The air in the locker room gets thick on Fridays. The chatter buzzes differently. Some girls may laugh and talk like normal, but you can hear the tension in their voices. Others grumble and moan and cry. The rest of us lock ourselves in bathroom stalls, praying silently for bloody noses, concussions, amnesia, stomach flu, kidney stones, or the bubonic plague.
Anything to avoid Run Day.
We meet the boys on the track. We walk there with our eyes closed, in hopes that we’ll open them to a war-torn battlefield or a nuclear wasteland. Surely nothing could be worse than Run Day. Even the smartest of us holds that hope in her heart, that the world has ended and we will avoid the torture to come.
But no one has such luck on Run Day.
We line up at one end of the vast, oval track where we’ll spend the next six to eleven minutes of cruel and unusual punishment. We tremble in our running shoes as Coach Takanishi marches ominously down the line, the grading sheet in his hand; 6 minutes 45 seconds and under is an A+. Anything under ten minutes is a B.
“I’m trying for an A minus,” says Jane.
“I’m trying not to die,” Tiffany replies.
Coach steps off the track, the coward. He’ll scold us for our fear, but if he tried to do it, he’d die too. We all know the hypocrite couldn’t last a single Run Day.
He clicks his stopwatch. “Go!”
This is when it gets interesting.
There are clear leaders of the pack, but you never know who will slip to the middle over the course of a mile of anguish. And then there are those who are walking by the second lap. Some bound along without slowing, and others chug and gasp, faces red.
But something very strange happens like clockwork each Run Day. Everything that has happened between us before the moment Coach yelled “Go!” dissolves away. We are an unrecognizable class of freshmen when we are on the track. It’s simply not possible to hate someone when you can’t catch your breath and your lungs are burning holes through your chest.
There is no greater love than for a teen to waste precious breath to yell, “You got this!” to a fellow student on Run Day.
The air turns to acid as it hits our lungs. It makes our throats raw and bleeds into our legs. The harder we pump them, the more liquid fire oozes through our veins. Our ears, full of ragged gasps, can still hear the thump of fraying soles coming up on the track behind us.
Gloria gallops up to Jane’s side, preparing to pass. She’s a whole lap ahead of her, one sweet quarter-mile closer to being done with Run Day. But as she passes, Gloria encourages between wheezes: “Come on, Jane. You can do it!”
Jane and Gloria never hated each other. They were friendly but not friends, kind but not kindred. But on the track, Jane would collapse without Gloria’s words. They are the only things that keep her from becoming a sweaty heap of flesh on the ground, Run Day after Run Day.
One by one, the students peel off into the grass. Their mile is over; this week’s torture is done. Their chests heave into mountains and valleys. They puff out poisonously gray clouds of breath.
But the victims are not recumbent for long. Even while they are still breathing fire, still doused in puddles of sweat, they get up to cheer on their classmates. Their legs burn again, and their throats are made raw two times over. “Go! Go! Go!” they screech to their fellow slave laborers. “You can do it! Come on, RUN!”
Those of us still running see them blurrily and hear them faintly, and we pump our exhausted legs harder.
As time goes on, only a few stragglers are speckled about the track, limping along, trailing acid and dragging bloody stumps. As they come around the bend, the forces assemble. We are the strangest squad of cheerleaders you’ve ever seen. Male, female, tall, short, thin, fat, sweating, crying, panting, dying, jumping, lying on the ground in anguish, we scream out their names. “Come on, Ben! Come on, Tiffany! Come on, Josh!”
There is a kid named Gerardo who wants to be called Susan. Teachers do not comply. But that is the name we scream into the wind on Run Day.
As the last few make their way around the lap, something miraculous happens. From among the corpses strewn across the lawn, Obed clambers to his feet.
He is one of the quickest, the kind of kid who will be disappointed in himself for a 7:15 mile. But he is human nonetheless. He has beating in his chest and burning in his veins, the all-too-human agony of Run Day.
And despite this, he drags himself back to the track. As we watch in awe, he sprints through the loop. Only a deity could run like that. Clearly only a demigod would race to Josh’s side as he stumbles through his last lap. Obviously only the supernatural have the power to take Josh by his tired elbow and coax him into a jog.
He is running the last lap with Josh.
They sputter along together. Their pain is equal, their pain is the same. Their pain is the pain of one boy, shared between two. Obed and Josh run together, their steps in unison. We scream as loudly as we can so that our throats burn and we take our fair share of the pain.
The boys throw themselves over the finish line and Coach clicks his stopwatch. The numbers freeze. The mile is over. There will be six precious days before Run Day rears its fearsome head again.
Tiffany, Jane, Gloria, Ben, Susan, Josh, Obed, and the rest of us make our way back to the locker rooms. Jane and Gloria do not walk together. Josh and Obed don’t either. They are never more than acquaintances until they are brought together by the mystical and terrible beauty of Run Day.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.