By Oksana Lightfield
In the Beginning
I never saw myself as an athlete. For the longest time, I thought that the word athlete could not be applied to me. Growing up in the 80s in the former Soviet Union, life was interesting.
Asphalt-paved playgrounds dominated every apartment building courtyard. School-required timed AK-47 assembly/disassembly workshops in third grade were a norm. Massive outside war battle and reconnaissance games as part of the school patriotic curriculum didn’t raise one eyebrow. One could not have expected less from the Marxist-Leninist society where proletariat unites and everybody is equal. Equally poor and equally doomed. Little did I know that my past will shape my future and put me where I am now, for which I am forever grateful.
The Freedom of Running
When I was six years old, I became aware of my own strength and experienced the feeling of utmost freedom while running. One pitch-black, cool summer night, I was running laps around an approximately 200-meter-long stretch of flower beds in a local park . My father timed the bigger-than-your-head white bow floating around the flower beds, as he and my mother spectated from the park bench smack in the middle of my make-shift track, duly informing me of my splits, daring me to go even faster.
With each lap, I felt more and more liberated.
I remember envisioning the heavy chains breaking loose and sliding off my body. I was playing my own dare game with my big fancy ribbon bow as I felt it loosening up and getting ready to spiral away into the thick shadows, my mind getting more and more confident with each lap, my body warming up and accepting my father’s challenge, never slowing down. My first little triumph over my own obtrusive brain, showing it who’s the real boss.
Sports Culture in the Former Soviet Union
I was faster and stronger than most boys at that age and it persisted into middle school. That’s when my P.E. teacher approached my parents and told them they ought to sign me up for indoor track in the coming winter months. She also urged me to join randomly-held fall cross country meets in the meantime. I did attend, but ended up performing horribly under pressure, intimidated by other, more experienced kids.
Unfortunately for me, secondary public education at that time and at that location did not have any in-house sports programs, like we have here in the U.S. in almost every neighbourhood. If you wanted to be involved in sports, you had to seek that opportunity elsewhere. Elite travel clubs in big cities or specialized sports boarding schools groomed you to become a professional athlete.
For someone who just wanted to have some fun, ‘athlete‘ was a big word that carried so much gravity and incredulous pressure,
frequently associated with not-good-enough performances and possible debilitating injuries. I grew up in a culture that highly regarded their favorite athletes, worshipped them.
However, in contrast to the American culture, the same people who worshipped, also frequently thought of them as hopelessly dumb and undereducated individuals. For some reason, these two notions, athleticism and high IQ level, were thought to be mutually exclusive. Athletes presumably dedicated their entire life to the sport with very little time for academics. It was as if you could either be one or the other, not both.
Sometimes, if you were particularly talented, it meant leaving your family at a young age to go live and train at an exclusive facility, far away from home. At best, you could become a pro and compete at a high level if you were lucky, only to be later forgotten after your prime. At worst, you’d simply be chewed up and spat out by the sports industry at a very young age due to injuries and/or insufficient amount of talent.
Somewhat similar to the American culture, albeit the lucrative college scholarships and a promise for prestigious education. At the end of your sports career, you would literally be left with nothing but a faint low-paying coaching prospect in a godforsaken bankrupt country with all of the government sports funding cut off.
None of that concerned me, however.
I was never that good anyway.
While it certainly made for some good TV, back in those trying times, as the Cold War competition was unfolding between the Soviet Union and the U.S., including in the sports arena, my family did not want to entertain even the slightest possibility of considering to enroll me in any kind of sports. Period. So we all settled on focusing to advance my academic career and renounce all of my athletic abilities, however great (or not) they might have been.
Middle School Years
Middle school proved to be a cruel game of trying to fit in while staying true to yourself. My mother was a music teacher and, naturally, I took up music early on. I stuck with it for about five years until I finally put my foot down and defiantly said, “Enough!” I took up English instead. Thank goodness I did, as I wouldn’t be talking to you today.
Running fast around the track and getting sweaty was definitely viewed as “not cool” by the then circle of local schoolgirl-influencers. When I spotted my P.E. teacher in the school hallways, I usually ran the opposite way. During those final years in middle school, I had all kinds of creative and not-so-creative excuses up my sleeve when it came to not giving it my best in P.E. Forget about the extra effort to make some random in-house meets and racing events outside of school, again, on the insistence of my P.E. teacher.
