February 20th, 2017

Episode Three: Race Day!

On our last night in San Diego, Sarah and I walked down to the track. Sarah had left her roller there and needed to pack it before our morning departure.

The cool night air seeped through my leather jacket and cotton PJs. The training centre was quiet and dark, save for lanterns in the bushes. It had rained earlier and mist rose off the mondo. After retrieving the roller from under a bench, Sarah strode towards the dark start line.

“Pick a lane,” she said. In lane 6 she lay down; I did the same in lane 4. The bumps in the damp rubber surface dug into my patches of bare skin; I wiggled my shoulders and stared up at the sky.

Towards San Diego and Tijuana, city smog dyed the obsidian sky to a hazy grey. I turned, then, to face the mountains. In the cloudless patches, the stars twinkled and the red light of a jet blinked past. In the morning, our training group would board a plane and fly to a new city. We would don little spiked slippers, then pit ourselves against some of the top racers on the continent. This perfect sequence of events suddenly seemed familiar, as if our lives had been plotted out to fit a roll of film. Dramatic landscape shots and all.

I said, “Sarah. Our life is a movie.”

We departed sunny California and touched down in Seattle – an inciting incident of sorts. The weekend’s competition took place at the University of Washington on an indoor 300m track. It would be Sarah’s second and my first meet of 2017.

We both registered for the mile on Saturday and the 1k on Sunday. Most of the WestHub crew opted to run the mile, but we were all slated in different heats, except for Kala and myself. While I approached the weekend with the (almost) nonchalance of any rust buster, Sarah revved ready to pound out a fast time.

After her pre-race shakeout run, Sarah returned to our hotel room glowing. She bounced on her toes while packing her backpack; she sang along to Flume while chewing her pad thai. I secretly fretted about my mile, focusing more on my inexperience than the race itself.

Our mile got out slow; only about halfway through did the pace finally pick up. Like a total newb, I dishonoured the great Quenton Cassidy and lost track of the laps, completely botching my race strategy.  At the bell I threw down way too big of a kick and finished far too fresh. After snatching a cup of water from a trackside station, I stomped about, looking to unload my rant on Kala. It felt so anti climactic.

Simon, our chiro, rushed through a throng of buzzing bodies. I squinted, watching him stop by the edge of the track. Then I nearly dropped my cup.

Kala was curled on the ground. I ran over and, from first glance, knew it was bad. She clutched her calf and foot, and pain creased deep into her eyes. I dropped to my knees and held her hands, rubbed her knee. Her breathing approached hyperventilation, and black beads from the infield surface dotted her forehead. She had clearly collapsed mid-race. “You’re okay,” I said, trying to keep my own voice calm. “Just breathe. Just breathe.”

In an instant her eyes broke my heart. “Grace, I popped my Achilles,” she said, eyes watering. “Again.”

In sport you develop incredibly close relationships with your training group. When you share a dream with someone, the sight of that person in pain grounds you in a certain awful, terrible, raw way.

Simon phoned Paddy, our sports doctor in Victoria. Medics helped Kala hobble towards a clinic, where an ultrasound revealed a severed tissue. Throughout the weekend, she crutched about, her booted foot raised in the air. Four days later a surgeon sliced open her heel.

At the track I grabbed Kala’s warmup clothes and shoes, added electrolytes to her water, then passed over the lump of gear. Her face was white and my hands shook. Later I lost my lunch in the Dempsey bathroom.

When compared to Kala’s conflict, my paltry race frustrations blanch and disappear. During her brief NCAA career Kala tore her Achilles, and for the next two and a half years she rehabbed and healed and trained and grew strong. This past January she donned a singlet and raced for the first time in years. Saturday was her second time on the start line. After all that, to pop her Achillesis nothing but a tragic gully in narrative of her life.

When I think of her injury I do not know what to say, or whether this essay bridges upon appropriation. Last weekend is her story and I do not want to steal it. But, I do want to borrow something from her experience. I think that if anything can be taken from this, any subtextual message, it’s that we must cherish every single second of our pursuit. We need to love what we do for every single second that we do it, because so easily it can be taken away.

