The Runner's Rite: A Short Story


The Runner eyed the golden rays of sunlight that slid between the blinds of his hotel room.

He wiggled his toes beneath the warm sheets and stretched his legs to the bottom edge of the bed where they were met with a cool air. For the first time in months his muscles didn't ache in this ritualistic morning stretch beneath the covers. There was no soreness, or fatigue, only energy, restless energy he was ready to release.

He had been up for an hour in fact. His mind was racing well before his body would have to. In four hours he'd been raging across the cross country course, but for now he sat in the silence of his dark hotel room, trying not to wake his roommate. 

The runner was ready to get this going, ready to toe the line, ready to explode out and into the abyss of 3.1 miles. He was ready to write his story.

But for now all he could do was wait for the sun to rise a little more and that 6:30 a.m. alarm to to ring so he could brush his teeth, douse his young face in cold water, and head out the door for a shake-out mile. 

He curled his toes backed underneath the warm blankets and let his mind wander backwards in time, to the night before. The spaghetti dinner at that nameless Italian joint on the other side of town. Those garlic breadsticks, and the long table with red and white blocked table cloth. There was laughter, lots of refilling of water cups, and bellies full of pasta. Energy.

Then there was the team meeting in Coach's room.

Nine high school boys were scattered around the room. Some lounged on the two queen sized beds, some sat in the chairs that no one sits in at the table that no one eats at in the corner of the room by the window.

Coach paced back and forth with a few semi-folded white pieces of paper creased down the middle as if they were still in the back pocket of his pleated khakis. He was nervous, but that was only evident to those who knew him, and The Runner knew him. 

"It's going to be a tight team race," Coach said, addressing the paper in his hands. His words were crisp and precise. "Every point will matter."

The eight boys and The Runner nodded in agreement.

"So this is what it looks like in the team race..." Coach went on, still pacing. 

The Runner sat in the corner of the queen sized bed by the wall next to the bathroom, behind everyone, patiently watching his Coach pace back and forth with his eyes glued to the sheet.

"If we can get one to three points from-"

"One." The Runner interrupted.  

Coach looked up from his sheet at The Runner, his runner, and nodded gently before going back to his pacing. "One point from..."

And so the meeting went.

Back in his warm bed nearly ten hours later The Runner wondered if he came off cocky for so boldly claiming he'd win - or was it confidence?

He couldn't decide. It was more a matter of decision than opinion, he thought. All he knew is what he intended to do once the gun shot off, sending nearly 250 runners into the open field for battle. 

A shiver ripped down his spine at the thought while he lay in bed. It must be close now. He leaned over to check his watch, the one that left a wide gap of whiteness on his right wrist. A watch-tan of pride from days grinding underneath the sun.

6:24.

Close Enough...

The Runner threw the the sheets off his warm body without a hint of fatigue. While it was early, he wasn't tired. Not on this day. 

This was the day he had been training for all season, and all summer. This was the day he had blocked out on the calendar in his room with a bright red marker. This was the Day 1. 

The State Championship.

His roommate for the night began to stir. Soon they'd meet up with Coach, and the other two runners on the team who had morning shake-out runs in their training schedule. They had run an early shake-out mile before every meet this season to release the pre-race nerves and get the blood flowing, and it was important to keep things as they had been.

Don't do anything new.

The air was crisp and cool, as was common in the middle of Fall. Dried orange leaves blew with a gentle wind while the quartet with Coach in tow jogged lightly along the vacant streets. The soft morning sun was still rising.

The Runner ran sluggishly in the back, something he had no intentions of doing in a few hours, but on this morning run he didn't want to force anything, there would be time for that later. He wanted to flow, and allow his body to find its rhythm.

A few steps ahead his teammates shared light jokes and tried to keep their minds off the battle just a few hours away. 

Anything to ease the nerves.

The Runner didn't need any pep talks, nor did his teammates. They knew what was in front of them. They knew this was a business trip. And because their stomachs were already wound so tight in nervousness, Coach allowed their light banter. Besides, he was just as nervous. 

Just as they had trained for this day, he had been training them for this day. Every mile, every interval, and every day off - those were rare - were designed with this one day in mind. 

State. 

Breakfast came in a went with a safe banana and Powerbar. While his teammates devoured a more hearty breakfast, The Runner never strayed from what he had found to work. He had never puked during or after a race, and he had no intentions of doing so on this day. He didn't want to be sprinting down that final hill and into the finishing shoot with dribbles of breakfast on his chin.

Back in his room The Runner continued on with his race-morning rituals. His navy blue singlet lay on his bed without wrinkles. He placed his white race bib an estimated inch beneath the golden lettering on his singlet, and eyed those the bold letters "STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS," and his number, "1104." 

The Runner carefully pinned each corner of the bib into his singlet. It was important for the top of the bib to line up perfectly with the edges of the arch of his school name just above it. 

Symmetry. 

When the ritual of pinning then bib was complete he packed his bag and ran over the list of essentials before zipping it up. Singlet. Spikes. Gatorade. 

It was all there. 

In one final climactic zip The Runner was off. He knew the next time he'd be in the room he'd be a hero, or a zero. 

Or so it felt. 

He nabbed the shot-gun seat in Coach's car and held his bag tightly to hide his nerves. The ride to the course was a short 10 minutes, though it was just enough time to listen to music.

Anything to ease the nerves.

Coach twisted the dial with his tan fingers to a station the four in the car agreed upon.

"Wake up! Grab a brush and put a little makeup..."

The Runner and his teammates curved their energy, not wanting to release anything too early, but the song was just too much not to sing along to.

"Hide the scars to fade away the shakeup..."

Blood raced through their veins as the beat picked up. The Runner could feel it now. The music, and the tension, was elevating the closer they got to the course. It was here, it was now. 

Or soon to be.