This. I wanted this.
There was adrenaline, sunshine, friends and a high school track that stretched out before me threatening exactly ¼ of a curved mile. The track was crimson. The kind of red that mimicked our school’s mascot as well as the blood I hacked up the first time my track coach told me I was a distance runner and it was time to meet some hills. I inhaled deeply, breathing spring into my lungs, feeling the sunshine on my face and felt grateful that the red I usually saw behind my eyes was fading. I felt less anxious here. Less anxious and more me.
I had worked for this moment for months. Years if you count the running I had done on my own. Just when I felt like I was making progress, Coach put these things called hurdles on my red path. Dang it.
But I could run properly now, thanks to some patient coaches and friends. Years of dance had prepared me to jump and love it, so how hard could this be, right? I had learned that track teams do weird things like jump high and far and measure exactly how high, fast and far you jumped. They actually keep score, like in a basketball game!! I wasn’t sure why or how. I still don’t know but I was willing to do the running and jumping if they keep the score. I looked over and saw some of my team doing a weird hip-circle warm up. It seemed like a good idea so I joined the throng.
The coaches also wielded a gun-like contraption that, when fired, meant I was supposed to run like my life depended on it. Even though this was my first track meet, I’m pretty sure that gun was connected to the adrenaline in my brain. I was bubbling inside, anxious to start and see if I could do the 400m hurdles the way I saw myself doing them in my mind. My teammates and I started clapping to pump ourselves up more.
Someone has to be here to see this right? Nowadays we have phones, Instagram and cameras that see things before our eyes do. Back then, there were only people. I had to use a hard earned quarter and make a phone ring on a wall somewhere then hope that someone was actually present on the other end to answer the phone and get the details of the track meet. I hadn’t taken this step. I shouldn’t expect my family to read my mind but I kinda did. I knew all of my telepathic abilities had gone hay-wire, jumbled up with my nerves, but I wanted someone there who really knew me. I wanted to tell my family where I was. “I’m here!! I’m here!! And I’m strong and fast and not scared.” Where’s the trophy? Because I feel like I already won it.
We take our places. “Stay in your lane. Stay in your lane. Don’t fall. Don’t fall” I mutter to myself over and over.
Does it count if no one I love sees this? I hope so. I really, really hope so. I searched the crowd for a familiar face.
That was something I loved about running though. I could do it alone. I only needed my legs and lungs. “Just run.” I told myself.
This. I wanted this.
The gun shot and I ran. Over one hurdle, then another. I pictured the third one being a puddle and I leaped over it more gracefully then I anticipated.
I kept running and jumping. As the meters progressed, I felt less and less comfortable with strangers cheering for me and my family missing it all. Half way through the 400 m, I began questioning my life choices. I loved running. I loved jumping. But why did I need to do it in front of everyone? Scores...why the hell did someone care about my score? I didn’t even care about my score.
The runner next to me fell. Maybe they make the track red for other reasons, I thought. I slowed down to help. “Don’t you dare!!” I heard my coach yell at me. So I ignored what was inside me and kept going.
Why did I want this again?
Somewhere between the beginning of the race and the finish line, I realized that running for me wasn’t meant to be a competition. I swallowed that realization with my sweat. “I’ve worked so hard for this though.”
Almost immediately the words came to my mind “Not for this. You worked for you.”
The track had given me all that it could: an outlet, an opportunity to get better, to breathe, some direction, even if that direction was circular in nature. “The oval” would always be here anytime I needed it. Furthermore, it loved me enough to teach me about myself. Maybe teach is the wrong word. It cared for me enough to give me space to learn about myself.
When I came to the last hurdle I finished with a vengeance ...and then I kept running, just like Forrest Gump. I either couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t stop.
I ran off the beaten path, past the snack shack and into the parking lot.
The last thing I remember seeing behind me was my friend, raising his hands in the air and screaming “Where are you going?”
I didn’t have an answer to that question. I just knew I didn’t want to be here anymore. I got in my car and went home.
Sometimes what we think we want isn’t actually what we want. Or need. Competition is a funny thing. It can make you stronger and weaker all at the same time. We use it in sports, schools and a few unfortunate relationships. I find myself running from those friends just as quickly as I did from the track that day. I knew I wanted to run. It took a gun shot and 400m of hurdles to realize I would train with this team all day long. I just did not want to compete. I didn’t want to be in a situation where I saw people get hurt and not be able to stop and help them. I didn’t want people I don’t know watching me. I can see how competition can help athletes reach goals, light a fire and help get real results. However, it just made me want to disappear.
I still don’t know where I placed for that event. What I learned is that I don’t care. I just want to run.
Photo Cred: Rachel Downey Photography