Running Essay Contest

It all began with a phone call. 

"Would you be interested in helping to run the school's annual Reading Night," asked a friendly voice at the other end of the line. "I know you're a writer and..."

How many conversations in our writer-lives end like that. "I know you're a writer and...."

"...can you write this press release for me...for free?"

"...can you write an article about underwater basket weaving and its impact on the global economy...for free?"

"...can you read and provide detailed edits on this 150,000 word manuscript for me...for free?"

Come on. You know it happens to you, too. And I never, EVER mind helping, often for free, but I have to admit...this was one of the first times that I was like, "YES! YES PLEASE! LET ME WORK ON A NIGHT THAT CELEBRATES READING WITH ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN AND SHARE AMAZING STORIES AND YES PLEASE I LOVE THIS THANK YOU FOR THINKING OF ME!"

I'm fairly certain that was my exact response, including the ALL CAPS PRONUNCIATION.

Because what's not to love about sharing books with kids? I'm so thrilled my daughter loves to read and write; sharing that with other kids in her school seemed like a wonderful no-brainer. 

My early brainstorming sessions included a grand idea: I'd host a writing contest, sort of like the WAR competitions we've had here at LitReactor, but with fewer rules and much less trash talk. I brought the idea to the Reading Night Committee (there's always a committee at an elementary school) and they loved it! "Run with it," was the message I received, so I did.

First I had to find a story prompt, some kind of picture that could inspire a variety of stories from children aging 6-12. Not so simple; it couldn't be too scary or creepy, and I didn't want anything too obvious. I started Googling "old timey photos" (not kidding, I really did), and I finally found it. The perfect picture. Cute, funny, not creepy but for...well, this was it. I'll let you decide if there's anything creepy about it at all.

I thought it was fun! So we printed up some posters with the rules — write a short story, inspired in any way by this photo, and turn it in to the librarian. There'd be a winner for each participating grade level, and prizes (to be discussed later). We gave the kids a pre-spring break deadline, and to our surprise...we got over forty entries in grades 1-5! So exciting, for a first-time a contest.

I wound up with a folder-full of children's stories on the last day before spring break, and I as I carried them home that day, I will honestly say I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what those stories could possibly hold.

And then I started reading, and received a refresher course on just what it means to be uninhibited. Creative. Excited. Enthusiastic. It's a lesson from which all writers could benefit. 

From that one photograph, I received stories that featured guard dogs, magic banjos, and a child whose missing foot caused him to overcome astounding obstacles. I read stories about men in black suits chasing down children in a tale (almost) worthy of publication in some of today's top noir lit mags. I read tales of the Civil War and westward expansion. I read a story with a song that was so musical and fun it was the clear first grade winner. I read a story with a detailed recipe for a berry stew, and instructions on how to begin gold mining. There was a magic eagle that still, amazingly enough, linked back to the photo. There were ghosties and goblins, too...and even some My Little Ponies came out for a spin.

The stories were as diverse as the student body, as uninhibited as children can be. It was an incredible reminder of how much creativity there is in the world, and how fun it is to share it.

The stories were as diverse as the student body, as uninhibited as children can be. It was an incredible reminder of how much creativity there is in the world, and how fun it is to share it. Sometimes I feel so siloed, hacking away at my stories day in and day out. Sometimes I feel so tapped of creativity, I can't even begin to remember how many ideas can be sparked by one simple picture.

This contest was a great reminder. Sometimes something simple can provide a wealth of inspiration, if only you take a moment to look at it.

And then came the prizes. Oh, the prizes.

We held a big event, on Reading Night, and the writing contest prizes happened to be one of my most brilliant ideas ever. 

I invited an actor friend to rally some troops to come read the children's winning stories aloud at Reading Night. I thought it would be fun...but man, it was better than I ever imagined.

The actors received the stories a couple of days before the event. When I heard they were holding a rehearsal I was intrigued. When they showed up and began reading...my heart melted and I almost died.

