Updated: Jan 16, 2019

Those who run are not justly named human; we are creatures of flight, the bound of toe to earth lasting far less than a worldly second. We are primitive, though our instincts have evolved to modern triggers of the “fight or flight” response: stress, uncertainty, uncontrollable forces. There is an unnatural flow of adrenaline through us that is almost palpable by those we sprint past. Though craving a ten-mile run could be called crazy, this is what keeps us sane. Balanced.

It was a scorching day in the beginning of June. The air was heavy with moisture and pressure—not exactly ideal conditions for the last outdoor track meet of the year. The score tables were already set up upon our arrival. Timers assumed their positions, checking and double-checking their reflexes, visualizing the passing of blurred feet over the lines of the 100-meter mark. Such raw energy came from the unloading of the buses, each athlete focusing in on the work they had to do. It was now or never.

The vaulters and throwers kept their heads down in silent concentration, appearing as monks during Morning Prayer. Our eyes were all locked just ahead of our footfalls, aiming ever-forward. Our mouths would announce the script we memorized in robotic fashion as we stepped up to the record table.

Amber Cunningham, sixteen-hundred-meter race, first seed. My nerves spun under my skin. The athletes fed off of one another’s energy, whether we knew it or not; we were giving the winner of the race their medal from the moment we stepped onto the churned rubber.

I was seeded second to last, but I wasn’t worried. Today wasn't about placing or points. Being in the back of the pack meant I had the opportunity to pass other runners, to work off of the positive reinforcement of moving up in rank. I would stare, unblinkingly, at the right shoulder of the runner ahead of me. I would watch for signs of weakness in their joints, note every twinge of their tendons, every strained stretch of muscle. I had a pack to follow. I’d ride along with them, and they would carry me to my goal.

The fastest runners flew from one side of the fence to the other, their knees reaching their chests, lunging closer and closer to the ground each time. Each demonstration of speed and discipline was a wordless signal to the others: don't try and stop me. They were nothing short of gods in the eyes of their supporting lower seeds.

After a warm up, as my muscles began to relax and my mind settled, I sat on the metal bleachers alongside the 100-meter stretch that led to the finish line. I held my head in my hands, between my legs, and closed my eyes; I forgot about the trials of the school day, the hardship I had gone through for the past two-and-a-half years. I left my heartbreak behind, along with the betrayals that came along with being in high school. This was the last day I had, the last chance to reach that seemingly impossible goal I had set my freshman year. Nothing would stand in the way of my five minute and fifty-five second mile run.

I traveled back to those futile moments in training and racing, when I came so close, but was still impossibly far from the one thing I craved to reach. The year started out with another round of physical therapy; the bursitis in my right hip was acting up, an injury that cost me an entire season of cross country. I built back up to six minutes and thirty seconds halfway through the season—another disappointment. 6:15 was closer, but still a far reach for my weakened legs and spirit. My fortune began to turn halfway through my senior season: 6:05. Not sub-six, but better than being twenty seconds away from what seemed like the speed of sound.

My tenacity didn't go unnoticed, as the collective of coaches for Southington High sports had named me female athlete of the week. With each flare-up of my bursitis, I worked through rounds of therapy and got back to my personal record. But, as I climbed the ladder toward my 5:55, I realized that there was a very real chance that I might fail—that my hard work might not be enough.

The starting gun went off for the 800-meter relay, stirring me out of my spiraling. Negativity had never helped me before, and there was no use in trying different methods now.

A hand reached out in front of my face, holding a metal Thermos before my eyes. I absent-mindedly grabbed it from my mother’s hand, beginning to down the cool water. A vile taste of rotten oranges and dirt sent me reeling, forcing myself to swallow the bitter concoction.

“What the hell is that?!” I choked, the citric acid burning my tongue.

“It’s an energy drink,” my mother laughed. “I could see you yawning from a mile away. Dad is freaking out.” My father coached me most of my life, and was a runner himself. I looked over at him standing by the starting line, jokingly mouthing at me to “cut the crap.” I chugged the entire bottle, nose plugged. Yawning, I knew, didn’t mean I was tired; it was a reaction I had at every race when I was nervous, but a little more energy couldn’t hurt. I liked to think that yawning was my body’s way of taking in extra oxygen, of fueling my muscles for this upcoming bout of extra hard work.

I began to dread the race. Every single second was so pivotal, and there were so many past seconds that I had let go to waste. I had fantasized about this day during every race of my high school career, and now that I was running toward my own end, I was frightened. What if I failed in front of everyone? I cursed myself for making the mistake of letting my goal be known to others.

My nails cut into the palms of my hands as my body trembled from the extreme amounts of energy drink and adrenaline. Last call for the 1600-meter race. Shouts and cheers of support from my teammates and family rang in my ears as my feet hesitantly carried me to the starting line. I cradled the watch on my wrist, repeating the split times in my mind over and over again, all leading up to fives across the board.

My toes grazed the white curved line of the third lane. I wasn’t last, but I was very far from first. This day wasn’t about place—my coach ensured me of that. He was pushing for sub-six as well, and was there to see me surpass my personal record. 6:05 may be a mere ten seconds slower than 5:55, but those moments were usually eaten up in the third lap, when the mind games began.

I looked down at my wrist, then looked up to my father, his face blank. I could feel the stirring of his stomach from a mile away, and just before the official took his place beside the start, I flung my watch toward the fence. No distractions, I mouthed. If I was going to run, I was going to run.

I wished “good luck” to the girls surrounding me, my voice shaky with anticipation.

The official raised his gun, settling his index finger onto the trigger.

Here it goes.

First lap: fast. Much too fast; about ten seconds faster than my split time. I could hear my coach screaming Too fast, pace yourself!

Second lap: still fast, by five seconds. My concentration muffled the voices of the crowd as I headed into the third lap.

The third lap, as always, was a bit slow. The third lap is when the lactic acid starts to set in, your calves begin to burn, your mind begs you to stop. You fight against your thoughts while, at the same time, remaining undistracted; you enter an entirely different dimension in your mind while staying completely grounded. Fortunately, I had extra time. I did not let that enter my mind, though; I had work to do, and overconfidence tended to weigh my feet down.

Last lap. I was finally able to look up at the scoreboard, watching the seconds tick by. It was impossible to get below six at this point. 5:25 at the middle of the last 200-meter bend. I could hear my mother screaming her throat hoarse, my father cupping his mouth in an effort to reach my ears, and all of my teammates going wild in the stands. My legs pushed, but I could barely go any faster. I was reaching my limit.

Just as my spirit began to crack, the pain in my legs suddenly gave way to runner’s high, and I trampled every horrible thought into the rubber of the straightaway. 5:52. I put my head down and pushed. The line was at my toes.

I crossed the line at fifth place out of seven. Crouching over my knees, I went blind and deaf at the same time; all that was audible was my breathing. Suddenly, though, the roar of my fellow distance runners overpowered the silence. I hadn’t looked at the clock during the last few seconds. Slowly, I turned to face my father, who emphatically shouted 5:53! 5:53! from behind the wire fencing. My eyes welled up in sheer happiness and relief as I wiped the sweat from my face, barely conscious enough to walk to the side of the track.

Nothing, I knew, had any chance against the inevitable end. After a long pause of exhaustion, my legs carried me back to the friends I had grown with for four years. They carried me to friends and family, past sore memories of a dramatic senior year, and toward a new beginning. These legs now knew a mile run faster than six minutes. An end was now a finishing line, an achieved time, the beginning of growth beyond the fences.

© 2020 Amber Cunningham.