Steps

January 9, 2011
One step forward.
As I took that one step across the finish line I couldn’t stop smiling. I did it. I completed the 5k County Meet race. This was the race I had been training for this whole time. It was my last race of the season, and I finished with my best time of my running career. Sure, it was only my first year running cross country, but as I looked back at how far I had come to get there that day, I couldn’t help smiling. I relived the race in my head as I looked for my teammates.
One step backward.
Once again I felt the cold air nipping at my toes, my face, my everything. Once again I heard Coach Redmond’s pep talk: “This is it. This is what you all have been training for every day. You’ve all worked so hard this season and I am so proud of all of you.” Once again I felt the tears of joy and sadness peering out, yet too shy to show themselves.
My heart was thumping uncontrollably and I couldn’t stop shivering. It might have been from the cold weather, but it was probably from my nerves bubbling up inside my stomach. Suddenly, our attention was called to a man in a neon yellow jacket. He held a small flag in one hand and a gun in the other. I knew these would eventually signal the start of the race, which only made my nerves begin to boil. Other runners blocked my view of the flag, so I decided to listen for the sound of the gunshot.
The whole world became silent as we waited for the signals to begin. Then, the gun shot echoed across the course. The crowd began to cheer and we were off. The ground trembled from the stampede of runners. My body felt numb from the cold air whipping past me. Fear tried to take over my body, but I blocked it out. All I could focus on was finishing the race to my best ability.
I crossed the first mile and looked at my watch: already a new personal record.
I crossed the second mile and saw the coach cheering me on. A smile tickled my lips.
I finally reached the last 100 meters, sprinting with every bit of energy I had left.
And there I was again, crossing the finish line with a smile that wouldn’t leave.

One big step backward.
It was summer again. The first day of cross country practice, to be exact. The nerves began fluttering inside me and I was beginning to think that I should never have signed up for the sport. After practice, the feeling was ten thousand times stronger. But the next day, I was back at practice. And I kept coming back. I wanted to prove that I could do it. I wanted to prove it to my family. My friends. My teammates. My coaches. But most of all, I wanted to prove it to myself. I needed to prove it to myself.
One step forward.
I had just talked to my AP Government teacher about the in-class essay we had taken. I had gotten a C, which gave me a C for the quarter. I could have gotten a B with that essay. I was so close. She had explained to me that one little phrase I had written in one single sentence had taken away a lot of points. She had completely destroyed my essay with her critiques; no one had ever insulted my writing in such a way before. My writing. My creation.
I walked up the school stairs, preparing myself to face my friends. I felt my mind slowly breaking down and knew I couldn’t keep a mask on much longer. I sat down next to Sanyukta and clamped my lips together; they were already starting to tremble. She asked me about my essay and as soon as I opened my mouth a waterfall of tears raced from my eyes. Sanyukta saw my stress; she knew we still had time before practice started, so she took me for a walk around the school. I explained through gasps and snorts that I wasn’t sure how much longer I could keep doing cross country with my grades slowly slipping away. I hated the thought of quitting, but I also cared so much about my grades in school. It felt as if I was running a race without the signs showing which way to turn; I was completely lost. Her comforting words showed me hope once more, and I felt better for the time being.

It had been a long practice that day, and my muscles burned from the lactic acid pulsing through them. We began cool down and I realized that practice was almost over. I felt the remnants of tears forming again and I didn’t want to stop running, for I knew that once I stopped running, I had to return to reality; to school, to people, to criticisms, and I wasn’t ready.
Another step forward.
I was at one of the team spaghetti dinners. The house was filled with thumping music and the smell of tomato sauce. I was sitting around a table, laughing with my friends. My new cross country friends; not the friends who tried to talk me out of this, but the ones who encouraged me to keep going and stayed with me the whole time. Our silly conversations may have seemed meaningless to others, but to me they meant something different. I felt the bond growing stronger every second that I was with them; with every laugh, every teardrop, every sigh of exhaustion, I knew it would never fade away.
One more step forward.
I was back at another practice. I let out a sigh of relief as I crossed the finish where Coach Redmond was standing, reading out our times. Four eight hundreds. We had just run eight hundred meters four times, with two minutes of rest in between each one. The cool sweat rolled down my forehead and stung my eyes. I bent over, trying to catch my breath. Then the coach’s voice echoed across the field, “Everyone, bring it in!” We grabbed our water bottles and formed a circle around her, anticipating those few relieving words: “Great job, you’re done for today. Go run your cool down and stretch.”
As our coach waited for everyone to be quiet, I drank my water; the cold, refreshing liquid soothed my dry throat. The coach opened her mouth and started out the same way she usually did, “Great job today.” But instead she finished with, “Now you have to run one mile around the track. This mile is going to be all out. I want to see you all running your hardest the whole way. This is what your races will be like, so you need to be able to pick up your pace even when you’re tired.”
Did she really just say that? One more mile? Hard? All out? The whole way? The fear tried to enter my body but I pushed it out. I owed it to myself to try my best and see what I could really do after all of my training. Coach blew the whistle and we were off. One lap, two laps, three laps, four laps, done. I looked at my watch: a personal record. I did it! I was so proud of myself that I didn’t even care that coach just announced that we had to run one more eight hundred. I ran that eight hundred with joy.
One last step forward.
I was back at the County Meet finish line smiling. I found my teammates and hugged them. The warmth from their hugs relaxed me and I felt safe with them; I felt the bond again and I didn’t want to let it go. We walked to our tent where the coach was waiting.
“Great job, everyone! I am so impressed with all of you! You all ran great races today, and a lot of you even got lifetime records! I am so proud of all of you.” She was proud of us. That was all I needed to hear to make my smile permanent. I looked around. My coach, my teammates, they were my new family.
Then it was over. I gathered with my friends to put on our warm sweatpants and went to buy a shirt from the meet. I smelled the fresh ink being painted onto the tie-dyed shirts. The swirls of colors wouldn’t normally make sense together, but at that time, they did; they were beautiful. It brought back memories of the team I was about to leave. We were all so different, but cross country, the beautiful sport that I had come to love and respect so much, made us all grow together and become just as beautiful. I grabbed my shirt and looked back at the race course one last time before walking away with my teammates. It reminded me of the steps I had taken to get where I was that day; I felt the tears come and I couldn’t help but smile again. Though I experienced many ups and downs, cross country was the best thing I had ever experienced, and at that moment I knew it would stay with me for a long time.
And it all started with that one small step forward.





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