The Perennial Eighth

by Steven A. Yockim


Nearing the finish of the track meet, the sun retreated to a less harsh position in the sky, reducing the exhausting heat to a more manageable 72 degrees. Still, the air hung heavy in the stadium. The stifling heat earlier in the day subsided as the girls headed to the start line for the day's last event, the 4x400 meter relay. It was difficult to imagine a group of young ladies as unusual as this assembled crew competing for Richland High.


Barbara, the senior of the team, competed in the hurdles. Having experience out of the starting blocks and the stamina demanded by the 300M hurdles, she was perhaps the most equipped to run the 400-meter leg of the race.


The only junior on the High School team, Katherine, ran the long distances of the mile and two mile. Although her stamina guaranteed she could run the 400-meters, her speed was questionable. Evolving into a lengthy sprint, the 400M was suited more for the quickness of the sprinter than the stamina of the distance runner.


Madelyn, a sophomore, perhaps the best overall athlete of the group, was used to running more comfortably the 30-meters required for her approach to the long jump.


Rounding out this odd collection of athletes, the freshman Annette, a true sprinter and the fastest girl in the lineup, won the 400M earlier in the meet. As luck would have it, a large blister had torn open on the sole of her left foot in that race. It was questionable whether she could even run.


A more diverse team of runners had never been gathered by the Richland High coaching staff. Yet, it was all they had, and it had to do.


Finishing 8th, just out of 6th place in the 300M hurdles with a time of 48.12, Barbara contemplated her track career. Competing consistently for 4 years, yet unable to crack the top 6, she anticipated her last chance for a state medal.


Katherine, completing the mile in a personal best time of 5:24.17 also finished 8th.


Madelyn leaping 15ft 8in for a new team record in the long jump, settled for 8th in that event.


And Annette, finishing 8th in the open 400M, due to her blistered foot, rounded out the disappointing days results.


Commenting on the group about their 8th place finishes, a parent's nickname, the 'Perennial Eighth' attached itself to the relay team.


Taking 6th in the second qualifying heat the day earlier, the team fortunately entered the finals in the last and 10th place position.


Kneeling in the starting blocks, Madelyn focused her attention and waited for the sound of the starters gun. The crash of the explosion careened throughout the arena. Madelyn burst from the blocks, determined to compete. Rounding the first turn in last place, she proceeded to gain on the field. Down the back straightaway she pulled within a couple of strides of overtaking the 9th place runner. Losing a little momentum on the turn, Madelyn maintained her position into the front straightaway. Approaching the finish line, her quickness from running the 30-meter long jump approach propelled her ahead of the runner and into 9th position as she handed off the baton to Katherine. Madelyn ran her leg of the relay almost 2 seconds faster than ever before.


Katherine, taking the baton and turning into the curve, set her mind to the strenuous task ahead. Rounding the corner, she could hear, and feel, the runner right behind her. Racing through the 2nd 100-meters, Katherine glimpsed the runner coming up on her right side as they neared the far turn. Fighting for control of the corner, she barely kept ahead and forced the runner outside to run the longer path around the arc. On the final straightaway, Katherine's competitor was a stride behind at the 50, and closing fast. Not used to the toll that a 400-meter sprint placed on the body, the young distance runner, exhausted, somehow found the strength to fend her off as she collapsed across the line. The team maintained their 9th position as Katherine ran the fastest 400-meters of her life.


Waiting at the starting line, Barbara composed herself for the final race of her career. Easily accepting the baton from Katherine, she flew into the turn, baton firmly in hand. Barbara used her quickness in 100-meter hurdles to move the team into 8th. But the fast start enacted too great a toll on her body and she began to fade down the straightaway. Barbara dropped a position as she slipped back into 9th place. Coming out of the far corner, a stride behind the girl in 8th, Barbara found her second wind. Exploiting her 100-meter hurdle speed, she easily dominated the straightaway and blew past her opponent, crossing the finish line and handing Annette the baton with a sizable lead over the 9th place team. Barbara ran her remarkable finish in a blazing 12 seconds.


Limping to the start line to accept the baton from Barbara, Annette tried to ignore the pain and focus on the race. With adrenaline increasingly pumping throughout her veins, the agony began to subside, and she placed her sights on the runner ahead of her. Annette could not hear but knew that comments of the 'Perennial Eighth' were flowing through the spectators. Concentrating on making up ground, she began to close the 60-meter gap to the next competitor. No one had the foresight to time her first 100 meters, but Madelyn closed the gap and passed into 7th place by the middle of the back straightaway. Elated at her accomplishment, and buoyed by the exuberance of the fans, the throbbing in her foot eased momentarily into the background. Now rounding the far turn, Annette saw the whirling feet of the next runner, 40-meters in the distance, beginning to fade. Sensing opportunity, she discovered a strength within, previously unknown, and began to run down the competitor. Entering the final 100, Annette trailed by 20-meters. Foot raw, lungs bursting, she painstakingly gained ground. Making up 10-meters by midway, the excruciating agony in her body became the opponent to overcome. Blacking out the noise of the crowd, Annette felt only the unbearable pain in her foot and the sharp stabs in her chest as she crossed the finish line, collapsing to the ground.


Rushing to her side and helping her up, the expressions of joy on her teammates faces told the story. Annette's phenomenal run moved the team into 6th place with a time of 4:13.29. Madelyn, Katherine, Barbara and Annette won their medal.


© 2018 Steven A. Yockim