Holling Hoodhood is just a seventh grader in The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt, and he is not expected to do particularly well in the tryouts for the junior high cross country team. He has been training a bit, however, so he is at least prepared to put up a decent showing. As it turns out, Holling does quite well.
One of the reasons for that is the help his teacher, Mrs. Baker, gives him. She was an Olympic runner and gives Holling pointers as well as encouragement. Another reason for his success is the presence of Meryl Lee, a girl in Holling's class who could be considered his girlfriend. As Holling runs by her, she holds up a dried rose with a ribbon on it. Holling explains:
When a girl holds a rose up to you, you run better, let me tell you.
The final reason for Holling's astounding time in the cross country tryouts is the threatening presence of Mrs. Baker's two out-of-control rats, Sycorax and Caliban. They are an intimidating and threatening presence. Holling says,
[E]very time I looked back--which was a lot--they were flat out after me, their scabby whiskers swept back by their speed, thier yellow teeth clacking. I could imagine their teeth sinking into my heels like the assassins' daggers sinking into Caesar, and I ran faster.
Holling feels as if he is running for his life, so it is not surprising that his time is astoundingly good. In fact, Holling's time is so good that he, a lowly seventh-grader, makes the varsity cross country team.