Cross country was my big run-in with peer pressure in middle school. The last time I had run a mile was in fourth grade, and I thought that would be the end of me. But now, the coolest girl in my social studies class was asking me to join the team with her, so how could I say no? At practice, we dilly-dallied down the roads and across the fields. We had no sense of time or distance, so when we were tired, we walked. We were out of sight of Mr. Rhodes and his freaky elbows and short-shorts anyways.
The day of the first race, I donned my red team t-shirt and my blue shorts. I was so nervous I couldn’t eat breakfast. At the race, we were briefed on the course. First, run a big loop here. Then run straight out until they tell you to turn around, run another big loop, and then come back. A mile and a half. Nothin’. I sized up the girls around me. Most were smaller than me, but I had the longest legs. I judged myself to be middle of the pack, so that’s where I positioned myself in the line-up.
At the gun, we took off. I tried to stay on pace with the middle of the pack, but after the first quarter-mile loop I couldn’t breathe. Oh my gosh, I thought. I’m going to have to walk and everyone is still standing right here. I can’t even make it to the woods where no one can see my failure. I started crying and hyperventilating, furious at myself, my inathleticism, and the stupid decision to join this stupid team. Who was I kidding?
Mr. Rhodes saw me fall back in the pack, barely trotting around the corner. He jogged up next to me and asked if I was okay. “I’m so slowwww!” I moaned. “You need to suck it up,” he said. “Do you really want to quit in front of all these people?”
“Nooooo,” I sobbed, shuffling through the dirt.
“Then keep going,” he said, and he jogged back to the spectators.
I made it to the trees, and started walking once I was in their protection. I put my arms over my head and drew deep breaths, willing my side cramps to go away. After a few minutes, I had regained composure and decided to start running again. By this time, the tiny girls were already on their way back to the finish line. I wasn’t even halfway through.
I jogged and walked and dragged myself through the course, finishing with an embarrassing time of 18 minutes. Dead last. But I didn’t quit, and I didn’t quit the race after that or the one after that, even though I still finished minutes behind everyone else. I didn’t quit that season, either, and I joined the team again the next year. I got used to being last, but I also got used to running the whole mile and a half without stopping.