High school track. I was fifteen. Pull-vaulting, long jump, sprints, shot-put, hurdles, and yeah, distance running too, all combined into one place, a football field encircled by a hard dirt track. I can’t throw. I can’t sprint, and I certainly can’t jump. So I ran distance. 800m. 1600m. And then of course the longest race of them all. The two mile race. Sure I’d done cross country where every race is three miles long. But eight times around a track is so much longer. Time is relative, Einstein says. Maybe he was a runner at heart.
On a team of over one hundred people only about ten were crazy enough to do the two-mile. I happened to be one of them. This is the story of the last time I ever ran the two-mile race. It doesn’t end well, reader be warned.
Track meets are long. With dozens of events taking place in the course of an afternoon, the hours wear on. The two mile race is the last event that requires a track. Girls run first. This March day was overcast and chilly, and threatening to rain, as the two mile race approached. It was dark, partly because daylight savings hadn’t sprung yet, and partially from the thick, unfriendly clouds that hung over the school.
I waited until the last moment to take off my warm-ups and embrace the chilly air, but as the officials hurried us to the starting line I pulled them off and threw them to the side, taking my place at the back of the very small pack of girls, who bounced and stretched to keep from stiffening in the cold. The official looked warily at the sky as he hurried through procedure. Then he pointed the starting gun into the sky, pulled the trigger, and off we went.
I was quickly left behind. But I didn’t mind. After my last two mile race, I knew what to expect. It didn’t take long before I was lapped. That was fine. I knew by the end, I’d be lapped twice. My last race, I’d run a lap in a half alone, everyone else having finished far ahead of me. This time, I wasn’t going to let the humiliation of being the only runner left, break me down.
The rain that had threatened all afternoon finally broke free of its nimbostratus prison and fell to the hardpacked dirt track I was pounding against. I felt it hit me, soaking into my uniform, dripping down my face, softening and darkening the dusty path beneath my feet. But I didn’t mind.
In the center of the track, all the athletes not competing quickly grabbed their bags and smashed themselves tightly together under the tents to get away from the chilling downpour. I watched as they huddled together to stay warm and dry, the few runners on the track all but forgotten. My bag was also forgotten. Alone in the center of the bright green football field, sat only one bag, my bright-blue JanSport. Perhaps the other runners gracefully loping ahead of me (or actually behind because they were going to lap me again) either made other arrangements or had friends to save their personal belongings from a melancholy soaking. But my drenched, lonely bag didn’t bother me either.
I knew this was going to be hard. I knew it was going to be embarrassing. I knew I would get lapped twice. I wasn’t afraid of the rain. This one time, I knew everything could go wrong and I would still do it. Because I could. I knew I could. I would win this race—not the race against the other runners. I’m not delusional. I knew there was no way under heaven that that could happen. I was going to win the race against myself.
Sometime around the fifth lap, or maybe the fourth—it’s hard to say—a curious thing began to happen. The official at the finish line indicated that I was one lap ahead of where I had thought. Now let me explain to you how a two mile race works when you are so slow you get lapped multiple times. For the fastest runners an official keeps track of the number of laps you have run, usually on a sign. However, if you are too slow, this sign becomes inaccurate, and the officials will usually just indicate the lap number by holding up their fingers.
So sometime around the fifth lap, instead of holding up five fingers the official held up six. I was surprised and confused. Had I miscounted? Had he? I replayed the previous laps in my head as I circled the track, trying to sort out numbers from the rainy, dream-like state I had been in. I thought the official was wrong. Perhaps I had just seen it incorrectly or he had made a mistake. I ran down the straight away sure I’d see the correct number this time, but he confidently held up seven fingers instead of six.
Once again I spent my next lap questioning my own counting skills, the official’s skills, and my position in relation to the other runners. I headed back down the straight away passing by the official once again. He held up eight fingers. This should be my last lap. But now I was sure he was mistaken. As I ran that last lap, only one other girl was left slogging through the pouring rain. She was behind me, but I knew I wasn’t ahead of her. No, she was coming in to lap me and finish, but I still had one last lap to do. I knew it now. There was no mistaking it.
The other girl continued to gain on me from behind, passing me on her final lap, just as we circled into the straight-away before the finish. She gave her last burst of energy to finish strong, but I didn’t, because I still had a lap left. The official had miscounted. I’d just let him know. I didn’t run that straight-away in a sprint, because I still had a lap to go, and I knew I’d run it alone, and I knew I’d run it in the rain, and I knew I had no dry clothes to put on after, but none of that mattered. Because I was not going to be defeated.
As I approached the finish-line, the boys were standing, waiting in their short shorts and jerseys to take the track. They hopped and stretched to stay warm. The official looked cold and tired. The boys’ two-mile race was the last one of the night. Then we could all go home. They would start just as soon as I crossed the finish line.
I took a deep breath and called to the official. “I still have one more lap,” running steadily, prepping for the increased speed that would begin in this last lap, culminating with a near sprint to the finish.
Then the official looked at me, fifteen years old, soaking wet, breathing hard, pumping my arms, steam rising from off of my head. He said, “I know,” and waved me off the track.
I stumbled to a stop, shocked. I had just been kicked off the track. I had anticipated everything, but not this. The boys’ race started. I stood alone in the green grass, wet with rain, under a dark grey sky. I failed. I didn’t finish. I lost the only race that mattered, the one against myself.
I never ran the two mile race again.