The sharp crack of the starting gun was impossible to get used to.
You know it’s coming. You know you’re about to run a race. You even signed up for it.
It was the final race of my college career, and I was tensed at the starting line, ready to run 400 meters. Some people call it “the longest sprint,” and they’re not wrong.
When the gun finally did go off, I was out in front of the pack with one other guy. I don’t even really remember leaving the starting line; your body just sort of hurls itself forward and you come to a few seconds later.
It doesn’t take that long to run 400 meters, even if you’re bad at running. If you’re good, it’s less than a minute.
What’s that Kipling line?
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
Maybe, but Jesus Christ.
We were finally down to the last 100 meters when I realized that I might win. It’s a wonderful, intoxicating feeling. As long as you’re not guaranteed, it can give you the extra juice you need.
My legs and lungs were screaming, but I accelerated. Your legs feel like a separate part of your body in situations like that. The finish line flew forward, and then, in less than a minute, it was over. I’d won.
I bent double for a moment, my vision hazy and my head spinning.
When I stood back up the coach was retaking his place at the starting line, raising his gun in the air again. The 400-meter crew raced back to the starting line and stood ready. Everyone looked at me, and I looked back at them.
What the hell?
“You gotta rerun the race!” the coach yelled. “Get over here.”
I looked to the crowd, and my parents in the stands. No one seemed to question it. Despite the sinking feeling in my stomach, I joined the others at the starting line again. And again, the dread of the starting gun krept into my veins.
And again, I found myself out in front. My body was worse for the wear, but so was everyone else’s. We drove ourselves forward. If we were horses we’d be spitting thick, foamy clouds of lather from our mouths.
And then, suddenly, it was over again. Now I’d won.
I collapsed into the grass, trying to reason out the need for a second race. My head was spinning too much to think, and I was just glad to be still.
That’s when I heard the coach calling me again, and I looked up to see the racing crew back at the starting line.
But I ran, and won, again. Or I almost did.
On the eighth 400-meter race it occured to me that this might be hell, and that I’d died. That would explain everything. No one else was objecting to this torturous workout. What was going on?
When I was called over for the ninth race, I ran to the coach. I was going to smash the starting gun.
Right as I held it in my hands, the world dissolved. The sounds of the track meet disappeared. There was a millisecond of blackness.
I woke up.
I was back in the office, working the job I’d held since graduating from college five years ago, although I had “senior” in my title now. I glanced at my phone; the city would be alive with nightlife right now.
My computer screen showed an influx of emails, and the closing documents I’d been reviewing had a streak in the margin where my pen had slipped as I fell asleep in my chair. As I wiped away the sleep from my eyes I realized that my best work friend was standing at the side of my cubicle watching me.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?” I asked. “I had a…well I guess it was a nightmare. From college.”
“You’ll have time to sleep soon,” she said, the corners of her mouth pulling flat in a tired, professional smile.
She laid some papers on my desk just as a new calendar invite popped up on my screen. Like clockwork, just as one deal closed, another opened.
“You get staffed on another deal?”
I laughed in response. Of course. It always went like this.
“Well, once we get that new deal over the finish line, we’ll get a rest,” she said.
And then, ice freezing in my veins, I realized.
Kipling had no advice for this nightmare.