See How She Runs
Forget about the splits for a moment.
Forget about the men on their hands and knees with the tape measure and the roll of athletic tape, turning this 400 meter track into a 440-yard throwback. Forget about the additional photo-timer they’ve installed—just for her—to capture her as she crosses the 3200 mark. Forget about the message board mavens and the internet pundits and the armchair quarterbacks, with their opinions and their criticism and their second-guessing. Forget what they’ve written about Mombassa and Foot Locker and body-types and coaching and age-group stars who never pan out.
Forget about everything swirling around this girl, the crowds and the reporters and the expectations, and look at the girl.
Look at her run.
She’s three laps into this two-mile race, flitting in and out of the backstretch shadows like some illusory wraith in racing spikes. Putting distance, with every efficient stride, between herself and a field consisting of some of the best girls in the country. Already 40 yards up on her nearest competitor, who happens to be the defending California state mile champion.
Watch her round the curve with that sweeping stride, her heels nearly grazing the flickering strands of her long, gossamer ponytail. Watch her angle onto the straightaway and hammer down the homestretch, a compelling blend of coltish exuberance and dogged determination.
Notice how she unfurls this talent without visible malice, her fierce competitiveness sheathed in a cherubic poker face. How the only indication of the pain she’s enduring—and thus inflicting—is a tongue clenched between her teeth and a barely-knitted brow. The rest of the damage is done with her feet.
Talk to her after the race, and she’s 15. A sun-kissed California teenager with a shy smile, braces and a reedy voice that rises at the end of sentences, turning thoughts that were meant to be statements into something more like questions. Which is to say, she’s normal. She’s composed and polite and fifteen.
But there’s nothing normal about the way she runs.
* * *
Look at her on the starting line. Toeing an improvised arc created with athletic tape, so that this race can be run as a national high school two-mile record attempt, instead of a standard 3200. She’s the one against the rail, shaking out her legs and waiting for the gun. If you scrambled the 21 girls on the line and reassembled them according to height order, with the shortest on the inside, she’d still occupy the same position. Slot one, like it says on her hip number. Right on the rail.
But watch her get out. Watch her elbow through the collapsing pack and weave her way up to the one position she’ll hold for the next eight laps. The front.
Watch her click off those laps with metronomic precision, gamely pursuing something far more ephemeral than gold medals or running rivals—the elusive second. She’s chasing after time. Watch how she doesn’t panic when she hears a 70 for the first lap, knowing she’s gone out too fast, but instead settles in and gets down to work. Notice how she keeps her composure late in the race, when she and everyone else in the stadium can sense that the attempt is slipping away. When it becomes apparent that the attention and the athletic tape and the photo-timer may have all been for naught. When the meet announcer says that she’s 220 yards out, with nine minutes and thirty seconds showing on the clock.
It’s asking too much that she close in thirty seconds, but watch her try. Notice how there’s no let up, no throwing in the towel or stepping off the track. There is only the consistent, brutal efficiency of that sweeping stride.
* * *
Look at what she’s done to this crowd. Not just the track geeks and the track parents and the old-timers and the stat guys, but the average fans. The people who hear Girls Two-mile and think, Time for a hotdog. The kids who are here to see their buddies tear it up in the 4x1. The girlfriends huddled under varsity jackets. The pole vaulters, waiting for the van keys so they can go crash in the backseat. They’re all on their feet.
Girl can fly, they say. Look at her go.
Two grandstands worth of people on a cool, misty Saturday night, clapping rhythmically and cheering for this diminutive girl with the blonde hair and the blue singlet. Imploring this flash of quicksilver through the stadium shadows and into the bright, blinding lights of the finish line.
* * *
10:07.65, that’s the official number.
10:04.27 en route for the 3200.
The two-mile time is well shy of Molly Huddle’s 2002 national record of 10:01.08, and the 3200 split is even further from Kim Mortensen’s 1996 national 3200 mark of 9:48.59.
Disappointing? Perhaps. Fresh fodder for the message boards? Almost certainly.
But does it really matter? She’ll have plenty of time to chase records. Remember, she’s fifteen. She’s shy and coltish and laughing and focused and fierce. She’ll make other attempts, on other tracks, with other improvised arcs. She’ll go out with less exuberance, and hit more consistent splits and round that far turn one night with her sweeping stride and her ponytail floating and she’ll stream past the bursting stands right into the record books.
Or she won’t.
It’s hard to say. She’s fifteen, after all.
But have you seen her run?
Girl can fly.