by Clive Aaron Gill
“Run to beat your personal best today,” said Coach Martinez, a man with iron-gray hair and a spreading paunch. “You’re competing with the top runners. Steve, you’ve got a good chance to lead your team to victory, plus win the race individually.”
“Yes, Coach,” I replied, knowing I needed to win to get a college scholarship. My adoptive parents couldn’t help me financially, and I didn’t want to graduate from college with huge loans.
“Your old rival, Red, from The Bishop’s school, is your strongest competitor,” Coach said. “He’s gotten faster. If he’s in front of you, expect him to run shoulder to shoulder with his running buddy to block you. Go around them or push through.”
“I will, Coach.”
My team of ten from San Pasqual High School in Escondido, California wore royal-blue T-shirts and faced Coach. All year we had looked forward to the seventy-first cross-country invitational at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California.
“After your practice run yesterday, you know the twists and turns of the course,” Coach said, his eyes roving to each boy. “Remember to pump your arms. Tuck them in. Focus on your breath.”
During the last four months, we had built endurance by running three miles, six days a week to prepare for this event.
“When things get rough, stick to it.” Coach slammed his fist into his hand. “You have all improved your times since you started training this year. Jacob, you having a bad day?”
“Got a headache, Coach. I don’t—”
Coach interrupted him with a quick wave of his hand. “Running will take care of a headache, Jacob. At first, it will get worse. Embrace the pain. Run through it. By the time the race is over, your headache will be gone.”
Jacob nodded with seeming acceptance.
“Listen up,” Coach said. “Keep an even pace, including up and down hills. Tune out all distractions. Brandon, you look distracted. Are you mentally ready?”
“I was imagining our team winning. But I’m ready now, Coach.”
“Think like winners and you will be winners,” Coach said. “Remember, in life, you choose to be good or great. Are you ready to be great?” he bellowed.
“Yes, Coach,” we shouted.
“Go get ’em.”
My team members and I huddled in a circle, our arms over each other’s shoulders.
I shouted, “We are runners.”
The other boys replied, “We are runners.”
“We can,” I yelled.
“We will,” they whooped.
“Go, Golden Eagles,” we all screamed, jumping up and raising our fists.
A red-tailed hawk circled above us as if surveying the tightly packed athletes at the start area.
A warm wind blew against my face, and I smelled the nervous perspiration of those close to me. My girlfriend had said I seem to run without effort, although it sure didn’t feel like that. Being tall gave me a longer stride than most other boys.
At the start line on the former airstrip, I jogged in place with my running buddy, Joker. He earned his name because he loved to tell entertaining stories.
Dat, an immigrant from Vietnam, a thin boy with dark brown skin, stood beside me. He recently dreamed he had finished in fifth place for our team. The best he had managed until now was seventh. At this meet, he was determined to finish fourth or fifth, because only the first five runners’ scores in each team were counted in the team competition. He wanted his grandfather, who traveled with us, to be proud of him. His grandpa, a former general in the South Vietnamese Army, had boarded one of the last flights out of Saigon before the North Vietnamese Army captured the city.
Dat turned to look at the crowd of spectators in the bleachers.
The race starter walked to the side of the competitors, twenty yards in front of the start line.
Some boys coughed. Others stretched their hamstrings. I took deep breaths to calm my nerves while visualizing myself breaking the finish line ribbon.
“Stand still,” the race starter said through a microphone. “Toes behind the line.” He blew a long, loud blast of his whistle. “Contestants to your marks.” He raised a red flag and the starter gun.
Matt and Zack, who stood behind me, were running buddies. Zack, nicknamed Rabbi, believed he could help people with spiritual ideas.
Coach was especially proud of Matt who had a kidney disease. Joining the team as a sophomore, he came in last during practice runs. He improved until, in his senior year, he finished six seconds after me in a cross-country meet. He once told me, “Every race is a fight. But I enjoy being part of the team.” He earned the name, Champ.
“Bang.” A puff of smoke rose and the starter’s flag came down.
