HOKA Flyer, Cheryl Miller, shares where her relationship with running began and why she does not run from fear.
It can feel challenging to tell a story, because often the beginning isn’t quite where things started, and the end is not truly the end.
For many reasons, my story begins with running, and it took a long time for that realization to sink in. I grew up below the poverty line and my mother struggled badly with alcohol and drug addiction following my father’s suicide. He left us when I was about 3 months old. Eventually, I was deemed a ward of the court, and my grandparents stepped in to raise me. I was always drawn to sports, but playing a sport requires money to buy equipment–knee pads for volleyball, a stick for field hockey–it can add up really quickly for a family struggling to make ends meet. Playing a sport is also time away from a job that could add to a family’s financial stability. These things are hard to process when you are just a kid that wants to get outside and play, but they are also a part of your reality.
I didn’t seek out running, running sought me, and I first heard its voice when I was walking down the hall of my Junior/Senior High School. “You look lost”, a man shouted, and I kept walking down the hall. “What do you think you’re tough?” he called out when I didn’t respond. “Come down to the track and let’s see how tough you are.” I didn’t know it at the time, but this random figure was the new girls track coach, Frank LaBianca. He had coached different teams across Long Island, NY. The tryouts for the girls track team were that day, and my own curiosity led me down to the stands where I watched from a distance. That voice returned. “One of the teachers in this school said you’re smart,” he shouted,” why don’t you come down here, I bet you couldn’t finish one lap.” It was a scary proposition. As much as I wanted to go down and run circles around him, what if he was right? What if I passed out on the first turn. I still remember that feeling of having a knot in my stomach, and a tightness in my chest. I went down to the track and ran that lap with everything I had inside of me. I made the Varsity Track Team as a 7th grader and the rest is history as they say. Eventually, Coach and I fought to get a girls winter track team under Title IX, and I became the first state champion for women’s track at our school, and helped our first 4 x 800 relay team make it to states for a fourth place finish.
The same fear I felt running that first lap would meet me at the starting line for every race. It first was dressed as a fear of failure–at that time in my life, anything less than first place had me beating myself up. When I began winning regularly, it came dressed as a fear of success. Maybe that win was just a fluke, or it was just dumb luck. Fear was causing me to get in my own way. When my mother told me she was dying, that fear came dressed as many things. I didn’t really know what AIDS was back then, but I knew that popular opinion regarding the disease was less than supportive or kind. I knew it was deadly, and I knew she would suffer. I kept her illness a secret, for fear I might be asked to leave school, or that I might lose the new running friends I had worked so hard to make. Or perhaps even worse–I feared someone would tell me that I could not compete because of my mother’s illness.
It was during this time that my fear at the starting line began to change–it was like we both sat down together, acknowledged each other, and I gave it space to exist– with the understanding that it would stay at the starting line while I ran my race. Running helped me to cope during this difficult time in my life. It gave my family a positive topic of conversation when there was nothing positive to discuss at the dinner table–what races were up next, who was my competition, what were my practice times. Running made me start to love school and helped me to become the first person in my family to finish high school, top of my class. It helped me to view myself differently–I was not the only Latina standing on the starting line for a cross country race–I was a runner, and I was strong.
My coach knew I had a difficult home life, and he truly built my team into a family. He drove me to and from meets, made sure I got rides home when practice ran late, took me to the Melrose Games, the Footlocker Championship, the NYC Armory. He drove me and my teammates across the state to compete with the best of the best, and gave me my first job working at his surf shop in Riis Park. The money that I made there helped to pay for shoes and Cross Country Camp in Stroudsburg, PA. Coach Labo became friends with my grandpa, who missed only one race during my entire high school running career–the state championship meet my senior year, as he could not afford to attend. Coach became family, and he used running as a metaphor for how I could structure other goals and build the life that I wanted.
Coach told me running is a lifelong sport, one that would teach me to face challenges in life–and it did. Running helped me to write the paper that broke the curve in my Georgetown psychology class; it helped me through the New York State Bar Exam; and shaped me to become an educator who developed some of the first online courses at the George Washington University. I ran after sifting through paperwork for Supreme Court nominees while I clerked at the US Senate; I ran before drafting legislation that I hoped would help others; and I ran the morning I attended my first bill signing with President Obama. I ran before delivering a speech at the United Nations to the global business community, and I ran the morning I signed my divorce papers. Where was fear at this point? Fear was there. It reminded me of its presence when I started to shake so hard at the entrance to the New York State Bar Exam I almost passed out. It grabbed my leg and started shaking it during my UN speech, and it caused me to initially sit towards the back during the bill signing. In time, I lost my entire family to drugs, disease and alcohol during my 30s, and fear sat next to me at every funeral. Sometimes fear showed up dressed as sadness. Sometimes it was disguised as anger, or frustration. Fear cloaked itself as many things, but I always recognized it.
Today, I have run on almost every continent–along the beaches of Bali, through the mountains of Colorado, and in the Saudi desert. This is not quite where my story begins, and certainly not where it ends. Today, I am a mother, a spouse, a friend, a cousin, and a runner. I don’t run from fear, but when I recognize fear, I leave it at the starting line. Today, I don’t run to win races, I run because it’s become a part of who I am. I am forever glad that running found me. Today, it makes me happy when I can help running to find others, so that they may recognize their fear and leave their fear behind.
Cheryl is featured wearing the Rincon 3