Chapter Twenty One
Chapter Twenty Two
Chapter Twenty Three
Chapter Twenty Four
Chapter Twenty Five
Chapter Twenty Six
Chapter Twenty Seven
Chapter Twenty Eight
Chapter Twenty Nine
Chapter Thirty One
Chapter Thirty Two
Chapter Thirty Three
Chapter Thirty Four
Sunday, January 22, 2017
The Running Diaries
“What do you think about when you run?” If it’s not the top question I get from non-runners, it’s certainly in the top five. Along the wooded trail, a small figure was grinding along. Quickly turning over. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. For him, it was past the point of thinking and more to the point of feeling. The term “thinking” seems to imply a coherent, directed process rather than a scattering of thoughts flitting through one’s head. He came across a thought that seemed encouraging, “my form feels pretty smooth”, and he gripped tightly to the idea for as long as possible before “what’s really the difference between thirteen miles and fifteen?” shot back into the forefront. The negative thoughts always had the strongest grip. Ben made a hard left turn and shot himself into a hill. Of course, grip strength has never been a coveted attribute for distance runners.
I’ve always been of the opinion, you don’t find running, it finds you. I suppose there are people who consciously seek out the sport. But most of us start other places. There are more fun sports, aren’t there? I mean other sports are at least games. Sometimes Cross Country feels like a glorified cult. So you can imagine the approach Chris Cline, quarterback of the league championship football squad, took to XC practice. His initial thought: no matter what happens, I will never wear those shorts.
Running is like a metaphor for life. Sure, I guess so. You struggle along, experiencing the highs and the lows, and ultimately your level of effort translates to a level of success. I get it. But sometimes, rather than being a metaphor for life, running can feel like an escape from life. It sounds crazy, but on the right run the worries and stress of the daily grind ebb away, replaced by positive endorphins (and usually a healthy dose of sweat). Mark and a few teammates came into view at the end of the parking lot, talking among each and other and laughing. Together they trotted to the circle of cars, where a few others were already standing in a circle stretching or sipping Gatorade. The varsity team still had a bit longer left to run, including Mark’s brother (and driver) Jayson. He didn’t mind. He was in no rush to leave.
I think a lot of runners flock to the sport because they see it as a great equalizer. Hard work, determination and perseverance matter. Isn’t there a saying like “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard”? It’s the ideology that drives the kid who was cut from the soccer team to blast the next interval workout. The creed that helps you wake up at 6 am to get ready for a hill workout. The slogan in your captain’s pre-race speech. But at the end of the day, you need talent. And boy, did Jimmy Springer have talent. He rolled over in bed to check the clock: 9:30 AM. Rearranging his pillow lazily, he rolled over and fell back to sleep.
Jimmy Springer, November 1st 2016
Anticipation and nervousness. Anxious more so than eager. At some level, I guess he was excited about the opportunity to race again. He had always been a fierce competitor. But certainly this was different than how he had felt when he first trekked to Hershey as a freshman. He was so much freer back then. There was no pressure. No weight of expectation.
As Jimmy walked along the course, he noticed some stares and whispers. Trying to ignore it, he made his way toward the finish line. Although there was a crowd, he was tall enough to see over top. It was a decent enough view of the small school competitors sprinting their way down the straightaway. Grimaces of pain were etched across their faces as waves of athletes raced to the line. He watched as a skinny, brown-haired boy in a purple jersey powered his way past a pack, his head rolling wildly and spit flying from his lips. As he hit the finishing mat, his legs buckled and he went flying off to the left. There, he crawled on all fours to the side of the course and vomited.
“Jimmy c’mon, let’s go!”
He snapped his gaze away from the post-race carnage and gracefully broke into stride.
Ben Havleck, December 2015
It was quiet. It was dark. At first glance, you would think the room was empty, but when your eyes adjusted to the light, you could see the silhouette of a boy. Straining your ears, you’d notice the sound of a drawer sliding open and closed. The gentle pitter-patter of shoelaces piercing the silence. Ben stood from the corner of his bed. His blue ASICS trainers made the floorboards beneath them creak slightly before he ambled down the stairs. From the closet, he pulled a neon orange zip-up jacket, a hat and a pair of gloves before stepping out into the cold.
The weather was manageable beyond the occasional piercing wind. When it picked up, it was like a cold knife, stabbing at any patches of skin that had unwittingly been left unprotected. There were still piles of snow on the ground. Patches of sidewalk were obscured where a neighbor had been apathetic about shoveling duties. The roads were empty and dimly lit by the decorations hanging from the surrounding houses. Only his breathing pieced the silence. Of course, Ben didn’t expect much to be going on. After all, it was 6:30 on Christmas Morning.
