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asante to my best friend, i made it cuz of you.
The sweltering sun beat down on me as I inched my way forward, breathing in and out, in and out, as if I had just suffered an asthma attack. I felt like I had been shoved into an oven and left to overcook. All I yearned for was a simple sip of ice-cold water to awaken my parched mouth and motivate me to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I needed a reason to want to catch up with the other runners.
I was an alternate, a second choice. I was like an understudy, praying for one of the official Kili climbers to break a leg, an arm, even a toe, so that I could replace them and get my moment to shine. I used to fantasize about one of the climbers tumbling down a flight of stairs and Mr. Foss declaring that, out of the four substitutes who still trained with the group, I was the one who had been selected to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro, the pinnacle of Africa.
But, there was no such luck. Every Friday afternoon, misery overcame me as I trudged to Kili training, greeted by the enthused faces of the official climbers. My own exercising during the week had long since frozen and I only attended the Kili sessions in hopes that I would appear committed and have a better chance of being selected the following year.
I arrived at Kili training on this particular Friday, seemingly prepared for whatever obstacles the activity leaders were going to challenge us with.
“We're going for a 5k run,” Mr. Foss announced, reducing me from misery to absolute fear. I looked up at the bright sky, praying that I had misheard Mr. Foss, but the blazing sun just smiled back at me and sprinkled beads of sweat onto my forehead.
You can do this, no problem. I gave myself a pep talk as a herd of students sprinted past me, effortlessly making their way to the school gates. I tried to follow the crowd as they hurried through the inside roads of Masaki. Random locals stared all of us down like bullies, grading how fast we ran, judging who was slow and openly ridiculing the ones that lagged behind.
Piles of sweat trickled down my face like an overflowing waterfall. My heart was hammering like the beat of a drum, getting faster and faster with each forward step. As I ran at my own pace, I noticed sneakers slapping at my sides, then another pair hitting the ground hard in front of me. I tried to keep up but, instead, my pace decelerated as I huffed and puffed, struggling to put one foot in front of the other. The horizon of runners grew further and further away from me. I was a tortoise, all the other hares having sped past long ago.
Dewy drops formed at my eyelids but the tears just wouldn't flow. A tired sigh escaped me and I began to walk, shame permeating through every millimetre of my body. Just when I felt as if I had been tossed into the Arctic waters and left to freeze, a hand locked itself into my palm.
“C'mon Serena, I know you can do this,” Anna said, restoring my faith in myself as she jogged next to me.
“I'm going to slow you down, just keep going,” I managed to say, slowly picking up my pace.
“So what?” She pointed ahead. “Look, let's get to that orange building, I know we can.”
As we reached our first short goal, I felt better on the inside but my body still felt like a faulty battery. Suddenly, a chill overcame me. In this scorching heat, I felt goosebumps rise to the surface of my caramel skin. I knew something was wrong. I had never had this feeling before.
“I feel cold,” I sputtered, trying my best to keep going.
“We're nearly there. Let's go slow and we can get to those blue flowers over there.”
Two more streets to go, I willed myself. Let's get to the big oak tree. We can jog to the sunflowers. The purple gate isn't far. It didn't matter that I was the slowest runner in the group. She still ran by my side even if it made her look bad and even if it meant sacrificing her own fitness session.
As we passed inviting houses and luxury apartment blocks, the chilly feeling that had previously conquered me slipped away. On the last street, I could make out the group of runners relaxing under a shady tree, waiting for our return. They looked so close yet felt so far away.
When Anna and I finally reached the shady tree, it was as if half a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The other half still burdened me through embarrassment. I was the last one to complete a simple 5k run.
“Good job,” Anna smiled. She wasn't just there to listen to my secrets and laugh at my jokes but she was the best friend that pushed me beyond my limits. The next day, the treadmill became part of my family and weeks later, I repeated the 5k run. Rachel was struggling so I jogged by her side until we reached that shady tree together. I may not have been the cheetah but I was no longer the tortoise.