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This is a strange thing to admit, but last night I was reading my elementary school yearbook on the toilet.

I grabbed it off a shelf en route to the bathroom—a quirky substitute for my usual bathroom literacy material of Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated. While flipping through the yellowed pages, passing pictures of Mr. Angelos and Jaymes (Scott) Choy and Lance Bloomer, I came upon the above image. It features some kid I don’t recognize and a woman I will never forget. Her name was, simply, Mrs. Mullaney.

In an era when, I’m guessing, 98 percent of American gym teachers were men, Mrs. Mullaney was a female gym teacher. And a fabulous one. No matter who you were, she called you, “Turkey.” As in, “OK, Turkeys, line up against and wall!” and “Hey, Turkey, grab that softball and throw it over here!” What you see in the photograph is what you got every single day—unruly dark hair, shaded glasses, a blue windbreaker. She was no frills and lots of fun and, in hindsight, quizzically cool.

She also changed my life.

Mrs. Mullaney was a running guru. At least she seemed to be a running guru. When I was in second grade, Mrs. Mullaney started an after-school running program. We’d show up, stretch in the gym, talk a bit, then—go! That’s no simplification. We’d form groups of four or five kids, based on ability, and run throughout the town of Mahopac. Mrs. Mullaney would yell out, “Be back by 4 o’clock!” and we’d be back by 4 o’clock. It’s a strange idea nowadays—take a gaggle of young kids and let them loose on the streets. But back before we all became overprotective crazies, it seemed fine and dandy and wonderful.

Because of Mrs. Mullaney, I’ve spent much of my life as a runner. High school. College. Marathons. Long joyful trots. 10Ks with a stroller. It’s easy to forget how one person can shift everything about your existence; can take you from there to here with a slight nod of encouragement.

But that’s what she did. And, bad back and knees be damned, I’m eternally grateful.