THE THREE-MILE RACE
by Clive Aaron Gill
Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, Africa 1959
All year I looked forward to Sports Day at Prince Edward Secondary School.
At the start of the three-miler, I glanced at the winners’ podium a few yards away from the finish line, imagining myself on the highest step. As a member of the Churchill Team, I wore a yellow ribbon rosette on my sleeveless undershirt.
A puff of warm wind pushed dry leaves scraping across the track in front of me.
I jogged and skipped, wearing my old tennis shoes with frayed shoelaces, trying to loosen the knot in my stomach.
Rodney, tall and slim with sturdy muscles, was usually the fastest runner, but a week ago, I passed him during a practice run at school. I also ran three miles by myself every weekend for the last month.
Rodney was a member of the Roosevelt Team, and he wore a red rosette. The Churchill and Roosevelt Teams were tied for first place. The winner of the three-miler, the last race of Sports Day, would lead his team to victory. I was determined to be that winner.
The race monitor announced the start of the race and pointed the starting pistol up. “On your marks!”
I spread my hands on the dirt track and took deep breaths. I tried to block everything out of my mind except winning the race.
I looked in the stands to see if my parents were watching and cheering for me even though I knew they were playing lawn bowls at the Wingate Country Club.
The headmaster and his wife sat with the teachers and office staff, their eyes directed at the contestants.
I saw my English teacher, Mrs. Gerber, who wore dusty glasses, and her 16-year-old son, Sammy, who limped because he had polio when he was eight. They sat in the front row and waved and shouted, “Go Colin. Go Colin. Good luck.”
I smiled at them, and for a moment I lost my concentration.
“Bang!” A puff of smoke arose from the starting pistol.
The runners bolted forward ahead of me, and I felt embarrassed to be in the last position.
I remembered my shame at a recent dance party when all the girls I asked to join me on the empty dance floor refused.
The nearest runner ahead of me was Charlie, nicknamed Caboose because he always came last. I ran in long strides that pulled on my quads and hamstrings. My legs felt strong, and a warmth flooded my body as I overtook Caboose.
I caught up to Kenneth, who had a reddish birthmark on the side of his head near his eye, and we raced side by side. Amid the cheering crowd, I heard Mrs. Gerber shout in her high-pitched voice, “Run Colin, run,” and I surged past Kenneth.
Rodney was in the lead as I expected. He raced ahead of a cluster of runners, his spike shoes kicking up dirt. He was so far from me that I was reminded of the morning when a current in Cape Town dragged me far out to sea. I struggled in the frigid water to make it back to the beach.
Rodney had a gorgeous girlfriend named Althea. Whenever I saw her, my eyes were drawn to her like a magnet. Rodney and Althea were caught in bed one afternoon by his mother.
A new energy tingled from my feet up my legs. I expanded my chest and tore past Gerald, a skinny, tall boy known as Toothpick, who was breathing hard and wheezing.
I took deeper breaths and my heart hammered.
People shouted, “Go, go, go.”
For a few moments, the runners ahead of me seemed to float in slow motion.
Steve, who shared a desk with me in our science class, ran at a fast pace three yards ahead.
Steve, who trained in jiu-jitsu, fought a bully who called me “midget” and “short-ass.” That bully left the fight with fewer teeth and never called me names again.
I got a second wind, then dashed past Steve and overtook Fred.
When Fred and I were eight years old, we each pricked one of our fingers and mingled our blood to become blood brothers.
I streaked passed Roy, also known as Baldy because when we changed for athletic exercises we noticed he didn’t yet have pubic hair.
Baldy never forgave me after I got sidetracked hunting for birds’ eggs and forgot to tell his parents he got stuck in a deep hole where we searched for treasure.
Alan ran in front of me with long strides. He and his family didn’t handle money on the Sabbath. He gave me money the day before the championship soccer game so I could buy his ticket on the Sabbath.
I closed in on Alan, but he quickened his pace. While I ran behind him, an intense sense of power flooded within me. I pushed my feet harder off the ground and outdistanced him.
I caught up with Harold, who was gasping. Harold’s father was a butcher, and we nicknamed Harold, T-Bone. His family lived in a huge house with a pool and a tennis court that we visited often and named The Club.
I outstripped T-Bone and sped past Edwin. He once threw stones on the tin roof of our house late at night to frighten us until the police arrived to arrest him.
Ahead of me, Gunther slowed, and I ran at a steady pace to pass him. Gunther hid paper money in a book in his father’s bookshelf, then couldn’t find the money later.
Rodney was the only runner ahead of me. I had to close the gap. I gained on him, running close behind, then we ran side by side, our arms and legs moving in unison. My chest heaved, and I felt as if it would explode as I gasped for air. Sweat dripped into my eyes.
When Rodney ran faster, I had to push myself to keep up. I fought my tiredness to match his pace. Could I pass him? Mrs. Gerber and Sammy wanted me to win. My Churchill teammates needed me to succeed. I couldn’t disappoint them. I had to win.
Rodney and I began the last lap together, and the screaming crowd stood.
As we raced around the last bend where no spectators had gathered, Rodney jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow. I tripped and fell with a loud grunt, grazing my face and hands and swallowing dirt.
The runners, including Caboose, rushed past me.
Leaning on my elbow and panting, I tried to get up but swayed as if drunk. I fell, my body shaking.
Rodney ran into the ribbon fluttering at the finish line, and a cheer erupted.
“Get up,” someone near me screamed. “Run! Finish the race.”
Mrs. Gerber and Sammy stood at the side of the track and pointed at the finish line 100 yards ahead.
I wanted to yell, “The race is over.”
“Get up and run,” more onlookers yelled.
I struggled to my knees, staring open-mouthed at people who shouted and pointed, my head spinning. I coughed as if something was stuck in my throat.
Walking forward, I stumbled but caught myself from falling. When I saw Mrs. Gerber and Sammy keeping up with me outside the track, tears rolled down my cheeks.
People packed the finish area and cheered for me, almost overwhelming the race monitor. I ran across the finish line and headed towards Rodney, whose proud expression melted into fear. He sprinted away from the track, and I followed him until he left the school grounds.
My legs buckled, and I dropped to my knees. My body shook with sobs and hoarse breaths while I watched Rodney’s receding figure.
During the awards for the three-mile race, no-one stood at the winner’s position on the podium.
About the Author:
Photo by Dawn at Nicoli Productions
Clive Aaron Gill’s short stories have appeared in numerous Internet magazines and in “People of Few Words Anthology.”
Born in Zimbabwe, Clive has lived and worked in Southern Africa, North America and Europe. He received a degree in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and lives in San Diego.