This post is also available in: Română
I haven’t slept at all. I can still remember the music blasting from the streets, the loud voices and footsteps of those returning late at night, mom’s deep breathing. My mind working at full speed. Invading thoughts of a race that hasn’t yet started. Hundreds of scenarios, endings, and events that might never happen. But somehow, I was at peace. I was ready to conquer the highest mountain, over and over again. Without fear. Just me and the mountain. The finish line. The Romanian flag tight in my hands. The medal shining bright in the sun. Tears of happiness. My mom. The overpriced, international call to my dad. Everyone who supported me throughout the journey. Happy moments. Those were the things I was dreaming of.
I felt as if my body was plugged in. Until it wasn’t. The race scenarios were gone, and in their place came total darkness. Sleep. I didn’t think I’d manage to close an eye, but at five-twenty, the alarm wakes me up. Twenty-five minutes to get ready. It’s still dark. You drink a glass of water and an over-roasted, unsweetened cup of coffee. You barely have time to chat with your dad before you realize you’re already at the airport. You check your luggage and get your ticket: Bucharest – Barcelona, gate 26, seat 18C. You’re alone, free to enjoy a good playlist and Kilian Jornet’s words from “Run or Die.” You can dream. You can do whatever you like. Until your phone rings – “I’ll come with the afternoon flight.” Something about leaving your mom behind due to unexpected circumstances unsettles you. The idea of not having her there with you, enjoying the trip together, and talking about the race drives you mad. But you don’t say anything. If there’s nothing you can do about it’s better to just let things fix themselves. And in the end, they do. The Romanian team is complete and ready to take off.
Local time – 1:47 P.M. Just one-hour difference. Back home, your lunch and the two muffins Lori baked for you would have been already digested, but here, you just finished eating. Your stomach doesn’t even realize that all the food is gone. And the fact that you’ve been sitting on the bus for the last two hours doesn’t help much either. But that’s the charm of it, right? Why be selfish and not let the chocolate muffins enjoy the beauty of Spain too? Why not let run free? Run from reality and the dullness of “home.” That’s exactly what I’m doing. Running away, escaping to a new country, taking a new citizenship for a couple of days. I’m on the 14th. Is it little, is it much? It doesn’t really matter. I won’t stop here. Nor there. I’ll keep running until there’ll be a prize on my head and no other place to go. Until then, I’m free to go. Run from everything and anything that holds me back. Run from reality. And the direction? Anywhere.
“Hola Andorra! Com va?” A feeling of nostalgia is running through my veins. I see the narrow streets of Bormio, the beauty of Gagliano, and the hotel rooms at Vedig. Five minutes to eat and then off we go. The racecourse is waiting for us. The cable car, however, isn’t. How much can you see in forty-five minutes? How much can happen? You can bump into a Norwegian guy who seems to be familiar with the course, lose a member of the team who went trailing off, and chat for a few minutes with two of the senior women of the U.S team. That’s enough for the day. The trip was tiring and you need to recharge your batteries for Sunday’s race.
There’s something about the opening ceremonies of mountain running championships. Something about the way all teams are gathered together, reminding you of a big salad mix. Banners waving in the wind, pictures every other second, conversations with friends you only see twice a year, and with whom you get to test your second language skills. Your Italian might be a bit rusty at the edges, but you haven’t forgotten it yet. No need to stress about English. A picture here, a greeting there, and off you go again. You’re the standard-bearer. It’s probably the thousand’ time but there’s no way you’ll let anyone else do it. At the Olympics, the flag is carried by the most valuable athlete on the team, however here you assign this job to yourself. It’s a magical moment that seems to last just two seconds. In a blink of an eye, it is all gone. There’s so much thrill and excitement, you can’t seem to control your body anymore. All you can think about is the race, the competitors, and the mountain. You need to breathe. You need to relax. Tomorrow is the big day. It’s the day when all the hard work will make sense. All you have to do is run as if your life depends on it. On four legs and almost unconscious. But only barely. There are still a few things you need to enjoy at the end – the fact that it’s over, to be more precise.
Bib number – 137. Birthday – July 13th, 2000. There’s no such thing as coincidence. I strongly believe that if something is meant to be, it will be. However, you need to fight for what you want. The course of events is already decided, you just need to grab the bull by the horns and be ready to give all you have to make your dreams come true.
