On my calendar, there is one week that carries an unmistakable stench- the second weekend in November. Some of my most vivid, memorable experiences as a teenager have all come in the same week. In both seventh and eighth grade, it was the week that I’d been cut from the basketball team. Getting cut was one of the hardest experiences of my life, but by the end of eighth grade I’d given up on my dreams of becoming a basketball player and focused on running. When I entered high school, I was sure that the November blues were in the rearview mirror. And then the cross country state championships happened.
Coming into high school, I knew that cross country would be a great experience and that I’d have a good chance to run on the seven-man varsity team as a freshman, a rare feat . Not only did I run on varsity, but I slid in as the fourth-fastest runner on one of the best teams in the state. We won the county championship for the first time in school history and went on to win the regional championship the following week. After all those victories, we were focused on the big one- competing for a state championship.
Every November, the best teams in the state of Maryland went to Hereford High School, located near Baltimore, and took on one of the most challenging, if not the most challenging, cross country course in the state. The three-mile course was incredibly mountainous and featured the most notorious hill in the state- the Dip. The Dip was a valley that connected the two parts of the school’s property. The slopes were notoriously steep and seemed to never end. For many runners, the Dip had proven to be their downfall.
But the start of the states race had also proven problematic. With so many runners and a relatively tight course with a lot of sharp turns, starting out too slow spelled doom as making up ground was a difficult task. Conversely, starting out too fast, the cardinal sin of running, was also a real problem. Runners that took it out too hard on the opening paid for it dearly on the second half of the race.
The morning didn’t start off well. The driver of our team bus missed the exit and we arrived later than expected. The conditions were chilling- a cloudy, windy 41-degree morning. In our flimsy red tank tops and comically tiny navy running shorts, the weather was almost paralyzing. But when we stepped to the line, the other six guys and I blocked out all the distractions and focused on the task ahead.
Instead of starting out at my normal speed and moving up throughout the race as I’d done in all of my races that season, I planned to sprint the first 100 meters and then fight for position with the other runners. I visualized the start in my head, seeing myself getting out in front with a strong burst. As I stretched and shook out my arms at the line, I built up all of the confidence and positive energy I could muster.
The instant the flag went down and the gun went off, I burst forward and pumped my arms and grinded against the ground. I felt like I was in front of everybody, until suddenly the masses collapsed on me from both sides. When the runners consolidated into the straightaway and around turns, the other runners were physical and aggressive, but I stayed in control. I battled for position, bursting ahead and moving towards the front.
Instead of passing runners on my first mile as I’d usually do, I was the one starting out in front and then being passed. During that first mile, which winded around a couple of baseball fields and up a relatively small hill, I felt fatigue setting in and my mental strength slowly eroding away. The small, short inclines, which shouldn’t have been a problem, seemed to beat away at me and dread started to build up. I thought I was falling back and losing places and I attempted to keep up with everybody who passed me. The first mile was almost 5:10, a fast time for the course given all of the upcoming hills and as fast as any of the opening miles I’d run that season. I was already losing the battle of my mind; my energy would be the next domino to fall.
After the first mile, I was relieved to see the Dip, as nothing felt better than running down a slope, even better a long, steep slope. Bounding down the hill gave me a sense of relief as I felt weightless, as if all the pain had dissipated away. But when I’d reached the bottom, I looked up at the towering mountain just ahead and braced for the challenge. The length of that uphill tore away at me, but I ascended it before being passed by too many runners.
After the first battle with the Dip, I struggled to settle into my rhythm and pace. Even running around the perimeter of the soccer field proved to be difficult and pain was mounting. Cliff and Jacob, our two and three runners, passed me going around the soccer field and I was slowly losing my competitive sense, indifferent to the runners around me. My body screamed at me to stop. I kept resisting, pushing against the pain as I fell further and further back in the standings. And it wasn’t the hills that proved much more burdensome; running on any terrain had become tough by itself. “I’m not stopping,” I told myself.
On the third mile, I faced the Dip for the second time. I passed some runners on the downhill and attacked the steep climb, unwilling to give up. I started running up the hill as hard as I could, but the hill seemed to never end. Near the top, the temptation to stop was overpowering, but I gritted my teeth and continued on. When I was back on flat ground, I felt totally depleted. My teammate Omar, normally our seventh runner, passed me just after that final hill and my other teammates, Ben and Sam, after that. I tried to will myself to speed up, but my body had no energy and all I could focus on was finishing.
By the final straightaway, I had nothing left and helplessly watched as I lost places. Just don’t stop! At last, I limped over the finish line and crumpled to the ground a couple meters from the finish line. For the next ten minutes, I stayed on the ground and covered my eyes from the light. I felt immobile and thought that I was in a dream, only to open my eyes and see Coach Redmond and the teammates standing around me. Eventually, my coaches lifted me up and I limped to the tent. After the awards ceremony, we boarded the team bus and returned to our school’s campus.
My first experience at the cross country state championship was disappointing, to say the least. Like all those November weekends in previous years, I thought about all the mistakes I’d made for the next couple days and wished that I could redo the whole process. It hurt that I cost the team a top-three finish and victory over our rival, Bethesda-Chevy Chase.
But if I was going to make anything of states, I was going to make it a learning experience, in a running sense and personal sense. I learned the hard way to run my own race, not adopt a new, untested strategy before the biggest meet of the season. I learned that the battle isn’t won in the first mile. But most importantly, I learned that the power of human will and desire is unconquerable.