Lost and Found

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If there was such a thing as remedial gym class, I would have been in it. I was too feeble to throw, too terrified to catch, and so uncoordinated, I once landed a javelin behind me. So I never dreamed I'd have use for a coach. But one day my athletic family decided that climbing mountains and running marathons wasn't challenging enough, and they needed a new sport. They dragged me along for a "fun day out" tearing through the local woods with a map and compass. They tasted humility that day, but I found my passion, and a modicum of talent, in the obscure sport of orienteering.

Invented by the Swedes as a military training exercise, orienteering involves navigating between predetermined points in the fastest time possible. The skill comes in selecting the most efficient route, which isn't always the most direct one, especially if it involves wading through rivers, hacking through dense undergrowth, or scrambling over boulders. It was more about brains than brawn, so it was perfect for an uncoordinated nerd like me.

Orienteering is a loner's sport, man against the clock, so I spent most of my teenage Sunday mornings in my own company, careening around remote rural areas. But by the time I turned 15, I was my county's orienteering champion. That title earned me—the last to be picked in gym class—a chance to compete against the nation's best in the British Orienteering Championships in Inverness, Scotland. If I stood any chance of winning, I was going to have to be smarter and faster. And that's where Harry Tate came in.

Harry Tate was a gym teacher on sabbatical from Stanford University, a stocky, jovial man who talked in a loud voice and said things like, "Always tell your parents you love them, because someday it'll be too late." At first, his openness made me cringe. British people didn't say things like that. He bragged about his credentials as a "sports psychologist," and claimed he'd worked with Carl Lewis and his sister Carol. I wasn't sure what a sports psychologist did exactly, or if Carl Lewis even had a sister, but if Harry Tate was good enough for them, he was good enough for me.

At our first session, Harry jogged me out beyond the school sports field, his squat little figure jiggling along beside me, keeping up an endless spiel of motivational codswallop about training the mind, learning positive self-talk, and practicing visualization. None of it made much sense to me. We clambered over a gate into a field and stood at the bottom of a sharp hill that rose up to a limestone wall a hundred yards away.

"Okay," said Harry. "You're going to run all out to the wall and then back."

I trained my eyes on the top of the hill and dug my toes into the soft grass, willing my legs to power me up. Barely halfway, my chest began to burn as I gasped in the frigid February air. I can't do this, I thought. It's hard; I'm tired; I have homework to do.

"This is your hill!" I heard a voice yell from the bottom. I had flashbacks of my dad, the time he thought I should run cross-country, urging me to run faster in the cold rain and endless mud. I'd tried to be tough and tried not to cry; he'd tried to not look disappointed every time I came in last.

"You gotta think like a champion," Harry yelled. I gritted my teeth and aimed for the summit. As I reached out to tag the rough stone wall, I heard him again. "Come on back," he yelled. "Long strides! Breathe." I gasped in lungs full of air. The man was relentless. Didn't he understand how hard I'd run? Didn't he know I needed to rest? I turned and plodded back down the hill on shaky legs.

"Atta girl!" he said, when I reached the bottom. I rolled my eyes. British people didn't say, "Atta Girl," either. "When you run a hill," he said, "you gotta push through the summit. That's where you'll gain ground and pass people. Okay, let's do it again."

We did it again. And again. And again a few times more. Each time, my legs screamed louder, my lungs objected more, and I liked Harry Tate a little less. "By the time we're through you'll do this for a warm-up," he said, grinning.

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