confessions of a ragdoll athlete

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow wearyand lose heart.”

Hebrews 12:1-3

javelin

The sad thing is, my season was over before it ever really began. It all started with that stupid hamstring injury I got while doing off-season training on my own in Europe last summer — born out of my enthusiasm to begin something new and my unquenchable desire to be good at it. The story about how I ran myself through Central Europe with starry-eyed dreams of coming home ready to take my place as a cross country champion, or at least a contender, has been told before. But the story doesn’t end with me sitting alone on a hillside in Southern California after the season’s final race, shouldering the immense disappointment of unsalvageable failure.

In fact, if I had known then how much farther my quest for success would take me, and who it would turn me into, I would have taken a much deeper breath that afternoon and braced myself for the longest, most grueling seven months of my entire life.

Coach was the first one to suggest I consider track in the spring. He kept saying, “With those long legs of yours, maybe I’ll stick you in the steeplechase.” At first, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t planning on doing track. Real life beckoned.

But I’m nothing if not extremely competitive and, as I’ve said a thousand times, I compete to win. So when I realized that these silly injuries had robbed me of a proper competitive season in cross country, I decided that perhaps a season of track would be good for me. I needed to do it. I just didn’t feel like I had finished yet.

So, all Christmas I trained with Coach and a handful of dedicated athletes who, like me, were determined to begin the season with one foot already in the blocks. And, just like the summer, I found my holiday season disappearing into a rigorous practice schedule. The day before Christmas Eve and the morning after Christmas itself, I was out on the field with Coach and the gang. (Christmas Eve I spent stuck on the couch because the lactic acid build-up in my thighs was so intense I literally couldn’t move).

And the practices weren’t easy. I’d run myself stiff on the field and then walk over to the weight room, nauseous and weak, and begin lifting. Deadlifts, hang cleans, and other various forms of addictive torture became a regular part of life, as did protein shakes, balanced meals and 64 ounces of water daily(ish).

IMG_20170310_145402When the season officially began in January, I was ready to go. A 59.59 quarter mile, making State Championships — my goals were set, as usual, unachievably high. But I wasn’t worried, because now I was used to pain. I knew I could push past that barrier in my head that said it was too hard. I had mastered the little voice that says it’s okay to quit. I was ready to put in whatever was needed and there was nothing standing between me and that medal podium.

And then it all unraveled.

It started out innocently enough. The deltoid muscle in my ankle tightened one day during the second week of school while I was practicing 650 meter repeats with the distance kids. I couldn’t finish the last few laps and the distance coach sent me to the trainers. During that all-too familiar walk across the parking lot from an uncompleted practice to the trainers, I prayed, God, please don’t let this be like last semester. Please don’t let me spend a whole season injured and on the bench again. I worked so hard all of Christmas break and I really want a chance to win this time.

Screenshot_2017-03-04-23-28-52A few days after the deltoid, I pulled my quad. It only kept me out of practice for a week or so, but I had to wear a sleeve and now I was spending extra time at the trainers before practice to get my ankle wrapped and do rehab on my leg. Moreover, the quad injury forced me to switch lead legs going over the hurdles. It was a death sentence for my season, I just didn’t know it yet.

“Back again?” Dennis and Stacey would ask every time I hobbled in on weak legs with a weak smile. “You’re just a regular humpty-dumpty, aren’t you? We’re just going to have to tape you together entirely one of these days.”

When we began practicing at the Olympic Training Center on a real track, I found myself jumping real hurdles and all the excitement was just a little too much for my right shin, which began a regular habit of lapsing into splintering pain midway through each warm-up. Once the quad injury forced me to lead with the right leg, I found myself careening over hurdles and thudding to the ground on a splintering shin.

So now my stunts at the trainers included taking care of my shins and popping 800 milligrams of ibuprofen before practice to curb the pain and inflammation.

