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Dreams. People always seem to describe them like videos playing in their heads, a kind of surreal movie that switches on when they go to sleep. I never dream like that. Usually I just lie down, close my eyes, and next thing I know a few hours have passed. Even when I do dream there's never an image, and rarely even sound. Dreams are no less real to me because of this. I feel sensations, and they come as strongly as they do in real life. Anger, confusion, embarrassment, and stress all make appearances, but no two ever seem to combine in the same way twice. There are only two constants to my dreams: I am always blind, and I am always afraid.
My brain wakes before my body. My eyes open quickly, than close again, desperately trying to recover the vestiges of sleep. The alarm will have none of it. Eventually I give up and get out of bed. I look at the time on my clock, glowing red numbers rudely interrupting the peaceful dark. 5:30 AM. On a Saturday. Grumbling to myself about the injustice of the world I clumsily pull on my cross country jersey and stumble blearily out of the room.
It's the morning of a race, a 5k to be precise. Despite not running until noon I inexplicably have to catch the bus to the race at six. I pack up a bag with running shoes, water, and some homework that I know I won't get around to doing. On the way out the door I snag a stale Pop-Tart and a week old orange. Breakfast of champions.
It's still pitch black as I make my way to the bus, and I hope I'll have the chance to make up some sleep on the bus. Most of my teammates seem as tired as I am. But, as always, there's a few people who don't seem to require sleep. Eerie rectangles of light from iPods and smart phones cut through the darkness and inane chatter butchers the silence. I close my eyes hard as if it will drown out the noise. Of course it doesn't.
Eventually I give up trying to reclaim sleep and open my eyes. Light is beginning to fill the sky. I note with some satisfaction that they day is overcast. There's some calculated logic in this; running is harder when there's light shining in your eyes and bright sun makes you sweat and dehydrate faster. But mostly I'm just happy that the sky will retain some peaceful darkness throughout the day.
After about two hours we arrive at the location of the race. It's down in rural Virginia, with all the forests and streams you'd expect from a cross country course. Generally I'd find it all quite pretty, but I'm still in kind of a black mood about being up before nine on a weekend. It's a big race, and the field where the race starts is dotted with hundreds of tents. We ramble around for a while before finally finding a place to set up. Then we settle in for the long haul. There are four races, and mine is the last one. It'll be hours yet before even the first race starts. I rest my head on my backpack and close my eyes.
I never really fall asleep of course. There are over a hundred cross country teams competing, with an average of at least a few dozen per team. It's hard to sleep with a couple thousand runners shouting and running around. Our tent is downwind from the Porta-potties and that doesn't much help with relaxation either. The hours seem to blur together. I don't open my eyes a lot. Everything is just a blend of noise and stench.
We start warming up almost an hour before the race, but the jogging and stretching doesn't snap me out of my daze. My feet beat out a soothing rhythm, keeping time with my teammates as we jog across the field. It's peaceful, comforting, and all too short-lived.
In no time at all it's time to start the race. Last minute preparations are carried out, laces tightened on running shoes, a last sip of water downed quickly, sporadic stretches to work out the kinks caused by hours of lounging about on the ground. On the starting line I'm suddenly struck by how funny the whole scene is. There's at least a couple hundred runners in this heat, all standing there shivering in the gray September morning in short running pants and colorful jerseys, all waiting with baited breath for a lady standing on a step ladder to fire a shotgun and signal the start of the race. But no one is laughing. Neither do I.
The woman raises the shotgun to point up in the air. A shiver of tension goes through the crowd as every runner braces for the start. There's an impossible feeling of shivering, uncontrollable energy that could at any moment just-
The gun fires.
There's a frozen moment where there is no reaction, a nanosecond where everything is absolutely still, horribly, terribly still, not peaceful at all. The flash of the gun just appears, a pillar of light, and I feel every bit of stress, cold, and fear. It feels like falling in absolute silence, rushing toward the ground faster and faster with the inevitable crash coming rushing up to meet you.
And then the thunder of the gun reverberates over us and everything is mayhem. Hundreds of runners poor forward, throwing elbows, grappling for position, fighting desperately to advance. A slightly hysterical laugh bursts from me, and I'm running too, ducking and dodging. I don't feel detached, at peace, in the zone, whatever you want to call it. Everything just seems to go through my mind, literally in and out. Only a few moments stick: a painfully sharp elbow blow to the kidneys. Someone passing me and then cutting right in front of me so I can't advance. A stream crossing that fills my shoes with water and seems to add 10 pounds to each foot. And even these details seem to fade, until all I remember, all I feel, is confusion, pain, and anger.
After what feels an eternity, is recalled like merely moments, and in that fluid thing called reality is probably about 20 minutes, I enter the final stretch. It's uphill for the last 400 meters, and I'm gasping for air. People are shouting and cheering, some encouraging me, some cheering the guy behind me, some just shouting to be shouting. My vision darkens around the edges, the sound of my pulse roars in my ears, the stench of sweat fills my nose. I push as hard as I can, life breaking apart around me into threads and fragments and pieces and
The race is over.
I put my hands on my knees and pant for breath. The cheers still roar but they aren't directed at me. I feel...peaceful. It's over. It's done. I look up smiling at the quiet, the calm, the peace...and I see it. The timer up over the finish line, rolling on as more runners finish the race. My time picked out in glowing red numbers. I eye it critically. Well. I can do better than that.