I am a runner, and I have been for a while. I’ve been through seasons and seasons of brutal training. I’ve raced through mud and snow and blood and tears. I’ve run on a fractured knee and in lightning storms. I’ve raced up hills that can’t be called hills and cliffs that, for some odd reason, insist on being called hills. I’ve collapsed. I’ve fainted. I’ve won a few and lost quite a few more – but there is one race that will always stand out in my mind, and that is my first race.
What I consider my first real race was at the beginning of freshman year. The first cross-country meet our team went to was called the Big Red Invitational. Our coach showed us newbies the course beforehand. Near the end, where there’s a big loop around the field leading to the finish, he said, “Right here everyone will be screaming, but not everyone’s gonna be screaming for you. But I don’t care. If they’re screaming for Clara, today you will run like Clara, and today you will beat Clara. Got it?”
We all nodded and trooped off to get prepared – if that was even possible.
The start of the race seemed almost in slow motion. With my sweatpants off, shivering in the cool fall air, I toed the line and shifted my balance slightly, trying not to look at the 30 or 40 other freshman girls who were all here to do better than me. I felt the person next to me slowly exhale and saw a cloud of vapor flow from her mouth.
“On your mark!”
The sun glinted off every dew-soaked leaf and blade in the silent field. My heart leapt, and I felt all my weight shift forward as I leaned a little deeper into the spray-painted grass. A ragged inhale I’m sure even the girls in box one heard, and –
The crack of the pistol jolted me, and as if someone had suddenly turned up the volume, I could hear people yelling and cheering. I fell into the middle of the pack as we scrambled up the first incline, feeling almost as if I was flying. Up the first, then the second hill, I slid around a hairpin turn, literally coming down a mini-cliff with my hand skidding along the dirt as though I was snowboarding. We stampeded back into the twists and turns of the woods, where I was playing hopscotch with roots and rocks and patches of mud. It was silent except for the sounds of our feet pounding and our heavy breathing as we hit the final hill.
It was a short race – only one and a half miles. The first mile or so was a zigzag of ups and downs too quick to notice with the adrenaline of the start still pumping through my blood. But just as I thought it was over, there it was: the hill. Half a mile long and too steep to be comfortable even at a jogging pace, this is where the race would be decided.
We started going up, and our pack split. One set of girls in the front rounded a curve as if they hadn’t even noticed the ground rising up, and I can’t say I saw them again. Then there was a second group, girls with hair flying and arms pounding, girls who I was with, then just behind, then lagging, lagging behind. In the last half mile, they opened a gap of 50 meters. They topped out the hill just as I realized I had no idea where the third group was or whether they were gaining on me.
Then, almost crying, with my legs burning, I began to run. I had run like this at the beginning too, but now I was doing it without the aid of anything but sheer will to catch the group up ahead.
Suddenly I was out of the woods. I crossed the road and saw the finish just a loop away. Stretched out in front of me was a line of struggling girls. My resolve was sinking, and I was beginning to think vile thoughts – quitting thoughts – when I heard it. I don’t know if it was fate or just dumb luck, but one of the girls in front of me had everyone cheering for her. Only a few strides back now, I heard them: “Come on, Clara! Run, Clara, run!”
What else do I have to say? Discovering something that I would later learn is called a “kick,” I poured it all into that last 300 meters. The searing knives in my calves and thighs didn’t mean much as I approached that swinging brown ponytail, then inched past it, and kept going, going until the flags of the makeshift finish finally gave me permission to stop.
I didn’t get a medal that day, or any day my freshman year. I got three things I value much more: a memory, a mindset, and a mantra. I’ll never forget my first real race; that was the day I learned to run and never look back. As for the mindset, I learned something I never understood before: to give it everything you’ve got. You may not be the fastest or the strongest, but if you don’t try, you may as well just stay home and not bother running at all.
Then, finally, the mantra. I still race to it to this day, on the track or the trails, indoors or outdoors, I always have it there in case I need something to drown out the voice in my head telling me to quit. It keeps me running through the pain that only another runner can understand. It plays on a loop, like my iTunes playlist stuck on repeat.
“You are Clara. Run like Clara. You can give more. Run like Clara. Come on, run. You know you’ve got it in you. Keep going, and now go beat Clara.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.