Hearing actors bring to life the stories of these children was an experience it'll be hard to top. Watching their little faces blush and glow as loud, clear voices gave birth to characters they'd created...it was amazing. The little girl who wrote a song heard her words sung. The chase scenes of the noir-tale were epic, with actors running around on stage, leaping over one another, and laughing the whole time. The berry stew recipe sounded even more delicious as the actors practically drooled, pantomiming stirring a giant cauldron.

We writers all dream of one day seeing our stories on stage, or on the big screen, yes? I know I do. And somehow, with some amazing actors, these children who are part of my community got to see this dream come true.

It reminded me of how to focus on how words sound when writing them. Read passages aloud to make sure they work. Don't be afraid to test out voices on your characters. In short, while writing, don't be afraid to act.

There were so many lessons I learned from the writing contest entries. So many laughs and almost even some tears. I was reminded to be playful and daring. To take risks. To not write as though someone is reading over my shoulder, but to write what I like, and see where it goes. Those children were all so brave and unselfconscious. It was beautiful.

Look. I love kids. I do. Running a writing contest for kids may not be your thing, especially if kids aren't your thing. But I promise you: stand for a moment in a world created by a child, and your own creative coffers will be refilled for a year. Do it. I dare you.I know you'll love it.

When people ask why I chose this ambitious endeavor, I often give lackluster responses, such as “It’s a great way to see the United States!” or “I love running half marathons!” While those statements may be true, I use them as a defense mechanism to avoid the harsh criticism and judgement that I am afraid I would face if I were to share the real reasons. The truth is, I embarked on this journey to pull myself out of a deep-rooted depression that I found myself in after spending a restless night on a cold hard jail cell floor. After hitting rock-bottom that night, I had a choice – either continue down a path of self-destruction or forge a new path of reflection and self-discovery. I ultimately chose the latter and developed a passion for running along the way. As I continue my journey running across the United States, I want to use my story to show that your mistakes do not define you as a person.

So how did a former straight-A student, goody two-shoes end up in jail? The short run-of-the-mill story is a DUI. However, my situation was far worse than having one drink too many and teetering on the edge of the legal limit. I was highly intoxicated and crashed into a construction zone while merging onto the highway. I blacked out right before the crash, and did not even grasp the gravity of the situation until a construction worker was banging on my window asking if I was ok. Although I totaled my car, I walked away without a single scratch on me and was fortunate enough to not have injured anyone else. Police eventually arrived at the scene, and gave me a series of sobriety tests that I was destined to fail. I was hauled off to jail in handcuffs, and my life was changed forever as I knew it.

I spent the night in jail internalizing what had led me to rock bottom. The most obvious, was drinking and driving. But why did I drink so much that night? Why did I choose to drive? And why was I so careless with my life? The answer to those questions was depression. The debilitating effects of depression and mental illness permeate my family, and unfortunately, I was not spared those genetic traits. In the months leading up to the crash in the summer of 2010, I was going through an extremely difficult time, mourning the loss of a friend. At that time in my life, I had not come to terms or understood the symptoms of my recurring depression and turned to alcohol to cope and self-medicate. The more I drank, the further I fell deeper into my depression, until I eventually hit rock bottom with the DUI.

The consequences of a DUI were extremely costly. I depleted my savings, lost my driver’s license for a year, and had to attend a series of AA meetings and alcohol education classes. In addition, I lost my freedom, independence, and the self-reliance that I prided myself on. While receiving the DUI would end up being a blessing in disguise, I spent the first few months of my probation hating myself. I moved in with my dad to save money, and had to rely on family and friends to be my chauffer.

I started to see light at the end of the tunnel with the help of my mother. Two days a week, she selflessly drove 30 minutes to pick me up and take me to the gym. She let me spend hours there, as I worked out my stress and anxiety exploring different weight and cardio machines. In the beginning of our gym excursions, I despised running and avoided the treadmill at all costs. However, after a particularly hard day at work, I decided to challenge myself and was surprised that I could run a mile without stopping. From that day on, I kept pushing myself to run faster and farther. As my mileage and speed increased, so did my confidence. Six months into my probation, I decided it was time to move out.

