Worth The Effort

The finish line was in sight and none too soon.

Alison felt as though she had sprinted the entire three mile race. Heck, by her usual standards, she pretty much had. She was used to long distance running – really long distance running, but marathons were kind of hard to incorporate into high school sports. Cross country was as close as she could get.

Her legs and lungs burned as she struggled to keep up with the four fastest girls on her team. They were all upperclassmen, and were so closely matched that it was always up in the air which one of them would take first place. Alison doubted that she had any chance of coming in first this time. She wasn't used to running like this yet. Even after a month of training for shorter races, her stamina still hadn't been adjusted to the point where she could put everything she had into running three miles instead of twenty-six and get the results she wanted.

Alison felt like she was going to collapse as she hit the home stretch, several yards behind her teammates. That was several yards too many. Gritting her teeth, she forced her feet to pump faster. She might not be able to pass the older girls, but she had to at least keep up with them. Aiming Academy hadn't given her a scholarship so she could slack off! They wanted wins, state titles, and record setting times. In return for putting everything she had into every cross country race, Alison got a free ride at the nation's best high school for athletes. Her training, tuition, room, and board were all covered and Aiming put more emphasis on athletics than academics. She was only one week into her classes and could already tell most of them would be a breeze. Aiming Academy was an Olympic hopeful's dream come true. It practically paved her way to the summer games. The drive to get there, however, had to come from the athletes, and to Alison nothing was more important.

Steadily she closed the gap between her and the fourth place runner – a junior named Lynne. Over the constant thump of their cross training shoes against the path that made up their competitors' course, Alison could hear her teammate's breathing, as rugged as the path they treaded. She couldn't help but feel both envy and disgust – disgust at Lynne's lack of discipline when controlling her breathing, but envy that her teammate could still manage to run so fast even after breaking her rhythm. She locked her jaw with determination and concentrated on maneuvering around the other girl while diverting from her course by as little as possible.

Alison's vision blurred as sweat ran off her brow and into her eyes making them tear up. Wiping them away would have taken energy she didn't have as well as ruined her aerodynamic efficiency. The finish line swam closer, as did Alison's three other team mates.

Her throat hurt – the latest thing on a long list of aches and pains. Alison swore that if she ever finished a race and wasn't sore her initial impression would be that she was dead.

One, two. One, two. One, two, one, two. Alison sped up her counting in her mind. Onetwo, onetwo, onetwo.

Tina and Marie both quickened their paces as well, far beyond what Alison could match, but Lucille's speed did not increase as much. The end of the race was coming up on them fast. It would all be over soon. The thuds of their shoes beating the ground were drowned out by the shouts of their coaches and various bystanders. Alison tried to block them out and focus only on her goal and her own counting.

Onetwo, onetwo, onetwo.

Tina streaked past the finish line, Marie right behind her. Then Lucille crossed the line and Alison followed at her heels. Lucille kept going for almost a dozen yards before she stumbled to a stop, which was good – Alison, behind her, couldn't have stopped short if she'd wanted to.

Over. It was over.

Thank God.

Alison's legs gave out and she dropped to her knees.

"Hey. That's not healthy," Lynne told her. She stopped beside Alison and put a hand on her shoulder, more to brace herself than offer comfort or support to her teammate. "You . . . gotta stand. And keep walking." Lynne didn't look so good either. Her face was red and strands of hair were plastered to her face with sweat.

Alison nodded and forced herself back to her feet. "Yeah," she managed to get out between deep breaths. "I know."

Lynne put a hand on her arm to steady her as she stood, then they both made their shaky way to the water table. Tina and Lucille were already there, both looking as exhausted as Alison felt. Marie stood off to one side looking sick. Alison picked up one of the pre-filled cups of water and drained it in one gulp. It felt good against her aching throat.

She was about to go to her gym bag to get her towel and her bottle of Gator-aide, when she noticed that Marie still hadn't come any closer to the water table.

"Marie? Water?" she asked, still breathless.

Marie's eyes widened and she shook her head, backing away. Alison stared at her confused.

"Uh oh. Stay back," Lynne warned her. She grabbed Alison by the elbow and started pulling her away from Marie.

"What?" Alison asked, confused. A moment later she found out what.

Marie dropped to her hands and knees and Alison would have started toward the older girl in alarm, had Lynne not been restraining her. Marie made a choking noise in the back of her throat, coughed twice, then emptied her stomach of what little had been in it before the race.

"God," Lynne groaned, covering her own nose and mouth and looking pointedly in another direction.

