“On your mark, get set … go!”
As the coach said that last word, his arm went down, and Billy and I were off. Four hundred meters, four laps around the track. I don’t how this race ever wound up happening in the first place. Billy was clearly the better runner. And yet here we were, both of us coming up on that first turn, the top-left of my right sole always feeling on these curves like it was shouldering too much of my body’s weight as I tried to maintain speed. I don’t know why we always had to run counter-clockwise around the track. It would have been nice to go in the opposite direction, even if just once in a while, to give that right foot a little bit of a rest, maybe build up the left foot muscles, which, I could never notice a difference between the two, but I always felt it, like on molecular level, they just had to have been a little bit weaker in the left.
“You’re an idiot,” Billy said to me, and now I remembered why I’d taken this challenge in the first place. Because great, you’re the fastest runner Billy, that’s awesome. Do you have to be such a jerk about it? Couldn’t you be a little cooler? And not cool, but like, you know, nice, not a dick. If I’m in the locker room and I ask you a question about performance running socks, do you have to make it into a joke, you and your elite running lackeys repeating everything I say in that stupid nasally voice? That’s not what I sound like, by the way.
I wanted to say something back to him, but I couldn’t. I was putting everything I had into just keeping up, and we weren’t even halfway done with the first hundred meters. Hopefully I didn’t outwardly look like I was giving it everything I had, because I had the suspicion that Billy was doing just fine, that he was taking these three laps pretty easy, ready to just tear off at the end.
And then I thought, what if he was only running as fast as I was running? If I were in a four hundred meter race against someone who I was pretty sure that I could beat, I’d probably only try to match my opponent’s speed for the first few laps. Because why waste any energy? Why not let him lead, and then I could sprint away at the end?
So I waited until we turned the next corner and I slowed down just a little bit. It worked. Billy totally took it down a notch to match me. “You getting tired?” he taunted. We were passing the row of bleachers on the final hundred meters of the first lap, that straightaway where all of Billy’s friends were hanging out in their warm-up suits. I could hear them calling my name out in the same stupid voice they used to make fun of everyone who presented an easy enough target, the high-pitched whine, sucking their cheeks in and sticking out their teeth, smiling and laughing, celebrating even, both at the perceived humor in their jokes as well as the contented belief that they’d never have to be on the receiving end of such verbal abuse.
I put them out of my head and concentrated on what I had to do. I felt OK now, like I had a chance at pulling this off. But there were still three laps left. I’d have to maintain this pace for two more, crank it up at the last lap, and then give it everything I had for that last push toward the finish. Would I be able to do it? Doubt started to creep into my fleeting sense of what now felt like misplaced confidence.
Almost on cue, my legs started to tighten up, not a lot, but it was enough of a physical sensation to give my growing doubts some actual weight. My breathing must have picked up, because Billy looked at me. We were approaching another turn and, so far he hadn’t even bothered to get in front of me. He ran right alongside, not worrying about the extra distance he’d have to cover by staying in that further lane. And I could tell, he really wasn’t worried. “You know I ran a four thirty-five mile last month, right?”
And he actually said it. I still wasn’t at a point where I could get words out, my lungs were right now exclusively working toward supplying my blood with the oxygen necessary to maintain my current pace, a pace which was slower than my initial pace, something that, if Billy didn’t have a problem with a four and a half minute mile, this must have been nothing. What was my best time, five and half? Five forty-five?
I had to slow down again and hope that he’d stay with me. As I pulled back, I could hear him laughing, mocking me, “Still two more laps. You sure you can finish?” and again, I wanted to say something, but my breathing was so controlled at this point. How was Billy able to have what sounded like casual conversation? This pace, was it that easy for him?
For the entire third lap, I had no choice, I had to drop my speed. And on the first hundred of the fourth, Billy started running backwards right next to me. From where we were at, the bleachers were all the way on the other side of the track, but I could still hear everyone laughing and calling out in that mocking voice.
As we approached that last hundred meters, I thought, did I have what it took to race him in a sprint? Probably not. But could I at least put up a good fight? Could I somehow will my feet do what they had so far been unable to do, to pose somewhat of a threat to Billy’s dominance?
I wouldn’t be able to find out, because right as I started sprinting, Billy wiped out next to me. He fell to the track, hard. When he bounced up a few seconds later, I was about halfway to the finish line. I looked over my shoulder to see if he could still make a run for it. He probably could have. In fact, for a second I swear I saw all of his muscles twitch, like he was ready to pounce. But then he just stopped. He stood there, and then he started walking.
I crossed the finish line, but nobody said anything. All eyes were on Billy. And just as he was in earshot, I heard him say, “Whatever, I wasn’t even racing. That doesn’t count. Didn’t you see me running backwards? What a joke.”
And I looked to the coach, hoping he’d at least validate my accomplishment, just name me the winner, please. But he looked more concerned with his star runner. “Billy, you OK? Anything hurt?” he was walking in his direction.
“Nah, I’m good. I wasn’t really running that hard anyway.”
Everyone started laughing from the sidelines, and the coach said, “All right, let’s get out of here everyone. Showers!”