The grass is wet and reflective where the rising sun has hit and melted the morning frost, the rest that has been untouched by the sun’s rays remain frozen. The air is crisp and frigid and the sky is tinted a smooth gray. I glance to my left, I glance to my right, and I see the same thing in both directions, runners. I am on the line of my senior year Cross Country State Championships and I can hear nothing more than a constant roar from the packed side lines. I look behind me and see the worried faces of my teammates. I tell them the same thing I always tell them “In the competitors heads they are the gazelles and we are the lions, they believe they’re the ones being hunted, don’t prove them wrong”. It eases them but not for long because they can see that inside my head I am also pondering if I am a lion or a gazelle. I try to tell myself that I am a soldier sandwiched between the people I will be going to war with but just like a soldier I am cautious, I don’t know if smooth sailing lies in front of me or an all-out bullets whizzing by my head free for all. The starter manages to make his way through the crowd out to the middle of the battlefield and reads the usual rules, I block him out and just repeat the same thing in my head over and over , “top 30, top 30, top 30”. Top 30 in the race would solidify my name in history forever as All-State Runner. The starter stops talking and raises his pistol. The only thing I know for sure is that this is the last time I’m going to see this grass look this good. The starter is a ways away so I see the smoke from the gun first then hear the bang. POW! Here we go.
It is Friday, the day before State Meet. The alarm goes off but it doesn’t matter, I’ve been up for hours with the same thing on my mind….racing. I slip into my jeans and t-shirt and try to remember something my ma always tells me, they put their pants on and brush their teeth just like you do. I apply this saying to my competition in order to stay away from psyching myself out and making them seem like they are more than human or better than me. My morning routine goes on and I start up the van and make my way to school, I keep the radio off, I need to stay focus. I walk through the schools double doors and notice all the halls are decorated with fall sports posters. As I make my way to class I examine student made poster after poster saying “Lets go Wildcat swimmers” or “You can do it Lucas, score that goal”, I even see a few for the chess club. Eventually I run into a cross country poster which is small and crinkled. It appeared like it should have been telling pirates where to find treasure rather than cheering on a team. The dying sharpies it was made with added a nice warm touch though. I shrug it off, and just remember I don’t do it for the glory.
The race has just begun and so has the elbowing, like a pack of wild dogs fighting over a carcass for dinner we all try to gain a better position. The air is cool and just like giant monster breathing, our breath escapes our lungs then dissipate in the air. The music of stomping feet can be heard all around. I realize now there will be no easy sailing. After making it around the course’s first turn a runner slips and falls into the dirt, his bright white jersey is quickly sprinkled in brown. My mind races, no pun intended. Should I side step him, stomp on him, or hurdle him? Hurdling would be the cool thing to do but there is no time. I get pushed just off course from the collision and he becomes someone else’s problem. Poor guy. I become to worry after seeing the kid left behind in the dirt, did I double knot my shoes, is my number going to stay on, what if I fall? I eventually clear my head of thoughts that will only slow me down and just look ahead. We cross over a dirt road where more parents and fans have gathered. The common names are heard over and again, “Push it Jake” or “You’re looking good Tom”. Their sons try to show off and speed up, kicking up a cloud a dirt that finds my eyes. Eventually the crowd of Jakes and Toms clear along with the dirt and I manage to see the sign just ahead. 1 MILE it reads.
It is noon on Friday, I skip out on school lunch and decide to go home to get a more nutritious meal, I’m going to need it. My appetite is gone but I know I must eat so I force feed myself. I return to school and remain very self-conscious of how many stairs I climb or how much standing I’m doing, I want the freshest legs possible, I know it sounds ridiculous. The school day drags on and while my friends laugh and joke I refrain from doing the same. I find what they say funny but almost feel the sense of responsibility to stay serious and focused. Whenever I find myself having a good time I end it. The bell rings and the rest of the day is mine.
The first mile is in the books and those who went out in an insane pace are slowly gaining back their sanity. The ugly monster called fatigue tries to make a run at my legs, I knock him off. I start counting heads in front of me. My eyes are watering and it is hard to make out an exact count so I just guess. 45, 46, 47,48… I’m in 49th! I start to panic and begin worrying what I should do. Should I sprint to the front of group or play it safe back here? I notice a familiar voice. “Jalen, you’re in a good spot, now lets move”. It’s my coach, I calm down and do what he says. My legs turn over a little faster and I’m picking guys off now. Another runner falls victim to the course and eats dirt, but I’m in the zone, it doesn’t even phase me now. At that moment I knew I was the lion and these guys in front of me were the gazelles. I have this high about me now and its showing as I pass another group of runners. I decide to count again. 21, 22, 23, 24. 25th place belongs to me right now and in my mind I think if this was a movie then this scene would be the part where the main character saves the girl, blows up the arch villains hideout, and makes away clean, or at least I hoped so. My dreaming is interrupted by more crazed fans and a sign that reads 2 MILES.
It is Friday evening and even though school is out I can’t relax. My head would run over bad situation after bad situation. Ever since I could remember I was an excessive worrier and I hated every bit of it. From the clinched fist to the counting how many stairs I climbed, I absolutely hated it. I laid on my bed and prayed for strength and courage, to be the guys that you see on ESPN on how they came from rags to holding up a trophy. Instead what I should have been praying for was how blessed I was to be in this situation or thanking God that trying to be All-State was my biggest worry, but I didn’t. I eventually drift off into an uneasy sleep.
The first two miles of the 3.1 mile race were done and now the real work began. I kept my legs turning and just kept sight of my goal and the pattern continued. I caught guy after guy until I heard “Jalen, you’re in 12th!” We are now coming up on a half mile to go, I can almost see the finish. But then something changes, my legs feel weighted down. The monster called fatigue is back and he brought friends. I try to shake him like I did last time but there is no chance, he’s here to stay. My legs turn from smoking wheels to jello. And not the good name brand jello, I’m talking about dollar store or maybe school cafeteria jello. The tables slowly turn and what was once my huge lion’s mane has now shed and has revealed two stubby horns, I am a gazelle. I drop from 12th to 13th but that’s not the end. Soon I surrender 13th place also, and after that I trade 14th for 15th. It’s weird running in a giant pack at a finish of a race because you may find yourself passing people but also getting passed at the same time, this is what’s happening, I suddenly get passed by 3 guys but I grab another 3 in the process. I finally forget counting and just run and pray. The fans from Albion can be heard saying “Run Jalen, Run!” If I only had the air to spare I would turn to them and yell “WHAT DO YOU THINK I’M TRYING TO DO!” It’s a dead sprint, the runners by my side and next to me look like an ugly zombie horde who have just got whiff of a fresh human. Our forms are gone and were running on pure guts. The finish line comes soon after and I stumble into the runner’s backs in front of me that have come to a sudden halt. My ears jump from voice to voice trying to hear what place I’ve gotten. I ask random people who have never seen me a day in my life, they grim me and shrug me off but I just wander to another stranger and ask the same question. I finally run into a stranger I know, my father. He smiles at me and says 16th. I smile also, it is the first real smile I’ve had in two days. I pray to God, not because I’m All State, I would have prayed to him regardless of that fact, I prayed and thanked him that he had blessed me to experience this. 16th isn’t winning but I realized I don’t have to be the guy raising the trophy on ESPN to be happy and that’s all that truly mattered to me.
It is 4:06 am Race day morning. My uneasy sleep has failed me and I am awake for hours, just me and my thoughts. The alarm goes off.