I couldn’t be bothered to even consider myself athletic or to be referred to as “that girl, who is into running.”
My lame avoidance tricks usually ranged from “I have a swollen ankle” (stuffing a little toilet paper in the stocking around the ankle area to make it appear swollen and putting on a little limp for good measure), to “it’s that time of the month”, to “I forgot my change of clothes,” frequently bringing my case to the assistant principal’s desk and, on occasion, all the way home to my parents. I don’t think anyone had a slightest idea of how to deal with the issue. We eventually moved to a different part of the country (now Ukraine) and that was the end of that dilemma.
Better Late than Never!
“Better late than never!” I came to love this saying ever since I stopped pitying myself over the things I didn’t get a chance to experience in my childhood years. Another favorite of mine, “Everything happens for a reason!”
Fast-forward through high school and college, partying, drinking, and smoking, coming to U.S. to study some more, working, getting married, having kids, and, finally, getting back to my long-lost running routes. All was, and still is, great fun.
I am now a wife and a mom to three very athletic, smart, and beautiful kids.
I am finally comfortable in my own skin. I am enough.
In addition to all of the above, I finally allow myself to think of myself as an athlete, and a badass one, if you will.
That didn’t happen because I made it to some imaginary elite level, but because I finally came to terms with the notion that you can be an athlete by simply being strong and agile regardless of your age, size, race, culture, ethnicity, and level of performance. You could also be smart and beautiful at the same time. You could be a mother and/or have a professional career and be athletic and love being involved in sports. Wow, what a revelation! These things are not mutually exclusive after all.
My Fitness Journey Begins
After two of my kids were born and barely out of diapers, I got this strong urge to feel the freedom that running once gave me. Looking at my oldest, as he ran carefree up and down the hill without even thinking twice of the effort he was putting in, made me realize that it was all in my own hands. Only I can help myself. My fitness journey began then, about 11 years ago.
I was ready for something big but just didn’t know where to start.
I stumbled upon this on-demand yoga class for beginners, so I started with that to assess my overall strength. Eventually, I progressed to more advanced and sweat-inducing sessions. My husband and I were lucky enough to own an old and beat-up hand-me-down treadmill that I finally ventured on while my babies napped. I could barely jog for 15 minutes in a row.
Somewhere I read that if you wanted to run a 5K, you should at least be able to run 15-20 minutes without stopping. I didn’t know how true that statement was, but it became my goal.
My husband had a long commute and had to leave early in the morning. I decided that if I ever wanted to run outside, I ought to beat him before he had to leave the house. I didn’t even know of running strollers at the time. Two times a week, I was up at 4 a.m. to get my usual three miles in, back with enough time to take a quick shower, and be there for my babies when they woke up.
I remember how I loved running alone, in the darkness, even if it was pouring rain. It gave me so much confidence. If I could do this, I could do anything!
I have yet had to run my first official 5K race, but I was in no hurry.
The Obstacles of Life
As it happens to all of us, life interfered yet again. My running routine got derailed when we decided to sell the house and move. I became too overwhelmed dealing with the selling, the prepping, the cleaning, the packing, and the moving. I was still overwhelmed when we finally unpacked and settled into our new house. My running was on hiatus for about three years after that. It was on and off, very sporadic, and without a goal. By then, I also had my third kid.
My kids have always kept me pretty busy, but it was because of my kids that I was always able to remember the joy associated with sports and being active.
Once again, the urge to get outside and go for a run struck me like a bolt of lightning after watching my older daughter practice gymnastics. I remember that it was spring, it was already plenty hot, and I had my Crocs shoes on. I didn’t care. I knew that there would be another hour left of her practice, so I got outside and started walking uphill, getting gradually faster as I approached the top. It felt so good, I was singing out loud, smiling, and I suspect generally appearing pretty odd to the onlookers. When I crested that hill, man, there was no stopping me!
I bought the running stroller for my youngest daughter and together we ran many miles, this time during her naps. It was absolutely and positively hard, but I loved every minute of it! I decided right then and there that nothing will ever interfere with my love of running.
Get Back on Your Feet, Soldier!
I also cleaned up my eating habits and lost all of the lingering baby weight. All of a sudden it became easier to run. I became obsessed with learning anything and everything about running, fitness in general, strength training, cross training, warming up and cooling down, and running longer distances, possibly even a half marathon, or so I secretly hoped!
