Racing the boys

Arianne Olson

The starter commands “on your marks,” then fires his gun. Twenty seven  boys burst off the line, jostling for position. But there’s one more runner. That’s me, running in the boys’ heat at WO’s  Von Ins Invite.

   During a packed dual meet schedule, I knew I would have the chance to race all out in a competitive 3200 on the weekend of May 7, but I wasn’t planning on running in the boys’ heat. I’m happy my coach was flexible and accepting of my idea. 

   The night before the Von Ins invite, I couldn’t sleep. My heart raced–not from being daunted by the prospect of racing the boys–but in anticipation of the unique opportunity to compete. Racing with boys is not unusual for me. Distance events are usually combined at dual meets. In most ski races, there’s one start for both genders. I grew up racing the boys in middle school. My first memory of really competing is racing (and beating) a boy in my class during the mile run in elementary school. Having boys as competitors eliminates the pressure to score points for my team, but I still compete to beat as many of them as possible. It’s not scary, rather, I thrive on the competition. It’s exciting to have competition; it’s fun to chase boys and beat them. I’d rather compete and get beat than enjoy the fabricated delight of winning a time-trial race I had no doubts about winning. 

   I arrived at the high school track. Teams were setting up tents around the field. Black and white pennant flags waved in the wind. Meet workers sipped coffee and finished setting up for the meet. The sky was bright blue. The low morning sun’s rays shone on the track. The air was cool, but perfect for running. 

   I got right to business: stretching and rolling out, sipping water, and snacking on a lemon Luna bar. Then, I started my warmup an hour out from race time. During my warmup run, I ventured down Greenly St.. The red blueberry bushes and white flowering trees shone in the morning sun. I snuck in North to skip the Port-a-potty line at the track. 

   It seemed like so long since I ran a 3200 all out. It was hard to tell how fast I ran during the warmup, but my legs didn’t feel as tired as they were during the peak of dual meet season. I brushed any doubts I had away, thinking “It’s just a 2 mile, so I don’t have to sprint like an 800. It’s a race, not a time trial. I can find a group of boys to run with and beat some of them.”

   At the track, athletes jogged around and practiced handoffs or field events. I still had time before my race. Before I spiked up, I did a few strides. I laced up my bright white spikes, then I got my last words of advice from my coach. “Take a chance going out hard, and see if I can get to the point of dying at the end, because I’ve never seen you get to that point,” he told me. I didn’t know exactly which boys I’d be running with, but I knew there would be some boys near me. 

   “First call, boys 3200m run,” the announcer said. I got in the long line of boys to check in. On the entry sheet, my name was circled with an arrow to the boy’s heat. I chewed cinnamon gum, the taste of fast. My parents stood on the fence by the start line.  I couldn’t stop smiling, warming up alongside my competitors, who were definitely more scared than I was for the race.

   Between strides, I told my parents my time might not count for a school record because I was in the boys’ heat. “I don’t care because that’s not what it’s about. Just like skiing, as long as I know I did my best I’ll be happy. I don’t care what gets put on the results page.” 

   Running with the boys is no different than racing in a competitive girls field, which is getting harder for me to find. In pro road racing, records are kept for all female races and races where women are given the opportunity to run with male pacers. However, the boys I ran with weren’t there to click off even splits. They were there to beat me. I was prepared to beat them.

   After the national anthem and an announcement about the meet’s history, we were ushered onto the track. I stood next to the boys, who seemed to tower over me. I was more excited than nervous. We all fidgeted while waiting for the bang of the starting gun. 

   Just like a ski race, the boys got out hard, running the first lap almost as fast as my 400 PR. Ben was in the lead. I didn’t worry, knowing I could pick them off in the next 7 laps. I enjoyed having targets ahead of me. Every time I ran past my coach, he yelled out my splits, which stayed steady. I wasn’t focused on the time though, I was focused on the patterned black jersey in front of me. I felt locked in and smooth. I was so thankful for all my teammates and other spectators cheering for me. The laps went by quickly, and before long, I hit the halfway point. As I passed the clock, the red lights glowed: 4:57. That’s the same split I ran in my indoor 3200 race. 

   I reset, thinking about the next mile as just a 1 mile race: only 4 laps. The boy I was with was slowing down, so I passed him, but he passed me back. A girl breathing down his neck was probably ample motivation to go faster. Carston was in the lead, and Ben was only a few seconds ahead of me. The race got harder, but I wasn’t digging super deep.

   I remembered what my coach said about dying at the end, but at that point I knew I wasn’t going deep enough to get to that point. I tried to keep up with the boys as they sprinted the last lap. It’s harder to unlock my fierce competitive drive racing boys; it’s easy to cop-out, thinking boys are naturally faster. I crossed the finish line, happy with how smooth my race went, and made sure to high five the boys I was running with. 

   Carston ran 9:33, breaking the school record in the 3200 for the first time in 51 years. My time was a PR. It’s not everyday that both gender’s school records are broken in one race, especially a 51 year old record. Ultimately, results aren’t what matters about that race–it’s the training opportunity and chance to dig deeper. After the race, my coach told me to jog for a few minutes, then find him. I thought I was going to be in the 4×8, but he wanted me to do a tempo run. Even after a race, the grind never stops. 

   What consumes so many hours of my day is simple–running faster, having fun, and competing. Competition is the essence of racing–seeing who is more gutsy, more willing to hurt, who has put in the most work. We don’t do interval starts in track and field for a reason. I have much farther to go on the quest of being my best self as a runner by digging deeper, but racing the boys was a key step to my development of my season.