Bay Village High School
Instructor: Kristen Srsen Kenney
Out of My Head
Out of My Head
It's a peculiar thing to be both out of your mind and stuck inside your head. Every runner knows the feeling. When you can't stop thinking, but also are thinking of nothing at all. When you're taking in everything around you, but also don't recollect anything once you cross that finish line. It's almost as though there's another person lying in wait, ready when the gun goes off to torture and confuse you into oblivion.
I'm standing on the green line in lane 6 of Rocky River's track. Three other runners line up in my lane beside me, all of them ready for the 3200-meter race. As the official gives his instructions, I jump up and down trying to ward off the chill from the rain that only let up five minutes ago. My purple and green spikes crackle and crunch as my legs, tan and short, flex beneath my electric blue spandex and tank top. A cold, cruel April wind blows through, licking at my blonde curls, slicked back with rainwater in a high ponytail. This is the second-to-last race of the day and the few, brave spectators who stuck it out to this late hour are hunkered down beneath soaked umbrellas. Runners, wishing they were anywhere else this Friday night, huddle beneath plastic raincoats or jog along the football field, warming up or cooling down. The vicious rain that whipped through only minutes before now sparkles and shines innocently on the red track in the bleak sunset that pokes through the blanket of dark clouds.
The official blows his whistle, shaking me out of my reverie. "On your marks!" he shouts "Get set…" I bend my knees in anticipation and BOOM! The gun goes off.
I start my sprint, grinning maniacally at the curve of the track in front of me. Doing my best to exude confidence and grace, I lean into the curve. My stride widens as I head towards the cut line where every runner moves into lane one. I'm not in the best position with my lane being so far out, but it's manageable. The best part is: I haven't even seen a hint of Mara.
I reach the line behind the runners in lanes one through five. Seeing a gap, I cut sharply, cutting some runners off behind me as I head towards lane one. But then, out of nowhere, a runner who had been in my lane cuts me off! I stumble, trying to regain my footing and throw my arms out to keep myself from going down. I start to feel a sick, swirling sensation in my stomach. My breath comes in small, uncontrollable gasps. And my doubts slither and slide their way into my weakening mind. Then I feel a presence sneak up.
Mara has arrived.
"Hello my dear," she taunts with relish as she jogs up right behind me "Miss me?"
"Shut up," I growl, trying to maintain my composure. I regain my footing and finish cutting into lane one. Despite that hiccup, I still have pretty good positioning. There are only two runners between me and my teammate, Ryen. I can close that gap easily.
"Oh, but my dear, no you can't," Mara sneers triumphantly as though she can read my mind. As though she's inside my head. "You are much too far behind. Cutting is very important and you just ruined it for yourself."
This is her tactic. She mirrors exactly what haunts the back of my mind, what I try to block out. And, she delivers it with an air of certainty, as if it is an undeniable fact. Mara even looks terrifying. She's at least a foot taller, sickly skinny, and pale. Because I only see her at races, I've never seen her out of the same plain black singlet and spandex. I couldn't tell you what her eyes or hair looks like, though. I've never had the courage to stare directly at her face.
I elect to ignore her and try to focus on the race in front of me. While I was distracted, we rounded the second curve and got part of the way down the straightaway at the end of the first lap. And I'm...nearly all the way in the back? When did that happen? My torrent of worries and thoughts must've made me blank! An insidious, panicky feeling begins to wrap its tentacles in my stomach. I'm spiraling and hurtling headfirst into the abyss of doubt that lives in my mind.
I guess this round goes to Mara.
I have to refocus. Breathe in, breathe out. In and out. In and . . .
"Tsk, tsk," Mara chides, breaking through my focus. We're now entering the second lap, and she's still right on my heels. "You're not making any progress! Did you see Sloane's face?" she asks, referring to my track coach. "He was so disappointed! You should be way up with Ryen, so what are you doing?"
I glare straight ahead. "It's none of your concern. I have a plan." I widen my stride and begin to make my move on the pack in front of me. It's made up of five girls. Two green-clad Westlake runners at the point, a River girl in maroon, a Normandy girl in orange in the middle, and Ryen in the back. They're about 25 meters ahead of me and it should be an easy maneuver to get in front of them. I just have to regain control.
