The Race

Nonfiction

Written by Paula Smellie

June 2, 2020

Let’s get serious. 

Let’s get ser-i-ooooous.

Let’s get serious and fall in looove.

 

It is June of 1980 and the chorus from Jermaine Jackson’s latest hit is on auto play in my head.  Shaky and vulnerable as a newborn colt, I stand behind the starting line in my lane and stare down the expanse of asphalt to the finish line of this 60 metre race.  I am weeks away from my tenth birthday.

There is a strange stillness in these moments before the gun goes off. A deep male voice crackles over the loudspeaker.  Runners, get in your lanes! Shockwaves ripple through my belly.  I will my body to bend at the waist, and lean there over my right foot, arms cocked, my chest motionless.  I fear my limbs will seize up before the starter’s gun ever goes off.  Runners, take your mark!  Oh, God.  The gun is raised.  Craaack!  I run.  Wild, reckless, desperate.  Until my foot hits something. Another runner?  I am out of control and then flat on my belly on the track.  My knees sting like they were attacked by angry hornets. They are bloody.  I start to cry.

*****

The moment right before I fell was captured in a black and white photograph.  Whenever I look at this photo, I remember that I was tripped by the girls in the lanes next to mine.  But now, as I kneel in my walk-in closet and examine that photograph for the umpteenth time in 38 years, something is wrong.  I feel the same way I do when I realize someone I trusted has lied to me.  I look at myself in the photo and I see a new truth revealing itself in the flailing limbs and the face contorted like that of a boxer who just got hit with a mean right cross.

I don’t like this, but I stare down the photo.  I’m deep into it now.  I cannot avoid the contrast between myself and the other runners.  Their leg muscles are long and sleek. Each has one foot on the track, opposite knee up, elbows in close, except for the tall girl on my left, whose right arm is out and high, as if she is about to slap me on the back.  They look composed. They look like runners.

And then there’s me in lane three, looking like a Looney Tunes character, with both feet in the air (how is that even possible), eyes closed, arms and braided pony tails all waving wildly.  I am uncomfortably aware that my memory of this event may have been more than a little selective.  Doubt creeps into the closet and settles down beside me.

It is little wonder I skidded across the finish line flat on my face.  I remember it now like a scene from some B movie, where bad actors run away from hideous swamp creatures, mutated ants, or flying sharks.  They fall and get slashed, munched, or cut in two by giant pincers.  Lucky for me, none of those things were present that day when Jermaine’s lyrics were spamming my brain.  Just the forgiving asphalt, somewhere beneath my feet.

Let’s get serious.  Let’s get ser-i-oooous.  Let’s get serious about what really happened. I can think of a few possibilities.  First, my knee hit my chin, temporarily knocking me unconscious.  I collapsed just as I crossed the finish line and was awakened by the impact of my body hitting the track.  Second, my heel hit my bum really hard, triggering a glute cramp that caused my legs to sputter and become tangled.  Third, one of two plastic baubles holding the ends of my braids together, hit me in the eye, causing excruciating pain and temporary blindness.  Naturally, I lost my balance and hit the ground like a sack of num-chuks.

Come on, memory. Which was it? Did I do it?  Was I such a horrible runner that I tripped myself? I would think that such an accident would rank high on my list of most embarrassing moments, but I don’t remember feeling embarrassed.  Perhaps the pain was too great so I repressed the memory.  Or maybe it’s because a marshal held onto me before I could flee the track and said something about first place.  Huh? What?  Brandishing my skinned knees with pride, I went on to win the 200 metre race later that afternoon.

Coach Hopkins straightened me out over time and turned me into a pretty decent runner, but I don’t think I ever had better results than I did that day.  Maybe being a little wild, reckless and desperate had its merits.  I do feel a hint of shame for blaming the other girls for tripping me.  Maybe the joy of victory and the humiliation of tripping myself could not have existed in the same space until now. Maybe my memory protected me from the truth until I could handle it.   People don’t always tell each other the truth right away.  Does waiting for the “right time” make someone a liar?   I don’t think so.  I believe in “right times”.  So, I think I should trust my memory to tell me the truth about a thing when the time is right.   I do wonder, though, with some slight trepidation, what other truths my memory may have squirreled away until the right time.

Photo: Paula, running in the midget girls 60 m race at the Oshawa Civic Stadium in June 1980.

Paula holds a BSc in psychology from the University of Toronto, where she also earned her certificate in creative writing. A lifelong learner, she is currently working towards her M.Ed. in Leadership in Higher Education. Paula draws deeply from her rich Jamaican-Canadian heritage and her experiences growing up in Southern Ontario, living in the United States, and being a mom to three wonderful children to find inspiration for her writing. She is a firm believer in the power of writing groups and wishes to give a shout-out to her sister-writers in the Anthology Group and her comrades in Christ in the Inspired Writers Group. Her story, “Bone Keeper”, was published in the fiction anthology “Walking Through and Other Stories” in 2017.

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