Pepped Up and Ready(4)

By: Ali Dean

I hold my breath as I hear the University of Oregon’s head coach introduce herself. Wow. The head coach from the reigning Division I National Champions. Most of the calls up until now were from assistant coaches. I’ve been hoping to get invited for a recruitment trip to Oregon, if only because my running idol, Elsa Blackwood, went there. After college, Elsa turned to marathons, and, now in her thirties, she’s still the best female American distance runner. Hands down.

There’s no way I’ll actually go to Oregon for college though. My life is here, in Brockton, and I doubt I’ll ever leave. But I’m still flattered the coach called me, and I’m not against visiting the school for kicks.

I know I should wait to run with Zoe, who surely wants to recap the goodbye with Charlie, but I need to be alone this morning. Zoe likes to chat away her emotions; I like to run mine away. Seriously, running somehow makes things better. Not all the way better, but enough.

My loyal mutt, Dave, pants quietly beside me as we wind our way through the neighborhood and onto my favorite trail up the foothills. My legs are sore from the run and hike yesterday, and it takes a while before they loosen up. I’ve trained harder this summer than ever before. After winning Nationals last fall, I felt overwhelmed by the pressure during track season. Instead of embracing the challenge of living up to my title as the best female high school distance runner in the country, I completely shied away from it. I feared racing, and found myself more excited about my newfound social life as Jace’s girlfriend than I was about racing.

Somehow, by facing my fears in my relationship with Jace head on – which entailed confronting the ultimate mean girl, Madeline Brescoll, about trying to sabotage our relationship – I also gained the confidence to face my fears on the track.

I know that if I want to be the National Champion again, I can’t coast my way through the summer. Normally, my summer training entails running five to six days a week, with at least one day off from working out each week. With the exception of one long run a week, the rest of the runs Coach Tom has me doing are at an easy pace and no more than five or six miles. I haven’t talked much with Coach this summer, probably because he figures I’m just doing the same base mileage routine I did last year. But I’m not. I’ve nearly doubled my weekly mileage, and I never take a day off. I also lift weights every other day. When I show up for our first practice, I’ll be in the best shape of my life.

Ryan and Coach Tom both drilled into my head the importance of pacing myself – not just in a race, but in training over the course of a season. I get it, but I’ve never been injured before. I’ve never really tested myself. I’ve never trained so hard I thought I might break. Sure, I’ve raced like that, and occasionally I’ll have brutal workouts, but Coach always makes sure I get plenty of rest. Since I’ve started talking to college coaches, I’ve heard plenty about other high school training programs. Most college coaches are surprised, if not shocked, when they hear how low my weekly mileage has been with Coach Tom. If I don’t step it up on my own, I’ll never be ready for college training.

When Dave and I turn back onto Shadow Lane, I find myself running up to the Wilders’ house instead of our apartment building. Running worked its magic. The veil of melancholy has dissipated to a dull ache that I’ve grown used to suppressing.

Jim waves hello to me from the breakfast table and Dave meanders to the kitchen, hunting for scraps, while I make my way down the stairs of their bi-level house. I’m not surprised Jace is still asleep. He has the entire downstairs to himself, and I wonder if Jim will change the space when Jace moves out.

Jace’s lower body is tangled in his bed sheets, and I drink in the sight of his broad back before jumping on the bed next to him. Expecting to startle him awake, he takes me by surprise, tackling me onto my back and smothering me with kisses.

“I heard you coming down the stairs,” he tells me between kisses. “You think you’re pretty stealth, but I was just lying in wait.”

My giggling dies down when I take in the boxes stacked up at the end of his bed. I went straight for Jace, and didn’t notice how empty the rest of his room was.

Jace follows my gaze. “I hope you came ready to work,” he tells me.

“You want me to help you move?” I ask. We have avoided talking about the move. Avoided talking about college. But it’s here now, and it can’t be ignored any longer.

Jace turns to look at me. “I assumed you would.” His voice holds a question.

What exactly are you asking me, Jace? Do you want me to stay by your side? Or do you want some space? Are you going to put distance between us in more ways than one?