Never ran until after grad school. Ran in my mid-thirties to lose weight. Waited so long saved my knees. Many others now have knee problems due to the pounding they took back in high school and college.
Tenth grade in high school tried out for cross-country. The basketball coach coached cross-country. We knew the basketball coach as the Driver’s Ed teacher. Driving county roads was Coach’s only credentials for coaching cross-country.
As far as Coach was concerned too many boys had come out for the team. This would require too much effort with basketball just around the corner. At the first meeting he said he would accept only a few boys for the team. Tryouts would take place the rest of the week. On Friday eight boys would be selected.
Sitting on the bleachers. Looking down the row of thirty sophomores, juniors, and seniors – boys who were thinner, more in shape; some wearing t-shirts from track – guys who were jocks. Looking at each other, I didn’t even register.
A freak. Hair longer than the others, just over my ears, just over my collar, just long enough, back then, to get into trouble, to be “one of them.”
Had I made a mistake, turning into the gym when I could have gone uptown to hang out after school?
Already in band and chorus. On the paper as a fledgling reporter. Joined the drama club. Why now cross-country? Maybe to be somebody, like those yearbook guys who popped up when you turned the pages; guys who looked happy, were liked by the girls, real “cut ups,” joking with the teachers.
(By the end of 10th grade, kicked out of band, out of chorus, out of most of my classes by those same teachers, not in a single play, my only photo was with the sophomore class. I would be the dork, not ready for the flash, lost between Gilbert and Glass.)
The men’s cross-country page was cool. Not the bruisers sitting stiff from football or the giraffes standing in a semi-circle with basketballs, but kids who mugged it up in their group photo, members of an exclusive club who looked smart in their cameos, wearing t-shirts with funny slogans, running in sunglasses. Cool. The cross-country team was cool. I could be cool.
Looking down the bleachers, guys jostling each other; it was hard to see me: young Pudge Man in my mystical maroon shorts, shimmering white sleeveless-T, an Indian head stenciled across the chest saying I was one of the “Warriors,” an Indian brave who was part of the team, breeze blowing through my hair, legs strong, long, and lanky, stomach tight and muscular, cheerleaders cheering, finishing tape ripping, arms spread wide. That version of me, a key member of the team, was hard to see.
Don’t think I tried out for a team before. Exercise wasn’t part of my routine, certainly not like hanging out uptown at the drugstore, reading comic books. Not like a Saturday or Sunday with my friends and our skateboards on the sidewalks around the county courthouse.
Not like anybody at home was encouraging me either – my mom, at the restaurant, wouldn’t be home until after ten, if then. And screw her, anyhow. Long ago she gave up on me and my two brothers and sisters.
And screw the four of them too. My oldest sister, having her baby to worry over, drove me nuts, always telling me what to do, and my older brother, repeating his senior year, drinking in school with hoods he called friends, I avoided altogether – that or get beat up one more time.
My other sister, the one I could identify with, repeating school as a junior, lived in another world. She didn’t talk to humans, and, I swear, she barely talked to me.
That left only my younger brother, the family solution when it was obvious, even then, such solutions were way too late. He was lost somewhere between third and fourth grade.
My one or two friends thought we all were crazy. Cross-country was just me acting up, they said, acting on a whim, looking for new friends.
That wasn’t going to happen. Didn’t know anybody on the team. Never would be one of the lucky eight, someone willing to sprint across the gym if Coach only asked them.
My dad ran. My uncles too. Liked the thought of it. Though never ran more than a third- or a fifth-of-a-mile.
Could my old gym shoes even pass as running shoes? Dirty white and beat up, with knot-filled laces, definitely didn’t look like shoes runners wore on TV.
Watched Jim Ryan break the mile, back with my Dad, and some guy named “Pre” or “Bree” from somewhere, but they ran track. That looked hard. Running around a big oval with thousands of people screaming. Jim McKay and Wide World of Sports capturing everything. The dog barking at the TV.
Cross-country. Had to be easier. You ran off. You ran back. How hard could that be?
“Okay, boys. Settle down.”
Coach announced his bright idea. “Tomorrow no one wears sneakers. After school we wear boots. We run in boots the rest of the week.”
Boots? What does that mean? Cowboy boots? Coal miner boots? Clod-hoppers? Galoshes? Do I even own boots? What about my gym shoes at the bottom of my locker?
In the hall closet at home that night. Pushing back the winter coats, women’s coats back when we went to church. There. A pair of army boots. My oldest sister’s on-again, off-again husband, stationed in Saigon, gave them to me, or my older brother. Never wore them, even to see if they fit. Couldn’t imagine tying up the laces. Black boots shined from too much polish. Stiff and heavy. Maybe spiders lived inside them. Smelled like him. Like Viet Nam. I put them back for my brother. He was joining the Marines.
Pulled out a pair of olive green rubber boots my father rarely wore on the farm. These boots, pull-ons with heavy dark green tread, came up to my mid-calf. Meant for “muddy” conditions around the barn, working with the livestock, cleaning out stalls. Shit-kickers our farm hands called them.
Not sure why we still had them. Now living in town. My dad living in Pittsburgh. Couldn’t visit until Christmas. My oldest sister said he had cancer. That was fucked up. Hoped my mom was satisfied.
These boots weren’t as heavy as the army ones. Though loose and somewhat clunky, they would do.
Next day, waiting outside the school in my dad’s rubber boots, shit-kickers stuffed into my locker that morning. Wearing an old t-shirt and gray gym shorts kept at school (and took home every month or so when I remembered). Arms folded across my stomach, blocking the breeze, hiding from the others “the pudge” pushing heavy against my shirt.
What was I doing there? What was I trying to prove?
