The California State Meet

Standing in the dimly lit hotel room, I stare back at my reflection in the mirror. I’m wearing the sports bra and the red bun huggers that will be my uniform for the state championship cross country race, just a few hours away. My teammates are still sleeping, and the only source of light is what pokes through the blinds from the gray early morning. I need this time to  prepare myself mentally. I’m not nervous for the race yet-I haven’t thought about it much, actually. So far the bulk of my nerves are tied wearing these bun huggers in front of so many people. 

I flex my abs, but it’s still hard to see them. I flex my quads, which show more muscle definition. I raise my arms up and flex my bicep, which makes me really look strong. 

I stand there, flexing everything. Now I look like Baby Bull, the nickname my coach, Larry Meredith, bestowed upon me early in the season after a hard, hilly run we did together. The trail, on the backside of Spring Lake Regional Park in Santa Rosa, transverses a series of seven hills, with no break to accumulate any sense of rhythm. The team calls it the roller coaster trail because you are constantly either going up or down. It was my first time running the route, and I felt wary of the terrain. Figuring that hills are hard no matter how fast or slow you run them, I decided the best course of action was to push the pace and try to get it all over with as quickly as possible. Larry was with me and stayed on my shoulder. After the first couple of hills he told me to try continuing to push the pace as I crested a hill and then use the momentum of the back side. He said many runners let up when they feel themselves getting to the top of a hill and this would be a good way to break a competitor in a race. I did as he instructed and found myself inching away from him. My momentum continued to build, and we descended into silence, each focusing on our effort, fighting off the fatigue that was building. 

Eventually he said, “This is the penultimate hill.”

“What does that mean?” I managed to ask between breaths.

“The second to last.”

I had no energy left for words, but responded with my legs, finding another gear to push up and over that hill and into the final one. 

When we got back to the parking lot Larry looked at me, cock-eyed, and told me he was impressed by my run. Not knowing how to respond to the compliment, I head butted him in the shoulder.

“Stop that, or I’m going to start calling you baby bull. You are like a baby bull-you don’t know your own strength.”

Now, standing in front of the mirror in the hotel room, I look back at the reflection of the Baby Bull. Last weekend at the section championships I wore these bun huggers for the first time ever and finished a surprising 5th place overall, and second for the team, behind Sara, our captain and the three-time defending state champion. I don’t look like the other runners I race against, but maybe Larry is right, I just haven’t been seeing my own strength.

I hear giggling behind me and turn to see that my teammates are awake and laughing at my poses. They turn on the lights and then change into their sports bras and bun huggers and join me in flexing. We’re cracking ourselves up and then call another teammate to come to our room to take pictures. 

Eventually we put on our singlets and warm ups to get ready for breakfast. First, I call Sara Bei, our senior teammate and captain, to ask her what I should eat. Surely on a day as important as the state meet there is something special that I should eat beforehand, and she can offer me the best insight. She suggests oatmeal, and then we proceed to meet in the hotel lobby where I eat with gusto. 

From breakfast, we head to Larry’s room for a team meeting full of energy and excitement. We burst through the door and find the boys team sitting silently in a circle, probably visualizing their race. We back out as quickly as we entered and rush to Sara’s room, erupting in a fit of giggles. In our eagerness for the day we forgot that there was a set time for our meeting and arrived too early.

We wait in Sara’s room until it’s time for our meeting and then make a second trip to Larry’s room. He tells us the story of Sara as a freshman, when she rose up and unexpectedly won the state title. She’s won every title since then and is going for her fourth today, but we have an even greater opportunity before us. All of us can rise up today and win as a team. We’re a team that didn’t make it to the state meet last year, but we’ve completely transformed in the last twelve months. We’ve spent the majority of the season with our second through sixth runners running as a pack, but today we can’t afford for anyone to hold back and help a teammate along. Every one of us has to run as hard as we possibly can and beat as many of the runners from two Southern California schools, Canyon and Sultana, as possible. Larry ends the meeting by telling us it’s going to be a very tough race but he believes in us. As we get up to leave the room I feel a rush of adrenaline. We’ve talked and dreamed of this day all season, and I am so motivated to get out on the course and begin the fight. 

From the meeting we go back to our rooms to gather our belongings and then head to the lobby to drive to the course. As I walk out of the hotel I feel my first wave of nerves. The weight of the moment is descending on us and yet, at the same time, I still feel confident. I know we can do this. 

We arrive at the course and find the boys already under our tent. We have about an hour to relax until we need to warm up and we spend it lounging around, laughing at all the inside jokes we’ve accumulated throughout the season, and helping each other fasten our capes for our warm up. 

The capes were Sara’s idea. A few weeks ago, after a rainy Saturday workout, we all piled in her mom’s van and went to a fabric store. We bought a shimmering silver cloth for the outside of the capes, red felt to make the ‘M’ of Montgomery High School, and then each chose a unique pattern to line the inside. Back at Sara’s house her mom helped us sew them together. We’ve worn them for our league and section championships, both of which we’ve won. 

Now as I huddle with my teammates under our tent, I admire the frogs that line the inside of my cape and think back to what a fun afternoon we spent together. From the outset of summer training Sara has been telling us that we could be state champs and continued to keep us disciplined and motivated throughout the season. The training, the sacrifices, the team bonding-it’s all been geared toward this day.

Finally, it’s time to warm up and we set off jogging around Woodward Park as a pack. We stop at the bathroom at least three times and every time we stop moving I feel a new sway of nervous energy wash over me. 

At the end of our warm up we gather back at the tent to stretch and Sara gives us a speech she has prepared us. By the time she’s finished my nerves have subsided. My job is simple: to run as hard as I possibly can. Each one of my teammates will be doing the same, and I know that they will keep me accountable to the task when the race gets hard.

