Denny's tired from running her race. But the relay team needs her.

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“Go, Denny, go!” my teammates chanted.

I ignored them. I had just entered the backstretch. Two runners were ahead of me, but I was gaining.

"Go, go, go!" they shouted, but I had nothing left.The cheering from the bleachers grew louder as we reached the final turn. I found myself in the lead. I knew better than to look back at the runners behind me. That would slow me down. Besides, I could hear them breathing. I launched into my kick.

The kick is a burst of speed that every middle-distance runner saves for the end of the race. It’s a final sprint to the finish line. I pumped my arms harder as I pounded down the straightaway. It made my legs go faster. I don’t know what strange connection in the body makes that work, but it does. I threw my chest forward into the string. It dropped across my body. I thudded to a stop.

I was breathing hard, but at least I was still on my feet. The girl who finished second had fallen down as she crossed the finish line. I walked around her.

“You made it in sixty-eight seconds,” Coach Setlich told me. “That’s good enough for third place overall. Nice job, Denise.”

I smiled and nodded, since I didn’t have enough breath to answer. There had been four sections of the four-hundred-meter run, so it was a big deal to place third overall.

To an Olympian, the four-hundred-meter race is a sprint. For a sixth-grader like me, it qualified as a middle-distance run. I walked slowly around the infield so my muscles wouldn’t tighten up.

A few minutes later, Coach Setlich found me resting on the high-jump mats. She looked worried. “Denise, I need you to run the relay. Tracy pulled a muscle in the long jump.”

I pushed up onto my elbows. “I’m not a sprinter.”

“Not the sprint relay. The medley. I want you to run the anchor leg.”

I looked at her with horror. “You want me to run four hundred meters again?” I squeaked.

She nodded. “We have a shot at second or third in the team standings if your relay does well.”

The coach’s eyes glowed. Second place may not sound exciting, but we had been near the bottom of the standings all season. Now, in the league championships, we were definitely showing improvement.

I struggled to my feet. “Couldn’t I run the two-hundred-meter leg instead?”

Coach shook her head. “The other girls on your relay team are sprinters,” she said. “They don’t understand the pacing for the longer distance.”

I followed Coach Setlich to the edge of the track. Amanda and Cindy would each run one hundred meters—halfway around the track. Then Megan would run one lap, and I would run the anchor leg—two full laps around the track.

Amanda, our leadoff runner, gave me a sour smile. She didn’t look very confident.

I didn’t recognize the girls who would run anchor for the other teams. They all probably had fresh legs. I growled at Tracy, wherever she was.

Coach yelled, “Run hard, girls. Do your best.”

I was pretty sure my best wouldn’t be enough.

Amanda exploded out of the blocks as the race began. Half a lap later, she passed the baton to Cindy. Cindy built on Amanda’s lead, then Megan stretched our advantage to six meters.

I gulped nervously as I began trotting forward so Megan and I could match speeds. Megan slapped the baton into my palm and roared, “Go, go, go!”

I went. My legs felt like jelly. I hated not knowing how close the other runners were. But I kept the lead for the first lap.

I could hear Cindy at the side of the track. “Go, Denny, go!”

Amanda waited on the backstretch and cheered for me, too. My Lincoln Middle School buddies waited at the final turn and screamed encouragement. No one had passed me yet. I reached the turn. It was time to launch into my kick.

It wasn’t there.

I pumped my arms harder, but the old arm-leg connection was out of order. My breath came in gasps. One runner passed me. I could have been standing still. A second runner came by. I was so tired that the gentle breeze of her passing was enough to knock me to the track.

I pushed off my hands like a supremely uncoordinated sprinter, staggered a few steps, and pitched headfirst across the finish line. I listened to the other runners finish the race standing up. They were probably smirking about the lead I had blown.

Cindy, Amanda, Megan, and my other teammates pulled me to my feet. To my surprise, they were congratulating me.

I heard Coach Setlich say, “Usually when people go down, they don’t get up again. Good job, Denise.”

Our relay team had finished third. Winning isn’t everything. Three’s a charm.