The plum trees are bloom-heavy; I can almost hear them sigh with their new weight, their pink swag. Errant petals fill the parking lot gutters and dot the windshields of cars sitting all day in the sun. Students and coaches spill across the field. Visitors make their way to the stadium with fold-chairs, umbrellas, and blankets. The very young children already run their chase-games up and down the bleacher steps.
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The school’s auxiliary roads are lined with yellow buses. The athletes, girls and boys both, move in a slow wave of school-colored uniforms: red, purple, black, green and then break off into same colored bunches. At the east end of the field a circle of boys, my son among them, sit, leaning back on their thin arms, their spiked running shoes toes up, waiting.
A barefoot girl carries a giant carton of goldfish crackers. Each time she passes like-uniformed runners, she fills their hands with orange fish to eat. Many of the runners carry their neon shoes — their hornet green, or ozone blue, or fire pink shoes, hooked on two fingers, dangling at their side. They walk in socks, now grass-damp and covered with clippings.
A coach with a bullhorn calls for hurdle help — “If you’re in the center field and not prepping for a race, please help move the hurdles into lanes one through five.” No one reacts quickly, but one by one, several students curve around toward the lanes, heave the hurdles from the grass to the track, click them exactly into place.
The pole vaulters in purple begin to warm up; they do short runs, six to eight strides, and mime the pole plant. The hurdlers in red stretch, raising their knees high up in the air, exaggerated drum majors. Step. Step. Step.
The stadium speakers crackle and the announcer lists the first three races; first call, second, and a final before the starting gun cracks loud and the runners leap forward. While this is happening, pole vaulting, discus tossing and long jumping are also beginning and ending and beginning again, the events staggered in with the rest of the races.
This is all well and good, quick paced, something to watch almost anywhere. Until the 3,200. I am new to track and field and the first time I hear the race called, I think it’s a mistake. Again they call for runners in the 3,200, check in, line up. I do the calculation — eight full laps — no way. I’d watched students struggle in the 800 and 400, but at least those races end fairly quickly. The 3,200? A lifetime.
Despite my incredulousness, the start gun sounds. A gaggle of girls, all visually clumped together, lope gently. One pulls ahead, and then two more and then another one. Then the spread grows bigger and bigger, until the first girl passes the last, a full lap ahead. I can no longer tell who’s in first, or second, or third. I can no longer even tell who is last.
Some faces are clearly more stressed and tired than others. Some are almost, but not quite struggling. Four or three or two laps to go — I’m unsure. One girl finishes and the crowd cheers, then another, more cheering. The remaining girls run, focused, dogged, tired and finish one by one. At the far side of the track, yelling erupts. “Remember who you’re running for!” the words come from a coach jogging in the infield along with one of the racers. Then there are more people, teammates, all calling, “Finish!” and “You can do this!”
The girl stares straight ahead and moves steadily, in her own set pace, one foot in front of the other. “Remember who you’re running for!!” the coach screams again. This runner is the only one left on the track. She has a full lap to go, alone. I try to figure out which team she’s running for — which color belongs to which school? Then I understand: She’s running for herself. The whole team reminds her. She runs and runs. She crosses the finish line. Everyone cheers. High school students are brave. High school students are wise. We can learn from them. I did.