The girls toe the edge of the white line, anxious and jittery like racehorses. Some shake their legs out, do last minute checks on watches and one last stride out before the gunman raises his hand, silently staring out at us. We wait for the command. It’s the first time I’ve been in the front pack, having barely made the cutoff to start at the Olympic corner with the faster group of milers rather than back at the starting line. There’s 24 of us and this is the meet to qualify for state. Tensions are high, the humidity of the incoming storm hangs in the air and think clouds, and the static charge of determination is almost palpable.
Now here I am, six months before this moment, at five in the morning long before the sun will rise over the frozen corn fields, running. The steady drum of the treadmill under my feet beats with only one thought: state, state, state.
Since November I’ve envisioned crossing that finish line, a winner, a state qualifier, an accomplished five-minute miler. Hundreds of times, I’ve rounded that corner for the final kick. Staring at the wall ahead of me where I’ve hung a picture of last year’s state runners crossing the line with triumphic hearts, it’s all I think about. For six months, every mile, every meal, every hour of rest beats with my one goal: state, state, state.
Now I am standing at the starting line. I’m about to run the most important race of the season and my last 1600m race as a high school student. The gun shoots off, and the girls spring out like bullets.
But next thing I know, girls are catching up and they’re passing. Overtaking me actually with quite surprising ease. Then to my surprise, one of my own freshman girls surge ahead of me. The same wonderful, anxious, insecure and talented girl I led all season and mentored. The same naive and bubbly runner who does not yet know the extent of her capabilities or her competitive spirit. But nervous as she was beforehand, here she is, taking control of her race and powering all 6 ft of gangly, long legs to work and let her fly.
My only thought in the race was, I’m a senior. I can’t let a freshman beat me in my last mile race. Not the best mental pep talk I’ve ever had, but that’s what it took to power my legs and surge pass my oponents and over the line with a possible new personal best, beating the very freshman I coached all season.
But that’s not what brought me to tears, standing there in the downpour of rain. It’s not the fact that I placed tenth, nearly 30 seconds behind my goal and eight girls behind being a state qualifier. It’s not the six months of two runs a day, one in the pitch black and the other with snow, wind or rain. It’s not the sleepless nights I spent practically weeping with the desire to cross that finish line a winner.
No. What overwhelms me as I recover from the race that ended all too soon, is pride. Pure joy radiates from Mariah’s face and her freckles dimples stretch to her ears when she looks at me and beams, “I passed you, and even though you got me, I got under six minutes. I did it.”
What I worked so hard for all these months, was not for me to go to state, but to lead my team. My job was never to run a 5:20 mile, but to be a role model for the girls who look up to me. In that beautiful moment I learned I had done my job. I realized that success comes in surprising ways and it’s not always in the form of a medal.
What a beautiful thing it is to feel true joy for someone else.