A rhythmic pulse of two-hundred tightly laced shoes flies through the dense woods of the DuPage River Park Forest Preserve. A grassy beaten path lay before us, punctured by the spikes of previous runners. My teammates and I are just finishing up the casual 3 mile loop that will soon be the judge, jury, and prosecutor for which of us are free to compete in regionals and a chance to cling to the dream of carrying on to sectionals, or even greater, state. Our coach, Mr. Iverson, stands with his legs wide apart, arms crossed with a concentrated gaze rested upon us as we jog toward him at the soon to be finish line. He nods for us to continue toward a shaded patch of grass where the two assistant coaches are waiting.
He instructs us to take a seat wherever we like and to make sure there is plenty of room between us. The team curiously does as instructed but a low rumble of conversation vibrates between us. Iverson lets it die down before he continues. He explains that that he wants to do an exercise with imagery and that we need to keep our minds open. This comes from a man who has surpassed all expectations by having his cross country team successfully compete every year at state for the past 30-some years; it’s hard not to trust what he says.
We gladly lie down in the cool grass and close our eyes, as instructed. Iverson begins by drawing our attention to our breathing and position in the grass. As he speaks, I follow his deep calming voice into a trance like state; my breathing slows and my body feels as if it is melting into the ground. His words lead me back to the course we have just finished, except it is now altered. There are eight colored tents: each representing a different competing team. Distant cheers from another race mix together with the heightened buzz of conversation among the athletes. He tells us to take note of the excitement, the energy, the fear, and to let it fuel us, but not distract us. In our minds, he leads us on a confident walk toward our tent and directs us to concentrate on beginning a strong warm-up. I envision myself taking perfect strides: arms at my waist, straightened back and a leg raising high while the other simultaneously rips the dirt beneath me. The image plants pre-race jitters in my heart and it starts to accelerate.
Iverson brings our imagination to the jog toward the starting line. As he speaks, I feel my heart hammering in my chest and a coldness fall over me. My blood is quickly rushing in anticipation and my hands start to tremble. Even with the race still another day away in reality, I feel everything the same way I would as if it were just mere minutes away. There is a moment of anxious silence before he speaks again. We’re told to pause a moment and breathe. Iverson explains that whether we run our best or worst, either way we are still going to be running three miles. He adds that we have nothing to fear because our best is good enough and no one can be disappointed in someone who puts themselves out there for a chance to be great. He tells us to feel our melted bodies on the ground and to remember this feeling as we are on our way to the starting line. He says that there is nothing to fear and to slow our breathing–the race has not yet begun, and until we reach that finish line, we still have the opportunity to improve. We’re instructed to use the strength we’ve built each and every practice and reminded once more that it’s just another 3 mile race.
With a renewed energy we line up at the start line and strongly sprint out 100 meters before returning to our positions. The scene is so familiar, but somehow different. I don’t fear the race. I don’t fear the pain or mental fatigue I am about to endure. Instead, I am invigorated by it. I know what I am capable of as Iverson drives our minds through the course we race, and I feel powerful. When he brings us to the finish line, I see myself put in every last bit of effort to pass every color I can. Mentally crossing the finish line is exhilarating. Again, he takes us to our cool down and stretches where we lay down to finish them. As our bodies soften into the ground, they take shape in reality.
We keep our eyes closed in complete silence, contemplating what we have just experienced. I replay the ideas in my head. Run the race without fear. Slow my breathing. Tap into my potential. Hold nothing back. Be free.
With that final thought, I open my eyes.