Mary vs the fear of falling

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I’m deathly, gut-wrenchingly afraid of falling.

Coach knows this.

He also knows that I like a good challenge, which is why, on a golden day last week, he called me over to work with the hurdlers at track practice.

“Warm up with these guys today,” he told me in his deep, rich voice that always seems to be laced simultaneously with layers of amusement, preoccupation and expectation.

Coach is the predominate reason I found myself on the track team this semester. And even though I got to know him well when I ran cross country, I’m discovering quickly that he is a different beast during track season. When it’s time for play, he leads the charge. But when it’s time to work, you don’t mess around with Coach.

At the end of the soft red track, nestled on the outer curve of the bend, a heap of hurdles were stacked on the grass.

It had been raining – you all remember the deluge, right? So the grass was green, and the mountains across Otay Lake were gorgeously carpeted in pear-colored sprigs. The sky was blue, the lapping waves on the surface of the lake were silver, the breeze was clear and golden. What a day to be outside.

Our team has been training at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista since our own track was ripped up and turned into a dirt path over Christmas break.

I’m not complaining. This place is gorgeous. The equipment is top-notch and we always see Olympic or professional athletes from other parts of the country, or other parts of the world, practicing alongside us. Already I know I will never forget this for as long as I live.

“C’mere, Mary,” said Daniel, the very tall, very friendly guy who first taught me how to run a three-hundred without dying from butt-lock. “I’ll show you how to get set up for the hurdle stretch.”

He helped me shimmy the hurdles around and lift my leg up and over them.

Some of the other guys jumped in and added that I should keep my toes pointed up, or keep my knee pulled in tighter. Janet, my friend from cross country season, just gave me looks now and again to correct my form or attitude. With just the nod or shake of her head, that girl could change the tides of the ocean. She can also hurdle like nobody’s business.

Eventually, after my make-shift lesson in stretching and warming up, Coach meandered back in our direction, his great shadow stretching long and wide.

“Are you all about ready?” he asked, swaggering over from the middle of the field where he had been talking with the jump coach, the layer of preoccupation casually at the command deck of his voice. “Do four 300’s with the last three hurdles.”

“Not you,” Coach said to me, not even looking down. His eyes were still assessing my companions, all lanky-limbed and agile, as they made their way towards their lanes. “Go set up a hurdle down there. Take the top off. We’ll practice.”

I scampered away and quickly followed directions, a tiny knot beginning to form from the threads of my stomach. How was I supposed to actually jump over one of these things?

From the middle of the field, at the end of the jump zone, I had a clear view of everything. Everything from the pole vaulters at the bottom corner of the field to the sprinters practicing in their starting blocks. All around me was a whir of people, activity and sunshine.

Coach doesn’t stay in one sport during practice. Not ever. He watches the sprinters, keeps tabs on the hurdlers, talks with the distance coaches, and makes the long walk over to the throwers in the other field. And just when you might think he’s not paying attention, you can hear him bellow across the track, calling you by name, to tell you to dorsi flex or open your stride.

By the time he finally made his way back to me, my hurdle was set up and ready to go. Frankly, it was doing a lot better than I was. I was a nervous, jittery wreck.

Did I mention that I’m scared of falling?

Coach walked over to one side of the dismantled hurdle, top barely a foot from the ground, and said, “Go ahead, jump.”

And I did. Piece of cake.

He raised the top slightly and we repeated the process. Each time, he gave me a new instruction to follow – knees up, lean forward, use momentum. Each time I had to shake myself off and mentally give my face a little slap before sizing myself up before the baby hurdle.

A few yards away, Janet and Daniel were whizzing past, jumping over actual hurdles. I watched in awe. They made it look so easy, graceful even.

When my baby hurdle had grown to racing height and I had successfully gotten over twice, Coach said, “Alright, now go join them.”

I gulped. The hurdlers were running three hundred meters and then leaping at full-speed over literal obstacles in their path and, miraculously, not dying. I had not expected to get thrown in with the big dogs so soon.

But you don’t mess with Coach, and worse than angering him is disappointing him, so I picked up my feet and found the starting line just beyond the vaulters.

“You got this, Mary,” Daniel said with his ever-reassuring chuckle. “This is easy.”

There was nothing to do but go for it.

Red rubber track slid away beneath my shoes as I gathered speed down the first hundred meters. The second hundred meters makes up the bend in the track and then, then come the hurdles.

Something happens when you jump a hurdle.

