It’s dark and chilly when I shove my heavy track bag into the back seat and pull out of the drive. Coach isn’t kidding when he say’s he’ll leave you behind if you show up late, and I still have to pick up a teammate.
Kae lives close and we’ve been carpooling for our early morning meets. After several reminder texts, I still haven’t received a confirmation that he is up and awake and ready to go, which is pretty distressing, but I roll with it. For the first time all semester, I’m actually on time, so that’s put me in an insatiably good mood.
The sky is still wrapped in a dark blue blanket of early morning when I pull up outside Kae’s house. I wait a moment, letting the half-a-pancake I hurriedly ate for breakfast roll over in my stomach.
The porch door opens and Kae comes out shirtless and carrying a bundle of blankets, track uniform spilling off the top of the pile in his arms.
“Give me a moment,” he says with a smile, racing back inside. When he comes back out, still shirtless, he’s carrying a pot of chicken, beans and rice and a handful of incense sticks.
“Okay,” he says, “I’m ready.”
I look at him, mouth agape, shock robbing curiosity of its chance to speak.
It’s going to be quite a day.
By the time we crest the hill and wind into the college parking lot, the sun has pulled away the covers of night, steeping the sky in brilliant shades of pink and orange.
Our teammates are arriving alongside us. Several laugh out loud when they see Kae get out of my car, half-dressed and eating chicken and beans.
“And rice,” he tells us.
Serina, the captain of the women’s field team, grabs a set of keys for the shed and sets out for the javelin poles. After stowing my bag onto the charter bus grumbling in the parking lot, I follow her.
“We need a table,” I say. “Coach Lynette wants something to put the food on.”
“There should be one in the shed,” she replies.
We rummage around looking for equipment and the alleged table, finally finding it covered in cobwebs behind the old barbeque.
Trunk open and windows down, with javelins and the rusty table spilling out of the car from every angle, we drive back to where the charter bus is waiting for us, Coach standing just outside the door.
“Got it all?” he asks.
This is my second track meet ever. It is going to be a much bigger one than the last and I’m entered in two events, not just one. Our destination: Cal State LA.
I sort of sleep on the way up and when the bus finally rumbles to a stop, I feel drowsy and achy. I am currently rocking three injuries: shin splints, a pulled quad, and an old hamstring thing that resurrects itself every few months when it feels like my life is getting too simple. The bus ride has done nothing for any of my maladies and I fall down the steps onto the sidewalk feeling rather beaten.
The team meanders through the campus, past the track and onto the baseball field where the check-in and staging takes places. Tents have been set up around the perimeter of the field and athletes are warming up around the diamond. At the bottom of a blue horizon are snow capped mountains, framed by palm trees. The breeze is cool and the sun is warm. It’s a beautiful day in California.
My first race is not until noon. It’s only nine.
We locate the women’s restrooms, spend twenty minutes tracking down milk because Coach brought two boxes of dry cereal, break the rusty table and duct tape it back together, and walk the circumference of the very large track field and its stands which are already filling up with spectators. Janet offers to braid my hair. I agree readily.
“You take care of her today,” Coach tells me, pointing to Janet. “You make sure she pushes through these hurdles.”
I can’t tell if he’s being sarcastic because we all know that Janet is the mother in this situation. She’s the women’s team captain, a hurdle monster, and my personal stay for emotional and mental support.
“We’ll take care of each other,” I promise Coach.
When he leaves, I look at Janet.
“No,” she answers with a smile.
“Me neither,” I say. “I’m beginning to remember how painful the 400 is. Real, physical pain, Janet.”
“I know,” she says with an understanding grin. “We all know. If you don’t feel pain, you’re not running it right. It’s just part of track.”
Noon rolls around quickly enough and I find myself warming up around the baseball diamond with athletes from colleges and universities all across Southern California. It’s intimidating. I feel like a tadpole in a pond full of frogs with really big legs.
From the staging area, we are escorted onto the field. I’m in heat five and I’m freaking out.
I have never run a flat race before. In fact, it’s been weeks since I even practiced the 400. A quarter of a mile is a long way to sprint, even if it is just one lap around the track.
Agustin is standing behind the fence looking out over the field. I walk over to him after the gun sends off the third heat.
