Running with America

July 13, 2008
By McKenzie Hightower, Fort Worth, TX

It had been a normal day, maybe a little worse than usual, but normal enough. I had gone to school and then on to my job of cleaning the locker room of the Football/Track players. I was unusually excited that day because it was track team tryouts. I did a little less cleaning then I normally did and walked out into the hot Texas sun. I live in Lone Tree, Texas about 100 miles from Dallas. It is always hot. The last time it rained, I was about ten, and that was five years ago.
I was giddy with excitement. I wanted this so bad. I walked out onto the track in my black shorts and my old sneakers. I joined the line of people warming up and it all started; well at least for the rest of them. The coach walked up to me, and said that I had to have new track shoes to participate. He said it was a new safety rule after someone got hurt last year. I looked down at my old beat up sneaks and turned red in embarrassment.
I couldn’t afford new shoes, or new clothes, or even my lunch sometimes. I didn’t mind that much because that was the way it had always been. However, I wanted to try out so bad, it stung a little. I mumbled something along the lines of I understood and walked away. I grabbed my school bag from my locker and ran the five blocks I had to go home. I could hear my parents screaming all the way down the block. They were having another argument as always, probably about bills, or my dad losing his job. I didn’t really feel like getting in the middle of it, so I grabbed the paper that was still on the lawn and walked in the back door. I went into the room that I shared with my little brother Ty.

“Their fighting again Cass,” he said as if I didn’t know. I set my school bag down and went to sit on his bed.

“Ty, you know they fight a lot. You can’t do anything about it, believe me I have tried. They will stop…eventually, now get your homework out and start. Has Mom started dinner?”
He looked at me and rolled his eyes. He didn’t have to even speak to tell me that my question had been dumb. I laughed to myself and opened the paper I had picked up. That’s when I saw it, the ad that started it all.
Michael Johnson hosting all-star track camp!
Michael Johnson is hosting a track camp in Dallas, Texas to help pick the junior Olympic finalists. All Finalists will receive a fully expensed paid for trip to the Junior Olympics to run against the top finalists from other countries. The camp starts at 9:30 a.m. Friday, June 22 and goes to Sunday, June 24. It will be held at North Dallas High School. The Junior Olympics follow right after the tryouts and will be in Los Angeles. Mr. Johnson will be there the first day to watch all participants. This is truly a once in a life time opportunity.
“Ty! Ty! Look at this! O my gosh! Michael Johnson is hosting a camp! I have to go! Look! Look!” I was bouncing up and down on the bed with excitement. Ty glanced up from his homework and looked at the ad.
“Only thing I see is it being far away in the city, and why would you want to go to a track camp? Can you even run?” I looked at him with indignity.
“I can run.” I looked back down at the ad. Let’s see June 22 that was three days from now. I ran to the closet to open my small wooden box that held my savings. I thought I had just enough. I opened it to find it empty.
I stormed out of the room and barged into Mom and Dads room. I was shaking all over. They stopped their bickering and looked at me.
“Go away Cassidy. We are talking.” My mom didn’t even notice I was mad.
“No, I will not go away! You stole my money, I worked for that, you can’t just take it! Use your own money to pay the stupid bills. You aren’t supposed to use mine! Oh wait, you don’t have any money, because dad lost his job, and you aren’t talking, you’re screaming! I can hear you all the way down the block!”
I didn’t regret my words. I meant every last one of them. I don’t think I have blown up like this since seventh grade. I could feel the eyes of Ty on me from our bedroom door. I hated to do this in front of him, but I was just so mad. My mom had been staring at me for some time now, so my Dad answered.
“You’re grounded. Go to your room now.” They didn’t even care what was wrong with me.
“Cassidy we needed that money to pay the family bills. We only let you start working so it would help the family. Don’t be selfish, your money is our money as long as you live in this house.”
Mom had that same blank look on her face even as she spoke.
“Now go.”
I stepped out of the room to at least hear silence for once. Ty was still peeking his head out the door.
“Cass are you ok?” He seemed kind of scared.
“Yes I’m fine.” I said shortly.
I walked past him into the small kitchen. The fridge was empty, so it was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches again. I whipped up two sandwiches and headed back into my room. Ty was back doing his homework when I came in. He glanced up then quickly went back to reading his science homework. I set down his sandwich and finished my homework, then I put the dirty dishes in the sink and headed to bed. When I had put Ty to bed and laid down in my own, bed I was finally alone with my thoughts.
I wanted so bad to go to the camp, but it all seemed hopeless. I tossed and turned in bed the whole night. The phrase that mom had said came to my mind so many times. Don’t be selfish Cassidy. I’m not being selfish just because I want to keep my own money. I want to just do what I love, and I love to run. I made a decision that night that I was going to go to the camp. It’s what I really wanted. I went to sleep when I had finally made up my mind.
I woke up in the morning and I was shaking off sleep when I realized that I had to go today if I was serious about doing this. I was, so I got up and waited until Mom had left for work and dad was good and asleep in his chair. I packed all my clothes and some sandwiches for snacks. I quietly walked into Mom and Dads room and rummaged through Moms sock drawer to find fifty dollars in cash. I didn’t feel guilty at all taking it. They had stolen mine. I wrote a note to Ty and was about to walk out the door when Ty walked into the room.
“Uh…Ty…I was uh….I was going to tell you.”
I felt guilty now. How could I just leave Ty to stay by himself?
“Don’t worry about it Cass. I had a feeling you would go to the camp. I also had a feeling that you were going to leave recklessly and not have a clue how to get all the way to Dallas, so I got up early and used my money to buy you a ticket on the train.”
I stood there for a second and stared at my brother. I can’t believe he did this, I didn’t even know he had enough money for a train ticket. I gave him a big hug, and slipped the ticket into my backpack.
“Ty, thank you so much, I was going recklessly away, but thanks to you I have a plan now. I’ll be back in six days, I hope.”
I gave him one last hug and walked out the back door.
The train station was six miles away, and the ticket said that I had to be there at 3:00. I would have to hurry to catch the train. I looked down at my old sneakers and smiled, I could run all I wanted to the train station.
About four miles into my run I got tired, so I walked for a bit. As I walked I started to work out the finer details in my plan. I could stay in the train station for most of the day after I got to Dallas, and then get a cheap hotel room for a day. Then just hang out there until the tryouts began.

What if I did all this and I wasn’t even close to being chosen? Then I would have wasted Ty’s and my family’s money. Then a quick flare of determination took hold of me and told me that I WOULD make it. There was still a worm of doubt deep down, but instead of focusing on it I started running again and all my thoughts melted away until I finally stopped at the train station.
I calmly sat down on a seat near where my ticket said the train was leaving and ate a sandwich I had brought. By the time I had eaten and had browsed through a nearby magazine store, my train was there. I ran up to the line of people giving the conductor their tickets and hurriedly boarded the train.
The train ride was going to be about an hour and a half long. So I took out an old book that I had never returned to the library called The Giver. I had read it so many times but its story still astounded me. I was half way into the six chapter when our train screeched to a stop.
I walked off the train looking for a coffee shop. I could just wait in there for a while. When I finally found one, I asked for the yellow pages. With the thick yellow pages in my hand, I went straight to the lady that worked at the cash register to see what motel was close to North Dallas High School. She pointed at a Super 8 about four blocks away from the school. I ripped out the page with the Super 8 on it out and walked out the door.
Luckily, the school and the motel were near by so I could just walk there. I walked by the high school on my way to the motel. I went up to the gate that had the track beyond it and took a quick peek. The track looked almost brand new and the perfectly mowed grass was so different from our ten year old track. My eyes followed the thick white lines that went around the track and I felt something that compelled me to go; go and run around the clean red surface of the track, but I didn’t; I kept on walking and saved my energy for the next day.
After about ten minutes of walking, I got to the motel. I walked up to the front desk of the motel and asked the gum chewing manager for a room. I set the fifty dollars down in front of him and waited a little impatiently for my room key.
I turned on the TV and set my bag down when I got to my tiny room. It had a twin bed, a loud radiator, and a small bathroom. I kept my clothes on and exhausted laid down on the bed. Finally, being in Dallas made me realize that I had been hasty in making my decision to go. Who would take care of Ty? It was only for three days but eventually my parents would wonder why I wasn’t there to take care of Ty. All my doubts began to surface as I closed my eyes. I didn’t have any money, no way back home, and a seemingly foolish hope to get chosen out of hundreds of runners. I don’t know when it happened, but I finally fell into a dreamless sleep.
I awoke with a start not knowing where I was. Then the reason I was here came crashing back to me. I sat up and looked at the clock. It was 9:15. I sat there for a second not believing that I only had fifteen minutes to get to North Dallas High School. Then I snapped out of the spell like someone had poured a gallon of cold water on me. I grabbed my tennis shoes and ran out the door with yesterday’s shorts and t-shirt on. I ran down the stairs of the motel as I put my hair up and bolted outside. I slipped on my shoes and started running to the school.
By the time I could see the school, all the people there were broken up in groups warming up. I walked up to a man in a yellow shirt behind the check in desk and asked where I should go. He pinned the number 138 on me and said that I should go to line four and start warming up. As I started to walk to line four, I took the chance to look around. Everyone I saw had expensive running shoes on and under armor on in the chilly morning air. I pushed away the thought of me being cold and started warming up.
Finally a short, stocky man called everyone to the center of the track. He paused a minute and then said,
“Welcome everyone! Thank you all for coming! According to the check in sheet we have 15 young people here! That means that we will break you all up into groups of 8! The boys will go first then the girls! When it is your turn, you will run a 200 meter race! At the end of these races the top 16 will race each other! Now, everyone stay where they are to find out what group you are in! Ok, let’s start. Will numbers 1 through 8 please proceed to the stating line!”
There was a mad scramble after that to get good spots to see everyone else run. I didn’t care about the other people; I went to the entrance and leaned on the gate outside the track. I had a long time to wait, so why not do it in peace and quiet? I closed my eyes and let my mind drift.
I snapped my eyes open to see a tall figure standing in the now glaring sun. I scrambled up and gave the man a glare.
“Can I help you?” I didn’t like waking up to a strange man near me.
The man laughed and gave me a kind look.
“You just seem to be the only one who is not checking out the competition.” I took a step back but answered him.
“I just wanted some quiet. I had a rough morning.” He looked me up and down, and said, “You remind me of myself when I was your age. Running in old sneakers and a T-shirt, always having to get my mind right before I ran. You know those are always the best runner’s kid. Keep doing what you are doing and I can tell by just the look of you that you will do great.” I stared at the man for what seemed like an eternity, when suddenly I heard the announcer call the next number. I anxiously glanced at the gate when the announcer called number 128.
“Oh, I have to go. My numbers almost up. Bye Mr. umm….”
I realized with a start that this must be Michael Johnson! I had never seen him before, only heard of him, and here I was making a fool of myself.
“Oh…. umm… Michael Johnson. I’m sorry I didn’t recognize you. I….. have to go. It was nice meeting you.”
With that, I turned on my heels and walked off. Before I walked into the gate, I heard him wish me good luck again. I started telling myself how stupid I had sounded, but was cut off by the announcer calling my number. I stretched as I walked up to my lane, but looked up when the whole crowd started swarming to the door. They had spotted Mr. Johnson.
I brushed thoughts away about everyone else and started to think about the race ahead. I was a little nervous, but running had never been something that I had had to worry about, so I took a deep breath and prepared to win. I looked straight ahead and listened for the announcer.
“Ok girls. Ready! Set!” I could feel all my bodies senses tense and the red track in front of me seemed to have a new clarity. “GO!” I took off from my lane like I was on fire. My heart felt like it was soaring with every step I took. I never wanted the race to be over. I felt like I was running on raw emotion. It had been so long since I had run and someone had watched me. No one ever watched me. I let all my thoughts slip away and embraced the feeling of vulnerability that running brought with it.
Then all too soon it was over.
I was at the finish line but my senses still hadn’t calmed down. I looked to both sides of me and saw no one. Where had all the people that had been racing against me gone? The adrenaline of the race seemed to be wearing off and my breathing was now ragged and fast.
I turned around to see that my opponents were just making it to the finish line. Only then did I realize that the track was dead silent. Everyone was staring at me and no sooner had it been quiet then the whole track was ablaze with whispering.
I ducked my head and trudged across the grass. One of the coordinators came over to me and said that my time had qualified me to race at the end of the day and then he wished me good luck. I nodded thanks and headed outside the gate again. I almost thought I heard the guy behind me mutter about me not needing any luck.
The time seemed to pass undisturbed and I gradually closed my eyes again. After what seemed like only a minute, a hand gently shook me awake. I looked up at the giant figure of Michael Johnson.
“I thought I had better wake you up. I didn’t think anyone else would. No one wants to race against you now. Can’t say I blame them. That was one heck of a race kid, your just as fast as I thought you looked.” said the Olympic gold medalist.
“Thanks. About earlier…I’m sorry. I had never seen your picture before, so I didn’t know it was you.” I glanced nervously around as the announcer neared my number again.
“Don’t worry about it. I look forward to seeing your next race.” He gave me a big smile and walked back into the track.
I rushed in once again to barely make it when the announcer called my number. At the sound of it the crowd looked straight at me and went quiet. I hurriedly went to my lane and got ready.
Again the adrenaline started building up until I could hardly stand it. Before my mind even registered what my body was doing I was off. I felt the freeing sensation of the wind racing by me as I glided forward. My arms pumped back and forth like a bird batting her wings and for a moment, I felt a feeling I had never experienced, the feeling of almost bird like flight. Then it was cut off violently as I ended the race.
I looked up at the only clapping hands of Michael Johnson. Then almost like he had been the cue the cheers started. I looked up at the sky and let the warm feeling of winning rush over me.
The rest of the tryout days seemed to pass in a blur. I was suddenly the center of attention as I was awarded a chance to race against winners from other countries. Some people even tried to get my autograph. A sleek black car took me home and my parents were shocked to find out what I had been doing.
“You left to go to a stupid track meet? How could you leave Ty and more importantly how could you steal from us? I will not have someone who steals living in this household! You go tell those people outside you won’t be going with them! This is ridicules Cassidy, you can’t go off and race against other people with some flimsy dream for a living. You will be at school tomorrow and that is the end of it.” Mom’s words were like small sharp knives being dug into my vulnerable skin.
I turned on my heels without another word to my mom and went to see Ty. He was laying on his bed facing the wall.
“Ty...” I said gently. “I made it. I did it. I’m about to cause a lot of yelling here. Ok? I want you to just ignore it and stay in your room as much as you can. It will be ok. I’ll come back. I promise. ” There was a small voice in my head that screamed at myself for promising to come back but I calmly ignored it and hugged Ty tight. I could feel Ty’s tears fall on my arm at having to be separated from me again and it only made me hug him harder. Then I stiffly got up gave him a trembling smile and walked out the door.
I was staying in a hotel room just across from the huge stadium that I was going to run in the next day. I was alone, but I didn’t feel alone. I could still hear the overpowering cheers from the crowd at my tryout race. I could still feel Ty’s hug around me. The last few weeks had gone by like the races I had run; fast.
It was late and I hadn’t expected to hear a knock on the door a day before my big race, but someone had obviously gotten through security. I opened the door to see Michael Johnson standing in the door way with a box under his right arm.
“I thought that since this was going to be your first big race that I would drop by and wish you luck.” I stood there staring at him with my mouth hanging open.
“I…umm thank you. It really means a lot to me that you would do this.”
“No problem; I wanted to. I thought that I might bring you some new shoes. I know that you already have some, but I wanted to give you my own personal brand. You just remind me so much off myself. If I had been you I would have hoped that I had had a little help from someone who know what they were doing. So hear I am, just doing what I would have liked for someone to do for me.” I couldn’t help my self I ran up to him and gave him a big hug, and I almost started crying when he pulled out the loveliest pair of red spikes that any runner could ask for. I looked up at Michael Johnson with complete gratitude in my eyes and all I managed to say was a whispered Thank You.