My roommate and I found an apartment close to a metro station outside of Washington, DC so that I could regain my independence. One day when walking to the metro station, I discovered a running trail called 4 Mile Run. At the time, I had only run on a treadmill but decided it would be a good way to explore my new neighborhood. The next day after work, I put on my running shoes and ventured out for what I thought was an out-and-back four-mile run. Unfortunately, I was sorely mistaken and found myself on an 8-mile run, where I was racing against nightfall in the woods. I joked with my friends that it was a 6-mile run and 2-mile walk of shame. Although I was being modest, I knew I had accomplished something to be proud of.

From that day forward, I was on the road to recovery. Running became my outlet for managing my depression and feeling good about myself again. Growing up, I dreaded running the mile in P.E., and here I was running several miles a day. While I still felt the stigma of having a DUI, each month I was getting better as I got closer to getting my driver’s license back. By the time the big day came, I had successfully turned my life around, living on my own and pursuing a new career path in graphic design.

After spending a year focused on putting the DUI behind me, I needed something else to focus my efforts on – and that became running a half marathon. After some research, I decided to run the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon, which was held in Fredericksburg, Virginia in May 2012. Growing up near Fredericksburg, I often visited scenic areas of the course and was looking forward to participating in an event associated with “The People’s Marathon.” I spent the winter of 2012 researching different training plans and tips for novice runners. I eventually stumbled across Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 Training Plan and thought it was a perfect match for newbie runners like myself.

During the 12 weeks of training, I was committed to not missing a day. This was especially challenging while training during the tail end of winter. Finding the time to run five days a week was also a struggle. There were many early morning and late-night runs that left me feeling tired, exhausted, and cranky. When I was training, I also had to focus on fueling my body for long runs. I learned a few lessons the hard way, including my body cannot handle Mexican food or a large bag of kale before a long run. But I will keep the details of those disturbing incidents to myself. Although I was not the fastest runner, by the end of my training program, I was ready for the big day.

The night before my race, I was very anxious wondering what the hell I got myself into. I carefully laid out my new neon yellow running gear and bib to ease my nerves and settled in for a restless night sleep. I had come a long way since my last extremely restless night, which was spent on the cold hard floor of a prison cell. I knew that no matter what, the next morning would be better than waking up in a lonely jail cell having to face the disappointed look on my parents’ faces.

On race day, I woke up at 5:00 am, while most of my family and support crew slept. My mom once again was my selfless chauffer and drove me downtown to the starting line. I anxiously waited for the race start, and was energized by all the adrenaline and nervous energy in the air. I had only one goal that day, to finish the race. Once my coral started, much of the race was a blur. The first eight miles, I remember feeling nostalgic as I passed by the streets and shops I visited while growing up. I also recall a group of spectators handing out tequila shots, and holding back vomit at the shear thought of drinking alcohol. I started struggling at mile nine, when I reached the infamous “Hospital Hill.” I debated taking a detour and checking myself into the hospital, but was motivated to continue by all the service men and women cheering us on. Although I spent the remaining 4 miles alternating between walking and running, I did not beat myself up – all I wanted to do was finish the race. The last half mile, I spotted my dad at a street corner eagerly waiting for me. This would be my favorite part of the race. My dad spent the remaining portion of the race running along beside me through the crowds, cheering and encouraging me to finish the race. Once I crossed the finish line, I was overcome with emotion and shed a few tears. The grueling 12 weeks of training had paid off, I had successfully run my first half marathon.

In the weeks that followed, I became eager to run another half marathon. My aunt, who ran a full marathon in every state, introduced me to the 50 States Half Marathon Club. After reading some inspiring stories, I decided to make it a personal goal to run a half marathon in every state as well as DC. Five years later, I have 15 races under my belt with two more scheduled in the coming months. I have come a long way in the past five years, from starting my own freelance business to pursuing a Master’s degree. After each race I complete, I push the shame of the DUI further behind me and become more comfortable in my own skin. I can confidently say that running saved my life and helped me see that my mistakes do not define me as a person. Although I made a terrible mistake the night, my DUI does not define me.

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