This post was originally submitted in March 2019 as a personal essay for my Writing for Magazines course at Augustana. This week marks the fourth anniversary of the race and of Coach Andrea Kabourek’s passing. I still think about Andrea’s tenacity and humor during the not-so-pretty moments of both running and life as a whole. She will forever be missed.
Sometimes, grief is downright disgusting.
There’s crying, obviously — not dainty Hollywood tears, but the mucus-filled raindrops that contort your face and turn your skin bright red. Then, you vomit up your entire lunch: only a tenth of a chicken sandwich, because you spent the majority of your half-hour lunch period sobbing with your best friend in the school counselor’s office. Immediately following the vomiting is more crying, and at this point, you’re not sure if the yellow slime dripping out of your nose is snot or bile. You take two deep breaths. You lean against a tree for support.
And for a moment, you forget that you have to go race five kilometers.
The evening before the 2015 Harold Scott Cross Country Invitational, my coach Andrea Kabourek died from a merciless breast cancer — her third cancer in six years. Andrea and her husband Brian were the heartbeat of Lincoln East High School cross country; having no children of their own, they called their athletes family.
Twice, I babysat the Kaboureks’ spunky cats: Toonces, Spartie and Duke. Once, I cared for the three boys while, in Washington state, Andrea accepted a nomination for the Brooks Inspiring Coach of the Year. That was three months before she died.
My teammates and I knew Andrea’s time was limited. First, she relied on an oxygen tank. Then, she took a leave of absence. Next, Brian announced she had two weeks left, and a fleet of grief counselors swarmed the school.
Finally, Brian missed practice. And Brian never misses practice. That was the day Andrea died.
“Why do you all have lizards on your skin?”
The jarring voice eroded my tunnel vision that had transported me from the puke tree to the starting line. My head snapped left, and I saw a runner from another school, referencing the green Sharpie drawings on our arms and shoulders.
Her eyes were soft and innocent. I guess she really didn’t know.
“They’re crocodiles,” I said calmly, fighting the flow of more tears and mucus. “They were our coach’s spirit animal.”
From the beginning of her third bout of cancer, Andrea embraced crocodiles as a symbol of both strength and humor despite her circumstances. When Andrea lost her hair to chemotherapy the year prior, she even let us draw crocodiles and write inspirational messages on her shiny, bald head. Four years later, I still keep two stuffed crocodiles on my dorm room shelf — both gifts from Andrea.
In the sweltering September heat, we listened to a distant man with a megaphone explain the rules of cross country — which by my senior year, sounded like the incomprehensible lectures of Charlie Brown’s teachers. Still, torso tilted 45 degrees and left foot behind the white line, I anticipated the starting gunshot.
But all I really wanted to do was crawl under my bed sheets and devour ungodly amounts of white cheddar popco–
The first few strides propelled my body into a dreamlike state. My legs floated forward, numb from the pre-race emotional turmoil. Nevertheless, I secured an early position in second place — though less than a second ahead of a large pack of runners. Still, with each step, the distance between myself and the rest of the athletes grew.
And suddenly, there was a goose. How very Nebraskan.
The two of us — the goose and I — met about two kilometers into the race. The feathered creature slept peacefully on the white painted line, unaware of the hundreds of girls ready to trample him in a matter of seconds. He was unprepared for our abrupt interaction, but I had no other choice: on the right side of the goose was a tree, around which we were to make a sharp, hairpin turn; on the left side was a lake.
There was nowhere to go but forward.
Panicked, I screamed barbarically. Panicked, the goose awakened, turned his head, and screamed barbarically back at me. His large, terrified eyeballs nearly rolled out of their sockets, and his bright pink tongue lunged out of his beak. The only thing left for him to do was to make one fateful choice: fight or flight.
Thankfully, the goose flew, and my heartbeat returned to its normal rate — or whatever “normal” is for a grieving 17-year-old girl racing five kilometers in 95-degree heat.
Now powered by adrenaline from my near-death experience, I soared through the park. I flew through grassy fields and pine cone-filled woods.
And then I flew face first down a hill.
All momentum ceased when my body hit the bone-dry ground. Gone was the dreamlike state. Gone was the adrenaline from the goose chase. Gone was my motivation to finish the race. I was back to square one: pitying myself for running a race the day after my coach died.
After sliding down the steep decline, coating everything from my chin to my ankle in brown dust, I lay lifeless. Why am I doing this, I thought. I shouldn’t have to race. Pity, pity, pity.
Twenty seconds into my lament, a man approached me. To this day, I have no idea who he is — a parent, maybe, seeking an obscure part of the course to cheer on his kid without vocal interference. The shaded woods in which I fell preceded an open field: a popular cheering spot for parents among whom the man’s voice would be lost.
“I think you can still finish,” the man said. “I don’t want to physically help you, because I think you can get up by yourself and finish.” He was a seasoned fan of the sport; he knew that athlete-spectator contact could result in disqualification.
Despite my mental fatigue, I knew the man was right: I could finish. It might not be pretty, but cross country rarely is. Feeling groggy and slightly disoriented, I stood up and trudged forward, down the remainder of the hill and onto a path leading out of the woods.
Covered in dirt and blood, I emerged from the shadows and into the crowd. Audible gasps replaced traditional shouts of encouragement, but I had to play it cool because among the spectators was a cross country recruiting coach from Augustana University who had traveled four hours south just to watch me race.
Somehow, he still let me join the team.
Two kilometers later, I crossed the finish line in a less-than-spectacular time. Yet because of the heat, no one ran spectacularly, and our beautifully dysfunctional, lizard-covered team left the meet with a second-place trophy.
But not before a moment of silence for Coach Andrea Kabourek and the Lincoln East Spartans.