Contest #235 shortlist ⭐️


Coming of Age High School

A gunshot crackles through the air. You flinch. A wisp of smoke rises across the field. A blur of bodies bursts away from the gunman. Arms and legs swing furiously. You anxiously shift your weight back and forth. Your foot begins to shake. Breathe. The mass of sprinting bodies curves and hurtles towards you. You stare at the white tape on the ground in front of you.  If you start too early or too late, you’ll never recover. Wait. The screaming and yelling swells. Wait. Your hearts pounding, your fight-or-flight instincts scream for release. Wait. A foot strikes the tape. Now!

Hours earlier, you’re nauseous, face pressed against the tinted window of a cramped van as it weaves its way through Saturday morning traffic. Your stomach gurgles, anxious and excited. The stadium falls into view, its large metal bleachers jutting from the surrounding playfields. “Yo, its go time!”, your teammate chants. You sit quietly, typically subdued. Your coach, the driver, pulls into the nearly empty stadium lot and coasts to a stop near some other vans. Your teammates excitedly spill out onto the parking lot. You follow, more slowly, cautiously. You squint your eyes in the morning sun, looking over at the stadium, a bit awestruck. It’s large, for a high school stadium, the largest you’ve seen.  The sight strips away the lingering queasiness. A large white banner is flanked across the back of the stadium. WIAA High School Track and Field State Championships.

You sling your black duffel bag over your shoulder and walk calmly behind your excitable teammates, across the cracked pavement and towards the stadium’s concrete entrance-way. Your inner voice says what you’ve avoided acknowledging until now. You made it. In a few hours, you’ll race in this stadium as a member of your school’s 4x100 meter relay team. When it’s time, the four of you will take your places around the loop of the track, each running approximately 100 meters before passing a tubular metal “baton” to each other. It’s an odd race, and these hand-offs provide some of the most exciting and heartbreaking moments on a track. Later in life, you will read something about how it all originated, in ancient Greece, as a tradition of running couriers passing off "message sticks". This never crosses your mind. You haven't advanced to that stage yet, questioning why some things are. You're in high school, things just happen.

You walk through a concrete tunnel, emerging into the interior of the stadium. Beyond a waist high chain-link fence is a green sea of synthetic turf, surrounded by the blood-orange expanse of an eight-lane track. You get a small thrill by opening the gate door with a sign reading “Athletes and authorized personnel only”. You walk onto the field and sit on the fake grass, the sun warm on your back as you slip off your tennis shoes and put on your thin, paper-light running “spikes”. You bound onto the track, feeling the springiness of the grippy rubber material under your feet. You look around at the stadium. The stands are mostly empty this early in the day, but you imagine the packed crowds coming.

A few weeks shy of graduating, you’re the only senior on the relay team. Depending on how today’s preliminary races go, it could be your last race. In fact, it could be your last high school sporting event ever. You haven’t thought about what it would be like, yet, without school sports. It’s all you’ve known. Since kindergarten, you’ve competed in at least three sports a year, always preparing for the next sport, the next season, the next year. It has been a comfort, the regularity of the seasons, the routine of practices. That will stop today. You gaze out across the stadium, squinting your eyes in the bright sun reflecting off the bleachers. Remember. You try to breathe it all in, to create a lasting memory, to appreciate this final opportunity to perform and showcase your athletic abilities. It slips, and you start to daydream. There’s only so much reverence an 18-year-old can muster at this stage in life.

Your coach calls the team over to the far side of the field. He gives a heartfelt speech about today, about the opportunity to showcase all your hard work. In the moment, it’s profound, but years from now, the details will be gone, and just the feeling will linger. “Alright, now, let’s warm up!” He barks, cutting through the sentimentality of the moment. The team settles into its warmup routine. Jumping Jacks, bird-dogs, cariocas, all those mysterious names for different forms of moving your body. It works, like always. You feel limber, loose, ready to run through a wall.

Most races require some form of pacing, a delicate interplay between strategy and strain, mind, and body. But not a 100-meter sprint, the shortest track racing distance. It’s all body, all strain. Your part of the race will be done in just over 12 seconds. That’s it. In the time it takes to recite the pledge of allegiance, you’ll start and finish the pinnacle of your athletic career. And in those twelve seconds, you’ll run as fast as you can, and then some. It takes training to get there, to realize that your body can move faster than you thought possible. You ignore the pleas from your body, and then you glide, daring your feet to keep up.

