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“Runners to your marks!”

At Coach Lansing’s words, Becky Howard walked to her respective lane and assumed her starting stance. She looked to her right and her heart began pounding quickly, climbing in her throat while she waited for the smoke from the starter’s pistol.

“Set!” the coach yelled.

Becky shook her arms out. She felt poised and patient.

When the smoke appeared, she launched herself down the track, the sound of the pistol reaching her an instant later. She started smooth and found her pace. In one of the outside lanes, Lucie Ford jack-rabbited off the gun and leapt to an early lead. Becky didn’t let it bother her. Her legs pumping, she breathed in through her nose, out through her mouth. She kept her eyes straight ahead and concentrated on maintaining her pace.

As the first lap came to a close, she pulled even with Lucie. The younger girl was huffing irregularly, her skin glistening with a fine sheen of sweat in the oppressive afternoon sun. When Lucie glanced over and saw Becky running even with her, she panicked and poured on an extra burst of speed. The effort put her three strides ahead of Becky. She stayed there throughout the second lap.

Becky picked up her pace as she pounded out the third lap and hugged the inside track as she came to the first turn. Lucie’s feet moved in a blur but as Becky pulled even with her, they fell into an identical pace. Lucie’s face strained from the effort to breathe as she huffed like a steam engine.

Her own lungs began to burn, but Becky maintained control of her breathing. She ignored her body, knowing the feeling would soon pass.

As the girls passed Coach Lansing, the gun sounded again, signaling the final lap.

Becky sped up, pulling energy from an inner reserve. Lucie found her own burst of energy and managed to stay even with Becky as they entered the first turn. Becky held the inside lane as she rounded the turn, hoping to pull ahead and finish Lucie off, but the sophomore stayed dead even.

She’s improving, Becky thought. As they entered the far stretch, matching each other stride for stride, Becky held her pace. She reserved her final effort for the finishing turn. When Lucie cried out, “No, no, no,” each time she exhaled, Becky knew she had won.

The final turn rose to meet them and she poured everything she had into the last push. She pulled ahead. As the sound of the team’s cheers reached her ears, Lucie faded back and out of Becky’s peripheral vision. When she reached the finish line, she led by two full strides. She slowed down and began walking off the run. She turned around to look for Lucie. The sophomore seemed ready to collapse. Becky walked up and embraced her despite the blistering temperature.

“Good run,” she whispered to her.

Lucie wheezed, but managed a reply. “You ran like it was the state meet, not just a regular practice heat.”

“You have to,” Becky replied.

“Don’t sit down,” Coach Lansing reminded the two girls as she approached them. She patted each of them on the shoulder. “Walk it off.”

They nodded and made their way to the inside field, where they began walking slow circles. Becky felt like the heat emanated off her body instead of beating down on her from the sun. Her uniform clung to her, soaked with sweat, and her legs felt as though they might turn to liquid if she stopped walking.

“You’re really good,” Lucie said.

She thought she detected a note of despair in the other girl’s voice.

“So are you,” she replied. “You’ve improved a lot. You had me going until that final turn.”

“Story of my life,” Lucie said, and attempted a smile.

“Don’t think of it that way,” she said. “You just need to nail down a couple more fundamentals. Get your breathing under control for the whole run and you’ll make a lot of folks lose sleep.”

“You think so?” Lucie asked.

Becky smiled. “Maybe even me.”

“In my dreams.” Lucie wiped her forehead with the back of one arm. “It’s so hot.”

“Let’s grab some Gatorade.”

They walked to the center of the inner field where a huge orange cooler sat on a bench next to an open bag of Styrofoam cups. Becky let Lucie pour one for herself first, then poured her own.

“Take it slow,” she said. She grabbed Lucie’s arm as the other girl gulped her drink down. “You’ll make yourself sick.”

“Tastes too good to go slow,” Lucie gasped.

The starter’s gun cracked behind them, signaling the start of another heat, and they both startled in spite of themselves.

“Where’s your buddy, Tammy Jo?” Lucie asked as they each poured another cup of Gatorade. She glanced around the field. “We’re just a week out from regionals. She’s almost guaranteed gold for us in the high hurdles.”

Becky shrugged. “I didn’t see her at lunch today.”

“She wouldn’t skip before regionals, would she?”

Not if she had a choice, she thought to herself, but to Lucie she merely shrugged. Tammy Jo skipped school more often than she should, but Becky still worried when it happened. She decided to call her friend after practice.

“So are you ready for the prom?” Lucie asked.

“Pretty much,” she replied. “I still need to buy my prom dress.”

Lucie looked at her, eyes wide. “You don’t have your prom dress? The dance is only a month away!”

“I’ll be picking it out tonight,” Becky said. “I’ve narrowed it down to a couple choices.”

“I would just go insane if I hadn’t picked out my dress yet,” Lucie said. “If I were going to the prom, that is.”

Becky was looking forward to the dance, but for the moment the regional meet weighed more heavily on her mind. She’d begin preparing for the prom once the track season wound down.

Beyond the track area, a group of boys practiced the field events. Scott Layman, a junior, stepped into a netted area and began warming up for a discus throw.

“There’s your boyfriend, right?” she said. She pointed at Scott

“That’s him,” Lucie replied. She grew silent for a moment, watching him warm up. He spun around and around before he let the discus fly as easily as a Frisbee. It landed two feet short of the best mark on the field, and as Scott trudged off, another boy rotated in.

Lucie sighed. “He hasn’t asked me to the prom yet. I’m going crazy. I’m beginning to wonder if he’s going to ask me at all.”

“I saw him at the mall last Saturday,” Becky said hesitantly. “Hanging with Lynn Klien.”

“The freshman? I don’t worry about her. Scott and her are, like, next door neighbors,” Lucie said.

Becky decided not to press the point.

“Talk to him if you’re that worried,” she suggested. “Maybe it just slipped his mind.”

“Slipped his mind?” Lucie said, shocked. “Something as important as the prom slipped his mind? No way.”

“He’s a guy,” Becky said. “It’s possible.”

Lucie laughed. “Thanks, Becky,” she said. “I needed that. Too bad Scott isn’t more like Tom. You’re lucky. What a hunk.”

Tom Shooter and Becky had dated since almost the beginning of the school year, ever since her parents had given her permission to date. She wished he were on the track team, instead of swimming at the Y, so she could sit and watch him practice between her own heats, like Lucie.

“Tom’s not bad,” she agreed.

“Not bad?” Lucie teased. “Only not bad?”

“Like Bill Cosby once said, God created everything and he called it ‘good.’ Just good. Think about it like that, and ‘not bad’ is…”

“Not bad?” Lucie finished.

They giggled and watched the boy’s team practice while they continued to cool down from their run. Practice lasted another half hour and Becky ran two more short heats to pace and push underclassmen before Coach Lansing finally called it a day. As the team made their way off the field and toward the showers, the coach made her way toward Becky and fell in step beside her.

“Do you know where Tammy Jo is?” Lansing asked.

“No,” Becky replied. “Not for sure.”

“Are you going to see her tonight?”

Becky shrugged. “I plan on calling her. Why?”

“Give her a message from me. She can’t miss any more practices. Regionals are Saturday. If she doesn’t practice, she doesn’t run.”

“If I get hold of her, I’ll tell her,” Becky promised.

Coach Lansing frowned. “Make sure you do.”

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