Coach Forwald had us sit in the seat by the front door of the school bus, my red meet sweats a size too big. I was afraid I looked like a dork, forced to fold the waistband of sweatpants twice so they didn’t drag on the ground. At least the tank top and shorts fit reasonably well – although I still had to wear an undershirt because it was a boys singlet.
When the bus took off Shelly talked about the movie Andy and her went to last night as I stared at the spikes on the floor. I was so jealous. I still didn’t have any.
“We saw Bad News Bears at the Varsity Theater…it’s a baseball movie with Tatum O’Neal, you know, that girl who was in Paper Moon.” Shelly turned to see what coach was doing and then leaned into me, whispering towards my ear. “But we were so busy making out I don’t remember much of the show. Andy even tried to give me a French kiss.” She giggled with a hand over her mouth. Coach Forwald looked up from his papers as she quickly turned her head.
What’s a French kiss? I lifted my eyebrows and smiled like I knew.
“So anyway.” She resumed in a normal voice. “Coach said Bettendorf, Decorah, North Tama…and I think it was Washington who will have full teams, but a lot of the schools are like us – have less than four. So we can’t score.” She hunched her shoulders. “But we can still get ribbons if we run well.” A grin filled her face at the thought.
Ninety minutes later I stood at the starting line beside Shelly, looking to the right and left at the forty-plus girls lined up on either side, two Linn-Mar runners sharing the starting box with us. When I asked Shelly what our strategy was before the race she giggled and said, “Just run with me.”
The gun went off and we sprinted to the front of the V like anxious members of the Oklahoma Land Rush, a skinny girl in all red and a much shorter one in a white top leading the field, the pair only ten yards in front of us. I glanced to my right to make sure Shelly was still there, her blond ponytail snapping side to side as we ran alongside a small pond. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, hanging onto my teammate like my life depended on it. I should have peed once more.
The insane tempo finally settled into a more comfortable rhythm even though my breaths continued to come as fast as Shelly’s, the thought of two miles unnerving. This was worse than practice. We flew past a playground, a few of the junior varsity boys cheering us on as they sat on the swings – they were supposed to be cooling down after their race.
A glance around our pack showed that it had whittled down to seven as we made the U-turn just past the mile maker, the thought of another mile sounding impossible. I was already breathing so rapidly I didn’t know if I could last much longer. This is stupid. Why did I agree to come out for cross country?
With a quarter mile remaining my breaths were ragged, quads screaming at me to slow down, each leg feeling like I was on the twenty-fifth flight of stairs. I’m dying. Down the final straight runners went by me one by one and I dropped into nineth place, my body whimpering like a chastened dog as I crossed the chalked line and walked through the chutes. I wanted to collapse.
This is WORSE than a quarter mile on the track!
I walked with hands atop my head, breaths coming out in rapid bursts, sweat rolling down my temples on the warm fall day as I tried to slow my breathing. An official wrote down my number at the end of the flagged chute, my body dropping to the grass like I was shot by a sniper’s bullet. This hurts so much.
I covered my eyebrows with a forearm, trying to keep the sun out of my eyes, annoyed by its brightness. A small girl in a white jersey with “Hedrick” on the chest bent down and patted me on the shoulder saying, “Nice race.”
Seconds later Shelly reached out and pulled me to my feet.
“C’mon lazybones. Get up. We need to walk around.”
Coach Forwald approached and patted us each on the back.
“Good efforts girls. 12:21 and 12:30. A good start to the season.” He smiled. “When you catch your breath get a mile cool down and then cheer on the varsity boys.
I was quiet on the bus ride home, mostly because I was so tired, but also because there was something about this sport – facing the pain and rising to the challenge that appealed to me. It wasn’t that I liked to suffer. Because I definitely didn’t. But I liked overcoming the battle going on inside my head. The pride I gained from overcoming the adversity. The same way I felt after the 440 win last summer. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as bad as I thought.
I looked down at the white ribbon in my hand, sighing as I stared out the bus window.