The fall wind at my back, and the crunch of orange and brown leaves beneath my feet, I ran half-heartedly on a course behind the high school counterpart to my Lutheran elementary school. Still figuring out the world of K-12 tuitions and “premier” education, my parents had cast aside my top two private school choices post-Montessori, inadvertently settling on an institution that was a slight laughing stock, and was, unbeknownst to many parents, on the decline. I recall that after my transfer the following year, letters were sent that came just short of begging for funding to keep the doors open.
But despite a questionably qualified staff, and the fact that my homeroom was evacuated from the basement due to the presence of asbestos, my ten-year-old self actually quite enjoyed being there. What had become immensely unenjoyable, however, was my tenure on the fifth grade cross country team. I was painfully unathletic, an awkward early bloomer, and also beginning to struggle with my weight. The solution, to a father who was a former professional athlete, was to get my fat ass running, a task which I regularly made difficult.
I’d often feign illness or injury, opting out of practice to spend time with Encyclopedia Brown or the Boxcar Children until my mother arrived. My homeroom teacher, who was among the coaching staff, would sometimes even allow me to take the key to the classroom and sit in its “bookcave,” a tiny room with overstuffed beanbags and walls lined in novels. The problem with not practicing, however, was that it showed very clearly in my meet performances, where I consistently came in last place, or something very close to it.
My teammate Laura, on the other hand, found herself at the top of nearly every competition. I’d watch the head coach’s daughter with an amalgamation of awe, envy, and sadness as she’d zip past me, her long blond ponytail flowing effortlessly. The team marveled at the intensity with which she competed, which would sometimes cause her to throw up at the finish line. I, of course, had never witnessed this amazing feat, seeing as I usually arrived at a slow trot some twenty minutes behind her.
On this particular Saturday morning, however, my spirits and level of determination were high. Between hyping myself up to songs on what my father called “secular radio”, and receiving a pep talk from my younger, naturally athletic sister, I genuinely believed that I could–and would–win the whole damn thing. There would be no stopping to catch my breath, no hiding behind trees to sneak a smuggled pack of Gushers, awkwardly warmed by the body heat in my sports bra. I would run, and not stop until I’d claimed first prize.
This proved harder than my over eager mind had considered.
About three quarters of a mile in, I slowed to a stop, stepping to the side of the trail to let other runners by as I wheezed dramatically. After a couple of minutes, I stood, continuing on the path alone since I’d been passed up by so many competitors. Newly invigorated by my rest, I upped my traditional light jog to a full-on run, and before I knew it, the finish line was in sight. Laura had already crossed it, of course, but from what I could see, there were only five or six finishers so far. My speed increased even more with the elation I felt over finally getting a top ten finish.
The problem was that no one else seemed nearly as elated as I was; not my teammates, not my coach, and most especially not my father, who stood cross-armed and silent behind dark sunglasses. Once I’d crossed the finish line, still beaming, he pulled me aside. “What’s wrong?” I said. “Everyone’s so quiet.”
“You cut the course.”
“What is that?”
“See where you came out? That’s off the course. You took a shortcut.”
After spending what felt like an eternity explaining that it wasn’t on purpose, he and my coach directed me to go back to the last place I remembered being on course, and re-run the final portion. I couldn’t see everyone’s faces as I walked away–though I’m sure they were filled with smirks–but their snickering was very audible.
I pressed an angry fist at each of my sides as I walked, passive-aggressively raising my middle fingers to flip off everyone and no one.
After thirty torturous minutes of back tracking and running, I finished. Again. Dead last. I ran up panting as the last of the awards were being presented, and our designated “cross country mom” loaded up left over Gatorade and bottled water into a forest green minivan. Aside from a thumbs up and wink from my dad, no one acknowledged my completion.
As we rode home in the car, my father asked “So what did you learn from that, Brittney?”, a favorite question of his that he felt could be applied to everything in life, from movies to ordering McFlurries at the drive-thru. There was always a lesson. I leaned my head against the window, rolled my eyes dramatically, and replied: “Nothing.” He took pity on my defeated state, and I managed to dodge an explanatory lecture that afternoon, but in retrospect, I learned a lot.
More than anything, I learned that sometimes you get off course, and have to start over, without the people that started the journey beside you. It can be lonely, and frustrating, and often seem pointless, but the utter joy that comes when you finally finish the race makes every moment of struggle worth it. Sometimes what matters most is that you just finish.