None of this I minded — I loved spending time at the trainers because they are kind, interesting people with super cool, space-agey gadgets that do the most incredible things to help the human body. No, the problem was that I finished work at noon and practice started at one o’clock, which meant I had only an hour to get to school, change for practice and still get a substantive workout at the trainers. So, I was usually late for practice.

But I also had class at three every day, which meant, either I lost time at the front and back end of practice or I was late for class as well.

My level of respect for student athletes has multiplied a hundredfold in the last year. That needs to be said. What these kids are able to balance is amazing.

IMG_20170202_162406I was doing a decent enough job managing the stress of trying to be in four places at once, all things considered. But, even though my times were getting better little by little, I was frustrated that I seemed to be missing out on getting a full practice in. As the realities of being an injured student-athlete who also has to pay bills began to sink in, so did the nagging spirits of doubt. Maybe it’s not true that you can be anything you want to be if you work hard enough. Maybe sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day, or your body just physically does not have what it takes, or the window of possibility has closed already. The more time I spent on a table at the trainers, knowing I was missing warm-ups again, the more keenly I felt my chances at State slipping away. And with our first meet a week away and my quad still wrapped in a sleeve and mounds of tape wound around my ankle, the fear that this season might actually be just as frustrating as the last one tightened its grip.

So then, my prayer changed — God, please just let me compete this year. Even if I don’t win anything, please just let me compete.

And, for reasons that I would question for the next nine weeks, God said, “No.”

Halfway through our second meet of the season, immediately following my 400 meter race — a nerve-wracking thrill of an experience in which I distinctly placed dead last — my shins began their usual song of shrilly-sung misery.

“It’s really bad,” I told a teammate as we laced up for our next event — hurdles.

“Everyone gets shin splints,” she said. “You’ve just got to muscle through it.”

And it’s true. Most of the athletes on the team have complained about shin splints at some point this season. So I put my spikes on and I finished my last race of the day.

Fullscreen capture 5112017 103335 PM.bmpI wish I had known then that it would be my last hurdle race of the season. I wish I could have savored the feeling of soaring into the air, moving forward with purpose and poise, and the rush of my heart as we careened around the track. But I didn’t. I was too busy trying not to come in last place, worrying about whether Coach would be disappointed if I got a bad time.

The next morning I woke up and couldn’t walk. On Monday the trainers told me to get my shin x-rayed and I spent a week doing my workouts in a pool so I wouldn’t be putting weight on my leg. I limped around campus until Friday when the doctor saw me and immediately put me in a boot.

“We’ll check on it again in about two weeks,” he said, giving me the number for a physical therapy place to call. The prescription said, “Twice a week, five weeks.”

Five weeks put us into April and dangerously close to the end of our season.

When I told Coach, he folded his arms and sighed. I think he knew then what he never once said to me: my season was finished.

“Well, what do you want to do?” he asked.

I was quiet for a minute. What did I want to do? I wanted to rewind to the first week of January when I was still hurdling pain-free. I wanted to go back to sprint workouts in December, the heaving and hurting and harried breath. I wanted to run.

“The doctor said I can do javelin if it doesn’t irritate the leg.”

Coach just nodded. “OK,” he said. “But I want you to keep doing your pool workouts.”

I promised I would.

So that was that. Now, I began my mornings extra early, heading to the gym to practice sprints in the pool before work, then hurrying to the trainers before javelin practice, and hitting the gym again in the evenings after class to get an upper body workout in to supplement the javelin routine. And, somehow, I still managed to squeeze in those physical therapy appointments twice a week (my therapist informed me that my shin splints were a reaction to the hamstring injury I had gotten over the summer, which never really healed. Each following injury was, to some extent, a domino effect from that first pulled muscle). My day was planned down to the minute. Heaven forbid I forget to pack a lunch or leave a book at home. I basically lived out of my car. My gym bag was a veritable zombie-apocalypse survival kit.