Ben Havleck was a runner. For most, this classification simply means that one of your hobbies is running. But for Ben the activity was not merely something he did, but rather something he was. So while most ordinary runners were sleeping, cuddled in the warmth of their favorite blanket, Ben was braving the elements and continuing his unyielding training.
This week his goal was sixty miles, an average of close to nine miles each run. Some days were less. But others were more, including today’s target of eleven. These longer efforts forced Ben to stretch the limits of his neighborhood, trekking down each cul-de-sac and side trail available. Sometimes he would run until he was lost and then try to find his way home. He found it an entertaining way to let the time pass.
That was the key. Time. Running is repetitive. It is mundane. And, if you are doing it right, it is painful. Couple that with the harsh reality that eleven miles of reasonably paced running will take nearly an hour and a half, and it is obvious why Ben is so unique. And unique may be the kind word for it.
The soft pitter-patter of his stride and a stream light breathing were the primary disturbances in an otherwise peaceful silence as Ben streaked along the road. He preferred to run without music, citing that it made him stronger and more focused. It also allowed him to better monitor his senses and stay in tune with his body.
He tried as hard as possible to avoid looking down at his wristwatch that displayed the time he had run for and, conversely, the time remaining on his journey. It was never satisfying, always less than he suspected it would be.
Ben traversed down Park Ave, then back through a wooded path and down around the perimeter of the high school. The elements fought him and tried to thwart his quest. He made a few turns into a brick wall of howling wind that slowed him to a crawl. Once he rounded the teacher’s parking lot, he narrowly dodged a patch of black ice. With a dry smile, Ben pressed forward.
As he ran along the east side of campus, he gazed longingly at his track, buried under roughly a foot of snow. His mind flooded back to his last race on a track at the end of the previous May. He had raced a Two Mile, running 10:10 at his league championships, and placed fifth. His best time for one mile was 5:01, but he somehow managed to run an average of 5:05 pace for two.
Ben had very limited foot speed, a fact that frustrated him often in his sport. To date, it had proven his biggest obstacle to success. As much as running was about work ethic and determination, the defining factor was often something given rather than earned. Talent.
Frustrated, he attacked the next downhill. As he changed pace, he stepped awkwardly in a stray pile of snow and his right leg tangled with his left, causing him to fall hard onto the sidewalk. His hands stung from the pain of catching himself. He could feel blood trickling from his knee and staining his tights. Begrudgingly, he pushed himself off the ground and back to his feet. He took a quick look around to make sure no one else was reveling in his embarrassment before returning to his mission. His watch only read 58:55.
And he would have to add on extra time to make up for that fall.
Mark Miller, March 2016
“Three … Two … One … STOP!” The voice echoed around the fields to a circle of runners who, on command, stopped running. A few were forcing themselves into a slow jog; others had their hands on their knees, leaned over, desperate for breath. Eventually, each forced himself to amble back in the direction of the man who just called them to a halt and his makeshift start line of water bottles and discarded warm-up pants.
A blonde haired boy, tall and long-limbed, had positioned himself at the front of the joggers. He took a quick glance at his watch before slowing to a walk. He took up slow pacing around the start line, relaxing his breathing as he went. Compared to many of the others in the pack, he seemed fresh, motivated and eager.
“Ten seconds,” The man spoke softly this time. The blonde haired boy responded by taking up a ready position, one foot in front of the other, just behind an empty Gatorade bottle. Reluctantly, the other boys filed in behind him, many holding their fingers over wrist watches as they stood perched. Waiting.
“Three … Two … One … Go!” And they streaked from the line, up a short, quick hill and towards the first goal post.
Although the weather didn’t always suggest it, the Manheim Township boys were entrenched in the Spring Track season. Commanding the troops, Coach Vanderweigh stood, twirling a stopwatch around his finger, carefully monitoring the packs emerging in front of him. The task he had assigned to his warriors today was an interval workout. Five repetitions, three minutes each, of hard running. They encircled the high school’s sports facilities, a soccer field and a pair of baseball fields, running loops just under 800m in length.
Everyone started at the same time, finished at the same time and had the same amount of rest in between, regardless of their pace. The point of the workout was not to finish a distance in a certain amount of time, but rather to finish a time with a certain amount of distance. In theory, Coach Vanderweigh wanted his runners to get a little farther each interval, with the last rep being the furthest. However, in practice, trying to get a pack of competitive teenagers to control their efforts was sometimes a lost cause.