We ran forward, jostling for good positions. Some nervous participants sprinted. I recalled Coach’s warning to pace ourselves, and I settled into a steady rhythm with Joker, our feet pounding the asphalt of the old airstrip. We turned onto Valley Loop, a flat, dirt road. Live oak trees and green grass grew on the sides. For the first mile of the three-mile race, we maintained our pace, packed close together and kicking up dust. With Joker running by my side, I got my second wind and overtook panting athletes.
Running up the first and longest hill with four hairpin turns, Red and his running mate ran side by side in front of Joker and me. Joker tried passing on the right, but they blocked him. Then Red’s running buddy doubled over and collapsed at the edge of the path, holding his stomach as if he had a cramp. Red looked back, and Joker and I overtook him.
I again remembered Coach’s words as I ran up the slope. “Change gears to shorten your stride. Lean forward and keep a steady pace.”
Joker and I reached the top of the hill, then ran down to the U-turn at the bottom.
Poop Out Hill, the steepest incline on the course, was next, and I gasped while I climbed it.
A short distance from the top, a flock of crows, startled by the runners, flapped their wings and wheeled up with screeches and hoarse caws.
We climbed the gentle slope of Reservoir Hill and ran down the steep descent to the last curve before the flat finish area.
Coach stood at the side of the road, clapping and yelling, “Kick it in. C’mon. Pick it up.”
Champ and Rabbi passed Joker and me.
Champ tripped, staggered and fell as heavily as a sandbag. He grunted as he grazed his face and hands and swallowed brown dirt. Red hurdled over Champ’s spread-eagled body and ran in first place.
“Joker, Rabbi,” I shouted, “keep going.”
I stood over Champ. “Get up. Let’s go.”
He leaned on his elbow, shaking and wheezing. “Damn.” He tried to stand but swayed as if drunk.
“Come on,” I screamed, “you’re Champ.”
The rest of the boys in my team ran past us and sped toward Red, Joker and Rabbi. Spectators at the finish area in the Hilmer Lodge Stadium cheered.
Joker sprinted and caught up to Red. The onlookers in the bleachers applauded and shrieked. Then Red increased his stride and finished first. He raised and pumped his fist.
Joker, Rabbi and two other team members finished in the first four positions for my team.
Mousey and Dat ran alongside each other, their legs moving in unison, shoulders heaving.
Mousey pulled ahead stride for stride, and the screaming crowd leapt to their feet.
“You do it, Dat,” his grandpa shouted in a hoarse voice. “Go, go, go.”
His grandfather’s words seemed to give Dat a jolt of energy. He caught up to Mousey ten yards before the finish line and leaning forward, crossed ahead of him in fifth place.
Runners who had completed the race, walked with their hands on their hips. Perspiration stained their shirts. Some boys bent over. Others collapsed onto their backs.
I held Champ’s hands, then lifted and steadied him. We were the last two competitors, and I knew I’d lost my chance of getting a scholarship.
We jogged forward and were greeted by a roar from the spectators. After we crossed the finish line, Champ fell to his knees at the side of the track, shaking with sobs and gravelly breaths, his nostrils flaring, sweat dripping from his forehead. Team members crowded around to commend us for completing the race.
Coach ran up and told the team members to walk for five minutes to cool down. Then he gestured for us to sit around him. He squatted and removed his sunglasses. “Jacob, do you still have a headache?”
“No, Coach. It went away after the first two miles.”
“Good. Dat, you gave it your all to make fifth place.”
“Steve, you did good to help Champ finish.”
All the team members gave Champ and me high-fives.
“The judges are tabulating the team results,” Coach said, his voice cracking. “But I know we didn’t win. Wherever our team does place, I’m proud of you all.”
“We pushed hard,” I said.
“Yes, every one of you did. Steve, although Red won today, a Stanford scout told me he knows your stats. And he liked what you did for Champ. He said you’re an emerging talent. He’d like to talk to you.”
I grinned, and my teammates gave me fist bumps.
Coach looked down as his tear rolled into the powdery dirt.