An Odyssey Getting to the Starting Line

Brian Esparza (wearing blue and red), finishing a recent 1,500m race, details his experience traveling to Portland for a track meet.

Race day is undoubtedly my favorite day of the year, as I imagine it is for most runners.

The months of build-up after countless miles, finally wearing that outfit you set aside for races that make you feel light and speedy, and the endless support from friends and family as they wish you luck toward your goals.

And not to mention the searing burn you get in your lungs and legs as you exert every bit of effort towards a new personal best. It can get kind of sadistic at times! But there’s arguably one aspect of race day that may sometimes test a runner’s dedication more than the competition itself, and that’s the travel.

My odyssey to a track meet in Portland this April started when Allison, my fiancée, couldn’t come with me due to work. “No problem,” I thought, “I can make the trip alone.” I wasn’t comfortable driving to the meet on my own, however, after almost taking a nap behind the wheel during a trip back from a race in Oregon a year ago. So I ruled that out pretty quickly.

I settled on taking the Greyhound bus to and from the meet, which I had a ton of experience with in past trips between Seattle and Bellingham, but never further than that.

Now already, this trip was subject to be difficult. For starters, I didn’t want to book a stay in Portland since Easter was the very next day. And the only time available to make this a day trip was to leave at 10…

10PM on Friday, to be exact – the night before race day.

I packed my bag and set out for my trip. We arrived in Seattle at midnight but had a two-hour layover before the bus to Portland came. At the station, some unruly characters made the wait rather uncomfortable. Particularly one confrontation between passengers inside the bus, just moments before we were supposed to take off, would’ve left some people shaken. But I had just four hours to get any rest before arriving in Portland, so I had to try and shake it off and get some sleep.

Once in the city, at around 6AM, I made a short half-hour walk through what felt like a ghost town to a 24-hour sandwich place that served as my buffer until the meet started… three hours later. Until then, I gingerly ate my foot-long, watched tons of racing videos, and thought about my race plan. I’d exhausted most of that within the first hour.

At last, the hustle and bustle of university students and a nearby farmer’s market signaled that it was time to continue with my journey. Now, I didn’t want to fork over the money for a rideshare service, so I opted to take the metro buses available. Bad idea.

The actual ride itself wasn’t bad, but it was where it dropped me off that set up my next test in this long and grueling trip: on the side of a busy highway, with no sidewalk of any sort besides a thin strip fit of road protected by the painted white line between me and the cars. I walked down the narrow path for the next 20 minutes, stepping aside into a ditch every time a car came whizzing by until I finally found a safe zone… at the entryway of a forest park, where a half-hour hike awaited me.

The trek forced me up short but steep hills and cross unavoidable murky pathways for over half an hour. This was seemingly my breaking point, especially since hiking happens to be one of my least favorite outdoor activities. And after submerging my spiffy pair of white On running shoes into the mud, not once, not twice, but… several times, I just about wanted to give up. My calves were screaming at me. My shoulders were begging for relief from my backpack. My sweaty clothes stuck to me like a freshly-cooked noodle on a wall.

I was restless. I wanted to be done with this hike. I wanted to be done with the whole trip…

But something came over me toward the tail-end of this journey. After engulfing my shoes into a mud pool for the umpteenth time, I couldn’t help but just laugh. I had had such a laser-focused mindset going into this meet for over a month, that I didn’t stop to consider the most important part of it all. Have fun with this process.

Over the last two years, races had been extremely scarce, if not outright canceled, due to the pandemic. Some used the time as an opportunity to elevate their fitness to a new stratosphere, or get into the sport for the first time. Others simply couldn’t get back into the swing of things after shutdowns effectively ripped them from their old routines. But we all waited for the day we could finally toe the line for the very first time again.

Amidst a season where I wasn’t sure where or when I’d get to race, due to my lack of school or club affiliation restricting me from most meets, I knew I’d have to go to great lengths to get to compete in a time where I knew my fitness had never been better. And whether that meant taking weekend trips to Indiana for a small-town competition, or hiking through a forest off hardly any sleep, I knew that despite everything I would endure, I was going to get to do the one thing I loved most: racing my heart out against some fast people.

I wasn’t obligated to go out there that day. Nor do the dreadful little hike. Let alone taking several Greyhounds between cities. I did it all because I wanted to do it, and I wasn’t about to let a few mishaps take my attitude down from the thing I love most.

I finally arrived at the stadium shortly after and went on to run two personal bests: one in the 1500 meters and another in the 800 meters – the latter coming after a thunderstorm that delayed our meet for over an hour. To come that far, after everything I’d been through, both on that day, but in the last two years as well, and run back-to-back PRs? Makes the journey all worth it.

I finally made it home at around 4AM the next day, just in time for Easter Sunday. I’d been on the road for 30 hours. And if somebody were to ask me if I’d do it all again, I’d probably say no. But the fact is, I know I can do it. And I know I’m willing to do it. So when I step on the start line next time, what else will I be willing to do to reach my goals?


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