It’s not just my spirit animal

  • I wrote this more than a year ago, but thought it fitting to post on my new blog, Gazelle Runs, to give some background info on the name. 


I started running track when I was in the second grade. My mom, being a softball player most of her life, tried to get me to play t-ball when I was young, but I hated it. I pretty much hated any sport that involved balls flying at me. But I loved to run — what kid doesn’t? I didn’t even know track was a sport until a yard-duty assistant who was also the team’s coach approached my mom when she was picking me up from the after-school program and asked if I could join his track team.

“What’s track?” I asked.

“It’s running. And there are some jumping events, too,” he explained.

My mom asked why he wanted me on the team and a huge smile spread across his face.

“She’s fast! These kids chase each other and she’s one of the fastest kids out here — THE fastest girl,” he said, winking at me when he said the word ‘chase.’

Back then I was teased mercilessly for having big ears. Bullies loved to flick my ears with their fingers and then run away. Of course, I’d chase them. I’d always catch them, tackling them to the ground and punching them, or just getting close enough to trip them and then kick them in the ribs. They would chase me back and try to flick my ears again, but I wouldn’t let anyone catch me. I was fast and great at dodging their lunges, pivoting and twisting just out of their grasp.

The yard-duty assistants were constantly blowing their whistles at the bullies and me. “No fighting!” they’d yell. “Stop picking on each other!”

But that yard-duty assistant figured out how to put my playground shenanigans to good use. During the after-school program, I no longer had to put up with the bullies. Instead, I was contained in one side of the field and told to run laps around the grass track whose lanes were marked with chalk. I was taught how to hand off a baton. I’d race a straightaway from the sandbox to the fence against all of the girls on the team, and was eventually moved to the boys heat after I won so much.

I was fast and happy.

There were only a few, very disorganized track meets that our school was invited to. My mom bought me little black Lycra shorts and I wore my school’s t-shirt with a friendly-looking dragon on it. I was such a tiny kid — the size small t-shirt was so baggy that it went down to my knees and hid my shorts. My mom tucked the excess fabric into my skin-tight Lycra shorts and then tugged on shirt so that some of the fabric would hide the top of the shorts.

End result: I looked like a mushroom.

I ran the 100 and 200 meters and participated in a 4×100 meter relay. Mushroom clothes and all, I won ribbons in each event, which I took home and hung on my bulletin board with thumbtacks.

I was accepted into the Gifted And Talented Education program in third grade and switched elementary schools. I knew I wanted to be on the track team again and my parents told me that the sport didn’t start until after winter break. When some of my friends would leave class to go to a “cross country” meet, I had no idea what they were talking about. Finally, halfway through the season, I learned that cross country was also a running sport. Instead of running different events around a track, my friends ran races through parks, on grass and dirt. Unfortunately, it was too late in the season for me to join.

When track came around, though, I was there. I ran sprints, though against different schools I wasn’t very fast. I was a middle-of-the-pack runner, often coming in fifth, sixth or seventh place in my heats. I started long jumping too, but wasn’t very good at that either. I was just a short, tiny kid, but I loved track and field.

In fourth grade I went out for the cross country team for the first time. It was a ton of fun, and the memory that stands out the most was the “perimeter” — an iconic training run we would do during after-school practices. We would run the perimeter of the school, which back then seemed to be sooooo looooong. When we had a particularly grueling training day, we would run two perimeters. I think that comes out to a little less than two miles. But to an 8-year-old, it was soooooooooo far.

Track was more fun. That same year my 4×400 team went to the state championships. My coach, also the principal of the school, had learned that I wasn’t very competitive in sprints, but the 400 meters — a long distance for elementary school kids, I guess — was my event. And put me on a team with three other 400-meter runners? Perfection. Our baton handoffs were so clean, our placements were so thought-out…we were unbeatable. I ran first leg most of the time to establish our spot in the front. Our slower runners ran the second and third legs, and our anchor, a leggy Korean girl named Stacy, could pass any team who had managed to slip past our second and third runners. We took second place at State for the bantam girls. Some SoCal team beat us by a smidge.

