This post is part of a series on the dubious joys of my ninth grade PE class.
I had survived. Almost — and barely.
It was June, with less than a week before final exams. The weather was also unseasonably hellacious for Michigan, with sunshine, high temperatures in the 90s, and humidity bordering on 80%. I had PE fifth period, so I got to experience the full brunt of this as we ran our last mile.
As might be evident from some of my other posts on this blog, I am not naturally averse to running. I can be taught to run safely and with good form, to cover reasonably long distances, and even to enjoy myself as I do so. Speed, I’m not so much designed for, though even on that front, I make slow but measurable progress.
Unfortunately, in the PE Trial and Tribulation known as The Mile, speed is the only thing that matters. Well, that and not walking. Walking during The Mile, even if it is speed walking of a sort to blow past the average mall walker and even to make Olympic speed walking hopefuls take notice — even if it is faster than one’s actual running pace** — is the ultimate badge of shame.
I know because I walked during the third quarter mile — that is, the mile run that came just after the square dancing unit, during the third academic quarter of the school year. I walked. Not all of it, mind. I broke from my job deliberately for the third of four laps, my own small act of defiance. Two acts, really: I hadn’t been running as fast as I could in the first place, and then I broke gait from there.
“Rears in gears, ladies!” Mrs. D called as I passed. I can’t say for sure if I was the only one walking then, but my guess is probably not. “No one ever got nice legs from walking.”
I idly wondered how many people developed nice legs from roundhouse kicking. But I didn’t speed up because, truth be told, I just didn’t care anymore. Maybe I even wanted to piss her off a little
or a lot. I wasn’t going to get her approval — or the grade I wanted — no matter what I did. Deliberately undermining her passive-aggressive coaching with some passive aggression of my own gave me at least a modicum of control.
My recalcitrance, however, had not been kind to my grade, and Mrs. D knew this too. Before the final mile run, she pulled me aside. “If you want an A in this class,” she smiled, “you’re going to have to break seven minutes.”
To the best of my knowledge and from the best of my research, seven minutes is certainly a reasonable (possibly generous) cutoff time for a track coach seeking out competitive runners. (Interestingly, most of the high school track coaches I’ve worked with have been more like, “You will run a mile? Regularly? In competition? Hells, yes. You’re in. I don’t care what time.”) It is not the most reasonable standard by which to determine the physical fitness of the general high school population.
Or maybe I’m just bitter because it was ninety-plus degrees, eighty percent humidity, and the first day of my period — which is less “eek, I have cramps” and more “clots the size of golf balls are trying to force their way through each and every pore of my body.”
I tried to rain check. There were still enough days left in the semester that a make up day should have been possible. Any other day but this.
Mrs. D shook her head. “You want the A, you earn it now or not at all.”
In that moment, I realized I did still want the A. If she’d allowed me an alternate run day, a 7-minute mile would not have been out of the equation for me. The A is the grade I believed I’d have earned from an instructor who’d been, well, instructive and accommodating. I wanted to show her that I could earn it now, even from a teacher who’d been an active barrier to my physical education.
I had to run. Chunks coming out of my vagina, blood coming out of my nose, my entire pelvis feeling like it was on fire, but I had to run. So I ran, keeping pace with the second cluster of runners in our class, figuring them to be my best bet for a 7-minute mile sans dying afterward. Or at least only dying afterward, once my A-making time was recorded.
Except, of course, that I’d figured wrong. Even if my body could have handled a faster pace, it couldn’t handle a faster pace on this day. My pelvis throbbed like it was going to explode. Each lift of a leg shot pain through my hip and low back, each step sent the same pain slamming down through my thigh.
My vision tunneled. I could only see the gold gym shirt of the person in front of me. Not the track, not the other runners, not even the whole of that one person. Just a shirt. Then the edges of even that tunnel vision blurred. Sparkles formed. Without quite knowing how I got there, I found myself on my knees inside the track, puking onto the football field.
“Move your feet!” an oncoming runner yelled.
I did. They passed me.
Eventually, one classmate — who’d deliberately decided to walk every bit of each assigned mile — stopped for me. “You all right?”
I stood up slowly, pausing to let my head dangle between my knees. We walked back around the track to the starting line.
“One more lap to go, ladies! RUN!” From beyond Mrs. D, the girls who’d already finished their mile stretched, sprawled, and grinned. “What, are you scared you’re going to mess up your hair?”
I couldn’t help but laugh. (Maybe it was the beginnings of hysterics. I don’t know.) My hair, having been flipped over my head while barfing, was already undoubtedly already messed up. I had long hair at the time, and can’t recall having had the presence of mind to move it out of the way of the vomit stream.
“I’m not finishing.” I shook my head experimentally then stopped. Too dizzy.
“What?” she asked.
I grabbed for the chain link fence.
“You mean you can’t even walk your mile without stopping?”
This was not the no of defiance or righteous indignation. I slid to the ground, defeated, realizing she’d already made up her mind about me. “I’m not finishing.”
** Due to differences in stride length, mine actually can be, at least when it comes to my comfortable running pace. I attribute this to the fact that my dad was six-foot-four, and I had the necessary job of keeping up with him since I could toddle.