"Control? You think you're in control?" Mara guffaws. "Are you truly that deluded? You have no control. Look at your legs, they're wobbly and weak. Your arms are barely moving! Don't you feel that exhaustion coming on? Face it, you lost the race in the first 100 meters when you tripped! No, you lost the race when you bothered to show up at all. You're floating through this, barely moving, barely breathing! Ryen and all the others? Catching them is a ridiculous goal. They are way faster," She hisses, putting words to the doubts that linger in the darkest corners of my mind. As she speaks, the torrent of my subconscious begins to blend and bleed together into a roiling mass.
"You can't do this. You can't do this. Youcan'tdothisyoucan'tdothisyoucan'tdothis. You CAN'T do this. YOU HAVE NO CONTROL!"
What if she's right? I am exhausted. Ryen is too fast for me at practice, so she's probably too fast for me in a race. No, not probably, definitely. What am I doing trying to hang with her? Goodness gracious, what is wrong with me? There's absolutely no way I will make it. There is just. No. Way.
The race is slipping through my desperately clasped fingers.
The world begins to blur as I fight to keep my pace. But, isn't that useless too? Everything is falling apart. I can't come back from this. Feeling beaten, I try to focus on the track ahead of me, but I can't make it out. My stomach tangles and twists and turns in an oceanic current. Breathing becomes difficult as my panic takes over. I can't breathe, I can't breathe, I can't breathe.
My lungs are locked in lead.
The voice of one of my teammates breaks through my haze. "Come on Aveline! Keep your eyes up!"
My head snaps up and I glance around. Shoot! What lap am I on? I blanked again! I've fallen back even farther. Now Ryen's pack has almost 100 meters on me. We're on the straightaway but...of which lap? Is it possible that more than one lap has gone by? As I run by the start line, I squint at the number the official holds up. It's a five which means five more laps to go. Thank goodness I only blanked on two laps. The race is still salvageable.
I hear a snort from behind me.
"You're really holding out hope, aren't you?" she scoffs. "I don't think I've ever met anyone as stupid as you. How many times do I need to say it? You can't do this. You let your teammates down, you let your family down, you let your coaches down, you let yourself down! The race is over for you."
I shake my head, desperately trying to ignore her. She has to be wrong. I can't let her get inside my head, even if it seems like she already has a foot in the gaping door.
If I really focus, I can run this lap faster and then stick with that pace until the end. I might not PR but I'll at least finish with a decent time. I glance around, bringing myself back into the present, and bring my focus to the figure at my back.
For once, only silence emanates from Mara's place behind me. I can still feel her presence but she's not saying anything. That unnerves me even more than if she'd tried to tell me I couldn't do it again.
I shake my head and turn my eyes forward. Slowly but surely I lengthen my stride and pump my arms faster. Leaning into the curve, I head towards the first straightaway of lap four. My spikes pound the spongy track and I risk a glance at the runners behind me. No one is very close except...shoot! There's a Normandy girl right on my tail. I speed up even more trying to lengthen the approximately 10-meter gap between us.
I try to focus on the track in front of me, but it blurs again as my other senses heighten. I can hear her breathing behind me, her breath so much more controlled than mine. And her footsteps pound out in much closer together intervals. She's probably running faster than me. What if she catches me? I can't stick with her! Not if she's running as fast as I think she is.
Mara's bragging voice trills from behind me, "Oh my dear she will catch you. I have no doubt about it. It is only a question of when."
At her words, my stomach turns into a rock and my breathing picks up. I feel as though I'm not taking in any air. The girl's footsteps grow louder and louder, and I know it's over. As she whips by me I don't even make an attempt to keep up. I know I can't. I drop my eyes back to the ground. Mara is right.
