My Purgatory: Cross Country

By , Covington, LA
Lying in bed looking at the ceiling, my mind travels through every possible thought as I wait for my eyes to close. They refuse to shut. By this time tomorrow, I would take on one of the most life-changing events in my high school career: the Louisiana State Cross Country race. Done, that's all I could hope for. The anguish that led to this event had been brutal. At the beginning of the season, I knew what I wanted: to train hard enough to run in the state meet. I had made the top seven of my team, but now it was time to finally seek out my best. I dreaded this weekend and kept my focus the whole time knowing I could celebrate once it was over. The four hour bus ride to Natchitoches, the team dinner with gifts, and the late night henna tattoos inside our rooms were fun times; nevertheless, every time I put on a smile, I hid a unnerving feeling that I would break from the stress. I was stronger than that, I told myself, and I shut my eyes to sleep.

I just woke from the perfect amount of sleep when my roommates, Ashleigh and Margaret, started waking up. Looking over at Margaret, I noticed she wore one of my favorite t-shirts to sleep. It read in bold letters, 'My sport is your sport's punishment.' It was true. My friends back at home grew tired of me harassing them with facts about cross country being part science, part psychology, and part art. Claiming that it was the best sport my high school had to offer, I was able to get some friends interested for a brief period until they went out and tried running two miles in the blazing sun. That was when they would look at me accusingly and called me crazy. I would just smile because I knew running was difficult. Running is the worst pain my body endures, especially in a race where you have one whole mile left and your muscles tense up to the point of petrification. If it were an easy sport, then everyone would do it. Nevertheless, my mind snaps back to reality as the three of us scurry to get ready to walk the course. It is around seven o'clock in the morning when the varsity team meets downstairs.

We get off the loaded bus in an empty parking lot of Northwestern University and I take in a huge breath of air. The weather is muggy and humid; however, Coach Pool promised it would change to slightly sunny skies by the time of the race. Once our tennis shoes set foot on the course, energy raced through our bodies like an adrenaline shot. The yellow field was filled with damp grass embedded with drops of morning dew; the vision before me was so simple and untouched. During the season we trained long, hard hours in weather varying from 99 degree heat or below freezing in the winter. However, that particular morning, the field was at peace. The blazing sun had barely had enough time to rise before our elite team began to walk the course, strategically planning out our run and visualizing the intense pain we would undergo in just a couple of hours. Coach Pool saw our somber faces and laughed telling us to chill out right now and have fun. Fun was the last thing on my mind at that second. How could I seem to have fun when I had all this pressure resting on me from my coach, my parents, my team, and myself? Our team had been the first out there that morning, but now we were headed back to the hotel for breakfast and packing.

Once the entire team was out of the overnight hotel and on our way to the course for the last time, I'm almost positive I began to compulsively shake. After getting pumped up from music , stretches, and a motivational speech by Coach Pool, the seven of us trotted to our starting box saved by the freshmen. "They have no idea what's about to happen; no idea what I am about to endure," I think to myself. Coach stood next to me monitoring my every twitch and sudden movement. Laughing, he told me to relax but at the same time he gave me a look that read, "This is your last race. Leave it out on that course and do your best!" He was right, of course. This was it; I had worked my butt off to be at this race and no matter how much I wanted to fake sick to avoid it last night, there was no backing out now. I knew that I owed it to my team and coach to show the younger teammates what it meant to be part of my school's Cross Country program.

Other runners practiced their strides from their starting boxes and watching them pushed my stomach up into my chest. My head throbbed as I saw my parents, hugged them nervously, then headed near the back end of our school's box. I hear someone utter, "May the course be with you," but before I can attempt to chuckle, the horizontal line of runners bend down to start. The gun goes off and I'm the bullet. I hear screaming from the parents lined up on the sides of the course as I start to swerve around fellow runners, making my way to the fast pack. I was currently leaping over hidden holes on the soccer field's straight away path. Luckily for our school, we had the privilege this morning to note where all the nasty holes were. About 400 meters after the start, we approached a baseball cage and had to make a sharp turn around it in order to continue the race. The course looped in a deformed circle for the first and second miles. Almost every step of the way I told myself to stride long, keep my form, breathe well, and no matter how much it hurt I yelled at myself to get over it. Another source of motivation came from my father who was running on the edge of the orange course lines screaming at me to go faster. Meanwhile, my smiling mother was snapping pictures and continuously telling me, "Good job!" I impressed myself with my first two-mile times but my body was slowly losing energy. Unconsciously, I was slowing down; however, I continued to push myself through the intense pain. When I saw that finishing line on the track, my heart skipped a beat. I had vowed to finish strong and I would. My father was at the opening of the track waiting for me to pass him as he yelled, "Come on now, Ellie! Pick it up. This is the finish right here." My breathing quickened and my pace accelerated. All that Tuesday afternoon speed training was focused on this moment right now. I sprinted with a long stride about 350 meters, rounding the track as I ran my heart out. I began to lose sight of the finish line I so desperately wished to cross. Gathering all the adrenaline I had left in my limp body, I threw myself across that blue line and collapsed.

Gasping for air and crying out in pain as I lay on the track's turf, an official came to pick me up. Once I got water and sat down for a good minute, I could actually breathe again (although heavily). I congratulated any runner that met my gaze and they returned the compliment. One thing I always loved about cross country was how nice the people were. I looked at the runners crossing the finish line and thought about what went through my head as I crossed, "No more pain, no more high school running, no more races I didn't want to do." I walked into the swarming crowd of proud parents and coaches seeking my father. I knew he would understand exactly what I was going through. I spotted him approaching me with his big bald head and blue t-shirt. At that moment I was five years old again, crying after I fell off my bicycle. My father held me in his arms and stitched me up. Only now, I was seventeen years old and I needed my father, the same way I needed him at five years old. My body ached everywhere, but what hurt was my heart. It was over, all of it. I immediately reached my arms out and my dad wrapped me in the most comforting hug a father could offer. I began to cry in the height of all this emotion realizing that cross country had built a bond between my father and I. He was the only person who understood perfectly: I was broken-hearted that it was over, happy of what I accomplished, and exasperated because I had given every last thing I had in that race. Coach Pool then approached us and I wiped my tears away. With the biggest yet most serious smile on his face he told me congratulations, and then he did something I would never expect. Coach Pool scooped me up and hugged me. He hugged me, and Coach Pool was not a man full of affection. I knew I had made my coach proud of me that day. Before the race, I was ranked sixth out of our seven teammates, but I finished that race as the team's fourth place runner. It seems I passed up two amazing runners on my team. That race might have not been my best record time, but it was the race I'm proudest of. If I live to be 100 years old, I will never forget that day's race and the feeling I experienced afterward. I hate it, but I love it; this is why cross country is my purgatory.





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