14. Moving Forward

14. Moving Forward

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Moving Forward

We will continue to invent the future through our blood and tears and through all our sadness.… We will prevail.…
 ~Nikki Giovanni,
Virginia Tech University Distinguished Professor, poet

I’ve gone running here hundreds of times. My feet were on the same pavement, passing the same buildings, navigating the same course. This time, though, something was starkly different.

It wasn’t the air hanging heavy in my lungs and it wasn’t the unseasonably cold weather — flurries in mid-April. It was my heart.

Physically, everything was normal. For once, moving blood and oxygen through my body was the least of my heart’s worries. As a runner I can ignore soreness, snow storms, injuries and cramps, but the pain of running at Virginia Tech after the tragic shootings in April 2007 was something I could not simply grit my teeth and run through.

Virginia Tech is a safe place; no one can convince me otherwise. Not my countless friends who lectured me on the dangers of running alone at night on a college campus, and not Cho Seung-Hui, who killed thirty-two students and teachers before turning the gun on himself.

I graduated from Virginia Tech almost exactly three years before the school became nationally-known for the shooting. After graduation I packed up my apartment and put on my running shoes for one last run in Blacksburg.

Virginia Tech is on a 26,000-acre campus surrounded by breathtaking trails and rolling pastures. Despite the call of the trail, my favorite run was always right on campus, usually at night. Long after the sun set behind the Blue Ridge Mountains I darted between buildings, dodged students and reveled in the moonlit academic landscape.

Somewhere between football games, homework and sleep deprivation, running almost immediately found its place in my life at Virginia Tech. I still remember my first run as a freshman. Just hours after my mom and dad moved me into my freshman dorm, West Ambler-Johnston (the dorm where Emily Hilscher and Ryan Hall were killed), a few friends from high school and I jogged around campus, exploring our new home. A few nights later I embarked on the campus on my own and discovered a beautiful sanctuary that I somehow missed while walking to classes.

In college I grew from a mediocre high school miler who was secretly intimidated by the distance of a 5K into a confident half-marathoner and triathlete. The hours I spent on campus in my running shoes were the only time I knew for sure what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a runner.

Sitting in my office at a newspaper three hours from Blacksburg, the initial news of the shootings hit me like a blow to the knees. I frantically called my brother, a freshman at Tech, and choked on tears as I watched the death toll climb. Just hours later my editor sent me to Blacksburg to cover the story.

Being back on campus amidst the mourning, the media and the yellow tape caused stress deeper than any exam ever had. I spent the afternoon focusing on work rather than the reality of what was happening around me. I conducted interviews, took photos and went to press conferences.

Eventually, though, the sun set on that April day, and when my first round of stories were sent the reality of the tragedy at my beloved college began to sink in. Before a lump could form in my throat I pulled my hair into a ponytail, slipped on my running shoes and started running.

That night, forward motion was laborious. In the stillness of campus, where I remembered feeling fast and strong, my legs felt heavy and my muscles burdened. Instead of listening to my reluctant body I fixed my gaze ahead, determined to take each step. As the Drillfield, a large grassy field in the center of campus, came into view, my feet instinctively stopped. The field where students play Frisbee and pick-up football had been transformed into a vigil and was glowing with the mournful warmth of candles. Suddenly, I couldn’t ignore it anymore. The rush of emotion overwhelmed me and I bent over with my hands on my knees. Then, just like that, as my breaths were overtaken by sobs, I started running again. Tears streamed down my face as I circled the Drillfield. I was angry to the core and overwhelmed with sadness. I cried for the victims, for the survivors, for the campus, for myself, and I ran because I didn’t know what else to do. Soon my weary muscles felt powerful, my breaths were strong and my steps were sure. As I ran, the strength of my alma mater fueled each step.

I rounded the Drillfield and paused at Norris Hall, where most of the shootings took place. The building was encircled by police tape and patrol cars. My feet slowed, but they did not stop. I didn’t stop because I couldn’t. Virginia Tech taught me about progress and the importance of moving forward. For years the energy I felt on the campus of Virginia Tech and the spirit of the Hokies fueled my runs. Virginia Tech never let me stop and now, more than ever, stopping was not an option.

Running at Virginia Tech got me through exams, heartbreak, and all of the trials that come with becoming an adult. My runs taught me what the classroom couldn’t: that no pain lasts as long as you think it will, that I can go about twice as far as I first thought I could and it taught me that even when everything is going wrong, it is possible to be strong.

~Amanda Southall

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