Fall semester was behind me. I had left it in a parking lot with a couple B’s I didn’t work hard enough to deserve and nine traffic citations I didn’t pay on time.
Things looked bleak in the haze of San Diego’s dreariest winter.
The school was empty when I drove back onto the familiar campus, past the baseball field to the very tip of the last empty lot, and parked. Serious athletes don’t take winter break, I’m told. They train off-season.
I want to win. I want to win and I now have a very realistic perspective of just how difficult that will be for me, a new athlete and practically a fossil in terms of college-aged competitors.
I told Coach when cross country finished that I wanted to run a quarter mile in under a minute. He said if I work hard, we might be able to get it down to .64 seconds.
So I showed up to my first track practice hopeful, fearful, and incomprehensibly underprepared.
Coach wasn’t there.
If anyone gets credit for my being able to survive a semester of college cross country, it’s Coach. He is unreasonably cheerful nearly all the time. He’ll push you, he’ll make you work hard, but he does it with a big, goofy grin and a joke on his lips. He’s never shouted, never even raised his voice. That’s not necessarily the norm in the world of athletic mentors. Occasionally, he would invoke my title as women’s team captain to get me to work harder, a little dig or a guilt trip or just a name to live up to, I suppose. It worked. Coach believed in me more than I probably believed in myself, so I ran my hardest not to let him down. As far as coaches go, he’s as “good cop” as they come.
My first impression of the track coach that blustery day was that he must be the bad cop to Coach’s good cop. Not super bad, just the sterner, more serious cousin. All I had seen of the track coach so far was some rather straight-faced concern.
Short, lean and sinewy, the track coach stood with his hands folded across his chest, a cap low over his eyes. He talked in calm, even tones, watching us with serious, hawk-like vision. I immediately added impressing him to my list of worries for the season.
I didn’t see anyone I knew during the warm up. No one from the cross country team had shown up and, although I recognized some of the track athletes from the locker rooms and such, I didn’t know any of them personally.
Warm-up was a mile — that’s nothing for a distance runner. I laughed when I saw the track athletes try to cut off the last lap without the track coach seeing. He did see, and told everyone to get back on the track and finish the mile.
Then we did dynamic stretches and some other weird stuff, and I was panting and out of breath in minutes.
It was cold outside and the field looked grey and tired. I was wearing my cross country shorts and noticed that most of the track girls had on long, weather-appropriate pants. I made a mental note.
The track coach parsed us into different groups when the warm-up finished. He stuck me with the mid-distance runners and pointed us towards the starting line for the 300.
“Do three of those,” he said, “and then three 200s.”
This can’t be so hard, I thought to myself. In the fall, we’d pick up and go nine miles, up and down hills in 90 degree weather. I could handle a few laps around the track.
“What do you run?” a tall, lean boy with a nose-stud asked me.
“Quarter mile, I think,” I said. “I’ve never done track, so I’m just doing what Coach tells me to right now.”
“Nice, okay,” he said. “Quarter mile is fun. You should try it with hurdles.”
“Don’t scare her,” said the girl next to him with a grin and a groan.
Hurdles. I’ve heard about those.
Our feet found the line in the grass and my companions bent low into start positions. I sort of stood there, wobbling indecisively about which foot to begin on.
The track coach let out a yell and they took off. It took four steps for me to realize they were running a lot faster than I was, four more to realize I wasn’t going to be catching up. The bend in the track couldn’t come soon enough and by the time we approached the straightaway, I could feel my glutes burning. Actually, everything was burning. The cold air had scorched my lungs, my arms felt hollow as I tried to pump myself faster along the track, and every strip of muscle in my legs seemed to be singing in agonizing, disjointed harmony.
We finished, me coming in several seconds behind, and collapsed onto our knees. I was panting so loudly the sprinters down the field could hear. Someone made a joke about the new kid.
“You should stand up,” said the boy. “You don’t want to cramp up.”
He pulled me to my feet and the girl joined us as we limped back to the starting line.
“Man, this really works the hammys and the glutes, huh?” I said between gasping breaths.
“Yeah, it does,” the girl laughed. “You’re gonna look great when the season’s done, just you wait and see.”
A breeze had picked up and rustled through the trees that encircle our makeshift track. We practice on the grass because the rubber on the track has cracked, split and hardened so badly that it’s dangerous to run on. But we’re in good company, sandwiched between raggy soccer fields and a forgotten softball diamond.
“On your marks,” we heard the coach call.
I don’t even remember hearing him say, “Go!” Everyone just took off. I refused to let my pace slow down, but the burning was noticeably worse. When I crossed the finished a minute later and stooped over to find my breath, I felt the muscles in my legs tighten. I gently reached for my toes, hoping it would stretch them out, but it did little good.
“C’mon,” the boy was calling to me. “Walk it off.”
“How do you guys do this?” I called out, trying to raise myself off the ground, feeling an indescribable pain in my hindquarters that was, embarrassingly enough, starting to bring water to my eyes. “You’re like superhumans.”
The girl just laughed and came over to help me.
“I’m going to be honest,” I said, hobbling along beside her, “My butt is not handling this well.”
I was laughing as I said it, but the pain in my glutes had intensified and real tears were welling up in the corners of my eyes.
“You’re probably cramping,” she said. “Lie down flat and I’ll stretch you out.”
She took my legs and bent them toward my chest one at a time. It felt so good.
“Distances runners don’t use the same muscles that we do in track,” she said. “It’s pretty common to get back-leg cramps when we do this kind of running.”
I nodded my head to let her know I had been listening as she hoisted me to my feet. Immediately, upon being righted, the cramps returned.
My face contorted in pain and I let out a little “Oof.”
“Maybe you should sit this one out,” she said.
I plopped back down on the grass and winced through the onslaught of tightening muscles, which seemed impossible to stretch, while she trotted over to where everyone else was gathering for the last lap.
I knew track was going to be different. Coach had already kindly warned me, with a self-amused laugh, that I’d have to relearn how to run if I did track, that it would be hard work.
I’m not scared of hard work, but I’m definitely a little scared of pain. And this hurt. I’m scared of being the new kid, and I certainly seemed to be one in that moment. I’m scared of being a failure. And Coach wasn’t here today with his firm, friendly smile to gently say, “Come on, Captain, keep pushing. You want to be a quarter miler, don’t you?”
I could hear the track coach tread the green till he reached my spot of turmoil on the grey grass.
“Do you have asthma?” he asked, bending slightly at the waist, arms still crossed over his chest.
I was still panting pretty hard, and the tears streaming down my face must have painted a pathetic picture.
“No, Coach,” I told him between unsteady breaths, trying uselessly to stand and bracing myself for the scolding I deserved for sitting out a lap. “I’m fine, I promise. It’s just that… my glutes really… really hurt.”
He looked at me for a moment with his sharp eyes, which I noticed for the first time seemed to have Coach’s same cheerful glint. Then his face burst into a smile and he laughed. It wasn’t a mocking laugh. It was one of relief and amusement. To my surprise, he let out a bellowing sigh and nodded his head understandingly.
“Distance runners don’t get that much, but here we call it ‘Butt Lock,’” he said, holding out his hand to help me pull myself up and start again. “Welcome to track.”