High school began and I was determined to be different.
I grew my hair out all summer so that I could wear it up in a high and slightly off-centre ponytail. Gone was my chin-length bob that framed my round child face, that I was sure made me look chubby. I wasn’t chubby — easy to see that now — but a steady campaign of taunting had made me believe I was. I thought that being fat was the worst thing I could possibly be.
I began running when I was ten, and I ran so much that I became the best girl runner in primary school. We did laps of the local park — one hundred kids spread out around the perimeter, careening down the hill near the oval, plodding up the steep incline towards the tennis courts. I was the fastest, the first to finish the three laps. No one noticed, and they still told me I had to be on the bottom of the human pyramid in the lunch time games inspired by the rise of cheerleading movies. So that I didn’t squash anyone.
High school began and I was a runner. Older girls were annoyed at the sudden rise of the youngest kid in the cross country team. I had a high jaunty ponytail and perfect teeth after braces. I had long legs and a tiny waist. I was finally the cool girl I’d always hated.
High school continued and I trained, early mornings on an ice-sheeted track. My dad bought me special racing shoes with spikes to dig into the polyurethane surface. Every training I battled; first to finish every exercise, always. I ran breathing hard through my mouth. My teeth were always sensitive after braces; at the end of training, they ached from the cold air.
I made it to state finals, win after win after win with the stakes getting higher all the time. Staring at the solid start line and feeling nerves climbing the walls of my stomach. These girls were very good. In the race I fell behind, caught by a fast break. I sprinted to catch up and overtake. I ran the rest of the race from the front, feeling the footfalls of the girl behind me. Desperate as a hunted animal. I won and threw up, my carefully thought out pre-race nutrition sprayed across lanes seven and eight.
“That was a gutsy effort,” my dad said.
I didn’t always win. I got older and other girls got better. That desperation to be the first over the finish line slipped away, so slowly I barely noticed it. There were new things to obsess over: parties and boys and friendship dramas replacing diet and stretching and training schedules in the space inside my head. I kept running, kept turning my legs over in the early morning dark. But it didn’t matter the way it once had.
High school finished and I went to university. Gone was the structure of weekly track meets; I ran meandering laps of my neighbourhood, not caring how slowly I was moving. I felt my body getting bigger and I knew I’d never race again. But it didn’t break my heart the way I thought it would. I was happy to be different.
Emma Hall is a writer based in Melbourne, Australia. Her short fiction is published in journals and anthologies including PENinsula Journal, Short and Twisted, Crack the Spine, and Antithesis. She works as a freelance journalist and communications consultant, and is working on her first novel.