The crack of the starter’s gun gives rise to a low rumble around the stadium as the girls set off at speed. The race clock at the finish line carries the logo ‘British Athletics National Youth Championship’. By the first bend, daylight is already opening up behind the front runner.
Stacie Warnock isn’t like other eleven-year-olds. She doesn’t do dance routines in the mirror with friends, miming pop lyrics into hairbrushes, and it’s not just because she has no friends. She never dabbles with make-up and she’s a foot taller than the next gangliest girl in her year. While the other girls are starting to grow bumps that stop older boys in their tracks, Stacie looks like a Giacometti sculpture.
She never used to mind being different. She knows she’s special. Not special in the way a mum or grandparent might whisper to a misfit child with some weird affliction: Stacie IS special. She is the best young British athlete for a decade. Since the day her dad took her to his athletics club aged nine and pushed her out onto the track with the junior boys, and she made them look like they were in a comic, slow-motion silent movie, she has smashed record after record.
“She’s going to win Olympic golds one day,” her dad says to anyone who’ll listen.
Stacie used to get a warm feeling when he boasted about her achievements. Now it leaves her cold. It could just be the firings of hormones that will turn her body from a girl’s into a woman’s, but lately she’s lost her love of running.
Stacie glances at the race clock as she laps. 1 min 15s: bang on time for a sub 5min run. Today it’s coming easy to her, but days like this have become rare.
“It’s just growing pains, it’ll pass,” says her dad, and sends her back out for another lap. Sure enough, when she’s on the track her body feels fine — better than fine, it feels capable of anything. But when she’s not running, her body seems to ache all the time, her head too.
Her father measures her every week. Like all athletics fanatics, he’s obsessed with statistics: fractions of seconds, centimetres, kilos. She hasn’t grown for four months now.
“There’s nothing to worry about,” he says. But they do worry, because she’s stopped getting faster.
Lapping for the second time, Stacie almost gasps at the clock read out: 2 mins 35s. Somehow she dropped time on the second lap. There’s ground to make up and she picks out her father’s angry voice among those trackside on the home straight. “Get it together,” he yells.
For three years she’s spent her mornings and weekends at the track or in the gym. Summers are filled with county, and now international, meets. Running used to feel like fun, maybe it still does, but she can’t think about it anymore without worrying she won’t be the very best, and that’s no fun at all.
“Today’s the day, princess. That’s it, get it down you,” said her dad over their power breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Stacie tried not to gag on a banana, sick of the slow-burn sugar load she puts herself through every morning.
“Today’s the day you write history,” he said. “I remember when I won the Commonwealth bronze…”
Here we go again, thought Stacie. Her Dad was a good athlete in his time, but not a household name. His mental toughness was unrivalled, but the luck of the draw gave him two short legs and poor lungs. He was all effort and will. When Stacie runs she is beautiful. Although she’s grown at a pace that has outstripped her limbs, leaving her gangly and awkward in everyday life, on the track her body delights in itself. No matter how hard she runs, her legs and arms want to do more, go faster still. It’s thrilling, and it comes easy to her. Or rather, it used to.
Passing the clock for the third lap, Stacie’s lungs feel like they’re in her mouth. 3 mins 50s. A quick lap but she’s still a second or two down. She quickens to a sprint but where she used to have a reserve tank, now there’s just fumes.
Once she shaved a second off her PB in a training run, and ran to him for congratulations but his look stopped her dead. It was disgust.
“Think what you could do if you’d tried that bit harder.”
Last year she set a new U12 record for the 800m, and in training this year she’s already run under five minutes for the 1500m. No British girl under twelve years old has done this before. If she does it today she will qualify for elite Olympic coaching.
Stacie took a toilet stop before they set off for the stadium. She ran the tap to hide the sound of her vomiting. She’s been doing a lot of this lately.
“Are you okay in there?” asked her dad.
“Can’t a girl have a bit of privacy?” she screamed.
Stacie rounds the final bend. Where her body is failing her, she’s discovered she’s her father’s daughter. She’s pushing her arms and legs past a barrier they’ve never met before. With 50m to go her dad is jumping up and down at trackside. He knows, she knows, she’s made up the time. Looking at the clock, she’ll finish in 4min 57s, but her father’s ecstatic face triggers something in Stacie, and she stops running, ten metres short of the finish line. With her hands on her hips to open her lungs she’s a picture of defiance. She looks at the race clock, then at her father, whose face freezes for a moment, then spasms with rage. ‘Run!’ he yells, and you can hear it clearly because the rest of the crowd has hushed. But Stacie won’t run anymore. At five minutes she steps off the track.
Rob Ganley writes in Middlesex.