Chapter One: The Privalege of Running
I stood at the starting line, checking my blocks to make sure they were in exactly the right positions. As naturally as I took to running right from the beginning, those starting blocks were not my friends and they still aren't. Not yet, anyway. I just can't seem to come off them as fast as I need to, but I'm working on it every day. That's what running is all about, practicing your strengths and your weak points over and over, and making every race count.
For a quick moment, I glanced upward into the stands at the immense crowd of people, ablaze in bright summer colors. It made me almost dizzy, there were so many of them. I heard my coach's voice as if she were beside me, reminding me to keep my mind on the race, to breathe, to focus, not to get distracted. I brought my attention back to the track in front of me, a much safer place.
It was midafternoon in July 2000, at the Olympic trials in Sacramento, California. I'd been training and waiting for this day, and now that it was here, I couldn't have been more excited. The buzz of more than twenty-five thousand people, alive with anticipation, was in the air, as they milled around, talking loudly and making predictions, trying to steal a look at their favorite superstar track athletes, who were all gathered in one place to qualify for the upcoming Olympic games in Sydney, Australia.
My fellow disabled runners and I were there too, but for us, this was an exhibition race, not a qualifier. For me, personally, I hadn't been lucky enough to nab one of the seventy-one slots that were available for U.S. disabled athletes to compete in the Paralympics in Sydney. I had trained really hard and could have gotten a slot if the other double below-the-knee (BK) amputees and I had been given our own races. But because there weren't enough of us, I was up against people who were missing only one leg. I can't beat an elite runner with one leg, and it's not fair to expect me to, but fairness is not the theme of this book or of my life. I've learned not to think in those terms. It's much more about rising to meet your circumstances, overcoming adversity, and appreciating yourself exactly as you are, along with the gifts that life keeps offering you.
This was not my first exhibition race, but it was definitely the most exciting. The sheer number of spectators and the importance of what the greatest athletes in the world were here to do reverberated all over the stands and on the track. Runners in warm-up clothes pretended to ignore probing television cameras while they stretched and jumped around, partly to keep their muscles supple and warm, partly to control the adrenaline that was shooting through their bodies. The great female athlete Marion Jones was running in the next qualifier. I couldn't see her yet, but she was probably on the sidelines somewhere warming up. With her extraordinary talent, her impeccable work ethic, her speed, and her determination, she was a modern-day hero to all women runners. I could hardly believe that when my race was over, I would get to watch her qualify for the hundred-meter sprint, the same distance I was about to run. Her goal was to win five gold medals in the Olympic games; mine was to finish this exhibition race in a strong time and to get through the rest of my life.
Butterflies danced in my stomach, bumping into my bladder over and over again. I felt like I had to pee, even though I'd done it five minutes before. That always happens to me right before a race starts, whether my intention is to improve my time, set a world record, win a gold medal, or run an exhibition race in front of an Olympic audience. The feeling that my stomach is about to splatter just seems to come with the territory, whether I'm competing against myself or other runners. Whatever race I'm in, whether I expect to come in first or last, competing always feels important to me, just because I'm able to play the game at all. I derive immense satisfaction from knowing that I've conquered some really tough obstacles in my life to get me to the starting line. Win or lose (I've done both), competing is a huge privilege, finishing is its own reward, and winning is icing on the cake.
I crouched down in the blocks, looked at the ground, and did a few practice starts. I looked across the line at eight other women, all pretty revved up. doing the same thing. I knew these women really well; I knew their idiosyncrasies, their strengths and weaknesses, and their best times for the different distances, just as they knew mine. It's part of our training to study each other, to know who we're running against, what shape everybody else is in and what they're capable of, so we can determine where we're likely to place on any given day. I watched them with affection as they jogged in place, breathing and trying to calm their nerves. We were all amputees and we had such a tight bond, although only five of us were serious runners who had been competing internationally for the last year and a half. The other three women were just starting to train, but although this was their first time running in front of people and they were here for the fun and excitement, we all needed each other. If even one of us had been missing, there would have been no exhibition race. The Olympic committee felt that only filling all eight lanes would create a strong enough showing to make an exhibition race worthwhile.