We head to the start line where we meet Larry again. I can tell that he is nervous; I want to reassure him that we’re ready, but I hold back. I’m just a freshman-I’ll keep my head down and stick to my task. 

We take our sweats off, do strides in our bun huggers and then gather together at the start line. We wait for the teams around us to settle down, and then we begin our cheer. We yell louder than we ever have-the pent up energy from waiting to stand on this start line erupting from each of us. It’s our best cheer of the season, and I take this as a good omen. 

Silence descends on the start line as the officials bring us forward and give us our final instructions. This lull feels like the hardest part of the morning; an interminable waiting to begin the action with nothing to distract me. Then the horn sounds and we’re flying forward, the twenty-five best Division II teams in California converging down a strip of grass. 

Aside from Sara, who is immediately out of sight, it seems as though our entire team has been engulfed by the field. It makes me edgy, but I do my best to reassure myself that we’re okay. We’ve started plenty of races at the back of the field and won them that way. I concentrate my effort on picking my way through the crowd of runners, looking for a teammate ahead. 

A mile in, I take stock. I see a big clock at the mile marker reading 5:45 as I pass. That’s fast, but without a teammate by my side to help gauge my effort I just keep swimming through the field. I’m in the third position for our team, and our number two runner is far ahead. Somewhere beyond that Sara must be battling it out with Amber Trotter for the individual title. I realize that one of our rival teams, Canyon, is running as a pack just in front of me. Five yellow uniforms are clumped together, and if we’re going to beat them I can’t sit back here. 

“Go, Baby Bull!”

Tori Meredith, Larry’s wife and assistant coach, is out on the course cheering for me. We’ve done a lot of running together this fall and she’s taught me the entire network of trails in Santa Rosa’s Annadel State Park. Her presence out here is reassuring to me. 

With that nudge, I make a point to pass the Canyon runners and continue on my quest for our number two runner. 

As I hit the rolling hills on the backside of the course fatigue sets in. I think I must have passed the two mile marker, but I never saw it. I estimate that there’s just under a  mile remaining in the race and I don’t know how much I have left to give. My head tilts to the right as I stare down at the legs in front of me, willing myself to stay with them. My mind is at war with my body. I want to let up but I can’t; I made a commitment to my teammates. Watching the back of this runner’s knees is mesmerizing. I tuck in behind her. 

I round the corner of the course to the final long straightaway toward the finish line. A cluster of Montgomery parents and supporters are standing there cheering, along with my P.E. teacher, Ms. Sweeney, who also plays an assistant role on the team.

“Kimmy!! Go with Elisa!!” I hear her yell amid the din.

Elisa? One of my teammates that I haven’t seen all race has worked her way up to me after my fast start. 

She moves to my side.

“Have to. Go. With them.” she gasps.

I look up and see two teal uniforms and one yellow singlet ahead of me. I realize that the runners I’ve been running behind are two Sultana runners and one Canyon runner. Less than 400m remain and those points are critical. 

The five of us launch into a final sprint, our faces grimacing as we strain for the finish line. Elisa lopes ahead with her long legs. I desperately want to keep up but find myself losing ground with each step and watch her brown ponytail bounce out of reach.

I stumble across the line. Elisa has beaten the rest of us, followed by the two Sultana girls, the Canyon girl, and then me, all within a span of two seconds. 

At the end of the finish chute, Elisa collapses to the ground in exhaustion, and I plop down beside her, lowering my head between my knees. I don’t know if we’ve done enough. I’m worried about the points I gave away but relieved, too, that Elisa was there and finished the job that I couldn’t. 

Ms. Sweeney finds us and pulls me to my feet. We stand around as other runners finish and the rest of the team gathers with us. Eventually it dawns on me that Sara is nowhere around.

“How did Sara do?” I ask. 

Ms. Sweeney looks almost startled, and then amused, as she realizes we don’t know.

“Oh! She won!”

The rest of us look at each other wide-eyed and grinning and then start yelling and laughing all at once. She did it! 

We calm ourselves as we see Larry approaching, with a smile that expresses more happiness than I’ve ever seen in him. We wait with bated breath for him to deliver the news. He tells us that the results are still unofficial but we won.

Then we really begin screaming and hugging. Sara finds us and joins the commotion, and the energy continues to build as parents find us and join in celebrating. The official announcement is made, Ms. Sweeney is in tears, and Larry attempts to corral us into cooling down and heading to the awards ceremony.

After the meet  all our families go out to lunch and then we pile back into the vans for a five-hour drive home. Much of the ride is spent singing and laughing and trying to make the van bounce when we’re at stop lights.

In the final hour, after the sun has set, I begin to feel tired. The party atmosphere of the van has gradually given way to playful banter between teammates. In the back, I rest my head against the window and look out at the lights of the passing cars, marveling at the span of the season. It amazes me to think that we set a goal so many months ago, worked everyday in pursuit of it and now have the satisfaction of having achieved it. Larry, Tori, Sara, Ms. Sweeney-they all taught me about that process, and I don’t think I’ll ever approach the sport differently again. I wonder if any moment in running will ever top this day for me. What will my next goal be?

And with that thought, I feel a fluttering inside. I know exactly what’s next: track season. Last year I ran 5:10 for 1500m. Could I cover 1600m in the same amount of time this year? It seems like a good goal, but I’ll have to ask Larry what he thinks. 

I turn to Elisa, sitting beside me, with a question.

“Do we have to wear bun huggers in track?”

“No,” she replies with a grin, “we have to buy our own shorts in track so you can get whatever you want, as long as they’re red.”

I turn back to the window with a smile, picturing myself running a 5:10 1600m. I’m wearing red shorts, and they’re as long as the tennis shorts I wore with my Santa Rosa Express uniform when I ran 5:10 for 1500m.