A Race I'd Never Win
As I laced up my Nikes and swept my hair into a tight ponytail, I scanned the high school gym, checking out my cross country teammates. I enjoyed running, so joining the cross country team had seemed like a good idea. But as I studied the muscular bodies surrounding me, I realized these were not amateurs. These were hard-core athletes.
Why did I join the team? What was I thinking?
As I continued to silently berate myself, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Hi, I'm Tammy. I'm a sophomore, but I don't remember you from last year."
"Umm, yeah," I stammered. "Well, I'm a junior, but I've never run before—not on a team, I mean."
"Have you run any road races? 10Ks? Minis?" Tammy asked.
"Minis?" I asked.
"Yeah, mini-marathons. That's 13.1 miles," she beamed, clearly a "mini-veteran" herself.
"No," I admitted sheepishly. "I just run for fun."
"Oh, well, see ya," she chirped as she spun around, her long ponytail flipping me in the cheek.
I stood there, my cheek stinging, my mind spinning, and my hopes sinking as Tammy flitted off in search of a more compatible running companion.
Then, as if I weren't already feeling self-conscious, I learned that even though the boys had a separate coach, practices would be co-ed.
The girls' coach, Coach Bogelstein (the girls called her "Bogey"), assembled us for a "pep" talk.
"Listen up!" Bogey shouted in her raspy voice. "I know it's hot out there, but what do you expect? It's August in Indiana! Practices will be hot and you will get tired, so if you're expecting easy four-milers followed by sipping lemonade in the shade, you're dreaming."
After Bogey finished her lecture, she split us into two practice groups—Team A and Team B—which may as well have been called "The Hares" and "The Tortoises."
I was quickly shuffled into the "B" team corner. As I looked around at my running mates, I couldn't help feeling like we were viewed as the ones without much promise.
The next day at practice, all eyes were on Matthew Erickson, the star of the boy's team. He was a tall, tanned senior with deep dimples, light blue eyes, and dark brown hair that looked perfectly-styled even after a six-mile run in 90-degree heat. Having won nearly every race since his sophomore year, he was quite popular with coaches, teammates and spectators.
"Matthew is something else, isn't he?" said my friend, Ally.
"Yeah, he sure is," I replied as I watched him run warm-up laps.
A moment later, Matthew stopped to swig some water, and before he had the chance to uncap the water bottle, the "A" team swarmed him, offering him a drink to quench his thirst, a towel to wipe his sweat, and a partner to help him stretch. That's when it hit me: if I could get him to accept me, everyone would accept me.
But before I could get Matthew to accept me, I needed to get him to notice me. And to do that, I'd have to improve big time. I went home from practice determined to turn myself into a better runner. In the days that followed, I ran distance, intervals and hills. I even got up before dawn each day to run five miles before school—definitely my loneliest 45 minutes of the day. But I endured the feeling of isolation each morning in hope that one afternoon I wouldn't feel isolated at practice.