A champion does not need a large house or a too soft, swallow-and-keep bed. Awake is all three-a-days, sloshing raw eggs, bathing in ice. Awake is undecorated and mostly well lit. Coach has been clear about the intended trajectory of my body: perfect lines, soft power. I am stacked atop the other athletes in a pile of bedrooms. Coach gives me a trophy of his and says to consider it.
“Remember,” he says, “you are not the only winner.”
Athletes who keep up the winning habit, whose victory sustains itself, have lives that open to white carpet high ceiling suburban light in districts where those luxuries are allowed. For now home is a closed cabinet in a compartment of cloth-filtered, smoggy sun, a place to collapse lactic acid legs.
In the morning the trumpet of my alarm clock is loud and in time with my neighbors’ waking. Between here and breakfast I try to absorb the stillness, to launch off from later, but with track stars there is always moving, whether or not you see it.
The first task of the day is an elaborate series of side jumps. Coach says they are different from a warm up: a warm up is about a steady build, about kindling. The side jumps are meant as a shock.
“We underestimate,” Coach says “ a hard-reset to the system.”
Anything can be made into a game: distance, ache. With the side jumps I play the radio and stop when each snippet of speech does.
For a while after I was chosen for the team, those few months between tryouts and practice, I did not know what or what not to do with myself. How could I train when I wanted to be put in storage, wrapped safe until I reached my first uniformed meet. But a body in motion stays in motion.
Y. and I used to pull at each other’s limbs twice daily, coordinating tension and release. For a while after I arrived here, at the complex, we tried to keep up our stretching together over video-chat, but a stretching friend does not offer much if not resistance.
I exhale at a slow stretching pace.
Time and its inverse, distance, happen so differently dependent on vehicle.
My speed by foot hits a point where it turns over and ends. Even circling becomes a progress there: I’m abducted by my lungs. The track is measured and marked for fairness.
With years things are harder to tell. Like with winners, there can only be so many coaches, trapped in the track’s green center, lubing up muscles that are not theirs, swearing for meters they will not sprint. The majority of the team will become shoe-fitters or store managers or wives because we will stop winning.
This is why there are teammates, even in such a solo game. They’re not Y., but they’re here, to stake myself on. It only takes one success within the herd, Coach says.
And they’ve let me in. We pool and share clothes, swapping the same garments in our one same size. Often when the sleep-chimes go off at night we are all still slumped in the common room, pre-race potatoes on our chins, other girls’ slippered feet in our laps, exhausted and together, for that while, until sleep, until waking.
At my first meet there are only so many bodies in the bleachers, and I can tell by their windbreakers that most of them are connected to the league professionally. We’re early in the season. Fans only arrive when winning does. Except for my aunt, who is there, and an old teammate. It’s the first time I’ve seen her, this sprinter, in anything other than exercise clothes. Her blouse is a costume. No one likes a person who comes to a concert so they can speak loudly about also being a musician, and so she is in disguise. What she has forgotten is that everyone wears running clothes now. They aren’t any longer a marker of competing at movement, if they ever were.
My aunt does not speak to me at meets anymore, does not wish me luck or shake my hand. She brings Sno-Caps, little boxed chocolates she maracas loudly in support. And every year she emails a picture of one of my photo finish wins out to the family list-serve, time-stamped in her own swooping Sharpie and scanned.
I take my place and release my legs.
Pistols aren’t fast enough for starting us off anymore. Now they use electric sounds.
Movement is mechanical but so is everything. Thinking is: all little batons changing hands, says Coach.
We are not supposed to drink. It smalls the veins and suffocates the muscle strings.
It happens because, tonight, I am “home,” and tomorrow is thanksgiving. I try: I sit a while, a mantled trophy, at the kitchen table in the cold, tall apartment of my childhood. The others scrape potatoes and measure powders. I can make a few things; my recipes are all high in protein but low in festivity.
The group messages keep coming from old in-town acquaintances and when I respond saying I will come meet up, I am sure no one expects it. It’s not just that I am far gone from high school friends. I had barely been there. High school happened before my era of actual intimacy.
They all want to tell me, beers in hand, their exercise routines. And what are my opinions on a regimen of carting a tire the perimeter of the backyard? And how many ankle weights are enough to make a walk count for sprinting?
It is hard to turn off the racing spirit. I gulp G and Ts like the cocktail straws are water-bottle spouts.
My body carries me home like I am the backyard tire. My legs are delighted by their newfound softness, delighted by the gate that has opened and allowed stumbles in.
Coach and my mother and warmth compete for attention. Discipline can only function as a constant or I’m so glad to see you going out with old friends or Just strip here in this empty expanse of window, no one will see the singing and spinning. They are all sleeping.
After losing, the firing of my calves keeps on. They still go in circles. Spasming. It’s hard to speak or pull a hoodie on with all my attention drawn downward. Muscles like an autoimmune disease: offense aimed inward.
Coach wants a one-on-one to see what’s what. And when I get there he has electronics. Two small blinking wire-ended dongles.
“A way to track the muscle?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says “but further.”
I can see my body enhanced for performance. Denser and more efficient and less human.
He puts plastic silently to my temple and another to his own. There is no shock or adrenaline shot. After a few beats I understand. A breath trainer. Small wheels to steady me. Little calm pulses, winds, to tune myself to. The less the body breathes the more it absorbs. But why should I be taught this when I could have come programmed to the right pace? Why should he schedule my circuit resettings and pulmonary expansions?
Because, insist the device’s steady lights. Just feel us. We work.
The team holds a banquet in a borrowed gym because it seems, to us, an important marker of time, a renewal of the athletic year.
It’s like high school:
When my cake piece is only a smear of sweet food coloring someone gets up to hit a light switch. So begins the awards ceremony.
Team Captain speaks jokingly about our successes and our falls. She gives a small stuffed doughnut to a teammate who strained her ass-muscle and had to carry a ring cushion for sitting. There are passive aggressive jokes about the winningest of us, who will be moving up after the season, onward, into a uniform made to look like the nation.
At the end is a video series shot by phone a week before. Each of us at home, the sides of us that exist off-track. Someone with her snow globes. Someone with the dog pictures she keeps instead of actual animals. Me with trophies. My own small goblets and, centermost, with the tallest columns, the Coach’s, my reminder of mediocrity. The world is saturated with other people’s winning.
Born and raised in New York City, Austin Irving is an artist who graduated with a BFA from the Department of Photography and Imaging at New York University. She is currently based in Los Angeles and is represented by Wilding Cran Gallery.
Bridget G. Dooley is from Michigan, but now lives in Athens, GA, where she is working toward a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, Rabbit Catastrophe, Goddessmode: A collection of video game writing by women and non-binary artists, and elsewhere. At the moment she’s working on a video story about trash and a closet drama about competitive sadness.