Wait. There’s a lot of that in a track meet. Waiting for the meet to start. Waiting for your event to be called for staging. Waiting to line up in race positions. You spend hours each meet with your teammates just sitting and passing the time, desperately redirecting your nervous energy until your event is called. The state championships track meet is especially long, lasting all day, so you watch and wait. You watch your fellow competitors go through the balletic competitions of each unique event. Running, jumping, throwing, it’s an impressive display of all the athletic prowess of the human body. These are athletes in their youthful prime. Some of them will compete in college, a few maybe even professionally. Most, like you, will soon transition into a life without athletics. With the sun high in the afternoon sky, you get the signal. “Yo, guys, lets jog it out!” Your teammate waves the baton in the air like a maestro. Finally.

The four of you jog slowly across the infield, exaggerating each step like it’s a performance. “Stick!” You playfully yell. Your teammate, jogging closely in front of you, swings their arm back, palm up. You quickly slap the baton down into their hand, releasing your grip just as they curl their fingers around it. Your teammate tosses the baton. “Heads up!” The teammate in the back snatches it out of the air, and the ritual repeats. To the uninitiated, this group warmup routine might seem out of place in a sport typically associated with solo efforts. But the relay is unique, a team coordinated effort. The best individual performances mean nothing if you don't manage the delicate act of handing off the baton to each other, running at full speed. This season, your team has cruised to easy victories, and been embarrassed by botched hand-offs and last place finishes. Despite it all, you’re here, together, for the first time, and for the last.

The announcer instructs the relay teams to gather at the finish line for staging. This is it. You make a last conscious effort to absorb the scene. It’s only the state championships, but for you, they may as well be the Olympics. The 5,000 people in the stands is greater than the population of your entire hometown. What do I feel?  Numerous sports movies and reminiscent adults have drilled into you the importance of reverence and appreciation for what you’re about to do. But you don’t have hindsight, you haven’t lived a life beyond it yet. You can’t know how it will play in your mind forever.

“Runners, to your positions!” The group breaks, and you jog alone towards the opposite corner of the track. You reach your spot, stopping to peel off your warmup clothes. The slight breeze slips around your smooth, newly shaved legs. You feel the stares of the other runners, even if only imagined. You're not supposed to be here. You're not a sprinter. Yet here you are. All throughout high school, you were predominantly a thrower. The shot put, discuss, heavy metal objects that you toss as far as you can. Your body matches those events better. Here, in sprinting events, shorter and leaner tend to dominate. I’ll show you what I can do. Your body has been shaped to the task. You’re a lean 175lbs, down from your bulky peak of 205lbs during football season. The caloric demands of the workouts took care of that on its own. You walk over to your assigned lane, half bounding and half jogging, desperate to shake off the pre-race jitters. You pull a roll of tape out of your pocket and carefully pace off the marking distance. 1, 2, 3… It took a full season of practicing to get this exact distance right. 20 steps. The distance it takes for you to get up to nearly full speed just before your teammate runs into you. You tear off a strip of the white athletic tape and carefully press it into the softly jagged texture of the track. “Runners, take your positions!” You jog on your way back to the starting spot. You take one last look at the nervous faces of your competitors. Breath. You take a deep, shuddering breath. Okay.

Pop! The starter gun goes off, shattering the dreadful silence. You listen for a second pop, signaling a heartbreaking end for one of the teams. Instead, it’s a clean start. The runners scream around the first corner of the track. The crowd roars to life. The first group of runner’s mesh into the second, a momentary chaos, and then the second group emerges. The first hand-off. The crowd noise escalates and slips into the background. You spot your teammate in the fury of flailing limbs. He’s in the middle of the pack. Uh-oh. You’ll have no room for error, needing to keep the pace to secure a decent finish. Wait. You wipe your sweaty hands on your mesh shorts. The group of runners’ flies toward you. Wait. You lock eyes with your teammate. His stare is focused, ferocious. You shift your weight nervously. Wait. You watch their feet, pattering furiously down the track. Wait. Smack! The foot strikes the tape.

