The Runner GamesPosted: March 19, 2012
The cold morning air grips my bare skin. I’m making my way back from the shower when I remember, “the games are today.” Realizing that I forgot to pick up some athletic pants, I remember how much I hate the Seam. That is, the seam in non-athletic pants when I am trying to run. I slip into shorts, despite the chilly weather, don a jacket, move toward the door. Then I remember: my running shoes are also broken, the soles coming almost clear off from all of my hunting trips at the local market, which is quite far, beyond the fence of our apartment complex. I slip on my familiar old pair of sneakers, hoping that they’ll be enough to get me through today.
As I open the door of our modest home, I find that it has been raining for some time outside. I curse as I remember that these shoes have holes in them, but I have little choice if I am to run. My only other pair of shoes are dress shoes, not exactly suited for the track.
The Board of Education, they call it “Sports Day,” but we all know the truth. Behind every festive banner and smile, there is a clipboard with all of our names. Even mine. This may be the last year that I am called on to run with the others. I am almost too old now, but this year I must still run.
As I arrive at the sports center, specially rented for the Running Games, I find smiles on the faces of the teachers and administrators. They welcome me, almost kindly, and I for one minute I find myself forgetting that they are the Racemakers, the ones who have planned and orchestrated this entire ordeal. They smile because they know they don’t have to run, and because they know I must. Not to run would mean humiliation, or worse.
I greet the rest of the runners, students from Minami High School. Most of them look haunted about the eyes from exhaustion, from worry, from anticipation of their own ruin. For some of them, this is their first Runner Games, and I pity them today even as I envy their as-still-untouched ignorance about the horror that the Games really are.
I walk inside to find a huge crowd of students, most of whom are quiet in fear. Some just sit, staring at the floor, not even aware of their surroundings. It is indeed a pitiable sight, but one I must endure. After all, better than anyone, know the reason for their long stare into space: the Games change you.
Before they begin the Games in earnest, the Racemakers give their usual speeches about how we benefit from the Games and why we should be proud to work hard for our school. Their shallow words ring hollow against all our ears, save a few first-years who have yet to fully understand. Yet, as we must, we accept the challenges set forth by the speakers, and try to pretend we have a choice. A young student, no more than a second-year, steps forward to accept a flag. The flag is an old way of communicating the worst part of the Games’ facade: that this is for our benefit, for our pride. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I have tried to inform the Racemakers that they will have no show because of me: I have athsma, and must go at a slower pace. I cannot offer them the entertainment that they seek. Their mouths curled into a smile, and they simply said, “you can run with the girls.” With the girls. Albeit somewhat difficult to swallow, this is my best chance of surviving the Games. I know that if I can make it at least to the finish line, I can survive with a bit of my dignity, a bit of who I really am. If I fail…I might as well forget about that.
Long before I feel prepared, we are all being herded, like cattle, toward an ominous gate. The gate opens onto a field, and it is only now that I realize the ordeal I have yet to endure. Hundreds of students are practicing on the track, and sharp orange cones create rows of visible flame, setting the stage on which I may come to my doom. What strikes me about the scene, more than anything else, is the spectators. They sit there on their comfortable seats, warmed by luxurious blankets and sipping hot beverages. They have no idea what it is like to be here on the field, feeling so alone, chest tight from anticipation. They see us as less than human. We are here for their entertainment, and for them, we will run in the Games.
Too soon, all of the girls are amassing on the track, forming a writhing crowd. Here and there are shouts to a friend or hoots of encouragement, but they are quickly silenced. There is no place for levity in the Games. No, we are here to run, and run we will. One of the Racemakers climbs a small stepping stool and holds a pistol into the air. The look on his face is priceless as he pulls the trigger, full of expectancy and doubt. He catches my eyes, and I catch his. For a moment, I smile, but it is not in compliance. He smiles back, seeming to have understood, and the shot goes off. I am running.
The first two kilometers go by quickly. It is no small feat for one with asthma as I have, and I begin to feel confident in my ability to finish this race. Perhaps my asthma is not going to show today? But no, as I round the next corner, we begin a steep ascent, and the extra energy to begin climbing is simply not there. I search for the breath to keep running, but it is as though someone is squeezing me around the chest. I cannot draw a single breath. My eyes dart to the sides of the arena. Perhaps someone has seen my plight and recognized that I need help. Certainly one of them will send me some aid? But all I find are smiles and gestures of encouragement. It sickens me, how they see me as less than human. They have no idea what I’m going through, but I smile and trudge on just the same. I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing me beaten. Besides, I’m not beaten yet.