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Every day was more frustrating than the one before. At first I had hoped that, with the alternative workouts, maybe I’d be able to keep up with everyone else and still have a shot at qualifying for SoCal Championships (I had all but given up on State, even in the unrealistic version of my dreams). I was even practicing static hurdle drills at home, using an intricate jimmy-rigging of my livingroom furniture.

Yes, I understood that the chances of being able to get out of the boot in time for one last race was almost non-existent, but as soon as that thought crept into the back of my tired mind, I pushed it away. I didn’t have the strength to think about the odds. I just needed something to hope for. I needed a reason to not give up. So I hoped for one final, magnificent race.

But as the weeks dragged out miserably and my leg showed little improvement, I stopped hoping for a quality race and just started hoping for a race, any race.

Oh, the conversations I had with God this semester… Questioning, accusing, pleading. All I’ve wanted to do all year was run. Why would He keep refusing such a simple request? Such a little thing in the grand view of the eternal cosmos, wanting to run. Why would He deny me that when I’ve worked so hard? I was hurt, confused, and discouraged. I would drift into the trainers and try to match the cheery smiles of Dennis and Stacey, but by mid-April, my spirits were failing. It didn’t help that the javelin workouts had begun a whole new set of sore, bruised or strained muscles.

“What are we going to do with you?” Stacey would ask with her fix-everything smile.

“I don’t know,” was all I could manage. “I think I’m just unraveling.”

IMG_20170216_145151That was me, emotionally and mentally thread-bare and physically unraveling at the seams. And all the while, I felt like I was drifting away from the team and my teammates. I rarely saw anyone anymore.

I still drove up to meets on the weekends to support everyone. I’d see them in the trainers after a practice. But it wasn’t the same. Even fondly being known as “the girl who’s always injured” by my fellow athletes on campus didn’t make up for the fact that I was missing a second season — my last season.

But every time I was tempted to give up, whenever I felt overwhelmed by the madness, the hopelessness of it all, I would tell myself, “This is just the last curve in the track. This is the 300 meter mark and after this is a straight sprint home. You just gotta keep going.”

So I did.

The week we were preparing for the Conference Championship, Coach asked the throwers to practice with the sprinters at the local high school (it still felt weird, being a thrower and not a runner). I was in and out of the boot that week. My movements were limited, but I could walk and trot as needed. One of the interns at the trainers had taped up my ankle a little too tightly and as I limped onto the track, I knew it was going to be a problem.

I hobbled around for a few minutes before resigning myself to the fact that the tape was just going to have to come off. A teammate tossed me my keys and I sat down on the twenty-yard line and tried to cut the tape away from my ankle with the jagged edge of the metal.

“Mary, what are you doing?” Coach asked from the side of the track where he was surveying the team.

“The tape is too tight,” I answered, trying to keep the frustrated tears from my eyes, gingerly wrestling with my ankle as I watched another practice slip away. Coach does not believe in crying, so I try not to do it in front of him.

Walking over with lanky strides, his large, friendly gait silhouetted in the bright sunshine of the hot spring afternoon, Coach took up a spot on the turf next to me. He spread his legs out into a ‘V’ like a big, twelve-year-old boy and pulled my ankle up onto his knee.

“Here, give me that key,” he said. The gentle lull of his voice was coated in his usual chuckle, amused at my propensity for getting into scrapes, like a cat that always finds itself up a tree.

“How’s the foot coming?” he asked me.

“I have a doctor’s appointment on Wednesday morning,” I said. “I’ll find out then if I’m cleared to run.”

“Wednesday,” he said. “That’s the day of Conference Semifinals.”

“Yes,” I said hesitantly, “But they were all booked up this week — it was the soonest I could see him. And it will be before the races start. It’s a morning appointment.”

Coach didn’t say anything, but I knew I was cutting it close.

