This excerpt is the third of a five-part essay on running and life, based on my experiences as a short, middle, and long-distance runner. Read the the full essay at Medium.
Part III: Running down a dream.
Flashback: I’m 19 years old, and I run track for my small university known for its engineering and pre-med programs. I’m on an academic scholarship, not an athletic one. But by now, there is no “me” without running. I spend three hours a day stretching, training, icing. I regularly throw up at practice from the adrenaline and exertion. I do 100 situps every night. I have a boyfriend I met on the team last year. (I’ll marry him later.) I have never felt stronger.
Today, I’m in Atlanta for the league championships at the end of my sophomore year. It’s the second day of competition, and I’m about to run in the 200-meter final. It’s hot as hell, and I’m hiding from the sun wherever there’s shade or air conditioning. The first race of any meet can feel a little stiff, but I’ve already run the 100-meter final and the 4×100-meter relay today. Going into the 200 meters, I feel loose and relaxed.
In the short sprints, every hundredth of a second matters. In my 100-meter final this morning, I tied for fifth place. One hundredth faster would have put me in fourth, one place shy of a medal. For sprinters like me who are as familiar with their top speed as with the sound of their own voice, those hundredths of a second are mostly gained and lost at the starting line, in the efficiency with which you explode out of the blocks (without a false start) and then how quickly you can establish your optimal pace. You can’t pop immediately into your upright posture. For the first few strides, you’ll get farther, faster, if you give in to that initial horizontal momentum that keeps your head low. It gets more complicated in the 200 meters because you can’t run straight; you need to find the curved inside lane line ASAP and hug it tight.
In this 200-meter final, the heat sheet shows my name in lane seven, based on my qualifying time. Most people think the outer lanes are worse because you can’t see who’s actually ahead of you until you get to the straightaway. But I don’t mind: Fear makes me run faster. (So does anger. Don’t ask me how I know.) And as it happens, my nemesis, Valerie, is in lane eight today; she must have held back in the semis. When it’s time to get in our lanes, I start the work of visualizing how I’ll get past her.
But the adrenaline coursing through my body is distracting, and my stomach is turning over and over. The minutes before a race have always tortured me. I was the fastest girl in my high school; now I’m the fastest woman at my college. But I still can’t shake that suspicion that people think I’m not supposed to be here, that there’s something wrong with the picture when I step up to the starting line. Leaving that aside, I’m now running in the last meet of the season, the last chance until next year to make my hard work count for something. I see my teammates in the stands along the straightaway. I close my eyes. I never pray, except at starting lines. I form a plea to just let it be ok when the race is over. I don’t really know what I mean by those words; they’re just what my soul has chosen, in that moment, to whisper into the universe, which feels like it’s closing in on me.
“Set!” Head down. Strong arms. Hug the line. Get Valerie.
My start is perfect. I fly around the curve, barely feeling the effort, barely feeling the ground beneath my feet. I catch Valerie before the straightaway and forget about her; the only thing in my brain now is the closing distance between me and the finish line. The distance disappears.
My time is a personal best. I’m not even tired. That’s good news to my 4×400-meter relay teammates, who are getting ready for the very last race of the meet. When the time comes, I run my personal best 400-meter leg, handing our anchor runner the baton in first place. We set a school record.
As the season ends, I revel in how well prepared I’ll be to run even faster next year. If I could run that 200-meter time without getting tired, can’t I go even faster? My best 100 meters was in high school; that record is due to be broken. Our relay anchor was running on an injury; next year she’ll be healthy and we’ll go to nationals.
But I will never run that fast again.
* * *
Racing warps your perspective. You don’t see where you’ve been or who you’ve left in your dust. You see only the course ahead, and who’s still in front of you.
I spent my junior year watching the parts of my life that I loved most from a brutal distance. My boyfriend moved away for graduate school; most days, our long-distance relationship left me feeling like my life had a hole in it. On a freezing March Saturday with snow in the forecast, I pulled my hamstring in the first outdoor 100-meter dash of the year. My season was over as soon as it started. At the championship meet that year, I was in the stands when Valerie won the 200 meter dash, cutting a full second off the time she’d run when she lost to me the year before. My 4×400-meter team trained my replacement, set a new school record, and trained for nationals without me.
My senior year was only a lukewarm improvement. My boyfriend and I briefly broke up, then spent months piecing our relationship back together. As the indoor track season got underway, I was focused on figuring out what I’d do after college. I didn’t get another season-ending injury, but my quadricep felt strained and vulnerable all year, always keeping me at about 90 percent of my top speed. My times were decent, but stagnant. At the league championship, the last meet of my career, I thought our 4×100-meter relay might have a chance to medal. But the handoff between our second and third runners went awry, leaving me to barrel gamely down the home stretch in last place.
When I stepped to the line for the last time to anchor our 4×400-meter relay, I felt broken. As had become my habit at the start of most races, I whispered to God, or the goddesses, or the universe, or whatever: “Please just let it be ok.” Years later, when I realized that I had been running mainly against myself this whole time, I finally understood the meaning of my vague prayer: Please let me feel the satisfaction, the fulfillment, the joy of this adventure when it’s over, no matter what happens. I took the baton. We finished in the middle of the pack. Back in my apartment that night, I had nothing but grief.
I’d spent more than eight years trying to run down that next hundredth of a second. But the chase was over.
Lesson three: All things end. The hardest goodbyes overwhelm whatever dignity and grace you possess; you die a little. Let yourself mourn, even if you never really stop.