When you run, the world rushes by in a blur of color and muffled sounds. But the second you leap into the air, your body slows down just enough for the world to look noticeably still. Objects in your peripheral vision become clear and sounds land crisply in your ears until your feet touch back down and you shoot off again. For a second, just one second, at the crest of that hurdle, it feels like time stops.

At least it did the first time I made it over. And it was a miracle I made it over that hurdle at all. I hit the next two and basically body slammed the last one.

A few more tries running around the track left me more out of breath, my shins beginning to splinter from the pounding, and the hurdles still an elusive foe.

Sometimes, I would get all the way up to a hurdle and then just stop, unable to make myself jump over it. My whole body would jerk to a halt or rear up backwards like a skittish horse. There was, unfortunately, a fair amount of yelping and shrieking involved in all of this as my life flashed before my eyes at each approach.

“Mary,” Coach called from the side of the field. “You have to make it over the hurdle.”

“Yes, Coach,” I said, smiling dumbly as my shin splints began a new chorus of screams.

On the walk back to the starting line, I ran into one of the hurdle boys. He stopped me for a moment.

“The hurdle, Mary” he said, “it’s all in your head. We’re all scared of it. But you have to trust your gut.” He pointed to his head, “You have to beat it up here first.”

I know quite a lot about how much some battles are fought in the mind. All of last semester, the cross country team trained on hills. I can get up a hill just fine, it’s the coming back down. It’s the staring down a long drop that rushes at your face as your tired body plunges seemingly toward the earth. It’s that fear of falling. There were some days where I would sweat my way up a hill just to get stuck at the top, heart pounding, mind screaming, throat tightening into unreasonable sobs. I knew I wasn’t going to fall down those hills. No one else had. But there was some invisible hand holding me back, pressing my mind into the dust, leaving me weak and shaking.

But I got over it. After a whole season of fighting that hand, I finally won. Now I run down hills, not because I’m no longer afraid of falling, but because I am stronger than it.

At the end of last season, when Coach asked what I wanted to do for track, in my mind I thought, anything but hurdles. Because even the thought of hurdles gave me that same heart-pounding, mind-numbing ache.

But I like a challenge, and Coach knows this. So when I asked if I could do the 400 hurdles, he said “Okay” without a single note of preoccupation or amusement. It was all expectation. Expectation that I would push myself, live up to my commitment to the team. He expected that I would learn how to jump a hurdle. And you don’t mess with Coach.

I knelt at the line, gave myself one last big pep talk, and shoved off. But as I rounded the bend, I was suddenly smacked with the view of a bare track. The hurdles were gone!

“Coach!” I yelled, continuing to run, though somewhat flailingly without a target hurdle to jump.

“Hey!” Coach shouted, amusement and expectation in his voice both battling for the upper hand. “Where are my hurdles at? Where’d you guys put the hurdles? She’s still got to get over them!”

The Papa Bear chuckle in his voice caused a string of giggles to erupt from the side of the field as the team scrambled to put the track back together.

I was ushered back to the start where I had to regive myself the “just do it” pep talk before beginning.

At this point, most of the team, the jumpers and sprinters, had completed their workouts and the commotion had caused a fair number of them to criss-cross over to our side of the track. I could hear them cheering me on as I lifted off and rushed toward the first hurdle. But Coach’s voice, now determined and expectant, was the only one I listened to.

“Faster,” I could hear Coach say. “Get those knees up or you aren’t going to make it.”

“Lean in, Mary!”

“Control your arms!”

“Dorsi flex!”

My mind tried to grasp what he was saying, but literally none of it processed. I had one thought and one alone: don’t trip over the hurdle. Don’t fall.

In a blue and white flash, the first hurdle came and went beneath the current of movement I had created and I barely noticed it. The second one clipped my knee, but I crossed it as well, losing my balance for just a moment before pulling myself toward the last obstacle.

By this point, the team down by the last hurdle was just as intensely drawn into the trek as I was. I could hear them even in the faintness of the rushing track and the roaring road beneath me. But the only sound I listened to was my own little voice, a voice that is growing stronger, the same one that begged me to just pluck up and run down all those hills last semester.

Just get over the hurdle, Mary. Please, just get over the hurdle.

And I did.

It was truly something else. Once my toes were off the ground, it felt like they belonged in the air. That golden sunshine seemed to pave a road for my feet and in the split second that I found myself crowning the hurdle, I felt like I had wings.

It wasn’t a technically beautiful jump, and Coach was the first to say it wasn’t perfect, but perfection will be a lesson for tomorrow.

That day, I was content just to walk off the field a hurdler, knowing it wouldn’t matter that I was afraid of falling now that I knew what it felt like to fly.

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