Izzy and her sister, Natalie, stepped onto the asphalt at Bergman's Running Track on Norm Street. This was Izzy's favorite time of day. Quiet. The sun was rising. Izzy began to run, slowly at first, then speeding up. By the time she reached Natalie again she was at full speed.
"Time?" asked Izzy.
"Two-thirty," replied Nat.
"Yes!" Izzy exclaimed. "One more time."
The big race, three miles, was three weeks away—so far yet so near. Izzy spent afternoons practicing with her teammates. She practiced at the track near her house on Saturdays. Natalie, who raced for her high school, went along. Nat made Izzy feel confident. She was pretty and kind. Izzy admired her. She was a streak when she ran yet she was so happy and carefree. She would never be like Nat but oh how she wished. Izzy was also a little competitive with Nat. Izzy sort of thought it was good to be a little competitive. Maybe.
For the next hour, Izzy pushed herself to beat her best time. She loved running and the sensation of wind against her face at top speed. But she also wanted to win.
"Let's stop for a drink," Natalie suggested.
Izzy was glad. She was hot and sweaty. It was not an uncomfortable feeling, just a little feeling saying "mission accomplished." They headed to Brooks convenience store, where she bought a bottle of water. Then they walked up Norm Street towards home.
Every Saturday, Izzy kept to the same routine: she got up with her sister at five AM, worked out at the track until seven and returned home a half hour later. At ten, her best friend Jessie would come by During those hours, Izzy amused herself by trying to watch a movie (Harry Potter), or reading a book (Harry Potter) or fitting together the pieces of a puzzle (Harry Potter), though she could hardly pay attention. Finally, ten o'clock came and so did Jessie. She tapped out the secret knock, although it wasn't very secret anymore.
The door swung open and the two friends gave each other a quick hug. They grabbed some Power Bars and left for the pool. That was how it went every Saturday. Izzy liked it.
* * *
It was the last Saturday before the race. Jessie had decided to join Izzy and Natalie for their Saturday routine.
"On your mark, get set, go!" instructed Natalie.
Izzy and Jessie ran and ran. On this morning, Izzy didn't notice the wonderful silence or the beautiful sunrise.
"Time?" Izzy breathed after finishing twelve hard laps, hopping from one foot to the other.
"Thirty-five minutes flat," Natalie replied.
"Not bad for three miles," Jessie said, trying to laugh. She was trying to be funny but Izzy could tell she was worrying about the race.
They practiced for another hour, trying. Izzy and Jessie were pleased. Better.
"You've got a whole week to practice," Natalie said. Her words were reassuring, but seven days didn't seem enough.
When they got home Izzy and Jessie were exhausted. No swimming.
* * *
Izzy’s time was improving, but butterflies were beginning to form in her stomach. They came flying in as the day drew nearer. And finally just when there was no room for another butterfly, not even a moth, it was time.
Izzy and Jessie arrived twenty minutes early, as did the rest. The girls greeted each other with chatter. They warmed up alongside the track.
Parents, teachers and friends arrived. Then noise.
"I'm scared," Izzy whispered to Natalie, who stood with her.
"Don't worry you'll do fine," she replied.
Izzy took her place on the track.
The whistle blew.
Before Izzy could think, her legs were carrying her. Going, going, Izzy felt so tired and she began to slow. It seemed like forever before the finish line came into view. And it seemed even longer before she crossed it. Everyone else was there already, it seemed.
She had failed.
Izzy had thought she was a good runner and now what? Should she quit? She sat down with the rest of her team. She couldn't hear the loudspeaker as it called out the winners. Tears pressed hot behind her eyes. She looked down. This was more than embarrassing.
* * *
Weeks went by, races were missed. Practice didn't go well either. Nothing could comfort Izzy. She hadn't run for days. You'd have to be very smart to think of anything that would upset Izzy more than this, but your guess would probably be wrong anyway.
Almost every day Natalie would ask, "Are you sure you don't want to run today?"
And Izzy would always say, "Just leave me alone!"
One day, Jessie sat down beside Izzy in her room to talk.
"We've been losing all this time and if you don't start coming to practices today we won't get to go to the championship race. You need to be back. And I miss you with me."
"Huh?" Izzy was stunned.
"You're a great runner, Izzy."
"But I let you down," Izzy sighed, "didn't I?"
"You didn't. You were nervous. Everyone has those days. Don't let a silly little race tear you away from something you love," Jessie explained reassuringly.
"Really?" Izzy asked excitedly.
"Yeah," was Jessie's calm answer.
Izzy felt like crying.
"Thanks," was all she could say.
"So will you win?" asked Jessie. Her tone had changed. Now it was determined.
Izzy nodded. They hugged, then walked out the door of Izzy's house and headed to go—what else?—running. As she sprinted, wind whipping at her hair, a smile crossed her face. She was back.
* * *
Izzy and Jessie were the first runners at the championship race. Then the crowd and then noise. But Izzy didn't hear the noise; she was happy.
"On your mark. Get set. Go!"
Izzy knew exactly what to do.
She felt like wind. Sunlight shown on her cheeks, her heart bursting with joy. She felt as if she had already won. And it didn't matter anymore. Is it possible? Am I more like Nat? Yes. At last, she thought. This isn't all about winning. It about having fun. That was what Jessie had tried to tell me. She felt the steady beat of her feet against the pavement.
Just then someone passed her.
"No," thought Izzy, "not this time."
And that's when Izzy ran.