As a volunteer with Fellowship of Christian Athletes, I got the opportunity last Saturday to attend a cross country meet in support of the Anniston High Bulldog team.

The guys and girls have been working hard in practice under the direction of coach Lisa Howard, but the actual competition is even more grueling than practice.

Teams from all over Calhoun County and northeast Alabama arrived at Oxford’s Choccolocco Park before 8 a.m., but any thoughts of the morning weather remaining pleasant were soon vaporized as temperatures climbed into the 80s and eventually settled in the lower 90s.

The competition also unfolded in waves, with the varsity girls 5K competing first, then the varsity boys 5K, followed by the junior varsity boys and finally the junior varsity girls.

The one varsity girls runner for Anniston is Cursia Kirksey, who finished 24th out of 108. As someone who probably couldn’t run a mile without resting at least twice, I thought she did great.

Next was the boys 5K, and 10th-grader Christian Myles finished third out of 187 runners. He received a third-place medal during the awards ceremony at the end of the meet. He sets the pace for the team and is a clear leader on and off the track.

The remaining order of finishers for Anniston’s boys were twins Jayden and Justin Myles, and Julian Bryant, in that order. All had solid finishes and showed great effort. I was proud of them.

Two other team members, Jeremiah Hobbs and Antoine Hunter, weren’t available for Saturday’s meet.

Up next were the JV boys, but, because there were only two JV girls for the entire field, a last-minute decision was made to have them run with the JV boys. 

Anniston High has one JV runner, seventh-grader Merianna Reed.

After stretching and warming up, I asked her if she was ready. She said she was nervous, which was understandable. This is her first year on the team, and this was her first meet.

She headed to the starting line, and I headed to the final stretch, which is just before the finish line. That’s where most of the spectators gather to cheer on the runners as they come in. That final jolt of adrenaline is always helpful for a strong finish.

For the varsity races, the earliest runners finished around 18 minutes. For the junior varsity, it was around 23 minutes that the lead runners started crossing the finish line. 

It was around that time that I started watching for Merianna, but she wasn’t in the first wave, which was dominated by Springville and Southside-Gadsden.

Minutes ticked by and more finishers trickled in — still no Merianna.

Then coming around the final corner I could make out a red jersey, but as it got closer, I could tell it wasn’t Merianna. I started to worry that she’d collapsed in the heat.

Finally, in the distance, I made out a golf cart winding along the running path. Just ahead of it was a jogger in a white hat and a blue jacket that I soon recognized to be Christian.

In the golf cart was Coach Howard, offering Merianna a ride to the finish line if she needed it. Christian was running alongside Merianna, encouraging her to keep going, that she didn’t have much further, that she could make it. 

Merianna turned down the offers for a ride. She was determined to finish her race.

As she turned the corner and headed down that long final stretch, I started clapping and yelling and cheering her on.

Then I realized I wasn’t alone.

Even though all the other runners had finished more than five minutes earlier, several other runners and other parents and other coaches were cheering for Merianna to keep running and push through!

When she crossed the finish line, she fell into the arms of her coach and her dad.

Tears fell.

It was glorious.

Vince Lombardi said “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle.”

Something tells me that Merianna has more “finest hours” ahead. Even though she finished dead last, she won in a way that matters more than finishing first.

In days ahead, when school or home or life gets hard, she'll know there’s a fighter on the inside who won’t quit, who won’t go down easy, and will continue to get back up.

Because she was one of only two girls in the competition, Merianna received a second place medal during the award ceremony.

May it forever be a reminder to her that she’s a lot tougher than her 4-foot-7 frame would suggest.

Editor Anthony Cook: 256-299-2110. On Twitter @AnthonyCook_DH.