“I’m so nervous, Auggie,” I say. He and I were captains of the cross country team last semester. He is different now. More light-hearted. Being just one of the team has made him more laid-back, but I still lean on him when I need some captain-y advice. He’s still got the good stuff.
“Remember,” he tells me, “it’s okay to come in last. Just make sure you look good when you cross the finish line. Keep your form, keep your technique.”
I laugh. To keep form you need to have it. I run a bit like a drunken sailor.
An eternity of very short seconds later, I’m curling into my starting blocks, waiting for a gunshot I hope would never come.
How many times had I run this race in my head this week? Dozens, at least. Only in every quiet moment of my mind. Push into the curve. Maintain along the straight-away. You’ll feel tired at 250, but so will everyone else – keep going. Hug the bend. Sprint the ending. Finish. Dear goodness, please finish this race.
There was the gunshot. The rest is a blur. My most vivid memory of that race, and it’s not very clear, is the distinct feeling of my quads seizing up during the last hundred meters.
I cross that white line and nearly faint.
Corey comes over, wraps his arm under my shoulders and helps me off the field, back to our tent.
“You did great,” he promises me. “Even Coach said so.”
“What was my time?” I ask.
I moan. I was shooting for seventy.
At the tent, I can’t get my heart rate down. My breathing is heavy and my body seems to be revolting against me.
“Do a cool down run,” says Janet.
I can barely stand, but I pick myself up and jog lightly along the outfield till I reach first base. Then, isolating myself to a corner near the mesh fence, I plop myself resolutely in the dirt.
My breath slows and my vision becomes hazy as shadowy figures jog past me on their course around the baseball field.
Why am I doing this? I ask myself. It’s a good question. One I have been avoiding for a while. I am no good at track, it would seem. It isn’t a career for me, or even a way to secure a scholarship. It’s just something I’m doing. Something I’m strangely addicted to. But why?
I’m not here because I’m overly competitive, as some have suggested. I don’t tend to do things I’m bad at. Just ask anyone who’s tried to get me to play volleyball. If I was just here to win, I’d have walked away several injuries ago.
And I’m not here because I don’t know when to quit. No, I’m not a quitter, but even a rational person knows when it’s time to move on. So there must be some rational reason for me staying, right? So what is it?
At the end of cross country season, I told myself I was a better person for having chased impossible dreams. That doesn’t seem to be a good enough answer anymore. How is this making me a better person. What am I really learning here?
Why am I spending so much time and energy on something so painful with so little reward? Yeah, I can understand shedding your blood, sweat and tears if you’re in line for a gold medal. But I’m just trying to drag myself across the finish line. And for what?
“Are you okay?”
Kae is warming up around the diamond and sees me sitting in the dirt on the edge of the field.
“Do you need water?” he asks. I shake my head but he comes back around with a bottle for me anyway.
My second race is at 3:30 and it comes too quickly. I have no energy. I’m still shaken from the ‘open four’ and even getting through the warm-up seems like a challenge. My shin splints are practically singing and my hamstring has joined the chorus. All I want to do is lay down and hibernate for a few months, but I have a race to do. A race with ten ominous hurdles.
Janet walks me to the staging area and we put on our spikes. She’s heat one, I’m heat two.
“I’m ready for this to be over,” she says with a chuckle.
Her heat takes off quickly and here I am again, pacing out my blocks and waiting for the call to stand at our marks. I’m in lane eight.
Lane eight is for the slow kids. It’s also the blind lane because you can’t see where everyone else is on the track until they pass you or you reach the final hundred meters. But I practiced in lane eight all day on Thursday and it feels familial and welcoming. This lane and I have something in common: we’re both kind of on the outside of this whole thing.
Pop. There’s the gun.
Off I go, with all the grace of a driver who’s been pulled over for a sobriety test. Every time I jump a hurdle, I fall a little into the lane next to me. I have zero energy left and I can feel myself slowing down. Immediately, I realize I am never going to beat my time from the last race: 1:31.
But as I round the second bend, I see hurdle seven lying down in the track. Someone knocked it over in the first heat and it was never righted.
Do I jump over it anyway? Will I be disqualified for not having a hurdle?