For the next few minutes, as Coach tore at the thick fibers of the tape, the world seemed to take a deep breath and I felt the relief. Around us, my teammates were still sprinting in their lanes in flashes of maroon and black. Janet and the hurdlers were racing around the track, bathed in sweat and sunshine, and a part of me yearned to be out there with them. But strangely, part of me was content to just be here, injured as a I was, simply resting in a moment’s pause from my usual hurry of commitments. And what a coach, I thought as I watched him slice away at the ankle wrap, to take the time to sit here and help me with such a menial thing. It was small, but it mattered so much. It made such a difference to me that day to know I wasn’t forgotten.

Whatever emotional respite those few minutes gave me were all that sustained me through the last big trial of my long, long season.

Friday afternoon’s team meeting was moved from 1:20 to eleven o’clock. I rushed over as soon as I got off work, but they were already finished and filing out of the parking lot when I arrived. I found one of the throwers and asked her what I missed.

“Just assignments for conference,” she said. “Coach put you in javelin.”

The breath in my lungs vanished.

“And hurdles? Or the 400?” I asked.

“Well, no,” she said, looking a little confused. “I mean, you’re not cleared yet so he can’t.”

I don’t remember if I said ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ to her. I think I may have just drifted away. I meandered over to the school’s track field where my cross country season began nearly a year ago. Looking out over the lonely grass where I learned how to be a runner, heart aching, I burst into tears.

Weeks and weeks of pool sprints and physical therapy and driving myself crazy trying to keep up with everything, all for nothing. My season was over. My last race had been run.

July’s dreams of being a cross country champion, the early hopes of December and January all seemed ridiculous, vain. All my efforts washed away with one, unforgiving blow — a blow that happened months before I even knew what a hurdle was. Like the invisible gears of a broken clock, closed behind little golden doors, the muscles and bones of my body continued grinding out of place until something finally snapped, and all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put me back together again. At least not in time for my last race.

Sobbing into my hands in the middle of that empty field, I asked one more time, God, why? Why would you bring me into this only to know from the start that you were going to take it all away?

No answer. It was just me and the grass.

I had a few days to calm down before I saw Coach again. He didn’t say anything about my season, so neither did I.

The doctor did clear me to run on Wednesday morning. “Probably not hurdles, but if you were to run a 400, if it was just one race, that would be okay. It might set you back a week or two in the healing process, but I can understand why you would want to, seeing as this is your last season.”

It didn’t make any difference, of course, even with the little slip of paper, all signed and pretty — registrations closed for conference a week ago. But I told Coach anyway when I showed up at conference semifinals that afternoon, and then I got ready to throw javelin at finals on Saturday. By that point, I was just happy to still be in a uniform. Happy that the championships were close enough to home that my parents could finally see me compete. Happy to be out of the boot and walking around on my own two feet. You don’t wish you could win races when you can’t even walk — you just wish you could get up stairs.

The fierce winds that had kept my sails blowing all year had finally died down to a whisper. It was calmer. Quieter. I felt empty, but at least I was at peace.

I threw my final round of javelin and it was decent enough. Nothing special, but I hadn’t been hoping for greatness.

“How’d it go?” Coach asked me as I rounded the corner by the triple jump, a flurry of school colors and officials’ whistles in the backdrop.

“It was okay,” I said. “I got a new PR, but I didn’t make the final round. So that’s it. It’s been a good season.”

“Well,” he said slowly, “Your season may not be over. We need someone to fill in a leg of the 4×400 relay. Were you serious about wanting one last race?”

My heart stopped.

“Coach, are you serious?” I asked, barely enough energy left to even hope for it. “Yes, yes, I’d do anything!”

“I know you would,” he said with a bemused chuckle. “Go talk it over with the girls, they’re warming up now.”

The bounce in my step as I rushed over to the relay girls gave away my enthusiasm.

“You are way too excited for this,” said Jessica as I bounded over to their circle next to the sand pits. The girls were sprawled on the grass in their warm-up suits with their spikes laying next to them.

“This is my last race,” I tried to explain, attempting to contain the smile that had etched across my face. “I’m getting my last race!”

“Have you even done a relay before?” Jessica asked skeptically with a knowing smile. I shook my head.

