The plucky freshman toed the line in his lane next to the older boys. Bobby, tall and slender, looked undersized in his relatively bulky singlet that hung from his frame like a sheet billowing on a clothesline. He had the shirt tucked into his shorts, which were pulled up high. It looked ridiculous, but he preferred it that way. It made him feel intact, impenetrable. He shook his legs out and hopped up and down on the rubbery track tensing his calf muscles each time he sprung up into the air.
The other boys ignored him despite the fact that he had greeted them openly when he walked onto the track. Each of them had their own routines as they flexed muscles, stretched legs, twisted their arms back behind their heads, and jogged a few feet ahead and back all in the name of preparing themselves for the race. A physical and mental tension permeated the space around them like a fog engulfs a lone bridge in a valley.
Bobby could feel the sweat forming on his back. He could smell the odors of boys preparing to run. Some had over done it on the deodorant, while others had done without, producing a distinct mix of clean and musky scents that would otherwise be distasteful, but to Bobby, these were the smells of competition. A pit in his stomach ached, but a fire stoked there as well. It burned rapidly, fueling his desire to dig his toe into the track and propel himself forward, pumping his arms and legs like pistons in a fiery engine.
Finally, all of the boys settled into their positions. On the blocks, muscles tensed and legs shook ever so slightly in anticipation. One boy on the outer lane twitched as if he were starting the race, but his feet barely budged from the blocks. Nervousness and unsettled stomachs reigned over the runners.
Bobby held still like he was frozen in place by an irascible fairytale witch. He focused all of his energy on hearing the crack of the starting gun. His field of vision narrowed and all sound drained from his ears. He could see nothing but the lane before him and the bend to the left that awaited him. The rubbery track gave ever so slightly at the push of his toes. He could feel the compressed springs in his legs ready to uncoil the moment the gun fired.
The sound of the gun unleashed a fury of motion in him. He still couldn’t see the other boys next to him. He could only feel the pulsing muscles in his legs as he propelled himself forward on the track. He ran into the tunnel pumping his arms and legs in an efficient and furious motion. His breathing ratcheted higher and higher, but he contained it as if he were doling out precious oxygen in small allotments to the needy muscles in his legs. He didn’t want to overfeed the beast. It was like a hungry dog that would devour whatever he put in front of it. His heart thrummed loudly like the pistons in a race car.
Four turns later, Bobby blew through the starting point again. His arms and legs still pumped in a fluid motion that was a sight to behold. He floated. His eyes were narrowed and focused on the track ahead of him. He sucked in air and forced it out with each pounding step. Together, all of this motion moved in a beautiful orchestration of human strength and endurance.
The cheers of the crowd around the track fell on deaf ears. Bobby heard nothing but the pounding of his own heart and the hissing of his own breath. The rest of the world was a blur of silence. He ran in this trance for four laps unaware of where he was in relation to his competitors. He didn’t really care. He loved losing himself in the run. He loved the feeling of his legs burning, his heart thumping, and his lungs pumping. Like an airplane, he needed to get to a certain speed to take off, but when he did, it transported him to a different world, one of a strange euphoria that coddled him like an addict tripping on his drug of choice except his drug was the thrill of the race.
The moment he broke through the finish line, he came back down to earth. The tunnel faded and the crowd came back into view. He heard a roar that deafened him momentarily and he looked out of sorts like someone who had just woken up from a dream and struggled to discern the difference between the dream and reality. He put his hands on his head and sucked in air as he walked further down the track to catch his breath. He looked back and several runners were still crossing the finish line. His coach and teammates flogged him with congratulatory yelps and slaps on the back. The race clock read 4:03. He had come perilously close to a four-minute mile.