It all began at a track meet in Eugene, Oregon. Despite suffering from a debilitatingly itchy, full-body rash brought on by a Flintstones vitamins overdose, I had the race of my life and qualified for the NCAA Midwest Regional meet in Austin, Texas.
I was beyond excited. My days were filled with farfetched fantasies of how I was going to win regionals and then qualify for nationals and somehow win that too. I visualized myself on the podium, bowing my head gracefully to accept my gold medal as the National Anthem played delicately in the background and confetti fluttered around me.
I don't even know if that's what happens when you win a national championship, but that's the way it worked in my fantasy. My entire existence was focused like a laser beam on that one race, sometime at the very end of May.
However, there was a small part of my mind that recognized a few crushing disadvantages, chief among them the reality that the race was in Texas at the beginning of summer and I had been training all year in frigid Montana. Add to this that I would be attempting to race a 5k despite the fact that I have never been good at handling the heat even when lying motionless on my floor in my underwear in front of a fan, and you have a disaster waiting to happen.
But the reality turned out worse than anyone could have predicted.
A couple of my teammates and I boarded the plane at 5:00 AM. I had barely slept the night before because I was so excited about my race.
When we arrived in Texas, I stalwartly ignored the heat waves radiating off the tarmac. "I'll deal with it somehow..." I thought.
After we checked into our hotel, I went for a little run to shake out my legs. Immediately upon exiting the air-conditioned lobby of the hotel, I finally had to acknowledge the reality that my body is the opposite of good at dissipating heat. It doesn't even try. It's like it doesn't care at all about my well-being and comfort. Less than a mile into my run, I was reduced to a shambling jog. Breathing was like trying to insufflate syrup through a coffee straw. It was at this point that I began to panic a little.
I stumbled back to the hotel and took a shower to cool off. The shower water was lukewarm and smelled like it had been siphoned out of a duck pond. It was less than refreshing and made me smell like a swamp monster. Still soaking wet, I lay down on my bed and tried to eat a banana. My innards groaned like the Titanic just before it split in half. Somewhere in the back of my mind, a tiny voice began to scream "you're gonna die!!!"
After weathering another sleepless night, I dragged my protesting body out of bed and down to the lobby, intent on ingesting massive amounts of caffeine. The coffee tasted like it had been made with the pond water that came out of the shower, but it served its function. Aching joints and creaky innards aside, I felt like I was ready to take on the world.
This was the high point of the entire trip. It was the last moment I felt even vaguely lucid.
The rest of the day was spent waiting in agonizing apprehension. My bloodstream was a putrid slop of stress hormones and enraged white blood cells. Something was obviously not right. I tried to blame it on the heat. I tried to blame it on my nerves. It was more than that; an immune-system assault so massive that it singlehandedly managed to shatter my dreams and my dignity all in one shot.
The hours leading up to my race went pretty much like this:
And by that, I mean that I sat in my hotel room all by myself in a terrifying, delirious stupor, which I later found out was the result of a 104.5 degree fever. In spite of my obvious illness (and perhaps due in part to my delirium), I remained steadfastly determined to go through with my athletic conquest. I did not come all the way to Texas to let some stupid illness get between me and my dreams of glory.
I don't remember how I got to the track. I know I was supposed to walk there because it was only a few blocks from the hotel, but I have no recollection of the time between sitting in my room and actually arriving at the track. What I do remember are the fireflies I saw on my warmup. Let me tell you something - if you've never seen fireflies before, you probably should try to avoid seeing them for the first time when you're out of your mind with a fever. I had no idea what was going on.
I also remember being hotter than I had ever been before. I felt like I wanted to tear off my skin. The ambient temperature was nearly 100 degrees even though it was starting to get dark and the humidity felt suffocating. I was still unwilling to admit to feeling less-than-adequate, so I stumbled around campus like a drunk, trying my hardest to keep my spirits up. "I can do it!" I thought. "I just have to believe in myself!" It was pathetic.
The more I jogged around, the higher my internal temperature crept. By the time I changed into my uniform and racing spikes, I could barely focus. The fireflies flitted around, taunting me with the unsettling feeling of not being able to tell if I was hallucinating or not. In a last ditch attempt to maintain homeostasis, I packed my sport bra and racing briefs with ice cubes.
Before I knew it, there I was on the starting line of the biggest race of my life; melty ice water trickling down my torso and the inside of my legs, uniform packed full of ice cubes. It looked like I had some sort of strange disorder that made me all lumpy and caused me to continuously pee on myself. It was not one of my prouder moments.
When the starter's gun went off, I sprinted off the line with the rest of the girls, ice jiggling around inside my clothes and flying out of my briefs onto the track.
It did not take long for my championship dreams to fizzle out to a barely audible whine in the fuzzy depths of my consciousness.
I fell further and further back from the rest of the field, but kept doggedly pursuing my quest for greatness until the moment I passed out.
I remember trying to punch the volunteer who dragged me off the track before I completely lost consciousness. The next few hours were a blur of concerned coaches and doctors and tubes and thermometers.
That night, I couldn't sleep again. I was so afraid that I was going to die alone in my hotel room that I crawled down to the lobby of the hotel and tried to sleep on one of the couches there.
My logic was that if I started dying, maybe someone would notice and help me.
Still delirious the next morning, I woke up and immediately decided that I needed juice more than anything in the world. I would have shanked an infant for juice.
For some reason, I thought that it would be a good idea to walk to the grocery store by myself. I didn't even know where the grocery store was. I just kind of picked a direction and started walking. Every now and then I made a turn. I felt like I was trusting my instincts, but really I was just wandering around hoping to stumble across a grocery store. About a mile or so from the hotel, I began to notice that the houses on the street I was walking down had bars over all the windows. There were bullet holes in a couple of the cars parked along the street and broken glass littered the sidewalks. That's when I realized I was not in a very good neighborhood. And I was lost.
This might not be a big deal for some people, but for a weak and possibly dying girl who spent most of her life in the woods of rural north Idaho, it was pretty terrifying. I quickened my pace, which really only served to propel me faster in an unknown direction.
Amazingly, I did eventually find a grocery store. It was the most confusing grocery store I have ever been in. First of all, most of the signs were written in Spanish. I speak a little Spanish, but it did me very little good because there was no order to anything in the entire store. The shelves were packed with various foods and toiletries, but none of it was grouped into any sort of easily-recognizable category. The dry pasta was next to some random shampoo bottles and a box of Reese's peanut butter cups. A few aisles down from that, there was more shampoo, but now it was accompanied by salsa and something called "energy balls" which appeared to be homemade chocolate balls with coffee beans stuffed into them, rolled up inside a plastic sandwich bag. Birds flew freely throughout the store and a centrally-located tank of live lobsters made the whole place smell like rancid seawater. It was like some horrific wonderland of confusion. I was never going to find juice and I was never going to be able to go home. I sat down in the middle of what appeared to be the "yellow things aisle" and began to weep quietly.
Eventually a kindly man found me and asked me what was wrong in Spanish. I tried to explain to him that I was lost and I really wanted some juice, but in retrospect, I'm pretty sure I asked him if I could "play puppy," which doesn't make any sense at all in that context. Obviously perplexed, he led me to a lady named Angelica who had the best mullet I've ever seen and, perhaps more importantly, could speak English. I asked her about the juice.
Angelica led me to a slightly refrigerated back room where the juice was kept. I selected a gallon jug of strawberry-guava juice, opened it right there in front of Angelica and began chugging. She looked displeased, but I was obviously not well and I think her sympathy won out in the end. I followed her back to the cash register, paid for my juice with a sweaty wad of dollar bills and began the journey back to my hotel.
All I can remember from this point in the trip is staggering down the street clutching my guava juice, trying my best to stay conscious in the hot sun.
Just as I don't know how I found the grocery store, I have no idea how I eventually ended up back at my hotel. I don't think anyone even knew I was gone.
Later that evening, a few teammates woke me up and reminded me that I still hadn't celebrated my very recent 21st birthday. This being the case, I was expected drink (read: buy alcohol for everyone else). Being impulsive, I reluctantly grabbed my wallet and walked with my friends to a gas station (which carried juice and was only about three blocks from the hotel in the opposite direction). I tried to buy a six pack of beer but my newly legal I.D. was turned down because it was out of state and I "looked like a goddamn 16-year old." The cashier ended up selling the beer to my friend who was only 20 and had a fake I.D.
Back at the hotel, I tried to halfheartedly drink a beer and talk with my teammates, but I think I just ended up passing out on the floor. We had to wake up to catch a really early flight, so I didn't get to sleep very much. I woke up feeling even worse than I had the day before, in a half-conscious stupor. I remember lurching around the airport with my eyes closed, dragging my backpack on the ground, trying to just stay reasonably close to my teammates' voices.
We had a long layover in Denver, so I tried to get some sleep under a row of seats near our terminal. The airport was really quiet at such an early hour, but our terminal was right next to a moving sidewalk from which a very loud, automated voice emanated roughly every minute. It was an annoyingly cheery robotic female voice warning people, in English and Spanish, that the moving sidewalk was coming to an end and to watch their step. It seemed completely unnecessary and I think that's what really ended up getting to me in the end.
It had been three days since I'd gotten over a few measly hours of sleep and it felt like that stupid lady-robot was forcefully robbing me of every bit of psychological integrity I had left. After an hour of trying to sleep unsuccessfully, I finally got up to try to find a solution. Anything. If I didn't sleep, I felt like I was going to implode and explode at the same time, and whatever came out of me was going to be dangerous, possibly some sort of plague demon.
And that's how I ended up having a complete psychological meltdown in an airport.