“Come on, now don’t settle here. This is the hard one!” The blonde haired boy was powering along at the front, towing a pack of three gasping for air behind him. He rolled through the short hill once again and willed himself past a small orange cone. “Three … Two … One … STOP!” Another interval had ended. The lead runner turned, picked up the cone and moved it a few paces forward to where he had just finished. Coach Vanderweigh smiled to himself. There were, of course, exceptions.
Mark Miller jogged back towards the start line, joining a growing mass of bodies who were heading back for the start line. Only one rep remained and, although his legs were heavy and his thoughts were cloudy, there was a ray of confidence piercing the fog. As the seconds of rest continued to tick, his breathing inched closer and closer to normalcy. One more … Just one more …
“Three … Two … One … GO!” And again, the runners were in stride, stampeding up the hill and around the first turn. Mark guided his body into a rhythm, moving slightly to the outside of his teammates to ensure he had room for his legs to stretch. His body hurt, but it was a good kind of hurt. The pain was merely a reminder of his perseverance, rather than a crippling burden. He let his momentum carry him on the downhill and then forced himself to hold that pace as he approached the baseball field. There was still a little bit more in the tank, enough to unleash a finishing kick once he hit the lap marker.
Mark pushed past his coach, now gritting his teeth, sprinting towards the hill once more. Smooth and controlled was gone, his arms losing form, legs losing lift. But he focused on his target. There likely wasn’t much time left. “Three …” He was steps from his previous mark, “Two …” Digging desperately for one more gear, “One …” Nearly throwing his body forward now, “STOP!”
Letting his upper body wilt, he placed his hands on his knees, wavering slightly as he stood. He glanced sideways, looking behind him at a brown leaf that signified his farthest previous mark. A small flux of elation had arrived, helping to fight the post-workout pain. Up ahead, he noticed the blonde haired boy trotting back passed his orange cone. Slowly, the team’s fastest runner corralled his teammates, gradually prodding everyone into a cool-down jog. As they approached, Mark tucked inside the pack with a few of his friends from the Junior Varsity team.
His brother Jayson took-up his usual position at the front.
Chris Cline, June 2016
A pack of runners jogged casually alongside the road. There were four of them, each with distinct strides and brightly colored shorts. Short bursts of conversation peppered the group, but, seeing as it was early in the morning, few were awake enough to speak. “Which is why it’s a good thing we’re running,” one of the harriers muttered as the group exited a back neighborhood and sidled onto the main road next to the high school. Despite the general moodiness, there was a calm, serenity to the proceedings. Or at least there had been until the sound of a loud car horn scorched the groups’ ear drums.
“What the heck man?!” Chris Cline, who was riding in the passenger seat of the car, jerked out of his daze. The driver of the car laughed contemptuously.
“C’mon! It was those losers from the track team.” He sped through the school zone in the parking lot, using a few vulgar words to round out his opinion of the runners. Chris rubbed his eyes lazily, before yawning and stretching his arms above his head.
“Admittedly, the shorts are not dispelling any rumors.”
The car whipped around the final turn and swerved into an open parking space outside the gym. Chris and his friend exited the two-door and made to remove their back-packs from the trunk. It was the final week of classes at West Chester North and the students were in summer mode. The Seniors had graduated the previous Monday, leaving the Juniors in charge of the school for the first time. Chris hoisted his nearly empty back-pack around his right shoulder. He stood about 6 feet tall with short, buzzed hair and a muscular build.
Locking the door of his car, Cline’s friend Jacob Naughton, stood with a larger, more imposing frame. He was sporting an impressive looking beard for a 17 year old. Together, the two entered the gym, headed for the weight room. The football team was having its first team lift of the summer.
In the distance, the outline of the pack of runners was just visible.
Jimmy Springer, August, 2013
“Are you excited for today?” James Springer asked his son. Jimmy nodded enthusiastically from the passenger seat next to his father.
“A little nervous though,” he said smiling sheepishly. It was briefly silent. He turned away from his father to stare out the window, letting his thoughts wander. “What if ... What if I’m the worst one?” He felt silly asking, but he felt it was necessary to stop the squirming in his stomach. After a moment, he took a quick glance back at his father, who was smiling.
“In every race, somebody has to finish last. Even the Olympics.”
His son frowned. “When I become a dad, am I only going to be able to speak in cliché?” They laughed as James made the turn into the high school. A few other students were already standing at the edge of the parking lot, one looking small and nervous: exactly as Jimmy felt on the inside. He must have been another freshman.