I jumped up and down on my "cheetah legs," my carbon flex sprinting prosthetics made by Flex-Foot, the most innovative prosthetic company in the world. When I wear them, especially when I run, they make me feel more like a robot than a human being. Going into this exhibition race, the silicone sleeves felt good and tight over my sockets, my limbs were sunken down perfectly into their socks, and the new cleats on the bottom of the cheetah feet were sharp and ready to dig into the earth.
"Runners to your marks!" I heard the voice boom over the loudspeaker.
I walked over to lane eight, the outside lane I'd been assigned. It's not considered a great lane, but at least there would be nobody on one side of me for this hundred meter sprint. Most runners feel more control in the middle of the pack, where they can keep an eye on everyone else. I generally do too, but I don't mind the outside for the hundred meters, since it's a clean straightaway. For the two hundred-meters, location matters more. You have to start out low and stay that way, rising gradually, working the curve by leaning into the lane. It's hard to execute that balancing technique in the two hundred meters, to keep that lean on, especially on cheetah legs. But this was not the two hundred meters.
I stepped in front of my blocks, jumped up and down twice, and did a few stretches. That's the extent of my rituals before I begin; I have no talismans, charms or strange routines I perform, but I've found that jumping and stretching are good psychological tools to keep me from getting into the blocks too early. For a runner with both legs intact, relaxing your body while you tighten your muscles to stay steady in the blocks is tough enough. With prosthetics, it's almost impossible, and you end up wasting energy and strength that should be conserved for running. It's best to wait until the last possible moment. The idea is not to crouch all the way to the ground when I start, the way an able-bodied athlete would. I have discovered, as have other double BKs like myself, that if I put my hands on the ground and try to start from there, I can lose a good second and a half getting up on my legs, balancing, and then taking off. That's an eternity in a fifteen- to seventeen-second race, the difference between winning and losing. The only way to save time is to start low, go out at an angle like an ascending airplane, and come up gradually as I move forward.
I crouched one last time and exhaled. Everybody down the line did the same thing. Nobody was moving.
Although there is no predetermined amount of time after the starter calls out "Set," it takes from two to four seconds for the gun to go off. In fact, every starter's timing is different, so a huge part of the training is mastering the takeoff. On that day, I anticipated the gun. An instant before I heard it, I moved. False start -- a runner's nightmare. I apologized to the other women while we all jogged forward for ten to twenty meters, turned around, and headed back to the blocks. If you get a sense you're about to flinch or move before the gun goes off, you're supposed to raise your hand. They stop the race, call everyone up, and you get another chance with no penalties. But a runner isn't always in control enough to raise her hand and avoid false starting, which is irritating to everyone, both psychologically as well as physically. It takes a lot of practice to sync it all together, to have your body trained so automatically that there's no thought. The ideal timing is that when the gun goes off, you're moving -- not before, not after, but at the same exact time. That takes mastery.
I looked down the line of women, preparing to start again. Nobody was pissed off at me; anticipating the gun happens to everybody and we're trained to move right on. I cleared my head, waited until the last possible moment, and crouched down again, determined not to move early. One more false start and I'd be disqualified; wait too long for the gun and I'd lose time. I was not about to let either of those things happen -- not in a race this crucial.
I looked down at the ground in front of me, completely focused, waiting for the cracking sound that would start my legs moving and send me flying across the field. I had images of my training, my coach clapping her hands suddenly behind my head to help me get familiar with the gun. My cheetah legs were in position, I could hear my own breath, I could smell the track. Thirteen years ago I was stranded on a lonely, deserted back road in Arizona in the middle of a blizzard; who could ever have predicted that I would be here today, able to walk, able to run, able to compete fiercely in an athletic event? When you consider the way circumstances unfolded, the fact that I'm alive at all is a miracle in itself....
Copyright © 2001 by Jami Goldman and Andrea Cagan