On the third kilometer, I begin to catch my second wind, but my feet are dragging. The poor shoes have taken their toll, and I can feel large blisters surfacing on my heels and toes. “Keep running, Rick,” I tell myself. I tell myself these things to keep going, because I have to. I can’t stop now. The Racemakers’ faces glare down from the grandstands as I pass by. They are mocking me with their smiles and waves. “One foot in front of the other, Rick,” I say. It is all I can do to listen to my own advice.
My breathing is so tight now, that I begin to have altered vision. Small spots and flecks of color appear time to time, but I must still keep going. I am so close, now, too close to give up. Ahead, I spot something almost unbelievable: Nao, and my other friends from Debate Club. I can scarcely believe my luck! In hundreds of girls, I am running just behind a few friends. This may make the experience bearable, give me the endurance I need to reach the finish line. I catch up to her at great effort, and we begin talking in between coughs and heavy breaths.
We jog this way for the last two kilometers. My breathing is ragged, now, almost inhuman. I catch a glimpse of myself reflected in a window as we round one of the final corners, and I barely recognize myself: wet hair covering my face, shoes now merely for show, as they’re soaked through with the downpour which has begun.
I run for my friends, to keep them running, now. We have been through so many days together, speaking and studying English, readying for debate, and it is this bond that pushes us to keep running. We fall silent as we round the last corner, because we have no breath for speaking now. We don’t even have enough to keep running properly, arms falling nearly to our sides in exhaustion. But even so, now I can see the finish line. I barely begin to allow myself to hope. I think of my family and young Nikki back home. How she is coming in two months and how I have to maintain a good rapport with my students so that they’ll let Nikki come to school. I think of my mother back home, probably waiting for a phone call, any communication to know that I am okay. I think of these things and I know that I have to finish, not for myself, but for everyone back home. It’s then that the athsma chooses to take me.
It was quick and pronounced, the pain in my chest. I feel my lungs constricting. I try to force them open, gasp for air, but nothing happens. It is as if someone has built a brick wall around my chest, and I can not expand my lungs to take in the air I so desperately need. I can see the finish line, see Nao trotting beside me. She hasn’t noticed, yet, but I am falling behind. As I slow to a walk, I know that we’ll be torn apart at this moment. They’ll be alone to run through the finish line, already far near the back. It’s a fate worse than death, but I can do nothing about it now. They will probably receive little applause, and mostly scowls will greet them at the finish, if anything does. My own body has given up on me. I’ve failed them. Nao and the others catch my eyes as I fall behind, and I give them an almost imperceptible shake of my head, “no, I can’t.” They turn and keep running, as I walk, helpless, trying to regain enough air to make it the final 200 yards.
As I walk a few steps, others pass me, and I’m already near the back. I can’t be last. I must continue on. For Nikki, for Nao and the others, for everyone back home. I steel myself, attempt to breathe, and find that the walking has loosened my chest just enough to get one or two full breaths. I take them, long, deep breaths, and then I strike out again, kicking my feet in front of me mechanically, beginning to run.
As I reach the finish line, now completely disoriented and nearing collapse, I notice the huge crowd of people who are there to welcome me. It strikes me: perhaps I was wrong all along. Perhaps the Racemakers really did want us to succeed, to see who we could really become. Maybe that is the point of the Games.
When I was in High School, my asthma kept me from being very good at any athletic attempts. For a brief time, I even joined track and field. The humiliation every day at practice, when I would lag far behind the others, was almost too difficult to bear. There were several opportunities to prove myself after that, but I never gave it any thought. I never tried to prove to myself that I could run in something like the Games.
But today, that all changed. Perhaps it was being so far away from family, from everything I’ve ever known. Perhaps it was knowing that this, too, was part of my responsibilities to those back home and to those whom I teach every day. Regardless of the reason, I found a huge smile on my face as I crossed the finish line. None of them knew what a big day this was for me, but I knew in my heart. I have never finished a long race, never pushed myself through the pain to accomplish finishing something like this. It may have taken being halfway across the world, but for me, right now, this victory is personal. No one can take it away from me. As I cross the finish line and slow to a walk, I hold my head up high. I may have been expected to participate in these Games, may have been entered into a long list of unremarkable names, but now everyone will acknowledge that I finished the race. They don’t understand how much it has cost me, but that makes the victory so much more personal. I crossed the finish for everyone back home, Nao, with her birdlike chirps of encouragement, and, most importantly, for myself.
Now where are those berries I’ve heard so much about? I’m famished.