“Do you have your physical form?”
“Yeah, it's in my shorts pocket.” He removed it as proof while his father pulled into a parking spot. With the car in park, James could finally take a moment to look down at his son. He fidgeted slightly under his father’s gaze. “Alright ... Well I’ll see you after practice?” Jimmy turned to open the door.
“Jim, don’t be scared of being the slowest. The real pressure is on whoever is the fastest.” He smiled and gave his son a wink.
“Haha ... Well luckily I don’t think I’m going to have worry about that.” And with a quick wave goodbye, he shut the door, leaving to walk nervously toward the growing group of runners gathering by the grass.
Chris Cline, July 2016
A small rock skipped its way up the sidewalk before coming to a stop. Then a foot swung and the rock was on the move once more. Chris and a group of friends, about eight men in total, were walking along School Lane towards West Chester North High School. Two of them were casually tossing a football back and forth while, much to his chagrin, Chris’s thumbs were fiddling away on his cell phone. As soon as he managed to finish a text and store his phone away in his pocket, it would buzz and call him back into duty.
“Geez Chris, who do you keep texting? Siri?”
“It’s Melissa, dude. She’s got no damn off-switch.” He pocketed his phone again and gave his rock one last casual kick, before he could feel the buzzing again.
“What are you guys talking about that she has so much to say?”
“Dude … literally nothing.”
“Well, at least she’s hot … Yo Joey, hit me!” The football came flying into view and Chris’s friend sprinted up the lot before making a smooth overhead catch. He did a small touchdown dance before tossing the ball back in the direction it had come. “See, everybody thinks we’re so good because of Chris,” he said to the group at large, “But look who he’s throwin’ the ball to, baby.”
It was late afternoon on a Friday. The sweltering heat that had melted spirits earlier in the day was cast aside and a slight cloud cover made the conditions a couple levels above reasonable. Chris and a few of his friends were headed to the high school for another game of two-hand touch football, their last chance to play before the school’s preseason mini-camp began.
The eight boys were rising seniors, having been in the program together for three years. Growing together in anticipation of this moment when all their hard work might come to fruition. Ernie Tyrell was Chris’s trusted wide receiver and one of his best friends. And that had translated on the field as Ernie led the conference in receptions in 2015. Paul Mintz, Dennis Petrov and Reese Wallace played offensive and defensive line. Chris’s neighbor, Jacob Naughton, captained the defense in the linebacker position. He had already committed to Penn State for 2017.
The previous season, West Chester North had made it to the Quarter Finals of the State Playoffs. It was the farthest the program had ever advanced and, considering North was one of the smallest schools in the division, an event fairly unprecedented in state history. But that wasn’t enough. After losing on a heart-breaking last second field goal against district powerhouse North Penn, Chris and his teammates were hungry to get back on the field and go further.
During the loss, Chris amassed 350 total yards and four touchdowns against one of Pennsylvania’s toughest defenses. It was the culmination of an impressive first season as the team’s starting quarterback. Slowly, he had become something of a celebrity around the township and, unexpectedly, one of the most popular students in school. Now his phone was always buzzing.
“C’mon bro, you planning to play quarterback with one hand.” Chris looked up from his phone to see a football inches from his face. He caught it easily with his left hand.
“No, actually I’m planning to be our number one receiver.” He tossed the ball back in a perfect spiral while finishing his last text. Finally. With a renewed sense of freedom, he sprinted ahead and intercepted the lackluster pass that Paul Mintz had aimed at Ernie. His momentum carried him easily through the gate to the football field.
“Hey Naught, look who it is?” The football field was empty, but a pack of four gangly, shirtless boys was traversing the track that surrounded it. Jacob smirked in response.
“Ah my best friends!” They were now within earshot of the runners who were focusing the majority of their attention on ignoring the new arrivals. In a two by two square, the pack of harriers motored swiftly down the straightaway in front of them. “Sorry, I left my shorts at home! I thought we were saving them for Monday!” Jacob called after them in a purposely flamboyant voice. A few of his fellow teammates roared with laughter. Chris forced out a small chuckle before moving onto the infield, out of the way of the runners. Here, he sat down to lace up his cleats. Pete and Reese joined him shortly thereafter, but a few others stayed along the track.