This time, I don't try to fight the onslaught of thoughts that follow the Normandy girl passing me. I race and I panic, I race and I panic, again and again, every week. The torturous, tumultuous cycle never seems to let up even as I fight for control over my mind. I can't control my own brain, much less my race! How can I possibly expect to race well if my thoughts don't stop churning and foiling me at every turn? What am I doing? Why do I do this to myself? How do I make it stop? Make it stop. Make it stop. Make it stop. Makeitstopmakeitstopmakeitstop! MAKE IT STOP!
I'm exhausted. I've spent every week for the past two years fighting Mara, fighting my anxiety, trying to control myself. I can't do this anymore.
I look around and see the other runners on the track, none of them being ruled by an abyss of doubt that resides on the throne of their minds. I see this and I seethe. And, then, the anger sneaks its tendrils into the corners of my brain. The powerful runner in me, the one that the abyss has suffocated and beaten time and time again, angrily rears her head and begins to fight to topple the doubt from the throne of my mind. I'm angry at Mara for putting these thoughts in my head and I'm angry at myself for believing them. I'm angry that I can't breathe, that my stomach is twisting, that I can't seem to look at Mara long enough to shout at her to go away. To leave me be. To get out of my head! As my anger grows and fills my brain, my doubt tumbles from the throne and the powerful runner takes her rightful place. My fear has turned to determination and I lift my head. Absolutely nothing will stop me from finishing this race, least of all the black-clad figure behind me.
I look up at the girl in front of me and find that she's leading by maybe two strides. I speed up and cover that distance in a few quick steps. She moves in slightly, attempting to cut me off as we both round the curve.
As we approach the peak of the curve, I remember something that my sister told me once. She told me that a race is made up of millions of split-second decisions that ultimately determine the outcome. Instinct overriding reason, because if the runner takes the time to reason or plan out their move then the opportunity will pass them up and poof. It's gone and they lose. It's not something any runner can practice or train for. They only get one second to make the right choice.
And in this second, I make the choice that will set the ground for my whole race. For the whole rest of my season, for life.
I dart forward, knocking my shoulder lightly into her's to get her out of the way, and take four or five quick steps to widen the distance.
"My dear, don't fool yourself you-" Mara starts but I cut her off.
"No," I state with all the confidence and anger I can muster.
"N-no?" she stammers out, her voice betraying the confusion and shock she's trying to hide. "But you can't-"
"I said NO!" I whip around and stare her directly in the face. Only to find...there's nothing there. I drag my gaze down the spot where I thought she would be but I find nothing. Empty air resides where I could've sworn a girl stood only moments before.
I snap my head forward and continue speeding up. She's not real. She's not real. She's not real. She'snotrealshe'snotrealshe'snotreal! THIS IS MY RACE! I'm free of her deceitful claws! My lungs loosen and my eyes widen. Suddenly, my head clears as though the sun has come out to chase away the dark, murky clouds of confusion. Hundreds of pounds have been thrown from my shoulders and the rock in my stomach has dissolved into dust.
I can finish this race.
I am in control.
Lap four wraps up as I keep getting faster and faster. In lap five I reach Ryen's group and shoot on by, my elation and confidence lending me wings with which to fly. Wings I can use to soar. During laps six and seven, Coach Sloane shouts something about shattering 13 minutes and I make my way up, picking off runners as I go.
I enter the final lap in fifth place.
Rounding the first curve I keep my eyes laser-focused on the path in front of me. I widen my stride and pump my arms faster and faster. The straightaway whips by and I'm turning with only 200 meters left. Sprinting, I throw every little shred of effort into this last leg. Faster...faster...faster...I chant to myself. 100 meters left now...50...25...10...and whoosh! I fly across the finish line and stumble to a stop. I quickly glance up at the clock as I stagger to the sidelines and collapse.
The glowing red numbers spell out my greatest triumph. 12:43. I finally broke 13!
My teammates rush up and hug me, all smiles and congratulations, but one person is conspicuously absent.
It's a peculiar thing to be both in control of your mind and out of your head. When you can stop the onslaught of thoughts, and also manipulate them to go in the direction you need. When you're focused on yourself and your race, but you're also aware of your surroundings. When you've conquered the person who haunts your mind.
When you've finally forced them out of your head.