Like a sunflower laded in morning mist, Margaret Martinez rises strong and straight into the sun.
Donned in sweat pants, her black hair tied in a bandana, Martinez sweeps through the early dawn, her strides growing stronger. The cool North Dakota air is permeated with chatter and laughter and then grows silent as the 22-year-old and her running group move down one street and then another – their morning shadows floating untethered and free.
It is a moment Martinez does not take for granted. A little more than two years ago, the Dickinson State University (DSU) senior and cross country runner was crossing State Street at Fairway on the west side of Dickinson on her way to an evening job when she recalled seeing headlights looming closer and closer.
Dazed near the side of the road, as paramedics began talking to her, all she could think of was her job and being there for people – something she was known for her entire life.
"I remember laying there and thinking, 'Oh, crap, I'm going to be late for work," said the Bakersfield, CA native. "Then I felt the pain and the paramedic said, 'Just lay there. Your leg is broken.' As soon as he said that, I thought, 'Oh my. I've just been hit.'"
A hit-and-run driver had shattered Martinez' right femur, lacerated her liver and caused cuts and abrasions on her head. Paramedics rushed her to a hospital in Dickinson and then by ambulance to Bismarck. There, she underwent surgery to have a steel rod placed in her leg with two screws. Her mother took two weeks off from her job as a waitress and helped Martinez in her tiny dorm room adapting to a new life of crutches and pain medications.
The one routine she had known since middle school – running, competing and the light and easy voices of runners by her side -- was gone.
Martinez was an eighth-grader in Castaic, CA, when her middle school PE teacher encouraged her to try running. Once in high school, she joined the track team running the 3,200 meters and then hurtles. Coaches asked the young teenager to try cross-country. It was a decision which would shape her life.
"My first 5K race was 27 minutes," recalled Martinez. "By the end of the season, my time was down to 21 minutes. Putting one foot in front of the other became a way of life."
Martinez' parents, both of whom are first-generation immigrants, wanted the best for their daughter but limited resources prevented them from contributing toward college. Once again, running became a fuel, propelling Martinez forward through cross-country scholarships. Martinez chose Bakersfield College in California first and then moved 1,750 miles to Valley City State University in east-central North Dakota. Through the encouragement of friends, she transferred to DSU on a cross country scholarship in 2012.
Martinez had trained for only three weeks and ran a 22:05 at the 2012 Minot State University Invite, her first race at DSU held the weekend before she found herself stunned and in pain at the corner of State and Fairway.
"I came to DSU to run and when I was hit, it was like I had lost everything," said Martinez.
Nearly three weeks after the accident, Martinez tried pulling her life back together by hobbling around on crutches to class. She became known on campus as the "girl who was in the accident." After four months, she ditched the crutches and began rehab with a DSU athletic trainer. She trained on a stationary bike and eventually ventured out with a bike to join the cross country team. By the summer of 2013, was ready to start jogging.
But the motion of doing something she had known for so long was strange. It was almost as if she was running on someone else's leg.
"When I ran, it was a weird rotation," she said. "It was like I didn't know what I was doing. I ran around the university once. It felt good but I was sad because I ran with a bad limp, with one side of my body higher than the other. It was not fluid at all."
Martinez decided to have the rod taken out last fall, which required a second surgery and months of recuperation on crutches. By this past spring, Martinez was ready for the DSU track season but needed to catch up on coursework. It was until this past August Martinez completed her first four-mile training run. She committed to DSU's 2014 cross country season and after two weeks of training, participated in the first meet of the season on Sept. 12 at Minnesota State University Moorhead.
"Just getting on the bus with the team and on the highway brought back a lot of emotions," she said. "It was so long since I had been on the team and the experience brought back a flood of emotions."
To prepare herself, Martinez walked the 5K course and envisioned herself achieving a personal record. Finally, the gun went off. Martinez began striding into the course, her eyes on the girls in front of her, their ponytails swinging with each step. She pressed into her stride. But like that car on State Street coming closer and closer, doubts raced toward her and she wanted to quit at the first 3,300 meters.
"I was just done," she recalled. "I didn't think I could do it."
But Martinez told herself, "Just get to the 1.5 miles" and then, "Get to two miles," followed by, "Only one more mile." The strategy worked.
"At the last 300 meters before the end of the shoot, I really started kicking and passed one girl and then another," she said. "I smiled to myself and thought, 'I am actually running!'"
Martinez' team mates cheered as she crossed the line in 22:13, only 1:31 off her all-time best and 57th out of 67 contestants. And that girl, now this young woman, who was the first in her family to receive their American citizenship, who was putting herself through school as a CNA, who was hit by a car and told she could not run by almost everyone, was back.
Close to PR
Martinez likes to think of her future almost like running near Mt. Sac in Walnut, CA. Located a little more than two hours from her parents' home, the scenic course features steep grades – a place to test physical endurance and mental toughness.
"I want to prove to myself I am strong physically and mentally," said the physical education major. "A lot of times I wanted to quit but what has kept me going is the sport – of the feeling you get of competing and of the effort you put into a race. It's that feeling of being alive."
Martinez will have raced five times the 2014 season and clocked a 21:30 – only 48 seconds off her PR -- in the University of Jamestown 5K in October. She crossed the finish line 38th out of 73 runners.
Shadows which once darkened Martinez' path are shimmering with light.