I take a shallow deep breath. It’s all I can afford as my right spike digs into the rubber track.

1400 meters down. 200 to go. Half a lap. One curve and the final stretch.

I’m winning.

I’m. Winning.


I shouldn’t be here. Not in first place, anyway.

The force of gravity and muscular momentum propel me. I dig my left spike in and swing my right arm out in lockstep.

I’m racing the mile. The American classic.

Not a sub-4 minute mile. I’m nowhere close. My personal record is 4 minutes and 35 seconds. Cutting 36 seconds off in a single race would need an Act of God. I’m not interested.

I just want to qualify for the next race.

I need 9th place or better.

I’m seeded 39th of 42. These are the best athletes in the state. To me, they’re monsters. I need to cut off 17 seconds to have a shot. Crazy talk. Even three seconds would be impressive, let alone seventeen.

Not great odds.

It’s my right foot’s turn again.

As the curve begins, I pull my eyes as far left as they can go to catch a glimpse of my competition. They’re close.

My coaches can chew me out later for looking back. It’s time to ask my body to suffer, and I’m more persuasive when there’s a runner on my heel.

I can do this. I can qualify. That’s all that matters.

I’m lying.

In reality, the moment we took off, I forgot all about qualifying.

All I could think of was winning. That’s why I’m here, in first place, with about 30 seconds of suffering to go. I’m running to win.

Left foot. Short breath.

Right foot. Short breath.

Feeling strong.

Left foot. Strong.

Right foot. Strong

Left foot.

Right foot…

Something’s wrong.

My spike grips the track, but my right thigh feels…off. This is new. I know pain. This isn’t pain. I haven’t torn or pulled anything. But this isn’t tired, either. I know tired. I can push through tired.

I pull my left foot up. It…doesn’t respond well.

I swing it forward as best I can to stop myself from a poorly-timed faceplant.


My muscles have become cooked spaghetti. Not even al dente. They’re overcooked.

I hear the footsteps of the runner behind me. He enters my right peripheral vision. An outside pass, huh. Well if he wants to pass me, he’ll have to work for it. I’ll make him suffer for it.

I speed up. Except I don’t.

My body doesn’t respond to my will.

When the time comes, he doesn’t just pass me, he makes me feel slow.

Am I that slow?

Then comes another, and another.

Looks like I am that slow.

The curve is finished. The handful of runners who passed me blotch out pieces of the straight white lines in the final 100 meter stretch.

Self-talk time.

Forget about winning. Just qualify.


Dig deep.

In the depth, I find spaghetti.


Still spaghetti. I’m wobbling now and my vision is starting to fade.

Ok. Just don’t fall. You have to finish. No matter what.

I’ve never wobbled 80 meters before.

Don’t fall. Concentrate. Finish.

I finish, walk a couple of steps, and collapse onto the grassy area just off the track.

I close my eyes.

“Lee, 18th place.”

It’s my coach’s voice.

I didn’t qualify. Unsurprising.

This will be my final race.

While most of the other runners will go on to be a scholarship athlete in college, I’ll be hanging up my shoes after I graduate. New adventures await, and I had decided to leave everything on the track. If I qualified, I’d continue for a few more races. If not, I was done.

At least I finished.

“Lee, 4:27.”

I open my eyes and light floods back in. I turn my head to search for my coach. We lock eyes, mine widened in disbelief and his shrunk to match a soft smile.

I can’t believe my time.


With that finish?

With all the spaghetti and wobbling and getting passed up by 17 other runners?

This is 8 seconds faster than my best.

I throw my hands up into the air for an exhausted celebration before giving them back to gravity.

I’ve failed to qualify.

But in that final 200 meters, I was given a challenge I’d never known, faced it head-on, and set a new personal record.

I no longer know my limit.

I lost.

But I feel like I won.