No one was wearing their gym shorts; all were in other shorts, bright shorts for running, and, they wore hiking boots, hunting boots, cool-looking boots of leather, with leather shoelaces, tight-against-the-ankle boots, and boots that could haul dead carcasses with pointy antlers out of the woods. No one was wearing rubber boots that went half way up your leg, boots for trudging in the muck outside a barn, boots for pushing around jerseys with big assholes and teats full of milk.
“Boys, I want you to run up Desmond’s Hill,” said Coach when he came out of the school. He was wearing a maroon and white windbreaker with an Indian head emblem and creased pants. No boots or sneakers, but penny loafers.
Looked like he wouldn’t be joining us after all, but Coach had it covered, “I’ll be waiting at the top. Don’t stop until you see me.” (Perhaps in a car full of student drivers?)
“Now, take off, boys, I don’t want to be here all night.”
That was it. No discussion, no jumping jacks, no stretching. Without a whistle or a shot, the jocks took off sprinting, even in their boots.
I knew Desmond’s Hill. In gym, we would run beyond the sight of the school, then, walk to the hill. When the athletes in class passed us on the way down, we would walk back. Never reached the top.
Clomping past the high school, following the pack behind a few others, falling further back, trying to get my breathing into a steady rhythm, no one talking, me burping, stomach churning, small farts, not wanting to be the first to start walking, feet lifting out of my boots, heels rubbing against the rubber. Couldn’t catch my breath. Wasn’t past the junior high parking lot. Puked.
Continued running. Past small clapboard houses lining the street. Old women in pink housecoats swinging on metal porch seats. How much time had passed? An hour? An hour-and-a-half? Looked at my watch. Five minutes.
Coach drives past in the Driver’s Ed car. Says something out the window. Was it, “Keep going,” or “Good pace?” Couldn’t tell from his comment, my breathing, the sound of my feet pounding the pavement. Maybe it was “Christ, stop before you hurt yourself.” He drives on.
Reached the bottom of Desmond’s Hill. Started up the monster. Red brick houses, flags on brick porches, small yards with flowers, empty driveways. Clomping through the turns, climbing up the hill. Breathing harder.
My shirt is bugging me. It’s wet from sweat. I want to take it off or, at least, lift it above my stomach. Yanking at it to stretch it out. Why did I choose this stupid shirt from camp when I was younger? Back when we were happier.
What was I thinking? How long could I go on without walking? Watch says twenty minutes. Have I ever run this far?
Single-floor, brick, ranch-style houses. Children on tricycles staring at me. Hop scotch and jump rope. Few saplings for trees.
Five boys coming at me on their way back down. How far ahead was it?
“Hey farm boy,” one calls out running past.
“Sue-iieee…” says another.
Jerks. I was going to reach the top if it killed me.
Street climbs higher. Vertical houses built over one-car garages. Clustered together. Can’t breathe. Need water.
Heels on fire. Blisters. Could I carry my boots and run in my socks? Would Coach notice? Where was he anyway? At the top? Around the next corner?
Ten more runners run past me, heading down the hill. “Hang in there.” one murmurs, but mainly they pass in silence. Tension. One or two will make the team.
Me? No way. Not now. Thirty minutes in. Maybe as manager or water boy… Someone to carry Coach’s pistol, or whistle, or watch… Team mascot?
“Hey, pick up the pace!”
Who said that? Did someone say something to me?
Five more run by me. They seem happier. More like the yearbook picture. They don’t have a chance. They know it. Having fun.
Thirty minutes in, I think. Can’t remember. When did it begin?
Jeez, stay focused.
Didn’t know there were gated-houses up here! Stone houses behind iron gates. Black mailboxes. Long driveways, shade trees, kids laughing from somewhere.
I know these sounds. Back when we lived on the farm.
I hate my mom for moving us to town. I hate her for putting us in this fucking school.
My dad screwed up, says my oldest sister. I don’t believe her. Ever.
My older brother says, fuck them both, it doesn’t matter.
Single boys approaching, running past on their way down. Strung out and in agony. Maybe ten? Who’s left. Anyone behind me?
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter.
Chest heaving and gasping for air, I round the bend and limp into a shady cul de sac, a paved circle with five large houses.
I can see the town below and the valley laid out around me between the mansions. The school’s down there. Somewhere our farm. The house we now call home. I made it but can barely breathe.
The coach is sitting in the Driver’s Ed car at the far end of the circle, in the shade of two huge oak trees, car door open in front of a beautiful stone mansion, parked between two brick mailboxes. Bored. Drinking a soda from a Hardees cup.
“Twenty-seven,” Coach says to me. “Forty-three minutes, thirteen seconds.”
I stop at the open car door. Facing him. Almost doubling over. Sucking air.
“Don’t stop,” says Coach. “Turn around and head back down.”
“Wait… That’s it?” I ask. I’m done.
“Head back down, son, and go home. I’ve got Rotary tonight and won’t be at the school when you get there.”
“Wait…” I ask, trying to catch my breath. “What about the others?”
“There are no others. You’re the last.”
I can’t go back. Not back to where we were. I desperately want to, but can’t. Not now. Not in these rubber boots. The blisters on my heels have broken; I need Band-Aids to even walk; my toes feel like they are bleeding inside my crumbled socks.
“Wait… what about tomorrow?” I stammer, trying to settle down my breathing, desperately needing some water. “Should we wear our boots tomorrow?”
“Don’t bother, son. You last ten didn’t make the team.”
“Oh.” I say, exhaling the word like being punch in the gut. Now straightening up. “I didn’t know.” Facing him. Burning red. “I better go home.”
Walking away, not waiting for an answer.
In my dad’s boots. Heels on fire.
It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter.