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Four Hundred Meters to Freedom
You’re standing on the line, shivering in the sweltering heat. You don’t feel anything except for your heart beat pounding in your ears as you crouch down, about to explode from the stress the last year has put on you.
The official calls “runners to your mark!” and raises his hands while you tremble with the pressure of the universe on your shoulders. You think briefly about how your life has digressed to hearing those words over and over with lots of questionable motives filling in the gaps between, and then something reminds you that you need to focus. He shoots the gun and acts like he’s doing you a favor, and then you’re gone. In a single second you remember every piece of advice anyone has ever given you, and then throw it into the infield, since you know that you won’t need it. Not this time.
That foggily relentless sap in the blue singlet tries to creep in front of you, but you’re ready for him. He tries to beat you the same way every time, but it won’t work today. You throw in a spurt of speed and before you realize it you’re passing the two hundred mark as your coach whispers “28; you’re good,” but you know you’re not. You won’t be good for 4 more minutes.
Your mind is racing while you try to keep up with the suicidal pace that you know is the only one you can live with. As you speed through the two hundred fifty mark, pulling a bunch of lazy joggers behind, you remember that time you fell here and got up to chase the state champion for three laps before you surged past him, only to trip again. You might only be seventeen, but you can taste the whole world as the wind off of the straight ripples through your hair.
You pass the crowd and see her, but you only pick up since she’s the reason you throw yourself into this without caring whether you wake up the next day. She might not be your inspiration but she certainly inspires desperation.
Hitting the four hundred mark you hear that official laugh like it’s a game when he calls out “57!” and you smile in spite of yourself, because nothing will stop you today. You’re whipping around the turn like it might be your last, when that cocky giant in black hurls himself past you and takes off, burying you in metrics. The wind rushing off the straight tries to get in your way, but you know what you need to do: the chase has begun.
You take the biggest step you’ll ever take and find yourself a mere eight meters behind the behemoth who wants to crush your dreams. You throw yourself on to your toes and nearly miss it as your coach tosses a stage-whispered “1:29! You’re flying!” to you, and you’re into the sport of it. You pull him closer, a quarter of a meter at a time. By deep into the second turn, you’re almost at his shoulder.
And then you realize you’re running, and you’re legs hurt. A lot. Every step is a battle inside of your heart but you know that you will never lose this battle. Not while she’s watching, not when you’ve come so far, and not while you’re racing.
As these tiny epiphanies collide with you, you catch him. He fought for a few hundred meters, but you’ve fought your whole life. This was nothing. With a few cursory steps, you’re back in control. You burn down the competition with the wind at your back, and you know that this could very well be the day.
Your face is contorted with the pain and weight of a hundred races as you barrel through the half mile to the elegant music of “I:57!” and the patter of those less determined behind you. You know that this is where the race actually starts. Time to toss your hat into the ring and break yourself for glory.
The wind is coming back to haunt you as you try to grind out a third lap composed of emotion and depression and love and hate. It’s a symphony of everything that doesn’t belong in a symphony. The field is falling down and over each other, since nobody even knew your name before you stepped off of that line. You knew it though, and you knew someday it would mean more than this sack of watery regret you’ve become. The only thing left is to prove it.
“Jesus Christ, 2:29!” even your coach didn’t know you cared. You might have slowed down, but its only six hundred left. Up on your toes, dance yourself across the line twice more.
You start moving forward like there’s nothing behind you worth holding on to (there’s not). The turn embraces you and tries to hold you in its arms as long as it can, but you didn’t come here to fall in love. You came here because you knew that if you didn’t you would never have a reason to go anywhere else, ever. You came because this is where you belong, and you can live and die in this moment. But then, disaster strikes in that way it tends to, reminding you that nobody ever makes it out alive.
You hit the ground before you know it, and the track smothers you in kisses, but you’re up again too fast for the field to catch you. The pain from the fall goes unnoticed amidst the burning flood that has already assaulted you. You take off for fifty meters and hit the straight with a vengeance. A tear slides down your cheek and is flung to the ground, in a meager attempt to drown the track that would surely do the same to you.
That kid in black is back, poking his toes across the line to hear the auspicious “3:00!” reverberate around the open space like the heartbeat that has now taken over your sense resounds inside of your chest cavity.
“Four hundred meters to freedom,” you think. You’re almost there. One more lap, and you will forever go down in history as the kid who was, or maybe you won’t, because you’re not worth it. But within less than four hundred beautiful, tragic steps, you’ll know.
Your new friend and partner in crime stumbles over your courage as you resiliently challenge him into the turn. You know what to do when you start to feel yourself drifting around the curve. You force him outside then drop your shoulder and run faster than you ever have, with your arms pumping, trying to lift you from the rubber and spirit you away to the unknown. You’re gapping him now, five meters, ten meters, twelve meters, and then he’s gone. It’s just you and the space waiting to be filled by your galloping figure. You can hardly see anymore, just feel the stripping of your legs as all of their strength is pouring into the ground in every whisper your feet grace the ground with.
The only opposition left is gravity, trying – unsuccessfully – to keep your feet on the ground. The seconds take hours to pass and the pain spreads through your body like an epidemic, but that doesn’t matter anymore because you’ve been sick for years and this is the cure. Oxygen debt is where you thrive, and the edges of reality are where you belong.
You’re well into the straight now and further into your kick, moving because you know that it could be the last thing you ever do, and if you don’t, you might never get a chance to again. The pain is overwhelming, and you let out a gurgled moan as you near the halfway mark and feel the bend calling you home. Your coach, more excited than he’s ever been, screams out “3:27! Oh my God!” and dashes across the field to watch you finish. If you ever do.
It feels like you’ve stopped moving forward and the Earth is flowing beneath you, pushing you forward as the wind pushes you back. The finish line is beckoning and your feet are answering the call in the same manic manner the Grecians did so many hundreds of years ago. Nothing’s changed; a step is still a step and pain is still pain. Glory is still glory.
All you see is red and all you feel is victory as you pound around the curve and rush into the final stretch, screaming to release the tension that has built on you your whole life. You’re on your toes, your heart pounding and your feet flirting with disaster as they move faster than they ever thought they would when they collected baby fat so many years ago. This is it.
This is what you need.
You’re burning into the finish, and you hear half the crowd gasp as you collapse to the ground a quarter of a meter past the line, to the beautiful whisper of “3:56,” from your coach, and then you forget who you are. You forget why you’re here and where you’re from and why the garnet singlet on your back means anything, and you become that number.
The last thing you hear before you black out is “today… today was your day.”