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For most people, the official start of the fall season signifies that it is time to partake in many glorious activities and traditions: apple picking, the wearing of boots and over-sized sweaters, the consecutive watching of all 8 Harry Potter movies, the drinking of pumpkin beer, the consumption of pumpkin-spiced anything.
For runners, autumn hails in its own unique set of past-times and experiences: the sound of crunching leaves underfoot, beginning or ending your run in darkness, breathing in cool, crisp air, the wearing of long-sleeve shirts, and last but certainly not least, the cross country season.
So in honor of the first day of fall and the hidden gem of distance running that is the sport of cross country, we’re sharing a cross country-themed short story written by our very own Elite Team member, Rachel Schilkowsky (though when she wrote this, she was still Rachel Sorna!). This piece, titled “The Line”, was written by Rachel back in 2009 as part of an English class assignment her senior year of high school. As a native of New York, the inspiration for this story is none other than long and intimidating start line of the infamous Bowdoin Park.
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You’re at the starting line. You look down at it, the actual white line, and you remember a quote you read once. “We all have a line to cross. It’s drawn for us. The difference between you and what you become. Two worlds separated by four inches of paint. Watch your step.” You wonder where you read that from. Some Nike ad probably, they always have the best quotes. You wonder what exactly it is that you are about to become. An animal maybe, a cheetah. Whatever you become, you hope it’s fast. You wonder if the line at your feet is really four inches. You briefly attempt to compare it to your own foot but stop soon after. The width of the starting line is irrelevant.
Everyone around you is moving. People are striding out and jumping up and down. You see someone breathe out a cold breath of air and realize you’re cold. November air is cold. You decide to stride out too; partly to warm up, partly because everyone else is doing it, but mostly because you know if you don’t do something soon you’ll lose it. You stride hard trying to get a feel for the opening pace. You go about 70 meters and stop. That one didn’t feel right. Your right shin felt tight and you’re breathing harder than you think you should be. A thousand little doubts and worries creep into your mind. For a moment you let yourself wander through the negative thoughts before you force yourself to snap out of it. You’re fine. You’re ready. Its pre-race jitters, that’s all. You jog around for a little bit before you see your team striding out to meet you.
Everybody circles up. You look down for a moment trying to go through in your head what you want to say. You look up and six sets of eyes are staring at you. You’re the captain and the floor is yours. You give your speech, the speech you wrote in your head the night before as you tried to fall asleep but couldn’t. The speech you hope will inspire your team to do great things. During it you look every one of your teammates in the eye. You need them to be confident, no fear. You need to convince them that you believe in them. You need to convince them that they can do it, that as a team, you can do it. There’s no one you trust more in that moment. You need them and they need you. You’re all each other has. You finish your speech and do your cheer. You scream it as loud as you can.
An official blows a whistle and announces there’s five minutes remaining until the start of the race. You know you still have time, but you and your team hurriedly stride back to the line anyway. This time the stride feels good. You feel strong and powerful, but it’s effortless. Nothing hurts, you’re breathing just fine. You let yourself relax just the tiniest bit. You think to yourself maybe today will be your day.
When you get back your coach is there with a garbage bag. You remove the last things standing between you and the elements: your pants, jacket, shorts, shirt –everything but your paper thin uniform and a pair of gloves. You were cold before but now you’re freezing. You hug your arms about you tightly trying to retain the heat rushing from your body. The wind picks up and chills you to the bone. It’s useless. You resort to just letting your body become numb. It’s easier to feel nothing.
You walk back to the line. You contemplate striding out again but decide against it. Instead you kneel down to tie your shoes. They’re already tied, double knotted, but something just doesn’t feel right. One is too tight, the other is too loose. You untie them completely. You pull the laces through just how you want them and tie them again.
You stand up and hear the same official announce that there are now two minutes until race time, and that last strides should now be taken. You go to do one but again stop yourself just before you move. You don’t need to stride anymore.
As you watch other people stride out you wonder what they’re thinking. You wonder if they are nervous like you. You hope they are. You wonder if any of their strides felt awkward or weird. You hope they did. You wonder how many of them you’ll beat. You wonder how many of them will beat you. You wonder if any of them are wondering about you.
You step into your box. It’s small. It always is. Your teammates fill in the space around you. You look up at the clock across the field.
One minute. That’s how long you have before the gun goes off. Your heart drops. It was as if until this moment you were unaware that you were about to run a race. You knew, but you didn’t really know. You didn’t want to know. You were perfectly content convincing yourself that it wasn’t going to happen. But it is. You begin to shake your legs out. You look down the line and watch as everyone else does too. The line is alive.
Thirty seconds. Your mind begins to race. You want everything to slow down; suddenly you don’t think you’re ready to run. If you could only have a couple more minutes you would be fine. But it’s too late. The official with the gun is already walking out to the center of the field. You’re out of time. This is it. You shake off the thought and pull yourself together.
Twenty Seconds. You close your eyes. You visualize the course in your mind. You know it by heart. Every turn, every tree, every little divot in the ground, you know exactly where it is. You know what parts of the course are going to help you. You remind yourself to run those hard, even if they feel easy. You know what parts of the course are going to be difficult. You remind yourself to run those harder.
Fifteen seconds. You ask yourself why. Why are you there? Why are doing this to yourself? No one is making you run this race. Your coaches and teammates and everyone else want you to run, but the choice is entirely yours. If you wanted to you could stop right now. Step away from the line, leave, go home. You think about how it would be the easiest thing in the world to just walk away. But then you think about how it wouldn’t. You realize it would be impossible. The very idea of walking away makes you shudder. You could never do it. The expectations are too high. You’ve worked too hard. No, quitting is not an option. You’ve made a commitment and you’re going to honor it. You clear your mind of all questions. No more second thoughts.
Ten seconds. The whistle is blown. You step up to the line. No one is going to know if your foot is on the white, but you take an extra moment to make sure the tip of your spike lies right before. You get into your stance. Knees bent, elbows out. You clench your fists. You take one last look down the line. The line is still, waiting.
Three seconds. The gun is up. The world stops. Everything becomes crystal clear. You hear everyone draw one final breath and then nothing. It is complete silence. Exhilarating and terrifying silence. You look away from the clock and stare out across the open field.
The gun goes off. Everything, every worry, fear or doubt melts away. It’s you and the other runners and the course and that’s it.