Meet Women's Running's XC Ambassador Hannah Hartzell! Dozens of collegiate runners entered—but it Hannah's essay that pierced our hearts.

Hannah Hartzell

It was the summer of 2001 and while most 6-year-olds were eating Cheerios in their jammies, I decided to take advantage of the morning and commence “training.” The annual elementary school fun run was rapidly approaching. As far as I knew, athletes trained. Due to my new status as a first-grader “athlete,” I figured it was time for a workout. I recruited my next-door neighbor to count aloud while I ran laps around my house. Next were jumping jacks and some sprints. I was pretty sure that was the workout of champions, ensuring my victory, no doubt. Clearly, I knew little about running. But I did know that my legs itched to let loose and my heart pounded with excitement for my racing debut.

Sure enough, when the day came: I was ready. Tenacity pulsed through my little body as I shot from the start line and began the quarter mile loop in the grass. To this day, I remember the pure joy of letting my legs run free for that first time. Never before had I experienced such an unhindered flow of all that I was. I finished with a smile and the title of the fastest girl in my grade. And I wanted to keep running.

So many moments have flickered through my life since that first race. There was the upheaval of my family, the eating disorder that nearly destroyed me, the anxiety that questioned everything. For a long time, I lost sight of the joy. I couldn’t see any light from the pit I was in. I sure as heck didn’t think I’d reach my goal of running collegiality; but I did let running be a reminder that joy existed. And as I battled, I began to hope again.

This is the point where someone might say: “Running saved me.” Frankly, that’s not my story. Running hasn’t saved me, but it has been a constant outlet of joy and, as a result: It has become a catalyst for freedom in my life. Unbeknownst to 6-year-old Hannah, the first-grade fun run would set in motion an unrelenting pursuit of that freedom. Of release.

Now, as I run for a strong Division I program, I feel pressure to make up for lost time and succeed again. That’s when I remind myself of the first race. I remind myself because I cannot afford to forget. I cannot afford to dismiss the simple joy of letting go and running with all I’ve got.

Ours is a sport of simplicity, of beauty. When we’re young, we so easily understand that. Yet, time goes on and tempts us lose the joy. Let us not forget that running is, at its core, a release. It’s an urging to push forward, let go and enjoy all that it means to be you. So go run laps around your house or something. But be warned: Recruited timers may lose interest and they’ll require copious amounts of ice cream for their hard work.