Last Race

April 2013
Berkeley, California

The gun cracked and Princess tore off, a step ahead of the field from the start. Her blood was electric, her body wired. Racing down the first straightaway she could feel her competitors edging her. There were the twins in their Stanford maroon. A girl from Davis no one had heard of. You have no idea what you’re up against, Princess thought under the sound of measured breath. This one doesn’t belong to you.

Four years she’d run on this yellow track. It had paid for her college education, given her a singular purpose, nearly convinced her that the life she'd left behind had no bearing on her future. Track junkies had heard of the Stanford twins, but everyone at this meet knew Princess Rose, the defending Pac-12 champion and UC-Berkeley’s fastest 1500m runner. She had already qualified for Nationals. Today was special for a different reason: it was her last race on the home track. She intended to win. 

Before the first lap was over, the usual demons hissed their doubt. All at once Princess was a little girl again, racing through rice paddies and liquid heat, shaking off every voice that had tried to slow her down. She ignored them, and focused instead on the hot rubber scent of the track, the erratic cheers from the crowd, the rhythmic slap of her feet beneath her. She came through the second lap too fast and the demons cackled and prophesied failure just as they always did. She felt the slow burn of lactic acid in her glutes and quads, the air rasping in her lungs. She set her eyes on what was before her even as the demons whispered of all that was behind: her uncle glowering over her, telling her that her fate was already sealed; her father discarding her without a word of explanation; her mother turning away when Princess had needed her most. And then there was Maryelle, who did not need to say a thing for Princess to feel the weight of her own betrayal.

There was a moment in every race that was like tunneling to the bottom of a well to see what was left when all of the light and ease of daily living was stripped away. Even after hundreds of races, many of them victories, Princess felt the same fear that she always did: that she might cave in the darkness, that the cool, metallic light of her own strength and will might not be enough to get her back to the surface. Down in that well was every memory she had tried to forget, every voice that reminded her that she did not deserve the good things that had come to her. It was the moment when she remembered the truth about herself that no one else knew, and she never stopped fearing that she would be found wanting. 

But then just as quickly, a new urge took over, an animal instinct that was outside of logic, outside even of pain. It was the thing she loved most about this sport, how in the heart of panic and fear, she could somehow find release from all that burdened her. It was a high so addictive and primal that she had gladly shaped her whole life around it. It was the only time she felt truly free. 

Strangers screamed her name—a nickname she’d claimed when, her first season on the team, a snarky school reporter had called her a princess when she’d told him she wanted to become track and field royalty. The next day her teammates teased her, and when she didn’t protest, the name stuck. Only her teachers called her Rose. To Princess the nickname felt like coming home.

The Davis girl was a full stride behind now and only the twins battled Princess for the lead. In the third lap one of them moved ahead, but Princess was prepared. Her discomfort was practiced, controlled. She took back the lead on the homestretch and ratcheted up the pace. Her stride was smooth liquid, every step oozing confidence and calm. She dashed by the finish line with one lap to go and the bell dinged, a shot of adrenaline. Even those trailing behind picked up the pace. Princess could taste the finish. They all could. 

Out of nowhere the Davis girl took the lead. Princess tried to catch her, and was stunned when she couldn’t. It wasn’t her lungs that stopped her; those well-worked machines never failed. It was the screaming tightness deep inside her lower legs that had been tormenting her during track workouts and long runs. And just like that, the demons were back.

She fought to keep contact, her eyes glued to the black Davis jersey, all other sights and sounds fading into an insignificant blur. The twins came up on her right shoulder and then one of them stepped ahead and boxed her in with the deliberation of a well-laid plan. Princess let her elbow find its way to the girl’s ribs, and stutter-stepped to avoid tripping—a waste of energy—but she broke free. 

With two hundred meters to go, she was ahead of the twins but still three steps behind the Davis girl. She got up on her toes and drove her elbows back hard. She pushed off the memory that surged, of the day six years ago when she had followed her mother into town, hoping against what she knew for a way to escape. The crowd roared her name, but all she heard was the hoarse gasp of her breath, the sound of impending defeat. Her steps were heavy and leaden now, every movement forced. The soles of her feet burned inside her spikes. Her legs throbbed, too full of the blood pumping there. She thought about slowing down. Giving up.

Then she saw Maryelle—the memory that had come to her rescue every race for the past six years since she left the Philippines. Her sweat-drenched back. Her muscled arms and legs pumping powerfully. Her every step certain and determined. Takbo tayo! she heard Maryelle’s voice refusing to let her go. She pressed on, summoning the chase that had set her free, but this time she couldn’t catch Maryelle. The twins were behind her—too close—but she barely registered them now. She was running for her life, but this time it was she who was left behind. Her vision tunneled and spotted as she watched the Davis girl cross the finish line ahead of her. 

