The Race MAG

January 4, 2012
By Justin Toohey BRONZE, Montgomery, Illinois
Justin Toohey BRONZE, Montgomery, Illinois
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

The dotted chalk line extended into darkness like a lonely highway at night. I stood with my cross-country team in the starting box, dreading what was to come. The rain had stopped just long enough to stretch out, and the sun had actually peeked from behind the thick clouds, but more clouds were rolling in from the west.

All I could think was, This is going to be a terrible race! Why didn’t I just stay home? Every year the race against the Academy was a joke. Some upperclassmen hadn’t even bothered to show up. But I was a freshman. In the box to our left, the Academy team seemed unaffected by the foul weather. They knew they would lose even with a tail wind and a three-minute head start.

“Runners, 30 seconds!” shouted the balding starter with a limp.

Thirty seconds. I was already at the front of my box; there was no turning back now. I wished there was. No, I corrected myself. That’s not a good attitude. You have three miles ahead of you! Coach had warned us never to underestimate any team or give less than our best. “Don’t think of this as an easy win – earn it,” he’d said. “If you get cocky out there, that’s when they’ll bite you from behind.”

“Ten seconds!” the starter called.

I did a final stretch and moved into position.

“Runners, on your mark!” I knelt to the cold, wet grass.

“Set!” My muscles tensed, ready to propel me over the five kilometers. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the little bald man raise the pistol.

I was off. I dodged and maneuvered my way toward the front, hurdling puddles of water and avoiding flying elbows. The first mile went by in an instant. I heard my name yelled from the sideline and realized it was my coach. The runners on my heels kicked up debris that zipped past my face as I spun quickly around a red flag. Those guys were right, I thought. This is gonna be a piece of cake. There was only one boy in front of me and he was from the Academy.

I followed his green sneakers under a set of bleachers that bore only two dedicated parents. Wow, Green Shoes, you’re pretty fast, I thought. What are you doing running for the Academy? While one part of my brain cursed him for making me work hard on a day like this, another thanked him for the challenge. We swerved around baseball diamonds and soccer nets while the gap between us shrank. Somehow I had forgotten there were runners behind me as well, and I paid for that.

I groaned as my head slammed into the slick embankment. I wriggled free of the body that had tripped me. I felt, rather than saw, Green Shoes running ahead without me. Wait! I wanted to say. Time out! Instead I lay there like a slug.

A sharp, searing pain tore at my thigh, sending waves of agony to my brain. I knew almost immediately I had been spiked. The boy who had tripped me got up, and stepped on me. He hadn’t meant it, but it felt like I had been wounded in the Battle of Gettysburg. All I wanted to do was lie there in the brown water.

“Get up!” I heard. It was my coach, running up to me. “C’mon, get up!” He wasn’t allowed to touch me during a race; he stood six feet away, mentally picking me up by my bootstraps. “It’s just a scratch!” he encouraged. “Now, go get ’em! Let’s go, son!” Then I said something that made Coach furious. “Don’t you ever say ‘I can’t’ again!” he roared. “Now you get up!” His words injected new life into me, and I sprang to my feet. All the pain vanished.

Only a few seconds had passed, and Green Shoes wasn’t as far ahead as I thought. I made up my mind to catch him. Energy powered my legs as I sped past the kid who had tripped me (keeping my distance this time) and accelerated toward Green Shoes. The flapping of his ponytail counted my steps, like a metronome. For a moment Green Shoes dipped out of view over the crest of a small hill, but when I surmounted it a second later I was suddenly upon him.

I felt droplets of his sweat as I pulled alongside him. I could hear the heavy rhythm of his breathing, and I knew he could hear me, too. We ran past the three-mile mark, side by side.

“Two hundred yards, Justin. Kick it from here. This is a sprint!” Coach’s voice seemed distant. I had to do it. I couldn’t let my coach down.

There were 100 yards to go when we emerged from the trees. Green Shoes and I seemed to share telepathy now. Both of us knew that in another few moments one would emerge the winner of the battle. Fall back, I willed him. Just fall back! Most people do at this point. He didn’t. I am going to win this, I knew he was thinking. No, you’re not, I thought back.

Sixty yards. Green Shoes and I ran at our mutual limits, rounding the last yellow flag and sprinting the home stretch. My muscles turned red-hot and begged me to stop. I refused. I had to beat those green feet. I just had to.

Forty yards. We were now openly swinging elbows at one another, and we were lucky not to have been disqualified. Could they call it a tie? Probably not. I had to win. Twenty yards. Green Shoes and I entered the column of screaming parents that led to the finish line, but I couldn’t hear them anymore.

Ten yards. I was moving forward in leaping bounds now, desperately reaching out with my mind to pull me in faster. The wind against my face made my cheeks flap uncontrollably and my eyes squint in the excruciating pain that accompanied every step. Five yards. Green Shoes was a blur in my consciousness, and I floated forward without any thought. Four yards. The world around me turned gray like the static on a TV screen. Three yards. My lungs ached and my legs burned from oxygen debt. Two yards. One yard. I barely felt myself slip into the chute with Green Shoes clinging to my back.

I had done it! I walked down the tunnel to the recorder; the same bald man with the limp. He jotted something. “Eastern, one; the Academy, two,” he said. I was too exhausted to be thrilled, though I thought I should be. As the clouds overhead drifted eastward, I spun to face my adversary. It was the first time I had seen Green Shoes’ face, and there was sadness in his blue eyes.

We looked at each other, gasping for breath and unable to speak, and shared a mutual respect. I extended a hand, and he shook it with his own sweaty palm. “Good job,” I choked out.

“You too,” said a hoarse voice. He was not ashamed. He had given his best, just as I had. I left Green Shoes and my thoughts reverted to my coach. The realization hit me like a ton of bricks: were it not for him, I might still be lying in the puddle where I had fallen. If I’d waited even one more second, I could not have caught Green Shoes. I owed it all to Coach. I didn’t even hear someone walk up behind me through the mud. “Hey, bud,” I recognized my coach’s voice. He loomed over me, beaming as if I were his own son, and said calmly, “I knew you could do it.” That was all that needed to be said.

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