trying to catch my breath.
On my left, US gold medalist, heptathlete, and SD local Chari Hawkins is trying to distract me from my rapid inhales and exhales. We just ﬁnished three sets of 100-meter, high-knee drills. Each was about 20 seconds long, but my chest is exploding.
Before 2020, my walls were decorated with race medals from 5Ks to full marathons. I loved running. Then the pandemic hit, and with it, a debilitating depression that took it all away. Nowadays, the sport brings up memories of lying in bed, mustering up the courage just to leave my room.
Today, on this track, I’m eager to put the past behind me. But my breathing doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Am I having an asthma attack? I avoid Hawkins’ eye contact and begin to wonder whether I was cut out for this assignment.
Over the course of the next month, she’ll be showing me how to improve my one-mile time (currently, it’s 9:53) with tips and tricks pro runners use.
Dressed in a purple sports bra and ﬂoral Spandex shorts, the 32-year-old is as spirited as her neon pink and purple Brooks running shoes. As a heptathlete (aka a badass), she competes in seven track and ﬁeld events: the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put, 200-meter run, long jump, javelin throw, and 800-meter run.
Her laundry list of credits runs deep: gold at the USATF Indoor Championships as the 2022 US national pentathlon champion, ﬁrst place in 2022 at the World Athletics Combined Events Tour in the heptathlon, 12th overall in the heptathlon at the 2019 World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
This past September, she competed in the World Athletics Championship, representing Team USA in Budapest, Hungary, where she placed 8th. Hawkins is currently in an oﬀ-season, but training months typically include around nine to 10 hours a day of physical and mental exercises. It’s enough to make me rethink my resistance to this quick one-hour workout.
Our sessions begin with a mindfulness practice. “I am willing. I am grateful. I surrender,” she says, sharing the words that help her set an intention before a workout. Then, it’s onto technique.
Everything I knew about running seems wrong. “Remember, the sole of the foot is showing right in front of us,” she says, demonstrating a type of high-knee movement. To do this, you’re over exaggerating your running form while standing still. Raise your knee up, point your toes to the clouds (forming an A), and then pedal the sole of your foot forward before striking your knee down. It’s more complicated than it sounds after 30-plus years of moving a certain way.
My homework is working on technique drills and going on at least two 20-minute “fun runs,” as Hawkins calls them. Remember to stay tall and lift my knees, I think. One mile time: 9:42.
The next time I see Hawkins, I’m battling self-doubt. My past running life is heavy on my shoulders. She jumps into coaching mode, telling me that we are in charge of our own energy.
“Say you’re in a relationship and you guys end and you’re devastated—you can’t do anything,” she says. “And then they’re like, ‘Can I come over to talk?’ Think about how quickly you would get up, shower, and clean your whole house in, like, half an hour with all the energy in the world.” Been there.
It hits. I’m ready to train. She coaches like a close friend, senses when I need the motivation but doesn’t let me give up when I begin to tire. This week is easier, maybe even fun.
“Push. Good. Be willing to work hard here. Strike the ground underneath you. I’m obsessed with your arms right now. They’re doing exactly what they have to do,” she says as I nearly tumble to the ground during our last set of fast drills. “That’s the thing I love about track. It’s more than just what the time is on the track, right? It’s about how you show up for yourself when your back’s against the wall.”
Her words slowly wipe away the dark parts of 2020. I am willing. I am grateful. I surrender.
Starting this assignment, my focus was solely on time. But you don’t wear a Team USA race kit by just working on technique. It starts with the mind, building conﬁdence in yourself, trusting in those coaching you, and pushing forward when you want to give up. Hawkins reminds me of this while we spend our last day journaling about our goals.
“Understand what you want ﬁrst, and then go for it. Then keep going for it all the time, and, eventually, you’ll get it,” Hawkins says. Never give up, she stresses, no matter the objective.
Lacing up to do my ﬁnal time test, I feel something I haven’t felt in three years: excitement. It’s time to cut the ties that have bonded running and depression for so long. Ready, set…
One mile: 8:51.