My feet rhythmically pound the gritty, hard-packed, artificial track, and my breaths heave in and out of my lungs. Step. Wheeze. Step. Wheeze. Step. Wheeze. My current pain is only a minor nuisance compared to what it has been like in other races, but my mind still searches for something to latch onto to distract me. My eyes drift to observe the hastily erected banner that designates this meet as a “Cross Country Regional Meet”. I also see my breaths billowing in front of me, the only evidence I can find that tells how cold this day is. I never get cold during races.
I don’t dare look behind me, but I am still sure that I have an astounding lead on everyone else. Knowing this, I let my mind wander again. Like every other meet, my thoughts lead me primarily to my motivation. I remember the first time a coach ever told me I had a gift for running. I remember the time when my high school’s cross country coach personally recruited me my freshman year. But mostly, I remember looking at my father’s numerous high school and college trophies, and wishing I could be like him. I can picture, like always, my dad sitting on this track’s ruthlessly cold metal bleachers, but still managing to keep a big smile on his face, his smile crinkling his soft blue eyes. However, this time, I know that his smile will be slightly tinged with nostalgia, since this is my last high school regional meet before I go off to college. I silently track my progress in my head, and I calculate that I only have a little over three more laps to go before the finish. Math has always calmed me down during races.
However, as I reach the three lap mark, I experience what I like to call the “Brick Wall Effect”. It’s the period about three-quarters through the race where everything except the pain shuts down. It’s where your legs cannot and will not take you any further, but you make them anyways. It’s where it feels like someone is slowly but forcefully turning your Pain Dial up and up and up, until you actually feel like you’ve hit a brick wall, and you almost stumble. It’s where your steps become a little less rhythmic and a little more erratic. It’s where you desperately try to command your brain to think about something else besides the pain and the doubt, though both still sneak in anyways. And today is no exception.
Just as I lug myself to the two lap mark, I hear footsteps gradually, inch by inch, drawing nearer. I immediately panic, and I quicken my pace despite the ever-increasing pain. I think about the college scout that is here at this meet to watch me, and I wonder if I have run well enough to be in contention for the ever-promised athletic scholarship. I pass by the stands, and I look for the college scout, dreading the dismissive look I am sure he is giving me. Instead, I find my dad in the crowd, and I find that his imagined smile is now replaced with a barely hidden grimace. My shoulders sag, and, with the weight of his seemingly obvious disapproval weighing me down, I stumble, the first time ever since my fourth middle school meet. My eyes again meet his, but, instead of seeing the expected displeasure, I see his face light up. It is only momentary, and he hides it well, but I still manage to catch the out-of-place look. My puzzlement distracts me from the pain long enough for me to reach the one lap mark, until suddenly, a memory comes back to me. My dad was talking to me about his college successes, when his face suddenly turned regretful, with his eyes clearly replaying multiple memories.
He said, “Be careful. Enjoy the experiences now, while there still isn’t much pressure. In college, everything changes. If you’re good, running becomes your life.” And suddenly, selfishly, I realize that I don’t want this pain to become my life. I want, somehow, to have the quintessential college experience, not be that wunderkind that wins all of the races. And so, I find myself slowing down, gradually, the change barely noticeable.
Eventually, I begin to see the owner of the footsteps out of the corner of my eye. I see a blond buzz cut approaching, and I know immediately who it is. Casey, the number-two runner at our school. Casey, with his genuine congratulations after every meet. Casey, with his well-hidden, but not well-hidden enough sad smiles. Casey, with his soft blue eyes staring at and yearning for my collection of gold medals.
And, with a half of a lap left, after confirming that it really is Casey drawing nearer, I slow down even more. He passes me, with incredulous eyes that stay that way until we both cross the finish line, him about ten seconds before me. I walk over to him, and this time it is me giving the genuine congratulations.
“Nice job. You really outran me in this one,” I say, my huge smile matching Casey’s. And what I said is true: even if I hadn’t given up, I calculated in the moment that he would have passed me in the final stretch anyways. Math has always calmed me down during races.
“Thanks,” says Casey, and he runs off into a huge bear hug with his parents. I meet up with my own dad, and, just like I imagined while running, he wears a big, eye-crinkling smile, but now, his eyes are knowing.
“I am so, so proud of you,” he says, and we walk off together to go get some celebratory ice cream.