Yesterday, I spent all afternoon at our high school invitational track meet. (By my calculation, I walked about five miles back and forth across the track, ushering kids to their spots.) It’s a big relay meet, with almost 30 schools from around the Bay Area, and the kids run a sprint medley or a distance medley or a co-ed 4 x 800m or 4 x 200m. And, man, do they think they’re hot shit.
Fastest kid in their class, at their school, in their county, at the meet. I got conned into handing out the medals for the sprint medley (100m-100m-200m-400m) and all those kids were pretty sure they were the greatest thing since, I dunno, last year’s meet?
It made me think about when I ran track in high school. I had a love/hate relationship with track. I was fast and thought it was fun, but it lacked the team spirit and funky hi-jinks of cross-country.
Every year in high school the goal was to qualify for state. To qualify, you had to be top two at Sectionals or run a qualifying time at Sectionals — not at some other point in the season. I was an 400m and 800m runner and every year I just missed the qualifying time in the 800m. (It was 2:21.5. I still know that.) My freshman year the Sectional race was on one of those crazy Chicago days where you get shitty winter weather at the beginning of May. Terrible winds were slowing everyone down by a couple seconds a lap. I ran a 2:24 in that two-lap race. A great effort. ‘You’ll get it next year,’ everyone said. I didn’t.
The race I really remember, though, 12 years later, is the sprint medley we almost qualified in my sophomore year. I ran the 400m, after three other girls ran 100m, 100m, and 200m. We were good. We got invited to the indoor state meet based on our times in indoor track. (I lived in Chicago. We had indoor track. And, because it was Chicago, sometimes the indoor meets would be on hot February days and the outdoor meets would be held in hail in April.) When we hit the outdoor season, we won a lot. But, we ran consistently 1:53 or 1:54. Qualifying was 1:50.
The week before Sectionals, we ran a 1:53 at conference. We had to cut three seconds off, so I learned closed hand-offs in a day. I still remember Tory telling me, more or less, to just start running as fast as I could when she said ‘go’ and she’d get me the baton. If you’ve never run a relay, that’s crazy. The hand-off is nerve-wracking and takes lots and lots of practice. It’s when the most things can go wrong.
At Sectionals, it worked. We had flawless hand-offs, everyone ran the fastest they’d ever run. And, I got the baton in second place. I still remember rounding that first turn and thinking, “We’ve got it. We’ve got it. We’re going to state!” And, then, this girl who went on to run a 56″ 400m passed me. We were in third, but I could still qualify on time. I could!
We came around the last turn, less than 100m to go, and I could see the clock at the finish line. It was going to be so close. A girl came up on my inside and I could feel another behind me. We were flinging ourselves toward the finish, all hoping for the 1:50, and my legs turned to rubber. They simply couldn’t go any faster. It was the first (and, to a degree, the only) time my legs have ever completely given out like that. It wasn’t like I hit a wall or stopped being able to run, I just couldn’t make my legs turn over any faster. And, I wanted to. God, I wanted to.
I crossed the finish line in 1:51. I don’t know how I knew that. I couldn’t hear anyone in the stands or see anything else, but I knew we hadn’t made it as soon as I finished. It turned out I had run a 60:something, the fastest I’d ever run, but I only found that out later. Right then, I simply fell over on my hands and knees and started throwing up. I don’t think I got up for five minutes. I don’t think I knew you could throw up that much either.
Twelve years later, I still remember that particular combination of complete exhaustion and disappointment. I know I ran the 800m later that meet and didn’t qualify in that either, but I don’t remember anything about it.
I wonder what the kids from this weekend will remember, if they will keep running, if this will be the time they didn’t win or the time they did. I hope standing on that podium wasn’t the highlight of their lives. (And I’d like to note, for my personal satisfaction, that the winning girls team ran a 1:53.) There was a NPR story once about someone hitting their high point in high school, when they caught the softball to win the championship. It became the best thing they ever did. Nothing else could top it. That story’s become code in my family for peaking to soon, for never being able to top standing on some podium in high school. Don’t want to catch the softball, we say to each. Don’t catch the softball.