By then, I have run a couple of local 5K races, but that didn’t spark any particular interest in me. I was always more interested in testing out my endurance and my will power in longer events. In January of 2015, on a whim, I signed up for the Frederick Half. I found a free “fit-all” online training plan, and got to work, absolutely terrified of what laid ahead.
Meeting the Steeps
One day, I stumbled across a Facebook running event, hosted by the Frederick Steeplechasers. Thinking of the name, I promptly envisioned people running fast around the track and jumping over obstacles. Hurdles were always my least favorite event in school, but I was intrigued.
The organizers of the training run were inviting people to sign up and come downtown to run most of the Frederick Half Marathon course together. I signed up and that was my first experience with the Steeps. The loving, welcoming, and nurturing presence of Billy Clem during that training run eventually became the catalyst for me to join the club later that year and join the Half Marathon and, later on, the Marathon Training Group, also led by Billy at the time. (Billy, if you don’t have a following by now, I’d be surprised!)
Since then, I met a lot of good Steeps who enriched my life with their presence and company, with their advice and wisdom, their lighthearted jokes and moments of occasional serious conversation.
I made so many friends! I have run a lot of miles together with some great athletes of different abilities and that propelled me even further into becoming my own athlete as I see it.
I refuse to be confined by anyone’s stigmas. I will not be defined by my pace, nor will I be defined by my age, size, culture, habits, the color of my skin, my accent, my education, etc. I am so much deeper and richer than that. I know, many of us have been struggling to fit in at some point in their lives because of someone’s definition of x. Well, I am here to tell you that you have come to the right place regardless of the magnitude of your love towards running.
Being a Steeplechaser is an honor and the most effortless and natural affair because no one is ever judging but everyone is accepting of one another. Stop searching, you have truly found your tribe!
I am longing to run together again, my fellow Steeps, I miss the camaraderie and the support. I cannot wait for a significant breakthrough in our nation’s health situation so that we could once again enjoy each other’s company safely and without restraints.
These days you can find me running around my neighborhood with my loyal canine running buddy, my rescue GSD mix, Dakota. I live in Frederick County, and, naturally, I must love hills, right?! I truly do! They are indeed speedwork in disguise. I enjoy running the local scenic country roads just as much as I enjoy running the local trails.
The only positive factor for me resulting from the effects of this global pandemic was the fact that I unexpectedly found myself with a whole lot more time on my hands to run more trails. Now that my kids are older and can fend for themselves (well, I also quit my job to be there for my homebound kids during the pandemic-induced quarantine), I am now able to venture out for longer jaunts and enjoy the stunning views that our beautiful state has to offer. Props here to my husband who does not have the luxury of quitting his job. After all, someone has to bring home the bacon while I run all those roads and trails!
To date, I have run four half marathons, four marathons, and a handful of 10-milers, 10Ks, and 5K races. Two of my marathons were Boston Qualifiers, but we all know how that went in 2020 and is, unfortunately, ongoing. I have yet to register and be accepted into my first Boston Marathon.
In the spring and summer of 2020, I have been diligently training to run my first 50K in September of 2020 (originally slated for the Labor Pains Endurance Run in PA), but ended up running the distance solo, locally, on the Appalachian Trail, with my husband crewing for me. Together with our family and friends, we turned this into an ALS-fundraising event with the help of Charity Miles. We ended up raising $600+ in honor of a former colleague of mine, Marilyn Fogel, and our fellow Steep, John Godinet.
I continue to run and draw inspiration from all of you and your eloquent stories and runs that you so generously share with us on Facebook and Strava. I pray for a healthier and safer future for all of us and the rest of the world. I am happy to be alive and moving and am running more soulfully these days.
I have also decided to give back to the Steeps community in some capacity and volunteered to help out with the Communications Committee. You can see and read some of what I do in the club’s semimonthly newsletter and, on occasion, on the Intervals blog.
I also love art. I see art everywhere. I frequently take pictures during my runs. I love creating art with words — writing stories and poems. I enjoy drawing and sketching. I look at running itself as a form of art, where you can express yourself in so many different ways. In that process of creating (training for and/or running a race), you also relish the reward by visualizing and reliving all the good, the bad, and the ugly — something that is always present in many a creative process.
You can find more of my work at www.oksanalightfield.com.