Go. You pivot, digging your left foot into the track. Your body twists, left arm flying back, then flying forward as you thrust your right leg ahead. Muscles contract, ligaments stretch, blood courses.  Drive. You lean forward, so far that only your legs can catch you from falling. There’s a pattering of steps and explosion of breaths behind you. Your teammate is gaining on you. Wait. You strain to hear their voice among the shouting of the chaos. Did he say it? “Stick!” your teammate yells, voice cracking. You fling your arm back. Please be there. Smack! The baton slaps perfectly in the middle of your hand. You curl your fingers to grip it tight. You’ve got it, well before the end of the zone, a clean hand-off.


The world blurs.

Tap, breath, tap, breath.

Two white lines, curving on blood orange.

Tap, breath, tap, breath.

Legs, solid, flying.

Tap, breath, tap, breath.

Arms, pull, pump, pull, pump.

Tap, breath, tap, breath.

Wake up.

The world crashes back into focus. The last runners appear in the clearing fog. Your body screams for surrender. Focus. Your effort will be for nothing if you don’t complete the hand-off. Your teammate stares at you, wide eyed, waiting for you to cross his mark. Now. He turns, runs, you push to keep your pace, you’re almost on him. "Stick!" you scream, between gasps. His arm flings back. You lean forward, keeping your balance as you try to maintain speed. You slam the baton into his hand. In an instant, his hand closes around it as you release yours. Clean. The last runners accelerate, and the crowd roars back to life. Careful. You can’t lose focus, not now. You must slow down within the hand-off zone, taking care not to step into another lane and get disqualified. Your exhausted, adrenaline battling fatigue. You concentrate on your legs, pulling them under you, trying to stop without collapsing.

You gasp for air as you watch your teammate fly down the track. The crowd roars back into your reality. The runners burst across the finish line, but you can’t tell your teammates position from your vantage point. You jog slowly over to the finish line. You find your teammates and gather, arms draped over one another, gasping, and smiling. You look up at the screen to see the results. Fourth place. The top eight teams make the finals. You’ll have to wait until the other races finish to know your fate. You look at your teammates. You don’t say it, but you’re proud of them, of what you’ve just done. Perfect.

You watch the other preliminaries. You subdue your optimism. When the final results flash onto the screen, you’re ready. You look. It’s over.

Your team misses the finals by one spot. The team will be better the next year, after you've graduated. They will make the finals and place in the top three, breaking the school record time in the process. You’re proud of them. You’ve had a year to adjust, to normalize into a life without school sports. You can hear the news of their success without bitterness. You never really belonged there, anyways.

You will never touch a baton again, never wear the spikes, the uniform, never feel that sensation of pushing your body to that extreme. Days after the race, you saw the footage shot on your parents bulky 80s camcorder. It all looked so ordinary. The lead up, the start, the hand-offs, the finish. In the footage, you see the effort on your face, but it doesn’t reflect what you felt. The memory creeps back, sometimes. The moments are sensationalized and altered from years of retrieval and re-writing. The closest you come to fully re-living it is when you go for a nighttime jog. Alone, in the dark, with only your breath and fatigue as company. Sometimes you’ll push yourself, when your breathing is labored, your legs tired, trying to recapture that feeling. It will always be there, in some form. But at 35, you've lived almost a full other life since that race. Was it real?

February 03, 2024 04:31

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Philip Ebuluofor
04:56 Feb 12, 2024

Congrats. This week is full of first timers.


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Alexis Araneta
11:06 Feb 10, 2024

Congrats on making the shortlist (with a very brilliant first entry too). I love how you verbalised the excitement of the race. Great job!


Cameron Navarre
19:56 Feb 11, 2024

Thank you Stella! I enjoyed revisiting the memory and figuring out how best to convey the experience of that race.


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Mary Bendickson
20:55 Feb 09, 2024

Congrats on the shortlist especially on first entry. Seems to be a theme this week. Great build up and the thrill of competition and reliving it through life. Welcome to Reedsy. Nice dip you took.


Cameron Navarre
03:43 Feb 10, 2024

Thanks Mary! I learned a lot from writing this first entry. I'm looking forward to participating in more story prompts.


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