The Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School track team filed off the cheese bus into an overcast Saturday morning at Middleburg High School. The heat wave that had singed DC for much of early May had finally lifted, and the 70-degree temperatures felt chilly enough to keep our vinyl blue-and-gold track suits on.

‘Damn!’ David exclaimed as he stepped off the bus, removing his headphones and pointing at a large dome structure ahead. ‘What the hell is that?’

‘It’s a silo,’ Alpha said tersely.  ‘Welcome to Middleburg.’

‘Say wh-at?’

Alpha did not respond. A senior, this was Alpha’s final 2A West Regional Track & Field Championships, and she could not be bothered with David’s unfamiliarity with rural Maryland.

Maduba lifted her beaded braids from her eyes as she scampered off the bus. ‘Man, looka all dem white kids!’ Maduba could get away with saying things like that because (a) she was from South Africa, (b) she had a black mom and white dad, and (c) she could run 400m in 60 seconds.  Maduba was also known for getting away with eating three hotdogs before running her 400m race and still outkicking the field.

We ambled to the track as a disorderly herd that bothered Alpha far more than our coach, Mike Flemming. Coach Flemming had been a star runner for Nebraska some forty years ago, and his coaching style was defined by a strong emphasis on calisthenics. In the next months, my parents would stage a coup that would remove Mr Flemming as our fall cross-country coach after twenty-odd years on the job. They had a legitimate complaint, as the girls cross country team didn’t even have the five runners required to field an official team. But little old Flemming had such cute twinkly blue eyes I still felt bad.

There was a lot of commotion on the track, and enough banners and streamers to look  like a state fair.  I watched a giant shot putter, bursting through his ill-fitting singlet, dip into a deep squat and hurl a metal ball across the field, much farther than anyone on our team could throw.  Someone was speaking over the loudspeaker, but there was too much background noise to make it out.

The metal bleachers were cold and reeked of IcyHot. Assistant Coach Smart handed out the order of events. Thankfully the mile came early so I didn’t have to wait around all day on edge.

Dave bounded from behind and grabbed me by the shoulders gleefully. ‘It’s do-or-die today! You ready, Min?’

‘I think I would rather just die.’


‘Regionals is the worst.’ I sighed. ‘There’s no glory, it’s just something you have to get through so you can go on to States.’

‘Hey, not all of us are guaranteed to go on.’

‘I know, I know. Last year qualifying was super exciting.’

‘Martha. Go warm up.’ Coach Smart was in full clipboard/cap/perky ponytail organization mode.


‘One hour til gun.’

‘I don’t need an hour to warm up,’ I protested.

‘You’re always whining. Go.’

I unzipped the insides of my blue track pants with gold and white blazes on the sides, and reluctantly extricated myself from my giant grey hoodie. Underneath I had a mesh white singlet with scratchy blue and gold trim and B-CC in block letters, and the flimsiest petals of shorts, cut high on the leg and the trim coming undone at the bottom. We had no evidence, but I’d have bet all my lunch money that our uniforms dated back to the 70s.

I warmed up alone in the parking lot. The last time I had been to Middleburg was the regional cross country meet last November. Cross country was so much better than track. I missed the course walks, where we had 3.1 miles to stroll the course as a team, ostensibly learning where it went so we wouldn’t get lost in the race. But we goofed off so much I could never recall where the course actually followed, and my mother could always tell when I got that deer-in-the-headlights look when I came around the turn with absolutely no clue where I was supposed to run.

I trotted around the high school, right by the spot where seven months ago Tripp O’Connell had recounted his traumatic regional cross country race. Tripp had arrived at the race wearing spandex shorts under his uniform. But the power tripping race official had ruled that every team member’s uniform had to match exactly and made Tripp remove the spandex. Everyone wears spandex under their uniform in soccer and lacrosse and other sports. I don’t know why running has to be so fascismo. Especially when there is no physical contact. I mean, it’s understandable that you can’t wear a big chain around your neck in soccer, when you could whip someone in the face with it going up for a header. But running?? Besides, have you seen the kind of jewelry Gail Devers wore at the 100m at Sydney 2000?  God, track officials are the worst.

Apparently the inside liner of Tripp’s thirty-year old uniform shorts had worn out the elastic, and Tripp had to run most of the race with his hand in his pants holding it all from flopping out. He confessed that early in the race there had been some major slippage and was certain that some of the other racers had gotten a good show. With neither our boys nor girls cross country teams qualifying to go on to states (just three of us qualified as individuals), that was the last day we all spent together as a cross country team, howling over Tripp’s story.

I returned to the bleachers, where my parents had arrived. I checked in with them and then scurried to the track to get in a few last strides in. I was much more confident now than a year ago when I ran my first regional meet as a gawky freshman in clunky Nike sneakers.  Now, in my featherweight track spikes I knew the drill. But at the same time, everyone knew me.

My jittering intensified as the track officials walked us to the starting line, and my right leg shook uncontrollably. As always, I would let the pack burst out and then reel them in gradually over the next laps. I just had to finish top-4.  I would let the race unfold and let my finishing kick pop into a Q spot, just as I had at last year’s regionals.