The cheers echoed all around me as the announcer called my name and said that I was running for the U.S.A. It fully hit me then that I wasn’t running for myself anymore I was running for America. It was me that the hopes of the Americans watching the race depended on. I gulped and stared at the huge stadium I was in. The thousands of seats in the stadium were filled with people chanting my name.
“Cassidy! Cassidy! Cassidy!” The roaring stadium called.
Still in a daze, I stepped lightly up to my lane and crouched down into my starting blocks. The scent of seven other dreams reached me as I felt the rough track under my hands. This is what I had been waiting for my whole life. I could do this, but there was something missing…
“Ready!” My brain seemed like it was about to explode from nervousness.
“Set!” I felt all my muscles tense as I shakily brought up my body in anticipation for the run.
Go! My hearing had already shut off so the command came from within to run. I was so nervous and scared of losing and then nothing.
I swept forward my mind totally clear of feeling as my body was transformed to a new level as I felt the urge to run faster than I had ever gone. The feeling of flight returned for the first time since the tryout race. I opened my mouth in a silent scream of sheer joy as I seemed to just lift from the ground.
In a split second, I was back. I stopped running and stared around me. People were going crazy and screaming but I heard nothing. It was almost perfect. I found myself looking around in the stands until my eyes locked on a small blonde head. His eyes were overflowing with tears at what he had been missing and what he just witnessed.
I looked past him to see my mom staring at me with a faint smile on her lips. That was all I needed. My fists pumped up in the air and I finally allowed myself to hear the cheers. They were as I had always imagined. They filled me up an up and up until I almost thought I was flying once more.

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