Each week, The Washington Post will chronicle the race experience of an area cross-country runner. Lake Braddock junior Heather McCarthy was unable to walk under her own power for 30 minutes after Saturday's Bull Run Invitational in Fairfax. Her 27th-place finish ordinarily would not merit much attention, but had she crossed the finish line 10 seconds later, Lake Braddock's girls would not have won the team title. Her race, as told to Post correspondent Nathan Max:
At the start "there wasn't enough room for three of us [Lake Braddock runners] across, so I had to start behind two of my teammates. I kept getting elbowed, and this girl from behind me pushed me in the back. I had to get out to the side of everybody and start taking people out at the top of the hill.
"I went faster than I expected. I was not supposed to go out with two of my teammates, who were ahead of me, but I ended up right behind them. I ran past my coach after one mile, and he was yelling to me. It's not like he's a discouraging coach, but he never really yells encouraging things during a race. But this time he was yelling, `You're doing good! You're running a good race!' So, I kept up with my teammates [Cheryl Carr and Kelley Swain]. We were running two, three and four, and our number one girl [Erin Swain] was way ahead. We were running in the middle of the pack, so whenever we passed someone it must have been intimidating.
"[After a mile] I was getting really tired. . . . I had to try and stick with my teammates. They knew I was coming, so they kept going faster. I tried to catch them, so it was a yo-yo sort of thing. We went to the mile at 5 minutes 54 seconds. Usually, I do it between 6:00 and 6:15, so I was starting to feel it.
"[Coming back downhill through a corridor of spectators] I heard a lot of them saying, `Look at Lake Braddock go. There's three of them!` I started to fall back a little bit, then I heard parents yelling, `Go catch up with Cheryl and Kelley. Go get 'em.' So I went a little faster and caught up. I felt good up until the two-and-a-half-mile point. I had kind of recovered from earlier.
"[At the bottom of the hill] I was trying to take out this girl from West Springfield, and I just fell flat on my side. There was all this mud going in between these two trees. I always said that if I fell during a race I would never keep going, but I got over it. I was like, `Stay down, stay down, no, get up, go!' because no one had passed me.
"Going up the last hill, I started getting delirious. I was not having trouble with my breathing, and my legs felt fine, but every step I was taking, everything was bouncing and my vision started to go blurry. I saw people going past me, and I couldn't stay with them. The only reason I kept going is because I knew my team needed the points. It was the longest hill you'll ever see. The top seemed miles away.
"[On the final downhill stretch] I was thinking, `Just get me to the finish. Just get me there.' I wanted someone to pick me up and carry me across, but I don't think anyone passed me. When I crossed the finish line I saw this kid on my team and I said, `Come here.' I collapsed on him and made him carry me around. And that's the last thing I remember. "The next thing I know [30 minutes later], Erin [Swain] was sticking a brownie under my nose, saying, `Chocolate will make it all better.'
"The week before at the William & Mary Invitational, I didn't run and my team finished in sixth. I didn't realize my points were that crucial to the overall effort, so [Saturday], when I was having a hard time I said to myself, `Heather, you're going to finish this.' "