After that golden year I nestled back into my spot as a middle-of-the-packer. In both track and cross country, I was pretty good but not good enough to stand out. The same could be said for my junior high years. I was one of the top 10 girls on the team of about 100 runners. Every girl at my middle school wanted to be on the cross country team because the coach was so nice and sooo cute. Ha!

He really was a great coach and focused on teamwork and fun rather than hard work and splits. We were working hard and clocking faster times without even knowing it. Friday practices consisted of water balloon fights or ultimate Frisbee games. Whoever stopped running at any time during the hour-long events had to do 20 pushups or 25 crunches — their choice — on the sidelines before jumping back into the game. Although Thiesen coached both, I became more of a cross country kid than a track kid. I ran track only to stay in shape for cross country — and for the water balloon fight practices.

My high school cross country coach was also great. He focused on out-of-town trips and meets and team bonding. We worked at the “store” he ran out of his classroom, hawking bagles, chips, sodas and more to our high school customers, to pay for our trips, hotels and uniforms. In high school the only reason I ran track was to stay in shape for cross country. By that time I had found my love of running hills and loving every minute of an unpredictable course. Tracks were boring. Cross country courses could mean mud, grass, dirt, gravel, beach sand, and more. Running in the elements felt like real running.

Although I think my grandpa, who we called Pops, had attended some of my meets when I was in elementary and middle school, I really started to notice when he would come during high school meets. Pops is a bully. He says he’s joking around, but ‘bully’ is the first word that pops into my head when I think of how to describe him. He’s one of those people who never has anything nice to say. He teases, name-calls, and laughs at everyone else’s expense.

During a cross country meet I remember him yelling, “Go mija! Get up there! Why are so many people beating you? Hahahaha.” Afterward he said “Look, it’s the gazelle! The runner!” quite sarcastically and then hugged me and said “Good race, mija…. Yeah, the kids in front, they had a good race. Haha!”

After that, at every meet he attended, he would yell, “Go mija! Look at the gazelle!” and then he would tell our other family members about the race later “She’s a gazelle out there! The poor gimpy gazelle in the back that gets eaten first by the lion…but she’s a gazelle! A runner!”

We’d all laugh about it, but I came to hate that nickname. It would’ve been great if he had meant it in a positive way, but whenever ‘gazelle’ came out of his mouth, it was sarcastic and mean.

I was one of the top five girls on my cross country team, which put me in the front-of-the-middle-of-the-pack. But that wasn’t good enough for Pops.

“What’s going on, mija, did the gazelle forget how to run? Why aren’t you in front?” he would taunt mid-race.

At the end, when I would start my kick, it was “C’mon gazelle! They’re gonna get you!”

He seemed to think it was encouraging. I thought it was just rude.

Fast forward a decade later — a marriage, a cross-country move, and two kids later — and I found a new team to run with. I ran with the Wascally half-marathon training group long before the training program was set to start. A guy I had run with since seventh grade invited me to come out and join them. My son was just four months old and I hadn’t run more than 4 miles at a time. And I was slow. Much slower than in high school.

Still, I went out with the group and ran 8 miles my first day. I felt on top of the world. I don’t think I had ever run 8 miles at once, ever, not even in high school. Our longest training runs may have been 5 miles, max. Now, as a 25-year-old mom of two, I was running 8 miles? I was amazed at myself.

After running with the group four times a week for a few weeks, I felt like I was beginning to fit in. I had learned everyone’s name. They’d greet me in the morning when I showed up. They would ask about my son. I felt like I was part of a team and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was back where I belonged — with runners, fun people — running through mud, over grass, dirt, and gravel on an unpredictable course.

One day as we ran along the trail back toward our starting and ending point, our coach gestured toward a small branch — a dry, white, tumbleweed-looking thing — that had drifted onto the paved path. We were sprinting, finishing up an 800-meter interval. “Branch,” he said, pointing. We were running in a line, so the branch was directly in my path and because we were running so fast there was nowhere for me to go. So I gracefully leaped over it.

