The morning was coated in fog, humid and coldish. Autumn was changing into its other suit, the one soaked with raindrops. However, the excitement could be sensed in the entire town. It was the day of the race.
People flooded towards the stadium in lines and groups which were reminiscent of grape clusters thrown all across the streets. It was the event of the month, the pride and honour reflected on townspeople’s faces.
Stands were slowly becoming more crowded and talks about expectations were getting louder. Below, security guards and stadium workers were setting the tape around the pitch to separate it clearly from the tracks. It was the only stadium that the town had, and some work had to be done to prepare it properly. Some of slippery grass went over the border of the pitch, and the guards pushed the blades back into wet ground, slightly dipping their shoes in mud. Flags were placed on specific points, referees were checking if all posts were marked correctly, while the participants of the races were preparing in the locker rooms.
Once the gates were closed, and almost all of the town found their seats, the first race could commence. It was truly spectacular, and worthy opening to such a gloriously organized sports manifestation. The audience cheered for their favourites throughout several races. The winners smiled and waved from the podium, happy and satisfied with their accomplishments. However, everyone present was expecting the main race to begin, the one which was going to be the conclusion of the event.
The rules for the final race differed than the ones that applied to the previous ones. It was a sprint and competitors were positioned in three lines, taking pole positions they got after draw of lots the night before the race. The athlete which seemed to receive the most support from the audience was going to start from the centre in the first line. The others slowly approached their pole positions, stretching, hopping, mimicking fast running in place, taking deep breaths. The athlete just stood there, watching the track unravel in front. The heart could not be beating still. There was also that sensation in the stomach, the one that would always sneak up before the beginning, before the signal, the tremor moving down to the knees, lingering there, truly, until the finish line was crossed. The athlete was nervous and wondered what others thought of her for getting the clearly more favouring position than the rest. Still, there was also the feeling of belonging there, and being there for the right and justified reasons. The athlete had great results before that race, so her place was there, in front. Even if it was a draw, a game of chance, she deserved to be the luckiest.
The last race she participated in was five months ago and her last true practice was about four weeks ago. She decided she needed a break. The day before she did visit the track, but only to walk there a little bit and feel the ground under her feet. It was unnecessary to waste energy before the actual event. She had the skill and the talent to finish another one in the centre of the podium. Her opponents must have practiced, but they always did and it did not matter much once the dash started. It was a simple town race, it demanded no effort and deserved no particular attention from her.
The referee approached them one more time to make sure that everyone was set. She turned around and realized she did not notice before how many contestants were behind her. Most of them were local athletes, trying their fortune. She recognized a girl she saw running the track the day before when she came to look around.
Contestants moved closer to the start line. They all took three-point stance, which the athlete thought to be unusual for a sprint, but there simply was no space between them enough to stretch closer to the ground. Until that moment loud and chatty audience turned suddenly silent and only the wind wheezing through black poplars planted around the stadium. And then there it was.
The signal was sounded and all the blood immediately rushed to the thighs, calves, and feet. All of the sudden, the air around their mouth turned hot with exhales, as they kept thundering down the track. She was leading, leaving her competition behind. Her energetic running was causing the crowd to pave her path to another victory with their heartfelt support. However, then something. The finish line was closer with each step, but at the same time, she was losing power in her legs. She was getting tired and breathing became heavy. Her lungs were burning. Others were approaching, catching up on her. The audience was shouting, but now she could not understand them, their voices blending together, while she was only trying to reach the blue, wide tape, tied between two poles first. Her body was failing her. Panicking, she looked over her shoulder, which she had never done before. Three of her opponents were about to overtake her. The girl who practiced the day before was the first among them. The track now seemed endless. With assurance, three girls stormed pass her, as she struggled to maintain control.
The athlete had an incredible start. The ending of the race was devastating for her. Almost falling to the ground, with her arms desperately pushed forward as if the finish line was a straw of salvation. She was the fourth. A disappointment for such potential. Unacceptable for a talent she was. Somewhere in a province, on an old and in parts unkempt stadium, defeat stung like fire. There were others, better than her, and what was even more shocking, they were not afraid to show it. She watched them, stepping on the podium, without her. It used to be enough.
As she moved to the track exit, with all the joy escaping her, she walked behind the podium, when a photographer denied her from leaving the shameful scene. His honest smile and encouragement to stand next to the victors for a photo was something she received with bitterness. Yet, she accepted. She stood next to the girl who ranked third and made an effort to genuinely appear happy to be there. They will have a photo with the champion, and she will have a reminder. It could never be enough on its own.