“Hey, let’s play chicken!” Paul Mintz walked to the middle of the track’s first lane and stood as the runners began to circle back in his direction. He waited patiently as they approached, unyielding, but the runners seemed determined to hold ground. At the last second, Mintz jumped aside and the runners, who had just broken formation, were swinging wide to avoid him, tripping over one another in their confusion. Again the crowd of football players went wild.
“Get after it boys,” Ernie slapped the trailing runner on the rear as he went past. It was a joke that particularly hit home with his fellow players. Dennis Petrov even fell to the ground to roll with glee at the humor.
“Alright are we gonna play football or are we just going to stand around slapping dudes’ butts?” Chris said impatiently. He was stretching his hamstrings carefully at the forty-five yard line while Reese and Pete were tossing the football back and forth. Somewhat reluctantly, the football team regrouped at midfield.
“Hey … if I choose the butt slapping, does that mean I should have joined the track team?”
“Ern, you slapped my butt twice on the way over here. I think you’re fine where you are.”
Ben Havleck, January 2016
After Winter Break had ended, Ben returned to school for the second semester of his Junior Year. He picked up his newest schedule from the Guidance office and set off up the stairs to his first period History Class. As he climbed the stairs, his legs ached slightly from his morning run around the campus. Ben was planning to run twice on Mondays and Wednesdays, once in the morning and once in the afternoon, called “doubling”. This would allow him to increase his total mileage while maintaining the average length of each individual run.
His hair hung wet after his morning shower, slightly obscuring his face as he slipped into class and took a seat at the back of the room. He preferred to be an afterthought in the classroom. It was not that he was afraid of being called on by the teacher or that he disliked school, but rather he did not want to come across as a know-it-all. Or perhaps worse, a teacher’s pet. He was still molding his reputation among his peers and did not want a blemish like that on his record.
The first half of the day was a typical first day back. Teachers refreshed the students on what they would be studying during the second half of their courses and returned the used textbooks to students who were renting them. Therefore, as Ben walked to lunch, he lugged a backpack about the size of a six year old with an affinity for chocolates. Considering his own height was roughly equivalent to said six year old, he could imagine how silly this looked. Fortunately, his locker was only a minor detour en route to the cafeteria, so he adjusted course accordingly.
As he approached, Ben spotted his locker neighbor, P.J. Danielson, fidgeting with what appeared to be a Chemistry book and a bright blue lunchbox. P.J. and Ben met in a last year’s fifth period math class and had since got along reasonably well. They were both smart and studious, but that was about where the similarities ended.
“Hey P.J.,” Ben said as he approached, giving a small nod of recognition. P.J. looked up surprised and slightly frazzled. His glasses were slightly askew and the collar of his shirt was flipped upwards on the left side.
“Hey Ben,” he said exasperated, “Do you think we will need books in both Math and Physics today? Because I’d like to start the Chemistry reading during study hall, but I’m worried the weight of my backpack is going to-”
“I’m not taking Physics this semester actually so I wouldn’t be able to tell you,” Ben replied as he switched out his first-half-of-the-day books and zipped his now empty backpack.
“Oh, ok.” P.J. looked slightly crestfallen at the idea the two would no longer be sharing the class: they had had the exact same schedule the previous semester. “What are you taking instead?”
“Um … introductory Spanish” He said sheepishly, and added quickly, “Want to go to lunch?” The two turned and headed down the main hallway.
“You know, Ben,” P.J. began, Ben’s attempts to change the subject thwarted, “Physics is a very useful subject and extremely applicable to the world around us. Statistics show that students enrolled in Physics are twice as likely to be accepted into Ivy League institutions … Not that a foreign language doesn’t show diversity and worldliness, but at an introductory level you won’t be able to even take an AP test in the subject … Unless of course you take some summer courses, but then …” Ben let P.J. continue to air his concerns as they walked to the cafeteria, nodding or reaffirming wherever appropriate. Sometimes when P.J. really got on a roll, that was all you could do.
By most definitions, P.J. was the stereotypical television show “nerd”. If you didn’t know any better, you might think his entire appearance was simply a clever and elaborate joke: the glasses that were often slipping down his nose, the collared shirts, the pencil behind the ear. He regularly misread social cues and had trouble fitting in. Sometimes, Ben got the feeling that, despite their limited contact, he was P.J.’s closest friend.
“I’m just going to stop here for a drink,” Ben stooped at the water fountain.
“People often underestimate the importance of hydration during the winter,” he replied as Ben straightened up and wiped his face with the back of his hand.