“Dang!” exclaimed Norma, the coach’s sister, after we finished our interval and stopped our watches. “You were like a gazelle right there, prancing over that little branch! And you’re so fast!”

The moment she said ‘gazelle’ I got goosebumps on my arms. I laughed, because I am not used to flattery, and told her that she was moving pretty fast too. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I got when she called me ‘gazelle.’

Pops had long since stopped talking to me. The silent treatment that seems to run in the family also got the better of him, and I hadn’t seen him for nearly three years, since my daughter was two months old. I thought of him that day because of that single word. I thought about how sarcastic he was, and how I didn’t miss him and that my kids were probably better off not knowing him.

The next week we ran 800-meter intervals again, and I was staying ahead of the group of girls that I normally ran with.

“Dang, gazelle!!” Norma said, “You just keep getting faster!”

That time when she said ‘gazelle’ I smiled.

“You know, it’s funny, my grandpa used to call me that,” I told her.

“Gazelle?” she asked.

“Yeah. In my high school cross country days,” I said.

“Well yeah, you’re so fast! And so quiet when you run!” Norma said.

I left it at that. I didn’t explain that Pops had called me a gazelle sarcastically — that he had joked that I was the gimpy gazelle that would get eaten first by the lion. This was a new team, with (mostly) all new people. No one knew me or my past. There was no need to go into detail. Let them think that I had always been fast, always be “the gazelle.” Why not?

Long story short, the name stuck. Norma calls me Gazelle all the time. I actually can’t remember the last time I heard her say my real name. It caught on, and other people on the team started calling me Gazelle. Now I put it on every race bib that the race directors allow you to personalize. I have a T-shirt that says “Run like a gazelle” with a drawing of the antelope-like animal. I have another T-shirt with an artistic gazelle drawing emblazoned across the chest. I take selfies with the gazelles at the zoo.

The more people called me Gazelle, the more gazelle-like I tried to be. I worked hard at becoming faster. I still work on my form and my stride to be quiet and graceful like a gazelle. I work hard to be strong, sleek and fast. I feel like I have to earn that nickname. More so, I feel like I have to prove to the grandpa — who I no longer even talk to — that I am not the gazelle that gets eaten by the lion. I’m a front-of-the-packer now.

I had wanted another tattoo for a while, but didn’t know what to get. Ever since having two miscarriages in a row, I had wanted something inked that would stand for them — something to remember my tiny little angel babies by. Something that people could ask about and I could tell them “yes, I have two children here with me, but I also have two children that aren’t with me — but they still matter.” But after looking at hundreds of designs and even trying to draw something up on my own, nothing seemed right.

One day I decided that my next tattoo didn’t have to be an angel baby tattoo. That could wait, and I could get anything that I wanted. But what did I want? I don’t take tattoos lightly. Each one has a story and serves a purpose.

After a dream on night, I awoke knowing exactly what I needed to get. A Gazelle. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? At 4 a.m. I began scouring Google images for photos and designs of gazelles.

When I found the right one, I could not get over just how RIGHT it was. It was perfect. It was strong and muscular looking, but still very feminine. It was sleek and beautiful — and it looked fast.

Within the week I had the gazelle inked on my left thigh. It seemed like the perfect spot — I use my legs for running, and they’re my most muscular feature. If there is any part of my body that I love, it’s my legs — they are sleek and beautiful in my eyes.

Every time I see my gazelle I smile. It reminds me of how far I’ve come as a runner and as a person. I was that little girl with the big ears who was always picked on and bullied, I was that middle-of-the-pack runner who went unnoticed, I was the kind-of-fast-but-not-really high school runner who was teased mercilessly by someone in her own family. And now I’m a confident — yup, even cocky — mom of two who has found her stride in running and in life.

And frankly, the gazelle feels like a big “screw you” to Pops. You want a gazelle, old man? I’m gonna show you a gazelle.



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