The shame and self-disgust that follows an act of cowardice had already taken hold of me. Lingering at the starting line, I stared down at my sickeningly clean sneakers knowing they wouldn’t run a meter. I was in Munich, for the ISST running festival. I remember the freezing temperatures. It was as if the frigid winds from the distant Alps had blown over the school with their icy breath. They added to my building anxiety, chattering my teeth and blowing my sweaty, curly locks all over my pale forehead.
So, I was essentially known as the young rookie, a hotshot still in his middle-school days who was brought up to the Varsity level to compete internationally. I was a total underdog. Not that it mattered. There was an underdog in every school. Look hard enough and you can see him. Bony knees, prepubescent; big round, nervous eyes, a deer caught in the headlights. We were trying to play with the big boys. Well. I say, “play. ” Do you play cross-country? No.
You run until you wretch up your innards into your mouth, and then you try to hold them inside that heaving cavity with your sweaty palms. I was afraid of pushing myself to that point, because frankly I knew that I would when the time came. “You just do the best you can, my family all said. I laughed bitterly at that phrase, even now I do. They have no idea how much effort one’s “best effort requires of them in that sport. When I ran, it was always a game of the mind.
I knew I had the physical capacity, so I withdrew into myself, ignoring the repeating pain in my lungs and the cold stab of each breath. It was gruelling enough to engage in that mental struggle with middle school runners. I was up against 18 year olds with the body fat percentages of racehorses, and the discipline of Buddhist monks. I would’ve collapsed in a muddy, bile-stained heap on the finish line. It was all too much. I faked illness, disqualified myself from the race, and consequentially my self-respect became non-existent.
The power of that despicable lie tore me apart. I could barely muster up enough morale to cheer on my teammates. In the faint wincing and moaning breath of each wild-eyed runner, I acknowledged that I had failed myself, my team, my school, and even my country. I could’ve run marathons. I could’ve moved mountains. I didn’t run cross-country for another 4 years. I’m still learning from that failure. A while down the track I moved to Sydney and finally went through puberty.
My work ethic lessened somewhat, and I became lazy, like the Australian accent. However, I gained valuable assets too: friends and time to breathe. I learnt to enjoy the process of growing up. The glorious sun bronzed my skin to match my hair and eyes. I became muscled. I felt powerful. Sucking in the thick springtime air of Bondi Beach on a time-trial run was therapeutic for me. In each breath I tasted freedom. In the crashing waves and their elegant riders, I saw discipline, as well as the relaxed aura of Australian culture and its people.
Those lean wet-suited bodies with their blond heads of hair were symbolic of a beautiful strength, and on their faces I observed a concentrated joy, thrilling to behold. In them, I had discovered the perfect balance. I’m just starting to gain my work ethic back. This final year is very much a race. I know I have the stamina, and I know it’s going to be just as mentally taxing as Munich should’ve been for me. I’ll give it a solid effort. But I won’t let it be all encompassing. I want to enjoy the beauty of the ride.