A friend’s father once told me that our school colors originate in an old union of two places. One color represents the city of Greensburg, the other Salem Township. Two generations back, when they merged into one strange gerrymandering of a school district, they merged colors, too: brown and golden yellow. Separately, brown and gold, they are fine. Together, they are nauseating.
I felt nauseated looking at the crinkly, brown wind-pants meant to warm my legs. Beneath them, loudly yellow shorts barely covered my upper thighs. Which color represents me as someone from the township, the flimsy brown or the discordant yellow? Also yellow, a sleeveless jersey probably as old as the district itself draped over my thin torso, and each time a breeze blew in through an open school bus window I shivered. I shivered in part from cold air and in part from anxiety.
Anxious to do what we traveled halfway to the West Virginia border to do, I relaced my spikes tighter. The thin fabric compressed my toes. Certainly, these shoes were too small for my feet, but Coach assured me that this is how running shoes should be.
At the start of my first cross-country season, I was full of expectations. My sister was a good runner, and I was going to be one, too. For a month before team practices began, I jogged by myself to prepare. I shared my expert, pre-teen wisdom about pace and arm movement with my teammates. I had hope for myself.
Now, as the old bus engine strained to meet the challenge of rising elevation my heart rose, too. Finally, we arrived. The entrance to the park where the invitational took place was on a long slope of paved road. Our bus made the steep climb, performed a U-turn, and parked facing downhill.
Imposing clouds covered the sky. Sure, it rains a whole lot in southwestern Pennsylvania, that is true. However, the nerves present just before running a race can make anything typical into something uniquely dramatic. So, I was terrified of the place.
Orange lines adorned dewy, untrimmed grass. This is where we knew to arrange ourselves into a starting line. As dozens of runners filled in the space, it began to sprinkle rain. A man in a plastic poncho fired a starting gun.
Feet frenetically lifted. A whistle blew. Adults shouted.
Someone false-started. That is, a foot crossed the line before the gun’s official firing. Many groaned and the cool kids swore under their breath. We filed behind that soggy, orange line and the gun fired again.
This time, before feet could race in earnest another whistle blew. Some people laughed derisively. More loudly this time, the cool kids swore again. My stomach successfully relocated to somewhere near my knees and my throat closed shut.
Bang! Knees lifted toward chests, and feet kicked up mud. This third time, no whistle sounded and we went on.
We went on past the crowd of parents. We went on past a playground and into the woods. More accurately, they went on.
The rest of the horde of runners went on past me. They all passed me. I found myself in the straggling back of the pack. The rain did not cease, and the ground became progressively less solid. Each footfall squelched in waterlogged, red clay. One by one, boys trudged past me. My breathing was panicked; my body was failing me.
On an incline, my feet gave out beneath me. I fell in the mud.
Shocked and ashamed, I dug fingernails into the dirt and pulled on an exposed tree root to bring myself upright. The half dozen runners who had been within reach were leaving me behind. Tiger-orange uniforms of Connellsville were just barely visible through the leafless trees.
I lost sight of those jerseys somewhere in the woods near the two mile marker. Approaching a turn in the path, I recalled Coach’s words: run like a thief–speed up around corners, and anyone in chase will be discouraged when they find the gap between has suddenly widened. Reaching a turn, I increased my pace with this in mind. Though, my heart sunk deeper still. There was no one behind me. What was the point–who was I running from?
As I turned that corner too sharply, I fell in the mud.
Exiting the woods, I found myself in a clearing, finish line in view. Had an entire hour gone by? Embarrassment squeezed at my muscles in a way even lactic acid could not achieve and shame took up residence in the muddy stains on my shorts. But, at least it was finally ending. With renewed courage, I urged my legs to push harder. Each aggressive step sprayed mud onto my calves and back. After a hundred pairs of feet before mine, the ground was a mess, beaten into liquid.
My right foot slipped. I fell in the mud.
Within breaths of finishing–with rain pouring and darkness descending–no one was around to witness the last-place finisher. Yet, that made it worse. Nobody else could testify that yes, Tim was slowed by the terrible conditions. He had fallen in the mud, and that is why he was so late to finish. There was a reason beyond his control. It was a battle of man versus nature, not man versus himself. But, no witness could back up such a narrative.
Frankly, I do not remember finishing. Deep shame has filled the space between the final fall and what comes next with recollection as clear as the mud on that course.
My coach pulled me aside. He did something that surprised me: he apologized. Since we had a small team compared to the other schools, he registered all of us for the varsity race. He explained to me that he wished he had put me in the junior varsity group. In that race, my time would have placed me in the top, he said. I may have felt isolated from my teammates, but I would have been one of the best instead of the worst. Already destroyed, I was not sure if I should believe him. I faked a smile and nodded.
Climbing three tall steps into the bus, muscles ached as my knees rose to my waist. My sore joints cried, but my eyes did not. I let my tired body sink into a wrinkly leather seat halfway to the back of the bus. The seats were that towering kind school buses have, perhaps to compensate for never having safety belts. From that hidden place, I peered out onto the slope. There on the road, my teammates ate grapes and rinsed dirt from their calves and ankles with bottled water. I peered at my own legs, covered and caked in soil.
I could have joined my teammates. With them, I could have snacked on sweet fruit and literally cleansed myself of that evening, of that embarrassing memory. But, I did not. I stayed on that bus. I was not ready to wipe away what happened.
Instead, I touched the dried dirt on my forearms. I folded the hem of my shorts until the mud on it cracked and crumbled. Looking at the mud, I thought about what Coach had said.
Looking at the brown mud on my golden yellow uniform, I saw proof that I was one of the best–one of the best, just not here in this place. I did not belong in this group, but that was alright. Even with falling, my time would have placed me in the top of a different group. In some other group, I was good. In other circumstances, I was the best.
I wore my mud like a victorious battle scar. I had hope for myself.