Winning My Worst Race This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

February 22, 2012
My thighs screamed against the lactic acid suffocating my legs. I struggled to comprehend the hazy vision swimming before my eyes. A mile and a half stood between me and the finish line.

The pain intensified as I began to climb the infamous grassy hill. I leaned forward, almost to the point of crawling. Spectators lined the path, their cheers melting together into a constant roar. My head throbbed.

I wanted to stop and curl up into a ball on the grass more than anything – more than qualifying for the Cross Country State Open Championship, more than avenging my team’s loss to a rival the previous week, more than finishing. Sometimes in past races, I had wanted to walk, slow down, or take a shortcut, but each time my drive to succeed had triumphed decisively. This race was different; never before had the pain so effectively reduced my ambition.

With half a mile left, I knew I was likely running the worst race of my life. I watched as girls my coach deemed fast enough to threaten our prospects for a state title disappear one by one into the growing throng of runners ahead of me. Bodies steadily passed me on either side until I was surrounded by a sea of unfamiliar faces from unfamiliar places – the nondescript swarm of middle-pack runners, runners I knew I should never see during a race, runners I knew I should beat easily.

As I entered the final stretch, my lungs burned and I struggled to keep my eyes open. The numbers on the clock marking the finish line looked blurry. I pumped my arms and desperately willed my legs to keep moving. Suddenly, nothing supported my body. I felt my skin touch the cool grass as I crumpled to the ground. Instinctively, I pressed my hands into the damp earth, pushing myself up, but my legs didn’t respond. I stumbled forward, collapsing into a fetal position. As darkness consumed me, only one thought echoed in my mind: I didn’t finish the race.

It was the Cross Country State Class Championship. The previous week, at a big regional race, my team had lost to a rival school by three points. At State Class, we were up against the same school and determined to beat them. In addition to vying for a team state title, I was fighting for something else. My recent race performances had fallen below my expectations. Motivated by my disappointing cross-country season the previous year, I had trained hard over the summer. I followed our team’s training schedule religiously and came to practice the first day of school expecting to see results. As weeks passed, my times steadily increased while my teammates and competitors shed seconds from theirs. At the regional meet, as we watched the other team triumphantly raise its trophy in the air, I knew if I had run as well as I had the year before, our team would have won. Going into State Class, I needed to prove to my coach, my teammates, and myself that I was still a part of the team, that I still knew how to push myself, that I was still a runner.

When I regained consciousness, two people were carrying me. They placed me on a hard surface and wrapped me in a scratchy sheet. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I couldn’t form words. Voices around me spoke in unfamiliar medical terms and gradually faded into a low drone. Suddenly, sirens blared and a soft cushion replaced the hard surface. The wind stopped and I realized I was in an enclosed area. Doors shut, leaving me alone with my thoughts. I didn’t finish the race. I didn’t finish …

I had seen runners collapse before. At the big cross-country meets, one or two people always go down. Their faces contort with pain, every part of their bodies driving toward the finish, and suddenly they crumple to the ground. In agony, they try to get up. Sometimes, they manage to propel themselves across the last few feet, but more often they collapse motionlessly on the ground.

Lying in the ambulance, I thought of these runners. I thought of a rival who collapsed during a race and has not run well since. I thought of a teammate trapped in a frustrating cycle of poor performances, and another diagnosed with a medical condition that reduced her from a standout runner to a middle-pack competitor. I thought of my own record as a runner over the past two years and how I appeared to be falling into their pattern. I sincerely believed I would never run well again.








One year later, I retraced my steps over the same course at another State Class Championship. After 3.1 miles, I sprinted across the finish line. Although consumed by exhaustion, I walked down the finish shoot without help or fear of fainting. As a volunteer handed me my place card, I remembered lying on the ground a year before. I remembered how I never received a place card, how I only ran 19/20ths of the race, but most importantly, how I ran the best I ever have for that 19/20ths.

The day I collapsed, I had never been so disappointed in myself. However, in the following weeks, I began to see my experience from a different perspective. I began to understand what collapsing means. It means I pushed myself through the pain, resisting exhaustion until I had nothing left. It means I was mentally strong enough to surmount my physical fatigue. It embodies the spirit of running: I left everything I had on the course.

Now, when I see runners collapse, I have such admiration for them. I know they pushed themselves until they had nothing left. Looking back, I have never been so proud of myself. I might not have finished the race, but I had never been as strong mentally, endured as much pain, or run with as much heart as I did on that day.

Before that State Class meet, running had always come easily to me. I took my position on the varsity team for granted. It never occurred to me that I might not finish a race.

On days when I begin to complain about having to run, I catch myself. I realize how lucky I am to still be able to run races and run well. I now measure a good race not by where I finish or whether our team wins, but by how hard I worked on the course. And when I am nervous or worried that I can’t do something, I remember that race, and believe I can do anything.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.






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