At the track the next day, Sarah grabbed me in a hug. “That record had better go down,” she said into my hair. She had decided not to race – her Achilles bugged her a bit too loudly, and she prioritized her summer season over showcasing her prowess on the indoor track.  That meant, though, that she couldn’t defend her NB provincial record. We seem to pass that title back and forth, and the “battle” goes down as an inside joke between us. I laughed and hugged her back. Kala waved a crutch as I jogged outside.

If life is like a movie, then the standard plot requires at least two turning points. Last weekend, one occurred Saturday, the other on Sunday.

I had just started warming up when Mariah ran by and shouted, “They’re forty minutes ahead of schedule!”

I didn’t process her words until Rachel François, the pacer, darted past and shouted the same thing. “Grace! Get to the start!”

Heart pounding, a whole new kind of adrenaline coursed through my veins. Feverish with this nightmare, I felt like disaster had struck, all because of a schedule change. After issuing a stream of words best not repeated, I threw on my spikes, did a few leg swings, and then sprinted to the startline.

Competitors milled about, already down to their kits, anxiety lining their faces. Heather jogged up to me.

“You’re up in three minutes.” Heather spoke with eerily calm tone. “Just do what you need to do.” I nodded.

She spoke again in that weirdly happy voice. “You’re fine.”

Sarah flashed me a thumbs up from the infield. I nodded again. I was, indeed, fine. With plot comes subtext, and subtext fuels the protagonist’s realization. I faced the homestretch and launched into another stride. Poor prep ignored, I was going to treasure the heck out of this race opportunity.

My glutes wouldn’t fire properly so I punched them, then slapped my thighs for good measure. Laurence, Mariah, and I exchanged quick good-luck hugs. The starter called the field to the line. Eleven runners shuffled into a tight order, bent at the set, and paused for the gun.

At the fire I surged to the front, cut in, and settled in behind Mariah. Laurence’s energy hovered on my shoulder. Rachel set the pace, an American runner sat on her, and Mariah cruised in behind.

If life is like a movie then I want to put it in slow motion. I want to pause over the best bits and the worst, screenshot every detail, and then save it in a folder on my desktop. Rachel carried us though 200 at an aggressive but controlled pace, and we floated through 400 quick. For the next lap I thought dig, dig, dig. Feeling absolutely strong and profoundly powerful, I surged into the bell lap ready to kick.

Later, on the plane to Victoria, Simon told me that our performance made his weekend. And, I can testify, there is nothing quite like storming into the turn, lifting onto your toes, and flying down the final stretch. It’s a physically charged and an emotionally imbued climax, the kind found in epic chronicles.

As I crossed the line I let out a cry because I knew I did not waste a single second. Laurence’s face shone like a lightbulb. Mariah grabbed us into bear hugs and we gasped and shrieked and held each other. In the denouement, we knew that we were the three fastest Canadians in this event, that we now ranked in the top six of all time.

On the infield, Sarah shouted. “You just ran 2:41!”

“Life!” I hollered back.

“Life,” Kala said, as she grinned and hopped towards the track.

If life is like in the movies then I hope the conflict keeps coming. Our perfectly imperfect narratives challenge us to make hard choices, force us to face and then re-face some of our biggest obstacles. Last weekend contained its own dramatic climax, its own emotional arc. Soon, though, the events will shrink to an act, then to a chapter, then to a tiny sequence in the grander scheme of our stories.

To accept your life as a narrative means you recognize how each small moment can contain a plethora of significance. When Kala and Sarah watched the races, they chose to shove aside their own struggles and champion their friends. Through they didn’t race, their weekends spun another kind of story, one of resilience and bravery.

Now, on this plane, I’ve got a pile of books to read, a stack of stories to analyze. With my indoor season one and done, I’ll have to turn to books to access that accelerated and raw emotional experience.

I gaze out the dark window for a moment, running my palm over the stiff hard cover. Soon, we’ll be back in Victoria, and another adventure will begin.

Then, I flip to the first page.


Thanks for reading!