‘Ready.  Set.’

The starting gun shot and the air smelled like gun powder. Nearly twenty girls jockeyed for position. On my second step I felt a chain around my neck clunk against my collarbone, and I realized I had neglected to remove it before the race. I stopped dead and jumped into the infield, all the girls flying by. I fumbled desperately with the clasp, finally got the chain off and threw it in the grass, while everyone else disappeared around the first turn.

By the time I hopped back onto the track the leaders had already completed the first turn. I tore after the pack with a panicked adrenaline, at least 50 meters behind. I trailed the pack alone for the first lap and a half , not seeming to make up much ground.  The only good thing about the mile is that you’re running so hard that you don’t have time to think or get demoralized.

In the second lap I caught the first straggler, then another, and something clicked. Runners were coming back to me, and by the third lap I had pulled myself to the middle of the pack. Entering the final lap, I slipped into my kick. The beauty of the mile is that your lungs are heaving so hard, you’re not registering anything else around you.  People might have cheered as I gained on the girl in the last qualifying position.  But all you hear is the thumping in your head, the gasping of your breath, and the wind whooshing by your ears.

I stumbled to a stop and rested my knees on my hands after crossing the line, lungs still heaving. Panting over my knees, I grinned ear to ear.  I had rallied to overcome what seemed an insurmountable deficit, and I had qualified.

There was a tap on my shoulder and I looked sideways to see an obese man busting out of the front buttons of his official’s uniform and donning an ill-fitting cap. He carried a large clip board.

‘Um, missy. I am afraid you are disqualified.’

I still hadn’t caught my breath yet. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘No jewelry permitted,’ he said flatly.

‘But I took it off.’ My throat constricted. ‘I only ran like four steps in it.’

‘Rules are rules.  Sorry.’

‘But the only one it hurt was me.’  My eyes were wide.

I sat down in the grass and placed my head in my hands and sobbed. Coach Flemming and Coach Smart quickly arrived and began discussing the matter with the official, but to no avail.

I’m sure the meet continued and other races were held. I’m sure my friends Rob and Dave ran. I’m sure Alpha demolished her competition and screamed at her relay team for sloppy baton passes. I’m sure the relay won anyway. But honestly I recall nothing else from that year’s Regional championship. Nothing but several hours of crushed sobbing that was met with extraordinarily sympathetic, consoling words from my coaches and teammates. Even Alpha.

After the final race of the day was run, the 4 x 400m relay, I said my farewells to the B-CC track team for the year and followed my parents to our Honda Civic.

As we walked through the parking lot, a thought entered my father’s head. ‘You know, if you had really been thinking, you would have run back to the starting line and taken your necklace off there. That way, you would have just technically started the race late. I’m sure there’s nothing in the rule books that says you can’t start the race late.’

‘I doubt you can start the race late.’

‘I bet there’s nothing in the rule book.’ He thought he had hit on something. ‘I mean, why would they have a rule against starting a race late?’


‘I mean, just if you had really been thinking.’

I had finally stopped crying a half hour ago, but the tears began to well again.

‘Or, I bet if you had just left the chain on, no one would have noticed.’ He had concocted another plausible alternative. ‘I mean, it was just a tiny chain. You brought attention to it by taking it off. You could just have not touched it.’

‘Oh, Bob!’ my mother exclaimed.

But the economist in him was on a roll.  ‘You know, what you really need to have is a mental checklist. Before each race you go through your checklist of places where you might have jewelry: wrists, ankles, neck, ears, fingers.’

‘I never wear jewelry.’ My hands fumbled with the chain in the pocket of my hoodie. I had eventually retrieved it from the field, but I couldn’t bring myself to put it back on.

‘Well, clearly you wore it today.’

‘I don’t even know where it came from. I don’t wear rings, I don’t wear earrings, I don’t wear necklaces. For some reason I put on that chain last night.’

‘When you went out with your friends last night,’ my mother added.

‘Yeah, I guess.’

‘Well that’s it. It went against your routine,’ my father explained. ‘Routine is very important in sports. That’s why tennis players bounce the ball the exact same way before each serve.’

I had not taken to tennis as a child, much preferring sports like soccer where it was harder to identify discrete errors.  But I begrudgingly picked up a racquet from time to time.  Probably the last time I had played tennis was in Los Angeles, during what had been billed as a friendly game of doubles with my father and I teamed up against my uncle Jeffrey and his friend David. Jeffrey loves retelling the story about how my dad yelled at me to get off the court when I hit the ball in the net too many times.

My head hung low and I stared at the pavement of Middleburg’s parking lot.  Running was the stupidest sport in the world.  But as the defending state champion in cross country, I could not quit.  My grip on my emotions faltered, and tears streamed down my cheeks again.  I would never be a state champion again.



One Response to Flashback: High School Region 2A MD Track Meet 1997

  1. Kirstin says:

    I get so livid when you tell this story.
    Your father was so insensitive. GAH!

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