Dear Running: You Taught Me To Smile

Ben Conlin is a Rampart High School senior in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He was the 2020 Colorado High School 5A State runner-up in the second fastest time of the day. 

By Ben Conlin - Rampart High School

Dear Running, 

From the moment I was born, I have been moving. I rolled, climbed and crawled to and fro in a frantic dance to keep up with my mind. No crib could contain me, no swaddle was tight enough. Child gates were a breeze.

And then you entered my life. My view broadened. I chased my parents around corners right on their heels, following closer than I had been able to before. Teetering on two chubby legs I raced after my older brother. I figured I could do anything he could: as long as I could keep up. Nothing could stop me as I explored the world inside and outside. A window was a simple way to get through locked doors, trees could be climbed and swung through to avoid the undergrowth. My legs could carry me to wherever I wanted to go, whatever I wanted to do. I just needed to do it faster.

I never had the patience to walk. My parents always joke that I skipped that stage altogether. Why would I want to walk when there was a perfectly reasonable way to get there in half the time? The only time I could stand walking was on hikes, because I could run back and forth from twenty meters ahead to twenty behind-and then slingshot back to the front. Even stairs I felt the need to speed up. I tried two at a time first before working my way up to three, four, and then the whole flight (not advisable, concrete hurts a lot crashing from nine stairs up).

My parents put me in sports to contain the wild. I played t-ball for a while before realizing that I could run the bases without even breathing hard. So I tried soccer. Watching a conglomeration of little kids running together in a tight bunch as they chase a soccer ball down the field is incredible. So much chaos, disregard for life and limb. I was instantly in heaven. I played soccer for ten years, learning spacing and pacing along the way. I played wing, the perfect position for someone who loved nothing more than tearing down the field at top speed, laughing at the kids choking on the dust left behind. I was satisfied playing soccer, the itch to move was scratched. I still ran in a youth club, but it was very informal. I only did it because I was fast.

And then high school started. At soccer tryouts I made the top age group team, but was told that I was "too small" to compete well, so I would mostly be sitting on the bench. That was fair of my coach to say because I was the shortest on the team by six inches and the lightest by more than twenty pounds. But it still really hurt. I turned away from soccer, the sport that had raised me to be a hard worker, taught me tenacity and consistency. You replaced it. I had never been as happy playing soccer as I was freshman year running on the cross country team. I made varsity, taking the last scoring spot on the team. We placed third at the state meet that year behind two of the top teams in the nation. And I loved it. The wind in my hair, the sun on my face. No parents to deal with, rude opponents to try to ignore, referees to fight with. I let my legs do the talking, and they carried me away from anyone who used their mouth. I ran and ran, never looking back, satisfied with the feel of the ground disappearing beneath my feet. Sophomore year carried that high to an eleventh place finish at the state meet. I had missed the podium by one place, but was so excited with my race that I didn't care. You made me into someone I was proud of.

Junior year I wanted that podium spot that I had missed out. At the end of the season, when it was time for the state meet, I was ready. But I was let down. I placed 19th, not even close. You weren't the one that let me down. I ran faster junior year than I had sophomore year. It was more myself. I had turned away from the joy, the happiness, and looked to win. I wanted praise and honor, prestige from my friends and fellow runners. I had forgotten to be grateful that I was able to compete, forgotten the smile in my heart that had carried me the year before. I sunk into myself, growing more self centered. Track season was cancelled that year. I ran anyways, but it wasn't fueled by the passion that I had before. I lost my grit, my tenacity, my joy.

This year cross country was not greeted with a bang and the roar of the crowd. It wasn't heralded by loud music and packed team camps. I ran, but there wasn't an audience to impress. Each race, in the silence that accompanied my footsteps across grass, dirt, rocks, and pavement, I asked myself why I ran. The quiet suffering as I raced forced my thoughts to the question. And for a while, my only answer was that I am fast. My season was great, I ran nearly a minute faster on every single course than I had junior year. But there was an inner turmoil that was bubbling beneath my surface, a question burning a hole inside of me. Approaching the regional qualifier, I had no motivation, no drive. I told myself I would win because I had won both the year before and sophomore year. I was wrong. I got smacked, beat by one of my best friends by 37 seconds. The course was supposed to be the fastest one all year, the one to PR, the one to break records. I ran my first 16 minute 5k of the year there. For many that would be a PR. For me it was the slowest I had run all year. Luckily I had qualified for the state race, beating third and stealing the qualifying spot by just under ten seconds.

I approached the state meet as a blank slate. I didn't want to influence my race by having any expectations. So I didn't place anything on myself. Sure I wanted to race well, but to me, racing well could have been merely running with the sun on my shoulders, representing my school in one last cross country meet. I focused on why I ran, re-framing my personal purpose to focus back on love and joy. I began to smile on my runs. It made me feel better and move faster. I smiled as I warmed up for the state meet. The realization hit that I was about to race one last time against the friends I had been with and against for four years. I wanted to have fun more than anything.

I smiled. I couldn't stop. I was grinning from ear to ear as we ran down the trails. I was surrounded by my people, and I was having the time of my life. I had an amazing race, placing second. I was ecstatic. In my interview with MileSplit they commented that I may not have won the race, but the smile on my face made it seem like I did. The joy that You brought me as I ran through my highs, the support You gave me when I was low shaped who I am. It helped me grow, learn, improve, and succeed. There is nothing that can wipe this joy from my heart. Instead of giving form corrections, my coach now tells me to smile. You taught me that we feel best, work hardest, and perform to our full potential when we do it with joy and love. You taught me to smile.

Thanks for everything,



If you are a cross country athlete or coach interested in contributing to this series at the state or national level, please send your essay to MileSplit USA editor Cory Mull at, or to your local MileSplit editor (Bobby Reyes -  in your respective state.



Read the full series here.