Although it was sunny, there was a briskness in the April air for this first big meet of the season. Seven girls lined up on the far side of the track for the East High Invitational 1500 meters, teammate Mary Kate standing on my inside at the waterfall arc, our first venture at this distance. I glanced to the right.
A tall girl from Wahlert was shaking one leg and then the other, a pair of runners in the yellow and green of Cedar Rapids Kennedy next to her leaning in to whisper to each other, a redhead from Davenport Central that I recognized from somewhere, and finally a runner from North Tama in the outside spot.
I was nervous – real nervous. Coach Raffensperger had talked with me after last Tuesday’s practice.
“Sarah, I’m going to have you run the 1500 on Saturday. We need to find out what you can do at the distance and this is a great meet to try it. The girl from Wahlert was 18th at state last fall and the Central runner has already broken 2:20 this spring, so it should be a good race.”
I wasn’t surprised at his words. I knew it was only a matter of time before he had me try the 1500. Now, the moment was at hand. From the bleachers across the track shouting broke my reverie.
“S – A – R – A – H, Sarah – Sarah she’s our girl, GOOOO Sarah!” It was Marie and Annette. They held a big cardboard sign with a stick figure of a running girl, above it the words “GO SARAH!”
I smiled and waved, their high-pitched squeals making me laugh.
The starter tooted on his whistle, looking across the field to make sure our feet were behind the line.
“Set.” He raised the pistol. “BANG!”
I took off like shot from a cannon, the redhead from Davenport immediately on my right shoulder as we sped down the backstretch, the rapid pace a relief after all the nervousness seconds before. Coach said to run 77 seconds the first lap, my efforts focused on hitting the magic number after a quarter of a mile.
“Seventy-five…seventy-six…seventy-seven…seventy-eight. Great job Sarah! Stay on it.”
The redhead remained on my shoulder, the rhythm of her breathing matching mine as we raced down the backstretch a second time. I went through my self-affirmations that dad had reminded me to include. Stay relaxed. Make it look easy. My tempo slowed a bit but I still felt strong as I went around the far corner, the first signs of fatigue gently nudging my body as we ran down the homestretch with half the race gone. Keep it going. This is the big lap.
Past the finish line and around the corner I could hear someone had joined us, the syncopated foot-strikes a much slower rhythm than ours. It must be the tall girl from Wahlert. I looked up for Coach Raff to give the half mile split, my fatigue now a much greater annoyance.
“2:36…2:37…2:38. You’re doing great Sarah!”
I recalled dad’s admonitions as I ran down the backstretch.
“Sarah, always remember. You read a book like War and Peace one chapter at a time. So when you race and begin to tire, break the distance into chapters, pick intermediate spots to focus on and don’t worry about the whole thing.”
Get to the homestretch. Focus on the homestretch.
Now the pain was taunting me, asking if I had the courage to continue when I approached the finish line with a lap remaining. It was uncomfortable sustaining so much speed for so long. Even though the redhead drifted behind, the lanky runner from Wahlert was suddenly at my shoulder, the pain that pounded my body making me wince as I responded her challenge. Whoa doggie. This is really getting tough.
Despite my best effort she slowly edged by, cutting in too soon as we came out of the penultimate corner, catching my toe when she moved to the railing. Damnit. I stumbled forward and windmilled my arms, barely catching my balance as we passed the starting line the last time with ¾ of a lap remaining.
It took me four steps to get back up to speed and by then she had ten yards on me with 250 meters remaining. Not much time to make up the distance. C’mon. Suck it up buttercup. I lock my eyes on her back, willing myself to close the distance between us, finally catching her halfway through the last corner, and sprinting down the homestretch with everything I held in reserve.
I raised my arms as I broke the string, slowing to a stop ten yards past the white line. Man, that hurt. Bending forward with hands on knees I waited until my breathing slowed, shuffling over to shake hands with the Wahlert runner. She smiled sheepishly and said, “Sorry” before she walked away.
From above I could hear Marie and Annette cheering loudly, jumping up and down, shifting the sign side to side, hooting, and hollering like dorks. I smiled and waved back, turning to look down the track so I could cheer on Mary Kate. She finished fourth. I patted her on the back and then walked over to get my sweats, Raff congratulating me as I headed over to the bleachers.
Annette and Marie shrieked as I walked up the stairs, racing down the front aisle to give me hugs. I was touched by their gesture.
“Thanks for coming. I didn’t expect to see you here.” They both started talking.
“Wow! You are so good.” I indicated we should sit down as Annette continued. “That redhead, I thought she might beat you, but the tall girl...” Marie cut in.
“Do you want us to beat her up for tripping you?” She had a fierce look on her face. “We’ll corner her in the locker room and knock out her headlights!”
I couldn’t help but laugh. Marie reached out and touched my necklace. “Oh, and the beaded necklace you got is totally cool. It’s so chic.”
“Thanks. Your sign is awesome.” A thought just hit me. “Hey, how did your music gig at the Women’s Coffeehouse go this morning? Annette smiled.
“Good. But it was kinda weird to play in front of an all-female audience…but it was good.” She grinned, her knee bouncing up and down. “I think I drank too much coffee!” We all laughed.
“Well.” I sighed. “I have to cool down now…but I’ll call you guys tonight.”