On the bus ride to the Boys and Girls State Track Meet in Des Moines I listened to music on my transistor radio, praying this weekend would be better than the one a year ago. My period was last week so I didn’t have to deal with memories of last year’s failure, but I still had a lot of worries.
Up to this point I was undefeated in the 1500 meters, my 4:46.2 fifth in the Class 3A state rankings. Our 4x100 and 4x400 relays qualified, as did Shelly in the 400 and Holly in the high jump after her 5’4” effort at districts. It was so much more fun to travel with a boys and girls team instead of feeling like an intruder on the boy’s bus.
When we got there all the girls ran down to the track and posed at the ramp from the track, the sign above our heads inscribed with the words, “Through this Tunnel pass the Greatest Athletes in the World.” Coach Raffensperger took two pictures with the Kodak Instamatic, one with big smiles and the other with goofy faces and two fingers behind every head, reminding us to eat the sack lunches before we explored campus with the boys.
Friday was prelims so I only had to run on the 4 x 400 relay late in the afternoon, eating an early lunch before we rested on the bleachers inside the Drake fieldhouse. I watched our girls 4x100 squad pass the baton smoothly around the track but finish fourth in the third heat, not fast enough to be one of the eight who would run in the finals tomorrow. Bummer.
Even though I eased into the finish line Friday afternoon in the 4x400 prelims, we still broke the school record with a 4:06.5 and qualified for the final, Shelly and I splitting 1:00.3 and 1:00.6. I gave a sigh of relief as I broke the string in Heat 2, grateful no one had dropped the baton or been tripped.
That evening the boys and girls teams had a late dinner at Happy Joes in our East High sweats, the boys eating all our leftover pasta and pizza – the Taco Joe, and Hawaiian selections by far the most popular. I wasn’t so sure about those choices. We begged the coaches for ice cream after but to no avail. My dad and Coach Raff said we had to wait for that until tomorrow.
It was neat to be introduced Saturday morning by the meet announcer standing at trackside, Jim Duncan describing me as such.
“In position 4 wearing the blue and red, that’s 8th grader Sarah Tucker of Iowa City East, her best this spring ranking her 5th in the 1500.” I waved when the girls cheered from above, staring down the track as I waited for him to finish with the rest of the field.
Sixteen runners leaned forward, an official walking the waterfall line to make sure feet were behind. The .32 caliber sounded like a cannon, the reverberations echoing off the stadium walls as we shot down the backstretch. I took off as hard as I did yesterday on the mile relay, girls crushing in on me from every direction, using my hand out to keep runners on the right from cutting in.
Despite my best intention to get in good position up front, I was running in lane two from somewhere in the middle of the field as we rounded the initial corner in a giant swarm, going so fast I was convinced our first lap would be 65 seconds.
The tempo slowed as we raced down the homestretch in front of the press box, Jim Duncan calling out the order up front as we passed.
“That’s Julie Williams of Spencer leading the pack, Ayers of Fort Dodge, Parks of Hoover…
I was trapped on the rail in nineth place, desperately searching for a space to jump through so I could get up with the leaders. C’mon. Move! Let me out. Around the corner and into the backstretch I kept sneaking peeks over my right shoulder as the field began to string out, catching the edge of someone’s foot when I glanced over a shoulder too long. Whoa. Gotta be careful. Down the homestretch a second time Jim Duncan called out the order.
“That’s Williams, Ayers, and Parks who are breaking away from the pack.” Damnit! I gotta get up there.
Out of desperation, I made a leap through a small gap as we rounded the south corner at the 1500 starting line, praying there was no yellow flag indicating I jostled a runner. Hallelujah! I finally had a clear path, moving into eighth place, and then seventh just before the corner, waiting to pass another until I got on the homestretch, sliding into sixth with 450 meters remaining.
“That’s Tucker of East High who just moved into 6th, Williams and Ayers continuing to pull away from the rest of the field.”
Gotta catch another. Don’t give up.
I chased after the girl in purple and yellow just going into the corner, racing after her like she was the last train of the day, watching her blond ponytail as it swung side to side. I was aware of Jim Duncan’s excited voice describing something going on with the leaders as I entered the backstretch, but his words didn’t register in my thoughts, the girl in front of me the only person that I noticed.
C’mon Sarah, you can do it. You can catch her.
Dad was on the rail as I passed the 1500 starting line the last time, shouting with cupped hands.
“Let’s go Sarah. You can get her.” It was as if he read my mind.
Down the backstretch she held the same ten yard gap, my eyes searching for a sign, something to show me she was tiring, pain squeezing my body as the yards flew by. Near the end of the backstretch I spotted the flaw. Her head began bobbing side to side, the WDM Tiger’s legs no longer producing the powerful drive displayed seconds earlier. She was struggling. Gotta go!
I charged after her with all I had, the gap narrowing to seven yards as we came out of the final corner, down to three as we passed the south long jump pit. I can get her.
“Folks, that’s Tucker, the eighth grader going after Mahoney. What a battle. Bring ‘em in.”
Swinging into lane two the path ahead was clear as the distance dropped to two and then one meter as I sprinted hard, passing Mahoney five meters from the line, elation washing over me as I slowed past the finish. I did it! I did it!
Waves of pain struck like a stormy California surf, making me stagger sideways as I eased to a stop. I bent over with hands on my knees, the girl I’d outkicked leaning beside me, her breaths racing faster than mine. I patted her on the back, taking a deep breath before I could say, “Good job” while we stared at the blue track.
I caught my breath and finally stood tall, the winner turning towards me with a smile to shake my hand. Even though I finished fifth, I was happy.
I sat beside dad on the way home, listening to his analysis of my 1500.
“I don’t know that there was much more you could have done at the start. Sometimes a good race is dependent on the luck of the draw. An outside spot is best because you can stay out of the crunch and pick the time you want to cut in. Being on the inside with a large field is not a great place. You’re getting hit from everywhere.”
“Still, I was pleased with the 4:42.86. What’s that as a mile?”
“Add twenty seconds. So about 5:02.” Dad gave me a hug.
“Well, I’m going back to my seat…but I guess you were right.” I grinned as I talked over my shoulder. “I’m not really a sprinter.”