An Athletic Challenge in Vermont

March 5, 2009
The cool November morning, coupled with a gentle breeze, created perfect conditions for the Vermont State High School Cross Country Championships. Time seemed to stand still among the rolling hillocks of the city park, muffled by a thick mist.


Jay stood nervously on one of these hillocks. The high school junior's sprightly ponytail flipped and swayed in the wind. Her tiny knees shook with nerves and anticipation as the upcoming events of the morning played over in her mind.


The rest of the team was unloading the Excursion about one hundred yards away, but Jay had aimlessly wandered off. She was soaking in the wind's breath, the terrain, and the pressure of the air, not to mention the pressure on today's performance. Jay, the team's fastest runner, felt as if an enormous weight had been placed on her shoulders, and she wished it would press her more and more into the ground. In the cool, damp earth, Jay would finally be alone, and the weight would lift. The junior closed her eyes and sighed as this thought became more appealing by the second.

"Jay! Get over here and help!"


Jay's eyes snapped open and she breathed in sharply as Coach Stoner's voice broke the serenity of the still air. Face flushing and stomach leaping, she jogged quickly over to her team. As Jay crouched down to unload the training equipment, she could sense her coach's eyes, cold and gray, glaring at her with hawk-like intensity. Exasperated, Jay hurriedly placed the training equipment at camp, and jumped smartly back to the car to get her racing shoes. She reached her South Burlington High School duffel bag, and quickly unzipped the top. Foraging among the extensive number of clothes and socks, Jay suddenly froze as a boulder dropped violently into the pit of her stomach.


The shoes were gone!

Jay broke into a cold sweat as her breaths became short and shallow. The rest of the athletes were either setting up camp of putting on their race shoes, but their fastest competitor still sat in the seat of the Excursion, clutching the headrest in front of her. Coach Stoner strode over to her, and seeing the state she was in, quickly grabbed Jay's arm and began to pull her out of the car.


"Come on, if you're going to throw up, find a trash can."


Jay pulled her arm away and Mike Stoner glared at her, a worried glint in his eye.

"I-its n-not that, Coach." Jay stammered, on the verge of tears.

"Then what is it?"
Exasperated, the junior took a deep breath and muttered quietly, "I forgot my race shoes."

Coach Stoner leaned in closer. "Say again?"


Jay repeated her statement loudly. Her coach's eyes went wide with shock. Blood boiling, veins popping, he whispered menacingly, "Do you honestly think that just because you're the fastest runner on this god-forsaken team, you have enough leverage to pull a stunt like this?"


The high school girl began rambling. "It's not that! I've already taken enough days for cross country, so Olive Garden wouldn't let me off last night! Some people had reserved a party, and I couldn't get home as early as I'd wanted to, and when I got home I was really tired, so when I was packing my things-"


Coach Stoner, aggravated and angry, put his hand up to silence her. "Miss Schraer!" He called.


Almost immediately, an eager young woman ran up. "Yes, Coach Stoner!"


Miss Schraer, a South Burlington High School fanatic even after she graduated, always did her best to attend every sports competition that her Alma Mater competed in. She was basically the coaches' gopher, so in the cross country team's case, there was no need for a team manager.

"I need you to do something for me."

"Anything, sir!"

"Go and find some size seven cross country race shoes. Top of the line Asics, and hurry!"

"Yes, sir!"


Miss Schraer hurried over to her car, a blue Mini Cooper, and sped off.


Coach Stoner turned back to Jay and continued his hawk-like stare. "You," he said, poking Jay roughly in the shoulder, then directing his index finger towards the hillocks, "Get jogging!"


She sped off to begin her warm-up, a routine of slow, light jogging, an ache still in her stomach. Two miles later, Miss Schraer returned.

Lightweight and colorful, the shoes were beautiful, and they fit Jay wonderfully. But when she started warming up with the team, they were so stiff and rigid that Jay's arch occasionally twinged, and the insides of her feet rubbed painfully.


Half an hour later, the mist had cleared, and the hot sun, bright and brutal, beat down on the nervous individuals at the starting line. All was quiet, and the girls were bent in their set positions. Heart throbbing, legs shaking, Jay listened for the start gun. Coach Stoner stood on the sidelines, ready with the stopwatch. Miss Schraer was beaming next to him, foam finger waving high in the air. Jay almost smiled at her loyalty.


"BAM!"

Eighty pairs of feet rocketed off of the starting line. As they began to settle into their paces, Jay zeroed in on the girl ahead, her whole body conscious of the five thousand meters of rolling hillocks. She pushed on, stomach churning with the fact that with every step, the new shoes were causing more and more pain.

Fifteen minutes into the race, Jay knew she was dead. Blisters screaming, arches throbbing, she pushed on, and focused on the girl in front of her. Tears streamed down the junior's face, and it took much of her energy to refrain from sobbing. The finish line was in site, but with only three minutes to go, Jay's mind became dull and blank, ready to quit at the next shady spot.

There had been a monster hill, steep and treacherous, halfway through the course, and Jay vaguely remembered Coach Stoner bellowing to 'ATTACK THE HILL!'. Miss Schraer had been jumping up and down beside him, waving two foam fingers. Jay had pushed on, hiding her obvious pain. If Coach had seen her tears, his eyes would become hawk-like again and he would yell, 'I told you so!'

Glancing at her watch, Jay's heart leapt, seventeen forty-seven. The home straight was upon her. Time to speed up. Jay stretched her toothpick legs out, picked up her knees, and headed for the finish line. The runner in front of her was obviously dying also, so when Jay reached her shoulder, a look of determination crossed the Essex High School senior's face, and they both zoomed to the finish line, neck and neck. A yard away from the flour line, Jay lunged, and the official placed her in front of the senior. As she limped through the shoot, sobs racked the South Burlington junior's body. As she shook with pain, Coach Stoner and Miss Schraer jogged up, both beaming.

"Good work, kiddo," Coach said, "Third place!"

As Jay heard the wonderful news, she cried out in agony, as the tears of pain became tears of joy.

South Burlington High School finished in second place overall, behind Essex High School. Jay and her team returned to South Burlington, the wonderful town south of Burlington, proudly bearing their plaque, with Miss Schraer ecstatically waving her foam fingers.





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