I toe the line, my feather-light black and yellow running spikes furrowing the soft, rich soil beneath my feet. A cool breeze is blowing, ruffling my hair and sending goose bumps down my spine, as the hair on the back of my neck stands up to sniff the air like a groundhog. The whistle blows, and the world is muted, everybody priming their bodies and minds and eyes towards the pistol in the black and white striped official’s hand. Even the crowd stops talking and the babies stop crying. Only the hard thumping of my heart in my chest keeps the silence from deafening me. The gun explodes. Every thought leaves my mind as I strive to keep up with the mass of humanity that is suddenly surging forward with one goal in mind: to be the first person to stop running. Only it’s not that simple. No one can just stop running, that would be ridiculous. No, there is one rule in this most primal of games: one must run the full distance before stopping; otherwise, one is considered a coward. After sprinting full out for a while, straining with every fiber of my being just the same as everyone around me was, the crowded chaos begins to thin, and slow down, as it subconsciously submits to the realization that it consciously knew the whole time: sprinting the full distance would be impossible.
In this polychromatic mass of athletes, really more of a stream now, I pick my opponent. A smallish boy, freckly and slender, he seems to run about as quickly as I do. He seems like a normal, kind person, but for this contest he is my bitter enemy, to be beaten at all costs. His singlet is the color of dried blood, and hangs limply from his slight frame just as his shorts flop baggily around his thighs. Right away I notice his large birthmark, a patch darker than the surrounding skin, stretching from his left shoulder blade to the back of his neck, disappearing into the forbidding forest of curly chestnut hair. That forest must have just witnessed a storm, because it flops around lifelessly, with drops of cloudy water hanging from all the odd tips, occasionally falling to splash soundlessly on the pale bony cliffs to either side. As I wade my way through the stream of humanity as quickly as I can, I lock eyes with my new enemy, his a deep brown, flecked with gold, mine a dark jade color, swirled with lighter greens and darker browns.
An understanding flashes between us: we will fight to the death, may the best man win. Almost immediately all life ceases to exist, with the exception of me and my arch nemesis. I move still closer, close enough for the hot stench of intermingled stale and fresh perspiration to jam itself up my nose. I breathe it in with relish. This foul enemy’s attack by smell is no match for my own, less cowardly attack by speed! So I pour it on, hoping to cause this fiend to collapse in exhaustion before the end, to force him into the ultimate cowardice. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, he takes the new pace in stride, with nothing but a slightly more ragged breathing pattern to show for it. My eyes narrow. Your move O Evil One. Suddenly, my foot explodes in a volcanic eruption of hot agony, pinpointing itself just beneath the inside of my left ankle bone. What is this dark magic? Has the Evil One replaced my blood with molten lead, using only his mind?! Impossible. My stride breaks and I stumble, falling and rolling before I regain my footing and sprint to overtake my enemy once again. He looks puzzled. How can that be if he is the one who caused that evil deed? It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I use the pain to fuel my limited supply of adrenaline. I relish the pain, use it make me stronger, faster, tougher than I could ever be without it. After all, the burning of my lungs as I push myself to the limit pales in comparison to the pain in my foot!
I speed up, ignoring the confused and concerned (wait, is that concern on my enemy’s face?) look coming from my enemy’s direction as I come up to his side again, forcing him to increase his pace as well, hopefully with more of an effect than I feel. I don’t understand what the Evil One is feeling, but his facial expressions are confusing me. Why are his skinny eyebrows drawing together and up slightly, warping the pattern of freckles running up the bridge of his nose onto his forehead, as if he cared what happened to me, as if he were not the one to cause it? He is probably just trying to mess with my feelings and make me lose. But I refuse to lose; I will never give in. I feel the wind in my face begin to make the sweat drip off my chin, following the contours of my cheeks and nose, leaving cold, ticklish trails behind. Some of it makes its way into my mouth and I taste the salty, seawater-yet-not-seawater perspiration mingle with the coppery, penny-like taste of blood that I just now noticed had resulted from my fall.
We are in the woods now, and the roar of the crowd is dull, just ahead, yet so far away. The only sound that is clear is the muffled sound of hundreds of shadowy feet hitting the brown, pine needle-carpeted ground and the gasping breath of hundreds of lungs starving for oxygen. The Evil One’s breath is the loudest; he is beginning to make a high-pitched whistling noise with every intake of air. Perhaps he has asthma. That cannot be fun to run with, it sounds like his lungs are about to split down the seams and I feel a glimmer of some unidentified feeling towards him – could it be… Sympathy? Pity? Compassion? No, that’s not possible; he is the Evil One and deserves whatever misfortune may befall him.
Suddenly, reality rends. An explosion of golden and orange light from the setting sun dazzles us all as we exit the forest, tag-teaming with the abrupt, almost physical, pounding of the roar of the crowd on our bodies. This is it. This is the point in time when I finally get to defeat my enemy on a level playing field and prove once and for all that I am the better man. I pour on even more speed, my legs whipping forward almost of their own accord, like automatons; I could not slow down even if I wanted. The Evil One somehow keeps pace, even as the world begins to blur as I enter warp speed, and the rushing air extracts a toll of tears from my eyes as I rush past masses of the stuff. Around the bend, he and I are still neck and neck, each of us straining forward with all our might, trying to coax just a little more speed from our tired and aching limbs, me, ignoring the searing hot pain in my foot, and he, blocking his ears from the sound of his labored and whistling breathing.
The roar of the crowd increases even further in volume, and I realize that there is no one in front of us. It is just him, me, and the final line that marks the point where we can stop running. Out of the corner of my tear-filled eye I can see his teeth gritted, the cords in his neck sticking out rigidly above his freckly, bony chest, draped loosely with that blood-colored singlet as he forces himself onward, just as I force my own body to continue, to endure the hot pain that is still propelling me – impossibly – forward in space. I see the white line spray-painted onto the short-clipped green grass, and I make my last step, realizing I don’t have time for another, a longer one, stretching out as far as I can to try to cross that line, to break that invisible plane, before the leg of my enemy does the same. The man in the black and white striped shirt with the fluorescent orange bands around the sleeves raises his arm and points to the Evil One.
“You’re the winner” is what he said. Those three words are the only words he said, yet my enemy’s face contorted in an odd mixture of surprise, triumph, and regret. It was like his face couldn’t make up its mind whether to feel elated and triumphant, or regretful and disappointed. I could not understand the second part of it; no Evil being would feel regretful about beating an opponent. But wait, the race was over, that means he is no longer the Evil One, just a smallish boy in a deep red uniform.
With that realization, I go over to congratulate him. After all, he deserved it. He had pushed through his asthma and beaten me, despite all that I tried to do to prevent it. He pointed at my foot and asked, “What happened? I saw you fall and you were limping for a bit. Are you okay?”
“I think I just landed on it funny – these spikes don’t offer much in terms of stability. But yeah, I’m fine, thanks. It was nice to run against you – without you I never could have run so fast. I think it was the competition with you that made me run like that.”
“Yeah same here! I never dreamed I could win a race! You really helped by pushing me to go faster. I just wish we could’ve both won” he said.
We went over to the winner’s podium together, he supporting my weight and me, trying to keep all pressure off my foot. He received the OHSAA plaque that made him a certifiable winner, all deep brown oak wood and shiny onyx with the brass engraved lettering, and had his mom take a picture of him holding the plaque with his arm around me. This boy was no enemy.
“Hey – you wanna hang out sometime?” he asked.
“Yeah sure, pizza later?” I would be glad to hang out with the boy in the deep red singlet and the baggy shorts of the same color, the color of roses.