On rainy days they start in the smaller gym behind the high school, line up on the basketball court for drills: high knees, butt kickers. They stretch into a runner’s lunge as sweat beads inside their hooded polyester tracksuits.
She heads out with the sprinters for a warm-up run, worn sneakers pounding on the asphalt. Up the street, past the 7-Eleven, winding through trails on the office business complex, then back to the track, powder blue with white accents, modeled after school colors.
They run drills, the sprint coach standing on the football turf, stopwatch in hand. He shouts instructions, encouragement, critique of form. They stretch and socialize in between. She watches the teenage boys, tries to be nonchalant. Their skin is greasy, awkward bodies too short or too thin. The stench of dysregulated pubescent odor is far enough away to still render them somewhat appealing to her adolescent eye.
On meet days, her stomach churns, she hardly eats. She forces bites of bagels and grocery store fried chicken (someone told her chicken was good: protein) and Power Bars. Sips of Gatorade colored unnaturally green, blue, red make her feel athletic and replenished. Unfortunately, her events are always near the end of the meet. She has to wait in gastrointestinal distress, rushing to and from the bathroom, for the 400 meter dash, the 4 x 400 meter relay.
Finally her turn, she strolls out to the starting blocks, placed with the stands mercifully behind her. She sets them up to her specifications, right foot back, left foot forward. She checks her spiked shoes, slim white with a neon green detailing and magenta Nike swoop. Her wide feet and long toes always feel overly compressed in the racing shoes, like she is trying to squeeze herself into something that doesn’t quite fit.
The gun sounds and she’s off, pumping arms, cycling legs. She’s ahead going into the first straight away. But they’re staggered, it’s deceiving. She never was good at pacing without someone in front to follow. She always goes out too hard, too fast. She sees opponents emerge from behind her: one, two, three. Heading into the second curve she begins to hear the crowd, their voices register in her ears as one dull roar. As if surfacing from underwater, the wave of sound is suddenly upon her, the cheers.
Sometimes her dad stands small at the chain link fence, right before the final straight away shouting, “C’mon! C’mon!” She hears his words echo in her head as the lactic acid takes over, rounding the final curve. From behind more emerge: one, two. She slows. Out too fast again, there’s just nothing left to give.
She keeps moving, somehow, to the finish line, crosses over without her legs giving way. She leans forward, hands on knees, lungs burning, legs screaming with fatigue. The release then comes, a dissolution of tension as the stress, now behind her, lifts. She always thinks after: I could have run faster, could have tried harder, could have given more.