My pace slows down considerably as I finally decide to hop delicately over the fallen obstacle, but the damage has been done. I am running too slowly to jump the next hurdle, which is standing up as it should be.
My lead leg mostly clears the top but my trail leg decides, in this pivotal moment, that it would much rather do a tango with our hurdle instead. We collide.
Both the hurdle and I come crashing down onto the track, which is still warm from a day in the sun, and my cheek rests gently on the rough, red surface. My knees and hands are burning but I barely feel them. My mind seems to still be racing though my body is pinned beneath a hurdle. All I know is that, for these two seconds, my body is no longer hurling through the air, racing a clock it cannot beat. I’m just chilling on the ground, and it feels pretty good.
The respite is brief. Following a collective gasp from the spectators and fellow athletes around the track, I hear calls to get up, to keep going.
As if I would quit.
I pull myself up and try to pick up enough speed to make it over hurdles nine and ten, which I do, barely.
Later, I my mind would return to those last two hurdles and the complete lack of firepower in my legs and I would think, What kind of spell are you under that you keep coming back to partake in this misery every day?
I sprint wobblingly to the finish where Coach is waiting for me with a grin on his face. As Janet picks me up around the waist and Corey comes over with water, Coach looks into my exhausted face and says, “The first time the hurdle draws blood is your birthmark, everything after that is a battlescar.”
And that’s it. That’s all he says. Now I’m a hurdler.
We go back to the tent and I fall asleep for a while. The rest of the evening passes in din of chatter, trail mix and homework assignments. Eventually, I drag Corey to the stands to watch the men’s 5000. We both agree we’re much happier as mid-distance runners.
I’m still feeling defeated. I’m a little ashamed of how relieved I am that I fell over the hurdle, because I needed those two seconds on the ground, because I’m not sure my body could have kept going, because I was worried my time would be so much worse than last week.
I’m still feeling a little detached from this whole experience, still feeling like I don’t belong, feeling like maybe I’m wasting my time here. Maybe everyone’s right – I’m twenty-five and working two jobs. I’m years behind in getting the degree. Why am I frittering away my time with college athletics. Isn’t it time to grow up?
Corey and I climb down the bleachers and cross the field to the start of the 4×400 relay race. Our girl’s team is a bit sparse. Runners one and two are short-distance sprinters. They don’t run the 400 very often. Runners three and four have already done two big events today and they’re tired.
But there they are, all lined up and ready to go.
It’s the same routine.
On your marks, set, gun shot.
I stand there on the side of the track and watch four young women do something incredible. They run together.
Every blood-bursting second of excruciating effort, they push through with unshakable will. And more than with their individual events, they lay out their spirits here because there is a girl at the end of the lap waiting earnestly for them to pass the baton.
This is teamwork.
Even from the sidelines, I feel myself flying along the track with them and I want so much to be a part of it. I am reminded of why I got into sports reporting years ago, why I feel so strongly that athletics are an important part of our community, why I filled out a request form to join the school’s cross country nine months ago.
This is does make us better people. This turns us into people who are not afraid of pain. This teaches us the irreplaceable value of working together. This inspires us to dream, and then insists that we work to reach those dreams. And if our hopes are disappointed, it teaches us to hold our heads high, walk it off and say, “next time.”
This is whole experience – the pain, the practice, the teamwork, the hopes, the hopes crushed – has made me a fuller person. I can empathize with the human experience in a way I couldn’t before. My perception of people and what drives them has broadened. I have been taken from my high-horse, I have been humbled, I have been broken and rebuilt.
And yet, none of this is why I have stayed in track. We can get life experience anywhere.
I’ve stayed because I love it. For whatever unexplainable reason, I love this.
The grueling three hour practices, the indescribable pain of pushing every muscle to its farthest fiber, the agony of defeat and the alluring promise of a brighter tomorrow, and this team. These people. My coaches and friends.
Maybe it’s a luxury I can’t afford, to spend so much time doing something with no practical impact on where I plan to go in life. But at least I know why I’m here.
When this very special season of my life comes to its early end and I have to say ‘goodbye’ to this team I adore so much, I will hold my head high and find another race to run, another team to love, another impossible dream to chase. Because this is life, the unending search for joy and self-betterment.