Thursday, December 6, 2018

Those First Steps

By Kirsten Milam

Streams of what felt like cool water ran down the sides of my face, in reality it was sweat. As much as it grossed me out, it was a reprieve from the glaring sun above that was scorching my cheeks. I took a deep breath, trying to even out my heart rate and short breathing. We hadn’t started our workout more than 20 minutes ago, and I already felt like my legs had turned into gelatin. Who made me do this? My subconscious peeped right in with, you chose this and you’ve got to at least try. But that wasn’t completely true; my mother had thought that this would be “good for me”. My mother and I didn’t agree on a few things, and this was definitely one of them. Who ran three miles for fun? My mother did. She ran in high school and wanted me to try it out. I refused to go initially. I couldn’t understand how running would help me. I would miss school at least once a week, and after school practices take away from homework time. Plus, I wasn’t sure that the girls on the team even liked me. In the end though, my mother dropped me off without another word on the subject.

Checking to make sure I was heading the right direction, I took note of the sprinkler that was dousing a thirsty looking yard. I remembered passing by it at the beginning of my suffering. A dog on a chain leash bolted out of the shadows, curious as to what was out on the road. I did not remember seeing him earlier. Maybe he just happened to be a sign from fate to run faster. As I picked up the pace away from the dog, I wondered if he was as hot as I was. The sound of my fellow runner’s footsteps brought my attention back to the task at hand, which in all honesty, was just to survive the last ten minutes.

I had already been astray once while running today from not keeping up behind Clancy. She ran about the same pace as me and had been assigned to not completely lose me. Again, I tried to focus on my breathing, each inhale of the humid air reminded me of something I had tried when I was little. My mother would put a damp warm washcloth over her face when unwinding from the day. When I tried doing it, all I could sense was a smothering wet heat that was blocking my breathing. I never understood the relaxing aspect of it. I checked my watch to see if I could just head straight to the football field ahead of me. I was close enough to thirty minutes of running. My legs protested as I pushed ahead from the harsh concrete to rocky gravel, finally onto lush green grass. Slowly, the rest of the runners showed up, red-faced and drenched in sweat.

“All right, now that you’ve finished the first part of our workout . . .” Mrs. Haake’s voice trailed off as my body took into consideration what could possibly be next. “Load up in the van and we’ll go,” Mrs. Haake’s voice brought me back into motion, and I drug my useless gelatin legs to the van. I internally pleaded for someone to shove me into the van. Mrs. Haake seemed like a coach that would drive you to do your best and push you to your limits, yet she was there in support also. Clambering onto the bus, I pulled the back of my t-shirt off my skin. I didn’t want to think about the large sweat stain there probably was. We rumbled out of the school parking lot and towards Highway 2. My breathing had finally evened out and with each breath; I drew in the stench of sweaty shoes. I didn’t know why my new teammates were smiling. It smelled rancid in here. I thought that we weren’t actually having a second part to practice until we pulled the boxy cargo van up alongside the Middle Loup River.

This couldn’t be as miserable as the first part of our workout. I can swim a lot better than I can run. The river would be much cooler than being out under direct sun too. As the others untied their laces and peeled off sweat soaked socks, I followed suit, clumsily yanking them off. “I want you guys to go down to where the sand bar ends and wait for my count. Then you’ll sprint up to me and float back down.” Mrs. Haake finished her instructions and walked up stream about 100 meters. All six of us girls, and our one male teammate, Isaac, wandered down to the end of the sand bar. The water that ran over our feet was cool, and no more than two inches deep. The sand was rippled from the water carrying and depositing it.

“If you fall, don’t grab for someone else, just get right back up and go,” Tristan, Mrs. Haake’s daughter, advised us. Tristan was kind in school, and always smiling. She held a position of leadership on the team, and was, without a doubt, the best runner here. The rest of the team lined up beside me, all of them had done this before at least once and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect to happen.

“Ready?” You could barely hear our coach’s strong voice over the rushing water. Tristan gave her two thumbs up after looking at us all for confirmation. “Go!” Everybody bolted off the imaginary line we had set. My face was wet within seconds and this time, it was from cool water and not sweat. Focusing on where my feet landed was quite the challenge. The glare of sunlight on the water stung my eyes and a few pesky water droplets assisted in temporarily blinding me. All of a sudden, there was a splash and Clancy was face down in the water, yet laughing. Attempting to remain on my feet, I burst into my own fit of giggles with Tristan and Morgan. Reaching the spot that held Mrs. Haake, we all took a second to catch our breath. Our herd jogged over, plunging into the deeper water to float back to the beginning. Water ran all along my face, and I swiped my tongue over my chapped top lip. It tasted like river water and salt from my former sweatiness.

One by one, we started striding over to the sand bank and slowly pulling ourselves out of the water. Each of us now had a second skin, our t-shirts and shorts clinging to our bodies. Lined up once again, Tristan threw her thumbs up before a “ready” could be called out. “Go!” Mrs. Haake’s voiced strained again over the water beneath us. Shot into action, we ran more fluidly this time, dodging dips in the sand and weaving between each other to get ahead. Clancy was with us, until she wasn’t. She must have hit the same spot as last time! With a loud chuckle, I tripped on my own soft spot, not falling to my own luck. Mrs. Haake was howling with laughter when we finished, which caused the rest of us to crack up.

“Kirsten, I really thought you were going to fall down after me,” Clancy remarked with a cheesy grin. She had recovered fast and finished right after me. Being the only one who had fallen, I was surprised she was still so upbeat when she had been the entertainment. Clancy was a team player, I had identified that right away.

“I almost did! I caught my balance though,” I replied with my own lopsided smile. We all sat in the flowing water to stretch. My heart was light, even though my calves burned and abdominal muscles hadn’t released. Finishing the last of our stretching, we loaded back into the smelly, hot van for the trip home. I sat there wondering what tomorrow’s dreadful practice might bring. A hill workout? A whole three miles? Surprised that I even thought about tomorrow’s practice, I kept telling myself that I did NOT want to go. A smaller sliver of me wanted to, but another part didn’t want my mother to be right.

“Kirsten, do ya think that you’ll be joining us again tomorrow?” Mrs. Haake’s eyes met mine in the rearview mirror as she asked. I gave a cheesy smile before I replied, knowing I was going to make the right choice.

“I guess we’ll see tomorrow,” I told her.

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