Sydney Walker: I #GiveThanks for running cross country in high school

My family moved to Alabama during the summer before my freshman year of high school — not an ideal time in teenager’s life to move. Let’s just say I was a bit grumpy about it. 

The first two weeks after we moved in, someone new came by almost every night to welcome us with a treat. Southern hospitality is real. They often asked me a question I didn’t know how to answer: “What do you like to do?”

I hated that question. I didn’t play a sport. I didn’t dance. I had stopped reading for fun. I quit piano the year before. I didn’t feel like I was “good” at anything. I didn’t have a “thing.”

Back in Arizona, hanging out with my friends was my “thing.” In Alabama, I was the “new girl” — the new girl without friends and without a hobby. 

A few girls in my Young Women class at Church quickly adopted me as their friend. One of them, Madeline Williams, asked me if I wanted to try out for the Oak Mountain High School cross country team with her. 

I agreed, without knowing cross country meant running. Perhaps cross country meant visiting places around the country? Maybe traveling could be my “thing” …

I wasn’t a runner. I wasn’t athletic — at all. When I realized what I was getting myself into, I felt it was too late to back out. And I didn’t want to lose a new friend. 

So, I went with Madeline to a late summer cross country practice. Compared to Arizona’s dry heat, the air was very humid, and I had never sweat so much in my 13 years of life. I couldn’t run five minutes without having to stop and walk. I felt embarrassed. 

But I was determined to get better. 

On a morning not long after, my mom drove me to the high school track. She said, “OK Syd, we’re going to run three laps today without stopping. You can do it.” I think I cried and complained those entire three laps, but she ran by my side and helped me finish. 

Thankfully, the high school cross country coach, Jim Moore, allowed almost anyone to join the team, as long as they were willing to come to practice and work hard. I was willing. 

Nerves fluttered in my stomach as I waited at the starting line of my first 5K race. The signal of the gunshot sparked an adrenaline rush through my body, and I sprinted with the herd of runners down the open field toward the trail. 

My sprinting didn’t last for long. In fact, I walked most of that race, and I crossed the finish line at 35:44. I can still see my name listed across from those numbers on the results page. That time became a baseline for my future races. 

With every practice that season and the next three, cross country became more and more my “thing.” 

Running was hard — physically and mentally. Coach Moore taught me how to hydrate for the humidity, how to handle shin splints, how to push through bad races and how to train with a team. I learned what it meant to PR (set a personal record) and I craved the feeling that came with accomplishing my goals. 

By the end of my senior year, I shaved almost 14 minutes off my first 5K time. 

Sydney Walker, middle left, with her family after finishing the Deseret News Half Marathon on July 24, 2018.
Sydney Walker, middle left, with her family after finishing the Deseret News Half Marathon on July 24, 2018. Credit: Julie Jorgensen

I never made the state team or placed in a race, and I didn’t earn a scholarship to run in college. Compared to many high school runners, I wasn’t “good” at cross country. 

But today, running is still my “thing.”

As I laced up my shoes this morning and set out on a nearby trail, I reflected on President Russell M. Nelson’s message on gratitude

I immediately thought of Madeline and her invitation to run cross country. I thought of my mom running three laps around the track with me that day. I thought of teammates who became some of my best friends. I thought of their families and my family cheering me on at races. I thought of Coach Moore, who saw potential in me and pushed me to do and be my very best. 

I #GiveThanks for my high school cross country journey and everyone who was a part of it.