I wake up in a puddle of sweat. My hands are shaking. It’s pitch-black outside, but the mountains are waiting. Waiting to laugh at us, to take away even our last drop of energy. I put on gloves, two pairs of pants, a long sleeve, and two jackets, but it’s not enough. My hands are still cold, and I can’t seem to stop shaking. A few minutes on the cable car and then a few more on the chair lift, and we get to the starting point. There’s more than an hour left, so we walk into the bar. The race has not started yet, but my thoughts are racing. Have I done everything? What if the cold I caught last week took away all my fitness? What if I’m not good enough? What if, what if, what if? Block the noise. Rewrite the history. It’s your story, you decide the ending. More teams are coming in – Uganda is here and so are the United States and Italy. A few seconds before walking out of the bar you feel a hand on your shoulder. Paul Kirsch and the other U.S coach wish you luck. Whether they realize it or not, that is exactly what you needed. The feeling of belonging, of being part of something bigger than yourself. You proved yourself so many times before, you can do it again.
In a blink of an eye, the whole hour for warm-up is gone. Time was passing us by like a high-speed train, waiting for no one and nobody. I barely had a chance to get used to the cold, and knowing myself I’ll probably have to keep the gloves on. I can run with them on until I warm up just enough and then I’ll throw them away. It’s no loss. One last chance to hug your mom. You’ll see her again on the course, and then again at the finish line. The nerves are catching up to me and I want to cry. Maybe I do, but I can’t say for sure. Everything is a blur. I think about all the work I put in to get here – hundreds and hundreds of kilometers, days when even the slightest movement made me ache, the tears that paved my road to Andorra. I think about the nights I’ve refused to dream about this day, afraid I’ll spoil everything. The people that helped me get here, who stayed by my side when times were rough and there seemed to be no hope left. The lost ones who now watch me from above, cheering me on and soothing my dreams. I sometimes run with them in mind, hoping one day I’ll make them proud.
Quick breaths, anxious faces, watches ready. “15 seconds!” Breathe! Relax! You can do this! “5 seconds!” Breathe in, breathe out! I’m still not sure if I ever heard the gun. I’ve been on pins and needles the whole time and with all the adrenalin going on it felt as if we all went off with still two seconds to go. But the race is long, so I should try and relax. I need to start taking it all in, I need to start thinking. Look ahead and analyze your next move. One, two, three … eleven. Eleven girls are ahead of me! Whether I was right or not didn’t really matter, I had to get moving. I had to drive my arms and push my feet off the ground, but also save as much energy as I could. The real race will begin later, towards the end of the course, where the hills become steeper and the air thinner.
Ale, Ale!!!” I hear my mom screaming from the top of her lungs. “Alexia you can medal! You need to pass these two girls!” How? How am I supposed to do that? There’s a madness of a mountain ahead of me and I can hardly feel my legs anymore. The last kilometer. You’re already passed the Ugandan girl so there’s only the French left. She’s far ahead. Too far. I feel like no matter how hard I try I can’t get closer to her. And now my stomach hurts too. I can barely breathe. Last 100 meters. If I don’t start pushing now it’s over. I have to pass her. I have to finish in the top six. I have to! If I don’t at least try I’ll regret it. I start driving my arms like a lunatic, my legs having a mind of their own. I get ahead of her but don’t slow down. “The race is over only after you cross the finish line.”
My dad’s words loud and clear in my head. History cannot repeat itself. Cross the finish line and then you can relax. But only after. I try and imagine Lauren Gregory is behind me. We’re back to the 2017 World Championships. I have to get going. I have to be faster. I feel so sick I can hardly see or hear anything. And somehow, it’s over. I finished the race. Back of safe ground and still standing. Why is the ground getting closer? In a few seconds, I’m down. It’s finally over. Without knowing why I start crying. Happy tears. Once again, I finished in the top six in the world. I spend some time lying there, crying, and while I do that the other girls slowly arrive. We do have a chance to medal! Please, please, please! Not 4th place again, not the wooden medal. I try and get up, trying to see what is going on. I congratulate Angela Mattevi and Alessia Scaini, hug my mom, the girls, Gaia Colli. Everything around me is spinning, images altered by tears, and fatigue. I spend a few minutes talking to Lisa Oed, Barbora Havlickova and take some pictures with Matt Mackay. I remember chatting with the Italian junior guys too. But the rest is a blur, forever a mystery.
How can you put into words the way you feel when hundreds of people applaud your result? How can you convey in a single phrase the joy, pride, and gratitude towards everyone who watches, acknowledges, and acclaims your work? How do you say thank you without using words? How do you let your team know you’re proud of them, of the job they’ve done, the job you’ve done? How do you thank the guys and coaches for putting on a show and cheering you on without shame, while you stand there, on the world podium? Tell me how? The only thing you can do is enjoy the moment, for as long as you can. Enjoy the pureness of it and let whatever you feel surround you like a big cocoon. Because those moments only last a second. You need to grab them tight and hold them in your heart for as long as you can. You need to feel. You need to cry. You need to let them ravish your world and senses. Until next time. Until you’ll rewrite the story. Until then, goodbye Andorra. And thank you!