“Alright, go warm up and then I’ll show you the hand-off,” she ordered, flipping a long braid over her shoulder and giving me a catty grin. I did as she told me to — no one says ‘no’ to Jessica.

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My warm-up was short, we didn’t have a lot of time. Just jogging around the empty baseball field next to the stadium felt amazing. My legs, so long dormant, were delighted to have blood pumping through them again.

Had it really only been eight weeks since the last time I ran? It felt like years.

Jessica and Jennifer showed me how to do the hand-off — that was the part I was really worried about — and then Janet came over with orders from Coach. I was fourth leg, I was the anchor.

“Coach wants us to give her a good lead,” said Janet. The girls all nodded. We haven’t been competitive in the relay all season. In fact, I don’t think we beat a single team all year, so it didn’t really matter who ran which leg, we were going to come in last anyway. Hypothetically.

But Coach had a plan, so we went with it. And I didn’t really care where we placed anymore. I was over the moon just to have spikes on my feet again.

We took our places at the starting line, Janet in her blocks, Jessica waiting behind her at the mark, and Jennifer and I on the sidelines.

The gunshot sounded and Janet took off like a rocket. Janet is fast. She ate that first lap like a piece of cake. Jessica successfully took the baton and widened the lead, which was quite a feat considering she’s a short sprinter normally. Jennifer was still issuing me instructions when she took her place on the starting line, seconds before grasping the metal rod from Jessica’s steady fingers and making the loop herself. Jennifer is a 400 runner, so the sizeable lead we had grew into something magnificent and suddenly I found myself standing at the starting line of my first race in eight weeks with a tiny possibility of actually winning.

But I wasn’t thinking about that. I wasn’t thinking about the fifty-meter lead the girls had just earned us. I wasn’t even thinking about how painful running this race usually is. In fact, all my nerves were gone. I was cool and calm and ready. As soon as Jennifer slid that metallic-red baton into my hand and I felt it firmly beneath my grip, the world slipped away.

My feet took off beneath me, fierce golden breezes beat down on my back like wings, and I was flying. For the first time in two months, I was racing down a track again, hugging the bend and plunging into the straightaway.

I laughed out loud — mid-race, I actually laughed out loud, it felt so good to run again. Joy and adrenaline shot through my body as I dove into the 200 meter stretch. I could hear Coach from the sidelines telling me to breathe, the same thing he’s been saying to me since September.

Everything else was clockwork. Like riding a bike, it just all came back. Dorsiflex, open stride, shoulders down, elbows at ninety degrees.

Even headed into that dreaded 300 meter mark, I felt good. If there was pain, it didn’t register. My mind was too full of stars and sunshine and freedom.

Somewhere in the stands, I could hear Corey shouting that the girl behind me was catching up, and as I turned the last curve and headed into the final stretch home, the roar from the stands told me my place was in contention.

My opponent, quickly closing on me, had won the open four earlier in the day. She was a bullet, and now she was shooting past me. Seventy-five meters from the finish, I felt my legs start to cramp. I still had air in my lungs and energy in my body, but eight weeks of not practicing on a track finally caught up to me. Every step was like running waist-deep in mud, until finally, fifty yards from the finish line, my legs locked beneath me and I toppled to the ground.

The bullet-girl whizzed past and I could feel my muscles seizing. For a minute, I wasn’t actually sure if I was going to be able to stand up again.

Lucky for me, I have had an entire year of practice when it comes to falling down, so I know first hand that you can always find a way back up.

Heaving myself back onto my feet, I shot a quick look over my shoulder to see where the third runner was. She was nowhere in my peripherals, but I wasn’t taking any chances. With every last ounce of stamina I possessed, I pulled myself across that finish line and into the arms of my teammates before sinking to the ground once more as my legs gave out beneath me.

Within seconds, half the team had filed onto the field to help lift me up and carry me off the track. All these kids I hadn’t seen in weeks were there hugging me and congratulating me on what they considered to be quite the finish.

