Sheraie Darby imagined she heard the starting gun's explosion. She saw herself tearing off down the track.
The 16-year-old Woodlawn junior envisioned herself sprinting toward the first curve and two of the 10 hurdles she first must clear with her lead leg, then her trail leg before landing and refocusing on the remaining course of the 400-meter hurdles.
"I have long legs, so it helps because I don't have to lift them as much, but the trick is getting up and back down on the track quickly," said the 5-foot-7, 125-pounder.
"The next 150 [meters], I keep the same speed and lengthen my stride, because that last hurdle, coming up to the final 100 is a pure sprint. Then, it's like, mentally, I'm just making my body run, even though I'm dead tired."
Darby's imagination never has seen her lose a race in either the 400 or 300 hurdles -- and since last March, neither has reality.
Earning All-Metro honors during only her second year of competitive track last spring, Darby won Baltimore County, region and 4A state titles in the 300. Her fastest time (45.3 seconds) was an area and state meet best.
Darby is unbeaten in the 400 hurdles this summer while competing for Ed Waters' track club, having won major events at the United States Track and Field qualifiers, the National Age Group championships and last weekend's Amateur Athletic Union regionals.
Darby's personal best 400 time (1:04) in the AAU regionals helped her to qualify for nationals in Knoxville, Tenn., Aug. 1-7.
She spends Tuesday and Thursday evenings practicing at Douglass High with Waters, and Mondays and Wednesdays with Dick Estes at McDonogh School's free clinic, open to any athlete.
"She does every drill as religiously as you and I breathe," said Estes, a former head track coach at Woodlawn who worked this past winter with McDonogh's track team. "With her work ethic, there's no reason she can't be the best hurdler in the country in her age group."
Estes' past pupils include Woodlawn graduate Jerry Roney, The Baltimore Sun's 1987-88 Athlete of the Year who reached the finals of last year's Olympic trials and holds the 110 state record (13.6 seconds).
He also tutored Roney's former Woodlawn teammate Torrance Zellner, who has completed his eligibility at the University of Florida and who last week nearly beat 400 hurdles world record-holder Kevin Young in a meet in Sweden.
Estes worked with four-time state champion hurdler Jason Fullmer, The Baltimore Sun's 1993 All-Metro Male Track Athlete of Year who is headed for Virginia Tech, where another pupil, Woodlawn graduate and former 300 hurdles state champ Erin Graham, is a sophomore.
Then there's former All-Metro and two-time Anne Arundel County Female Track Athlete of the Year Adrienne McCray, a 300 hurdles state champ who is at Penn State.
"Darby is right out of their mold," said Estes. "She's going to be as good as anybody I've ever had, or as good as anybody who's come out of Maryland."
This about a girl who didn't start track until her freshman year, and who initially feared falling over the hurdles.
"I was always athletic. When I was small, I did everything. And in gym class, I always seemed to catch on faster than everyone else," said Darby, whose first organized sport was recreation basketball the summer before her freshman year.
"I've always been competitive," she said. "I'd race everybody and anybody who wanted to, so I knew I had the speed for track. My mother and father didn't really think I could do anything with it."
Estes, as Woodlawn's coach, began Darby's career by experimenting with her in various events.
"I ran my first meet on junior varsity, but Rikki Sye got hurt and I had to replace her in the varsity mile relay," said Darby, who later ran the leadoff leg of the Warriors' state runner-up 1,600 relay team. "I ran the leadoff leg and didn't know how to run the 400, so I was in last place at the handoff. I was in pain. I apologized, but everyone supported me."
Last year, Darby anchored the Warriors' 800 relay team to a personal best 1:43.7 and ran the first leg of the state runner-up 1,600 relay team (4:04.9).
But even after running for Waters last summer, Darby "really didn't get comfortable" with the 100 hurdles.
"I like the 300 because the hurdles are lower, mostly involving speed," said Darby, a 100 hurdles runner-up in the age group championships. "You have to get over your fear of the hurdles, then start your drills. Once you get those down, you work on getting down to three steps between the hurdles."
The 300 and 400 hurdles are "two completely different races," Darby said.
"It's  a lot harder. You just have to push yourself to the finish line, because it's known as the hardest event in track," said Darby, who faces her toughest competition in this weekend's USTF regionals in Hampton, Va., and the following weekend's East Coast Invitational at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
"I haven't been beaten yet, and I owe that to Coach Estes. I really didn't know how to run the 400, but he's helped me through each part of my race."