Race days are a strange mixture of tranquility and tension, something akin to resolute poise of a bow pulled taught. In the same way, we use no energy other than what is necessary for readying ourselves and no more than is needed to pull the string into ready position. Any bystander unaccustomed to the ways of a long distance runner might see the whole scene as rather solemn – all of us sulking around, hardly speaking. In reality, we are brimming with excitement, but an unspoken understanding between fellow runners is that we have to keep it controlled so as not to release our pent up energy too soon.
Every runner has their own ritual the day of a race. If any part of it is broken or disrupted the whole venture seems somehow out of tune, a kind of drifting unbalanced feeling. This dynamic is the core of why we do not speak, we do not want to disrupt or push another off course, as it were. Our methods are cold and calculated, but not devoid of emotion. On the contrary, we all feel the same tension everyone else feels in the unity that we have spent all season building. Each runner on a team is like a single filament in the string on the bow. I think C.S. Lewis said it best as, “the highest cannot stand without the lowest.” This holds true in cross country as well. The way our meets are scored depends primarily on the first five runners whose score is simply their place at the finish line. Teams are scored on a golf scale making 15 a perfect score. In a case where there is a tie the 6th and 7th runners are taken into account, but that is not before they displace what could be another teams 5th runner. The whole point is that one man wins the race and while that solidifies his superiority he alone cannot win for his team, all seven runners must participate.
When we line up all the teams are shaking hands and wishing each other the best of luck. We dawn our racing regalia, minimalist is an understatement, and then we poise ourselves on the line. The whole line goes quiet as everyone stares out across the expanse in front of us. The gun fires and we bolt out of the still with the sound. The very men we shook hands with minutes ago are now throwing elbows as we muscle out their legs from our next step. It’s a weaponless war, save for spikes and pride, but out there those are always lying face down in the mud and grass. Each has their reasons that spur them on – some race for the clock, some for themselves, some for the team, and others for God knows what – it’s a 5 mile race in college, plenty of time to figure it out.
Most find themselves having an internal battle amidst the greater war raging around them. There is a constant struggle between pushing that ever thinning limit and breaking the edge from which you cannot safely return. It is a battle between desire and finding the bounds, at which your body can stretch, then saying, “fuck it!” and crossing the line anyway. On a good day the body maintains its integrity, on the bad it slips into a sort of inequality where every motion costs more than it should, which leads to a feeling of injustice. After all, we put in the hours, the days, and the months of training for the filament to break now? When the finish nears it’s a pain-filled revelation. We all try to sprint, but it feels about as useful as pulling yourself through water with rope. And when we cross we revel in the end, in the finality, and simultaneously crumple in defeat – to ourselves, not to them.
The conclusion feels a lot like the start. We’re all shaking hands and wishing well no matter what team we are speaking with. We each congratulate one another, asking how the race went for each individual, surmising and appraising the results as a whole. When then results are finally announced we take our proud off like a shoe and carry it with us because it was only a means to an end from the start. We did well, but we always aim to do better.