Nausea swamped Alison, and she allowed Lynne to pull her further away. Her own stomach felt as though it was about to rebel. Alison closed her eyes and nearly staggered into Anna Haskins, the cross country coach, and Armstrong, Aiming's athletic director who never missed a sporting event if he could help it.

"Easy there," said Armstrong, patting Alison's shoulder as he passed.

"Suck it up and get back on your feet, Marie," Haskins ordered, ignoring the other girls. "You can't justify being sick – you didn't run hard enough. Last year your time on this course was a full ten seconds faster. What have you been doing over the summer?"

"Anna." Armstrong didn't raise his voice or put any authoritative inflections into it, but somehow his intent was obvious. Haskins shut up. "Good race, girls. Not a bad start to the season. You all right, Marie?"

Marie wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and stood up. "Yeah. Thanks, Armstrong."

"Atta girl. Get something to drink and go walk it off." Armstrong turned and started toward the finish line, where several other Aiming runners were coming into view. He seemed to forget that Alison was standing where she was and nearly barreled into her. "Oops. Sorry. Alison, isn't it?"

"Yes, sir," Alison responded.

"No need to stand on formality with me, child," Armstrong told her. "Excellent first race."

Alison nodded. "Thanks."

Armstrong gave her a warm smile before walking off.

Tina, Lucille, Lynne, and Alison continued walking to cool down, and after several seconds, Marie joined them. The rest of their team was on the home stretch and the first of their competitors had finally come into sight. Alison could tell that Haskins was upset that one of the other team's girls was managing to give half their team a run for their money. It was kind of understandable though. Aiming's girl's cross country team consisted of ten athletes there on scholarship. Five girls for whom cross country was their primary sport, a girl who was carried over from the swim team, three girls from the track team, and Alison, a marathon runner. The carry overs were great athletes, but they weren't near the top of their primary sport's team and were "asked" to incorporate cross training into their primary sport's training to save Aiming some scholarships. Only the fastest five runners on each team counted in a race, after all. Aiming had six girls who averaged just over four minutes per mile on the team. The other four were there mainly for security.

Alison felt bad for them. Switching up training wasn't easy, but getting to the point where you were good enough to get into Aiming Academy was even harder. To get there and then be told you weren't good enough and were just going to be used as a stand in . . . well that would suck. Alison had a suspicion that that was what she had been intended to be. Apparently that was what the last marathon runner on the team had been. The switch between long distance and long distance running had been two difficult for her to make. Alison was glad that she was fairing better. She didn't want to be a stand in . . . but if it had been the only way for her to get into Aiming, she'd have accepted it. No, she'd have grabbed it with both hands and held on. Getting to the Olympics was worth any indignity. Pride was good, but not if it held her back.

"Oh God," Marie choked suddenly.

"Crap!" Lynne grabbed Alison and started pulling her away from the older girl again, but Alison was already moving on her own. She had a strong suspicion of what was coming.

Marie fell to her knees and started throwing up again. The spectators around them shrunk away. Most of them were the parents of their competitors, who weren't too happy about seeing their kids get beaten by athletes Aiming recruited from all over the country because they were the absolute best. Alison frowned, noticing one woman's disgusted sneer as she watched Marie vomiting. She broke out of Lynne's hold and stepped closer to Marie, careful not to get in front of her. When she reached her teammate, she stood behind her and smoothed back Marie's hair, keeping it out of her face, and gave the leering spectator a sullen look of defiance.

The woman took note and glared at Alison. "Why do you girls do it?" she asked, with obvious contempt.

"Do what?" Alison inquired.

"This," the woman said, waving a hand at Marie, who had finished retching.

Marie looked up, shamefaced. Alison put a hand on the older girl's shoulder.

"Push yourself so hard when you already have the win," the spectator elaborated. "It's disgusting."

"It's what we do," said Lynne. She moved to stand beside Alison.

"Is it really worth making yourselves sick over?" the woman demanded, her lower lip curling.

There was a short pause as Aiming's fastest five girls exchanged glances before answering in unison.

"Yes."

END

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Hey, thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed "Worth The Effort." If you did, you might also like my other stories about the students at Aiming Academy, "Aiming High," and "The Home Team." Alison isn't in either of them (or if she is, she's only mentioned in passing) but she is one of the Weaver House kids. I haven't had room to write about her in the other stories yet, since the amount of discipline it takes to run cross country puts a damper on her social life, but I wanted to introduce her since, at the point of the series I'm writing now, her sport's in season and she comes up again later in the series. Once again, thanks for reading, and Happy New Year's!

-H