Sophomore Tori Waidley crossed the line .02 seconds ahead of Michigan State runner Alana O’Mara. Waidley was the first in-uniform Wolverine to finish.
Last Friday, I got to drive out to my home course at Hudson Mills to cover the Wolverine ladies’ last meet in the regular racing season. It was a B-race – that is, just redshirted freshmen and younger runners – which was something different from I’ve done so far. It was also the first actual race I’ve gotten to go to. The fact that it was home made it that much cooler.
Although it had been a sunny fall day earlier, by four the sky had clouded over and temperatures had dropped to low 40s – chilly for the spectators, but perfect for racing. I showed up (with my mom), met up with the Michigan sports communication lady, and hung around. Walked the familiar fields, watched the guys prepare to race while the women still jogged around, sweats still on and would stay on until 45 seconds before the gun. Wandered over to the start to watch the guys sprint off for a race that would end well before twenty minutes had the chance to go by.
It will be Runners, set, then the gun. Ready, men. Set… bang.
About fifty runners pounded down the field, spikes and spindly legs churning out a dampened thunderous rhythm. No more than thirty seconds passed and they were gone, out in the woods, doing what every cross country runner always has done and always will do, doing what anyone who has run cross country will never forget.
Standing at the sidelines in the chilly autumn air, I felt as though I were an injured runner on one of the teams, watching their teammates dash off in a pack. I felt the restlessness as they lined up, the second-nature nervous shaking out of goosebumped limbs, the settling into place… which foot in front, left or right, left or right, feeling it out… about five short seconds out, everything quiets, then quite suddenly it’s bang and you’re off. Heart leaps into action and lungs begin to cycle cold fresh air, legs twitch without thinking and everything is all a blur of trying not to get boxed in or elbowed too hard or spiked. Noise from the spectators for a few moments, then the hush of the woods.
Then it’s just you.
Other runners too, but it’s just them too. Even the teammates on your sides or in front of you or behind you, same singlet, but it’s just them, just you. Everyone settles into their stride and breath goes in-out in-out, accompanied by the sound of light shoes in (hopefully) soft – but not too soft – dirt. You glance at your watch every now and then but mostly not. You know the pace. You know your legs, your heart, your breath. Your head.
Suddenly there are crowds again! Another brief auditory glimpse into the non-racing world. Auditory – you don’t really see them. You might hear your name, might not. It doesn’t matter. Just you.
Back into the woods. Mile two now, the real push. The pack’s spread out and it really is just you. Keep the pace up. Steady, steady… cut the tangent even though there’s no one breathing hot down your neck… race down the hill, use it, use the momentum to rocket back up. A flash of color ahead – a competitor to catch up to, to use, to discard for the final mile.
The third mile barely registers. Perhaps there are more singlets to pass; they’ve slowed as you’ve gotten stronger. Or the other way around, it happens. Focus on the countdown, judge the pace accordingly… 1200, 800, 600, 400… go. Go NOW. Adrenaline kicks in, that’s all that’s left to finish anyway, and the last few dozen seconds are spent in oxygen debt but you kick it in and don’t let the other guy pass you no matter what.
As suddenly as it started, it’s over. A 5,000-meter race is very, very short. It’s the second mile of races – it flashes by but takes innumerable seconds to pass, a gateway to greater things. You stagger around, resurface, then in an amazingly short period of time are able to job over, pull your sweats on and switch shoes, then run a few miles of cooldown.
…all of which was simultaneously running through my mind in the few seconds it took for the runners to stand ready, set, and take off. It’s not a sequential memory, it’s an affective (emotional) one. A feeling that wells up and with it, images of years and races and runners gone by all contained in one instant of nostalgia and memories.
And you know you can never get that back, not really. Just the reflections you see in the runners you watch.