I roll my head from side to side in an attempt to be nonchalant. My teammates look at me questioningly, and then ask, “Can we go now?” impatiently. I nod vaguely, lead them in a jog for about thirty meters, then turn around and run briskly back to the starting line. Once there I straighten my tie-dyed knee socks and perform an exaggerated walk in place. I glance at my teammates, making sure only five of our runners are in the front row and checking to see that everyone’s shoelaces are tied. I focus my gaze ahead as a man walks out before the competitors and gives a brief introduction, giving the usual instructions of there being two commands, one which is vocal, and then the sound of the gun. The man disappears in the herd of runners, and another walks out.
He utters the familiar phrase, “Runners set.” There is a brief pause, and then the resounding sound of a pistol pierces the air. I am off.
* * *
The sight of the other runners disappears in a flash, and the grass is rolling under my feet. My sneakers are white trimmed with red, accenting my maroon socks and uniform flawlessly. I glance back quickly as I round the bend; I am already breaking away, but not quite as rapidly as I would like. I pick up my pace, knowing that once I reach the woods I may slow down to my 3K pace and compensate for my overly swift start.
I leap over the railroad tracks and head toward the pond, only slightly aware of the crowd standing on either side of me, applauding politely Leaping over an obstacle reminds me of a book written by one of my favorite authors, and I run through the plot briefly in my head; anything to keep my mind off the rhythm of my breathing or the length of my strides, so that I may just enjoy the run and feel the wind rushing against my face. It’s a chilly day, and it will be even colder in the woods, so I pump my arms vigorously to keep the warmth flooding through my body.
The pond is calm today, the water a calico sheet of tranquility. My breathing is shallow, so I concentrate on the tune of a beloved song and transform my jagged inhalation into a placid rhythm. I swivel my head, hopefully for the last time during this run, and am relieved to note that the other competitors are hardly in sight now. I relax my muscles and move briskly toward the edge of the forest.
As I enter the kingdom of greenery and timber a slight breeze rustles ever so slightly through the trees. My energy is repeatedly replenished by this mellow gust of wind, and I continue on down the woodland path before me. There are no other sounds save the languid tones of my sneakers slapping the ground with ease, and I seem to not even be aware when the terrain ascends and I begin to run on an uphill slope.
In time I see a clearing up ahead, and feel a twinge of regret that I am leaving the peaceful solitude of the forest’s haven, but it is only slight for I know that the finish line is near. As I approach the source of the sunlight and the crowd standing in the midst of it I alter my running style. I allow my breathing to become slightly more labored, and increase the length of my strides, no longer placing them in front of me in a carefree and thoughtful fashion, but in a deliberate and competitive manner, trying to look as though all I have been thinking about the entire race is a blue ribbon. For I am now exiting the woodland sanctuary in which I may camouflage with my surroundings and enjoy the scenery. Now I am a runner, and am human once more. I feel pain in my legs, and a familiar sensation of exhaustion as I round the bend, and see clearly ahead of me the true definition of a cross-country course, linear and concise in its layout.
* * *
I hear a roar of applause as I enter the clearing, and dimly note the crowd of spectators on either side of me, some of them wearing uniforms like myself, whereas others are garbed in merely everyday apparel. There is the part of me that notices them, that is for certain. But there is another portion of my being that is oblivious to my surroundings completely Suddenly the coldness of the day is nothing, and I no longer have to squint to shield the sun from penetrating my lashes. I no longer feel the fatigue in my legs, and exhaustion is no longer a factor. My awareness of leaping over the railroad tracks on the way back is minor, and the sight of the finish line inconsequential. I am flying, but without the need of wings. Spreading a vast drapery of brightly colored plumage is utterly unnecessary; for I am already soaring through the air effortlessly, unconscious of my environment, hardly feeling my feet hit the soil repetitively. I am impregnable.
And then the sensation is gone, and I see the finish chute thirty yards ahead.
* * *
I cross the powdery white strip on the grass at a clocking of nine minutes and eighteen seconds. I sway to the side slightly and then regain my balance, breathing deeply as I stroll down the walkway, my hand skimming the rope fencing on either side of me for a sense of support. My mother approaches on the other side of the finish chute and I greet her, bringing a hand over my brow dramatically to give her an understanding of my fatigue. A race official hands me a Popsicle stick depicting the number one, and I accept it with a brief murmur of thanks. One of my parents hands me my water bottle, and I take a swig from it appreciatively. Immediately my strength is restored, and I jog across the field to watch my teammates finish the race. Then a sudden thought strikes me.
The memory of something that occurred only a few moments ago. I could hardly call it running—more like the vague recollection of soaring through the air, like a bird in its lazy state of being airborne.
I am curious; perhaps it will happen again? Probably not, but it’s possible, isn’t it? It won’t hurt to try and find out.
With that, I sprint across the grassy lawn once more, pumping my arms powerfully, inhaling autumn’s aroma rhythmically, concentrating on nothing in particular; just letting the wind rush against my face, making myself oblivious to sound. And running just because I want to.
And as this sentence flashes through my brain, it happens. A subtle change in the atmosphere, and the sensation of feeling light and airy, the ground so far below.
I. Am. Flying.