Princess leaned into the finish and collapsed on the track. She sucked in sobs of air and pushed down the need to vomit. Her legs were choked by invisible fists and her lungs burned with track hack. When she looked up at the scoreboard she swallowed tears. She’d gotten fourth place, behind the Davis girl and the twins. Three seconds slower than her last race.

“What a drama queen,” someone said from the sidelines. “Is that why they call her Princess?”

“Quiet,” one of the Stanford twins said under labored breath. “I heard she has compartment syndrome.”

“Thanks for pushing me,” the Davis girl extended a hand and pulled Princes to her feet.

“Great race,” Princess managed. She took a step forward and winced.

“So it’s true,” the girl said, frowning down at Princess’s legs. “My mom had compartment syndrome when she was in college. It ended her running career.” Then she looked up and shook her head. “I’m so sorry. What a terrible thing to say. I’m sure yours will be different. Good luck at Nationals.”

Princess hobbled over to the bleachers, where the Cal tent was shielding her teammates from a rare scorching day. 

“I couldn’t do it,” she said to her roommate Julia. She tasted blood and coughed raggedly. 

“It was a tough race,” Julia said carefully, and then glanced down at Princess’s legs. “Really hurting, huh?”

Princess unlaced her spikes and put on her running shoes. “Cool down with me?”

“Of course.” Julia jumped up before Princess remembered that she had already run over ten miles that day, including two races of her own. 

“It’s getting worse,” Princess said as they slogged through downtown Berkeley. No one seeing the long-legged Filipina limping through ten-minute miles would have guessed that she was among the fastest collegiate runners in the nation. 

“So get the surgery,” Julia said, casting a sidelong glance at Princess’s compromised stride. “One of my high school teammates got it and now she’s fine.”

“A fasciotomy would only help the exterior compartments,” Princess said, shaking her head. “That’s not my problem.”

“Sometimes I think you should be the one going to med school,” Julia laughed. 

Princess had been studying Julia’s anatomy textbook all semester, trying to pinpoint the exact reason for the excruciating pressure in the core of her lower leg. She had self-diagnosed her injury long before an MRI and pressure test confirmed it. She would’ve liked being a doctor, she thought, but medical school was a dream she’d never be able to afford. A nursing degree was cheaper and quicker; the sooner she got a regular paycheck, the sooner her mother could stop working overtime at the dry cleaner’s. It had been years since they’d had any help from back home.

“Dr. Keeler says the success rate isn’t good for posterior compartment syndrome. He said I should take up swimming.”

“Spoken like a non-runner,” Julia scoffed. “If it were me I’d get the surgery anyway.”

It was a topic they’d discussed exhaustively, and so Princess said nothing. In a month her college career would end, along with her health insurance through the university. If she got the surgery now Cal would pay for it, but she’d miss running at Pac-12’s and Nationals. She’d seen three doctors over the past three months. All of them told her the same thing: if she stopped running, her pain would go away; eventually she might even be able to run again. If she kept competing but didn’t get the surgery, which involved cutting slits in the muscle’s sheath—a surgery none of them recommended—she could lose her legs. 

They returned to the stadium just as the announcer jubilantly declared the Davis girl’s time a new meet record. Princess forced as smile and silently reminded herself that this race didn’t matter. She had already qualified for Nationals. She had worked hard for four years, logging seventy-mile weeks and adopting a dogged discipline particular to her sport—no drinking, no staying up late, no eating the junk most of her classmates lived off of—and she’d had more success than she deserved. She told herself that she should feel grateful.

But the panic that had gripped her during the last lap of the race returned now, and she felt the slow wash of unshed tears even as she refused to let them fall. Running had never just been about winning. That was only something that came later, when she realized that she could. When she was a little girl, it had been the one time when she could pretend that she was not destined for a life of shame and poverty. When she was a teenager running beside Maryelle, running made her believe for the first time that the future was wide open before her. After Princess and her mother immigrated to the U.S., when Princess was lonely and guilt-ridden, running became the escape she and Maryelle had always dreamed of. Princess never felt so free as when she ran, when she could prove with every step that she was strong and resilient and in control of her life. To lose the ability to run was to lose the very thing that had helped her survive all that she’d left behind—who she’d left behind.  

And yet Princess already knew she wouldn’t get the surgery. She believed the doctors who told her that it wouldn’t help her, but she also had a deeper reason for not getting it: she hadn’t paid penance for abandoning Maryelle. Princess couldn’t escape the fear that while she was living the life she and Maryelle had dreamed of, she had left her friend in a nightmare. Perhaps this injury was life’s way of shifting the scales back into balance.