Sophomore year of high school, I wrote a letter to myself in my loopy, 15-year-old handwriting and stuck it on top of my dresser, where I wasn’t to touch it until graduation. For the next two years, the letter’s existence drifted in and out of my mind, becoming a staple in the cluttered bulletin board of my mind. The letter read what I wouldn’t say out loud; it held the kind of hopes you don’t go talking about because admitting them is too close to giving them up, because they feel too big for a girl like you—I was just a regular girl from a small town in Jersey who never did or lived anything all that important. But I kept working.
The letter spelled out my dreams of the Ivy League and collegiate running, and by my high school graduation there I was, doing it all. I knew sophomore me and all those versions of me before her would have been so proud of whom we’d become. In that moment, I felt complete, and I never thought that would change.
And now, here I am. Five years removed from the girl who wrote the letter, which now sits in a box in my basement, going purposely untouched all over again—this time, to spare myself from the hurt of rereading what had once been so important to me.
After two years of competing for the Columbia track team, two years of working the hardest I ever have at something just to be let down again and again, two years of crying to my parents over every holiday break and wishing my college years away, I decided to quit the one thing I thought would give me what I wanted most: to belong.
I quit the track team because every mile of every run seemed to only drive home the fact that I was not the runner I was in high school. By the time I realized how utterly behind I was, this feeling of inferiority had rooted itself deep inside of me. Every workout I stopped early, and every run I fell back on seemed to give credence to the self-doubt I had been harboring since my first day on campus.
My two years on the team felt like an endless game of catch-up for which my only reward was a broken body and a distant, desperate, and growing idea that there was something more to come. I was embarrassed most of the time showing up to practice because I felt like I didn't deserve to be there as much as my teammates, who worked tirelessly and loved the sport endlessly. By the end of sophomore year, it was a struggle to remember why I too used to love running.
Last week, sitting in my coach’s office, I thought of my dad and how happy he always was to see me run. I thought of him bragging about me to his friends at work, and I wondered if he would ever have a reason to do that again. I thought of my brothers, and I wondered if I was hurting them by doing this, if I, their big sister, was letting them down. I wanted nothing more than to know I wasn’t disappointing anyone, but I couldn’t help but feel like I was.
My mom told me I didn’t have to call it quitting, that I could say I retired or “figured out what was best for me”—a polite breakup of sorts. But I didn’t feel like sugarcoating it. It felt like a death, and I wanted to treat it just as brutally. It felt like a loss and a waste and a let down, and to speak of it in any other terms felt like lying.
My decision to quit was easily one of the hardest I’ve ever had to make. It was sad in a way that made me think a lot and scary in a way small elevators and centipedes could not compare to. I was terrified writing this; it felt like I was outing myself as the failure that sometimes stares back at me in the morning mirror. But I know how badly this hurts, and if this helps anyone feel less alone, it’s worth it because I know I wanted to talk to someone like me: someone who had given up a part of themselves, and was better off without it. I wanted to hear that I’d belong somewhere again, and that it was okay to feel like I didn’t for a little while.
Quitting a part of who you are is not fun; it’s uncomfortable and uncharted, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. Sometimes we just grow in different directions from our past selves. There is honor in sticking with something that doesn’t come easy, but there is also integrity in doing what you want, even if it’s not what you’re used to or what people may want from you.
I am still navigating life without track, but I know I’ll find the way soon enough. Until then, I will join clubs and go out at night and read for fun and do all the things I didn’t bother doing before but have come to want in my life. Quitting doesn’t have to mean ditching who you used to be. It can mean making you more representative of who you are now and who you want to be someday.
Nora May McSorley is a junior at Columbia College studying psychology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, where she’d love to listen to what you have to say and help if she can. Distance May Vary runs alternate Wednesdays.
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