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“I’m sorry for losing the lead,” I kept saying, but Jessica would shush me.

“But you got back up! You finished!”

Janet made me lay down so she could stretch the butt-lock out of my glutes and one of the guys brought my shoes over so I could change out of my spikes. I tried standing but felt the overwhelming urge to puke, so I stayed bent at the waist for several minutes, trying to let my body calm down. My elbow burned from where the track had shaved off several layers of skin during my spill.

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The next thing I knew, amid the blur of congratulations and the ever-present urge to vomit, I was being pulled onto a medal podium.

“What’s this for?” I asked, head still spinning slightly.

“We got second place,” Jennifer told me as they put medals around our necks.

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They took our picture and I had to use most of my remaining concentration to not fall off the podium. It wasn’t until we were back on the grass that I looked at the medal.

“Do we get to keep these?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Jennifer excitedly, her big, beautiful smile dressing her face with glee. “You get that for running. We got second place, Mary!”

That’s when I lost it. After all that, after my expectations and aspirations of winning had long been put to rest, here was the long-awaited medal in my hand.

All year long, God has closed every single door I’ve tried to walk through. From that first hamstring fiasco in July that cut my off-season workouts short, to each of the subsequent injuries that prevented me from practicing or competing, every time I thought I found a way to do it on my own, God said, ‘no.’

It wasn’t until I had been humbled to the point of surrender, stripped of my pride and steadied in the contentment of His will that he finally said, ‘yes.’ And then I understood that this medal and this race were His and not mine.

Suddenly, something much greater clicked into place. A point of doctrine that I learned as a little girl in Sunday school, a functioning of my faith that I have always understood technically but never before had context to: that we obey God because we love him. As Christians, God calls us to lives of sacrifice and obedience, in big ways and in small. It is a long, difficult race to run, but there is no fear of failure because we already know that a victor’s crown awaits us at the end — not because of our good works, but because of His. And so the race we run as Christians is not one of dread and misery, it is a race in which we set forth with joy and perseverence. Joy, because we know our pardon is sealed and the race is already won — perseverence, because we want to live up to the high calling given to us by our God. 

And so too, my hopes for track were no longer those of personal ambition. I was running a race I knew was a gift to me, a race I didn’t necessarily deserve to be in. Coach had given me the chance to run one last time, so I ran not just with delight for the privilege to participate, but also with determination to redeem the honor Coach had won for me in hopes that he would be delighted too. And those 70 seconds might just be forever emblazoned in my heart, like words of promise in stone. 

We could have come in last place. I could have tripped every three meters of that track and I still would have been happy at the finish line. How much my attitude has changed since November. How humbling this season has been for me, to learn that everything I am able to do, each moment of my day and effort of my life is a gift from God. 

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The joy of the LORD is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Suddenly, on that golden field, surrounded by people I love — people whose love I’m not sure I even deserve — all those closed doors made sense. God had not forgotten me. How amazing that, in the grand scheme of the cosmos, he would take the time to carefully walk me through this year — not just shutting doors, but providing people to help me bear up beneath the weight of discouragement and despair. Friends who took time out of their practices to teach me how to throw, trainers who patiently and cheerfully treated my every injury, a Coach who never, not once gave up on me.

If this year as a college athlete has taught me anything, it is, firstly, the peace and fulfillment which comes from embarking on life’s grand journey with steadfast joy. Secondly, it has reaffirmed the absolute certainty of God’s loving hand in my life. Like a toymaker carefully stitching together a doll, not leaving out a single button or seam, or a busy coach who takes time to tend to the very least of his athletes, He will not forget me.

 

Stockholm Syndrom and the quest for self-betterment

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.

Nerves.

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.

Yup.

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.

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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.

“You ready?”

“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.

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Corey, that dear soul.

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.

“Seventy-four seconds.”

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.

Me too.

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.

I panic.

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.

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Napping, stretching, eating, doing homework. #tracklife

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.

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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.

 

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.