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The Final Race

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Shut up. You think that it was no big deal? You don’t understand everything that had built up to that race. You don’t understand what I went through as a runner. You don’t understand that for me this sport was life. No, it was not just a sport. It was and is a way of living. It is a feeling that cannot be fully described or understood to anyone who has not felt it. To be completely free and in touch with everything within and around you. To be completely at peace the second you step on a familiar trail. Running created bonds that cannot be broken. I made my closest friends because of the love we had shared for running. Even when there was so much pain it felt like I would die, I loved it. I loved every pain filled step, every burning drop of sweat in my eyes, every breath, every minute. I was alive, I was free, and there was nothing else I would rather be doing. I can’t describe why I loved the agony of running, none of us could, but we thrived on it. Maybe we were all insane. We knew that there was a difference between running because you have to, and running because you want to. We all ran because we wanted to. We were not fitness fanatics. We did not even do it for the schadenfreude, although it was sometimes enjoyable to watch a runner die (not literal death) mid-race because he went out too fast. We did it because it was where we could be ourselves. Running was a part of us that we could not survive without. Even when we failed we didn’t want to be doing anything else. Even when it came to that single race I would not have wanted to be anywhere else. It was not just any race. It was the last race I ran as a cross country runner. A race I had trained for since third grade. A race that should not have been my last. Though most races are a blur I can remember this one clearly. It was November third, my bib number was 3437, and I came in fourth for the team. We had a strong team. We were sure we would not be eliminated in this round of the race. We let the confidence affect our running. Maybe we didn’t run as hard as we would have if we had not been so cocky. Maybe we just underestimated our competition. What I do know is that if I knew that that was the last time I would hear the starter gun go off I wouldn’t have stopped running.

There is always the slightest hesitation after the gun goes off. It takes about half of a second for the runners to register that it is time to start. This meet was no different. Sub-sections at Angels Camp is one of the most hectic meets of the season. The starting line is packed with every school from the area, every runner vying for a spot in sections. The rules are simple. To qualify for sections your team either has to place in the top five teams, or you have to place in the top twenty individuals to move on by yourself. A team can consist of no more than seven runners. We had all seven, our seven best, on the starting line ready to race. We lined up in order of speed. T-bone was first, then Rabbit, then Spiffy, then me, then Tech, then Jelly Bean, then The J. Our top five actually switched places constantly so we always took turns at the front of the line. All of us had sub 19 minute three mile personal records under our belts. We had finished our stride outs and we were waiting for the gun to go. The sun was beating down on us. It did not feel hot at the time but we knew that once we started running it would be close to unbearable. A wave of tension goes down the starting line as the starter raises the gun, every runner getting ready to spring forward. The starter shoots his gun, there is one heartbeat, and then we are off. Rabbit and I start the race pacing off of each other. We work off of each other to slowly pass the runners in front of us. The first mile of that race is probably the hardest part of it. Rabbit and I were running together for nearly the whole first mile. There is a hill right before the one mile mark, the worst hill on the course. It is not a long hill, but it is steep. Right before Rabbit and I reached it Rabbit told me to go ahead. This worried me a little. Barely a mile into the race and I have to leave my pacer, I knew that I would have to go on without him though. Running up that hill takes all of thirty seconds. It is a small part of the course but the most important. If a runner could not handle running up that hill they had one hell of a time making up the place loss. I always attacked it head on, I let myself waste as much energy as I needed to. This was for two reasons. The first was because I HATED that hill and wanted to be done with it as soon as possible. The second reason was so I could get into the heads of the other runners. If they thought I had enough energy to take the hill full force then they would think twice about trying to pass me. I could risk losing the energy on that hill because of the downhill afterward. Our team had always trained on hills so we recovered from them quickly, the downhill would help us do just that. So, by the time I finished the downhill I was ready to start picking off runners again. What I did not account for when I charged the hill however was the heat. My body could not handle the heat, I was beginning to have trouble focusing on the race. My pacing became sporadic for the whole second mile, until I heard my coach tell me my two mile split. It was far too fast for my normal two mile times. I realized too late that I had sped up far too much for the second mile. When the third mile came around Rabbit caught back up to me. This time it was my turn to tell him to go ahead. He understood and gave me some tired words of encouragement before going ahead. The third mile of that race was a living hell. My body was overheated and I could feel the beginnings of a side ache on my right side. I had been through worse though, I knew how to handle everything. I tried to steady my breathing and my pacing. I tried to run in as much shade as I could to cool my body back down. With only half a mile left I felt ready to begin my kick. The final half mile of the course is mostly asphalt. What this meant was extreme heat because the asphalt absorbed it. There was a short downhill then about two hundred yards to the finish. I could see one runner not too far ahead of me. He was my target because I knew that every point would matter. I started sprinting just as the runner in front of me started to speed up as well. I caught up to him and we were neck and neck with about fifty yards left. Then my vision blurred, I stumbled just enough to lose my stride. He crossed the finish line, then I came in after him. As I crossed the finish line I fell face first, I passed out. I came around in about a minute. My teammates were around me. They were worried. I could barely talk, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. Then a mother ran over with a bottle of water. I got about one sip of that water, the rest of it was dumped on my head to cool my body down. Rabbit and T-bone grabbed my arms and helped me up. We stumbled out of the finish chute and back to our team area.

After I had finished my second bottle of water the results were posted. My final time for the three mile race was 19:42, an average mile time of 6:34. We had not made it to sections. Just like that my ten year cross country career was over. Everything hit me at once, my whole experience over ten years. My first coach, Angie, had trained me for six years of my running career. She had passed away a few months before this race. I knew she would have been proud of me no matter what had happened during the race. I still felt like I had failed my current coach, my team, and Angie because of how much work we all had put in over the years. I had started cross country in third grade as one of the slowest kids on the team. I did not receive my first medal in a race until seventh grade. My eighth grade year I medaled in every race and I came in second place at the Nevada Union Invitational behind one of my closest friends. My freshman year I came in first place at the Wildfire Invitational, I never managed to come in first again. Sophomore year we came in second place at the section meet only because the team in front of us had cheated. When we confronted the officials about the cheating though they told us that nobody cared about frosh/soph races anyway. Junior year we could not make it to sections because of injuries. Senior year we could not make it to sections because we were over confident. I did not realize we were over confident at that time though, I felt like it was my fault we did not make it. So if you ever want to tell me that it was just a race, or that it was no big deal, you can just shut up. A part of me died on that day because, for me, it was the end of an era.

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