Running Into Fear

By Marybeth Fair

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Transcript: There are a lot of terrifying things on this earth. Tornados, volcanic eruptions, fires, floods, freak accidents, shark attacks, spiders, stock market crashes, Kanye 2020­--the list of my fears stretches on for days. But there was something that, in 2011, towered above all else, the Mount Everest of fears, so frightening most dare not even speak of it. The worst fear of all is… being a freshman in high school.

For those unaware, the term "freshman" is roughly translated as "first year student," or, "object of an entire school's aggression for the whole year." Upperclassmen shove you in lockers! They steal your lunch money! You'll drown in the secret swimming pool! You'll definitely get lost, and no one will help you! Teachers eat failing students for lunch and the football team uses freshmen for punting practice. Being a freshman is like being the protagonist of your own horror movie.

A long, long time ago, in the year two thousand eleven, I was a freshman in high school. Very aware of the danger of my situation, arriving at campus early for cross country preseason required mustering quite a bit of courage. The terror of being a freshman was compounded with my fear of running cross country. Wait­--pause. Go back and add my coach assigning a hill workout to that list of terrifying things.

Despite my fears, I showed up at practice, pulling up to the cinderblock behemoth that is Shawnee High School. Timidly stepping out of my mother's minivan, I saw a couple other freshmen I knew, but mostly the team was a sea of unfamiliar faces, high ponytails and muddy sneakers I didn't recognize.

At one practice that week, my coach gave us a particularly gruesome workout, thousand-­meter repeats around the perimeter of campus. The sun beat down on the earth, baking the dirt until it cracked. Bone-­dry pine needles crunched under our sneakers, releasing that particular smell of heated pine that I will forever associate with cross country. Sweat poured in rivers down my back, and my tee was quickly soaked through. It kinda sucked. It was cross country, though, and this didn't matter­ we still had to give the workout our all. One repeat, I was coming towards the end, and somehow felt alright. I was in the zone. Instead of fighting this mental breakdown, I went with it, and accelerated, quickly approaching one of the upperclassmen. Her name was Aurora, a junior, who wore scrunchies shaped like giraffes and brightly colored shorts, and she always had a smile on her face. You know, one of those absolutely terrifying upperclassmen. But I gained some ground anyway and thought I'm going to sprint this out. I can do this! My pace morphed into a sprint as I approached the finish line, taking long stride after stride, stride, stride, stride, stride. Aurora tried to stick with me, but I got ahead in the last few paces, and my foot crossed the finish line first.

Oh shit, I thought. I'm going to get murdered in the locker room. They'll hang my sneakers from the ceiling as a warning so other freshmen know their place. I had never actually heard of this happening, but figured there was a first time for everything. My life passed before my eyes as I said my final prayers.

Panting, I slowly drifted away from the line, trying to put some distance between me and my executioner. I only made it ten feet before Aurora jogged after me. "Marybeth, hold on!" she shouted.

Yep. This is the part where she kills me. Really, it's my fault. How stupid can you be to pass an upperclassman? On a workout, too? Come ON, Marybeth!

Blood pounded in my forehead as I looked up at her. My hands started shaking, so I put them behind my back. Upperclassmen can smell fear. They're like sharks that way. I carefully arranged my face into a totally casual cringe. Aurora stopped in front of me. "I just wanted to thank you."


I shook my head to clear my ears. This was not the time for wishful thinking! I needed to focus, calm her down, convince her I wasn't worth the murder charge.

"Um, what?"

"Thanks. You really pushed me at the end there."

My eyes were the size of Montana. "I thought you were going to kill me!"

Aurora laughed. "What? No! You definitely made me finish faster. That's why we run as a team­--- to make each other better."

I smiled as she jogged off, looking around at my team, and then at myself, at my high ponytail and my muddy sneakers. Maybe these girls weren't so bad. Maybe I would survive the first day of school. Maybe, just maybe, once upon a time they were freshmen, too.

Remember that list of terrifying things? Cross being a freshman off.