“Is it true you get headaches from not drinking enough water?”

“Yeah, you get…what’s it called…dehydrated.”

I overheard the previous exchange one afternoon at work, and for once I was thankful my desk faced the corner. That way, the two coworkers involved in the exchange could only see my back and not the smirking disbelief that I’m sure was apparent on my face.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that these girls did not know the connection between headaches and water, or that they had to think for a second to get at the technical term “dehydration.” But for the past five years I had existed in a world where the principles of drinking water to prevent dehydration were so ingrained in me that I carried a water bottle like an extra appendage. It was the world of college distance running, and like most things, it wasn’t until I had left it that I truly realized its impact.

For five years I had been surrounded by others just like me: petite, strong-willed athletes who met daily in assorted articles of spandex to train as cross country and track runners at Michigan State. I lived with runners, my friends were runners, I dated a runner. My conversations commonly included words like “fartlek,” “threshold,”  “race,” “strides,” “training room,” and “spikes.” My wardrobe consisted of running tights and t-shirts. I went to class with ice bags saran-wrapped to my calves. All of this was normal, because everyone I knew was doing the same.

Enter: the “real world.” After I graduated in May, I started working a full-time job. It was a shock to be around so many people who didn’t run, let alone exercise. Instead, they drank coffee and wore high heels. When I had the chance to talk about running, I did, often meeting blank stares. They would always view running only as a painful way to redeem themselves after a weekend calorie binge, never as a thrill or a challenge. They didn’t understand why I ran in the heat, or the snow, or at night. Imagine if I had tried to explain to them the finer intricacies of the sport, like chafing or peeing in the woods.

I missed my teammates, who understood these things. Even though I’ve been writing all of this with the singular pronoun “I,” it would be just as appropriate to use “we.”  Life as a college runner was collective experience—in action, in thought, and in spirit. I believe anyone who has had been on a team feels this way. And even though I am moving toward new goals and ambitions, there are occasional twinges of longing for the team with whom I spent so much time and shared so much.

So as I sat at my desk, I felt a certain loneliness. I wished I could tell the story to my teammates at 2:50pm, as we sit in a circle on the coarse red floor of the indoor track, waiting for the coaches to come in and start practice. Or, at the very least, I wanted to turn to someone next to me and share a knowing smile and shake of the head over the conversation we’d just heard.

But I also felt a certain peace. And that’s the beauty of the team experience. No matter where you are or what you’re doing, you can reflect on the way it impacted your life; you know that somewhere out there, someone feels as you do.

And that’s the greatest feeling in the world.

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