“People often underestimate the importance of hydration,” a large Senior mimicked P.J.’s voice as he passed, simultaneously miming the act of pushing imaginary glasses up on his face. His friends laughed obnoxiously and pointed, but P.J. was, impressively, unphased. Together, he and Ben found a table inside the cafeteria and pulled out their lunches.
“Doesn’t that stuff bother you? If it was me I’d have been tempted to punch that kid in the jaw.” He dumped the contents of a brown paper bag onto the table, catching his apple before it rolled off the table.
“I’ve learned to ignore it.” He responded simply. “It becomes a more amusing hobby if I react poorly.” He carefully laid out a napkin on the table and pulled out a perfectly sliced turkey and cheese sandwich. “Besides,” he said through his first bite, “The probability of you succeeding in a fight with an Offensive Lineman on the Football team is not statistically different from zero.” Slightly stung, Ben fought the urge to mime pushing glasses up his own nose.
The second half of the day began just as uneventfully as the first. In fact, in Spanish class, Mrs. Stillin let the class out five minutes early because they had finished everything they needed to cover with time to spare. As a result, Ben was the first one to his seventh period Calculus class. Picking his favorite seat in the empty room, he pulled out his notebook and began to sketch the workout he was hoping to do on Tuesday, scribbling down splits and carefully adding up times. He barely even noticed as students started to file in and fill the previously empty room, not diverted from his task until someone sat down in the seat next to him.
He assumed it was P.J., preparing to tell him about whatever riveting physics discussion he had missed an hour earlier. He looked up to check briefly, noticed a girl sitting there unpacking her books and then returned to his work. Wait, what? He did a double take, checking again to see who was willing to sit next to the new kid. Ben’s stomach did a three-sixty flip as he realized this was Nicole Christian: his secret crush since the first day he arrived at the school. After a moment, Ben realized he was staring unabashed in her direction and frantically turned to start unpacking his own books, stuffing his track notebook out of sight.
The lecture for class was essentially a haze as Ben alternated between sneaking sideways glances at his neighbor and day dreaming about the significance of this monumental event. But was it monumental? Could it not simply be coincidental? What other seats were left by the time she came in? He silently cursed his obsession with his track notebook for distracting him.
But the next day, after Ben powerwalked his way out of Spanish to get to Math Class first, she sat next to him again, even giving him a small smile before beginning to organize her desk. She was locked into that spot now, he thought. By the end of the second day, the seats you choose essentially become pseudo-assigned seats. It’s just basic classroom etiquette.
With an unprecedented amount of enthusiasm, he listened to the professor’s lecture.
Jimmy Springer, August 2016
It was a surprisingly pleasant August afternoon. The rain earlier in the morning had cooled Union Valley and, besides the occasional puddle or muddy stretch of terrain, it was reasonable conditions for the team’s first official practice. Jimmy steered his car carefully through the parking lot, navigating around the other vehicles dropping children off for fall sports. He wheeled into a spot in the back and punched off his radio before removing his keys. A few runners had already positioned themselves on the edge of the parking lot. It was striking to Jimmy how tiny and timid they all looked. Certainly, he had not looked the same way three years earlier.
Rustling through some trash in his back seat, he pulled out his running shoes. The untied laces tapped gently against the back of his seat as he brought them up front. Jimmy sat for a moment, holding the shoes, staring through the front of his car window. You don’t have to keep going, he thought. No one will stop you if you decide to quit. Silently, he turned his left shoe over in his hand. His mother had got him a brand new pair of trainers for his 18th birthday. There was a certain thrill about new shoes. A small excitement was brewing inside him. The desire to run hard, to run fast, to run far. A desire to make these new shoes old shoes.
Even after all the struggle, all the sacrifice, the sport was still calling him back for more. And he accepted the invitation once again.
Ben Havleck, November 1st 2016
“Next stop Hershey, Pennsylvania.” The announcement was barely decipherable over the bus speakers. But it didn’t matter. The bus was essentially empty and the only noise Ben could hear was the music coming from his headphones. Whatever tomorrow brings, I’ll be there … With open arms and open eyes yeaah . As the bus rolled into motion again, Ben stared out of his window, letting his mind wander. Alone with his thoughts.
No one likes being lonely, but Ben was at least used to being lonely. He spent hours a day running by himself, but that did not mean he liked it. After his sophomore year, Ben’s family moved from Downingtown, in the suburbs outside Philadelphia, to Bloomsburg Area, upending the fragile dynamic of his teenage social life. He was naturally shy and often uncomfortable around those he did not know. For that reason, some of his old teammates had nicknamed him Peanut because “you had to crack the shell to discover the nut that lies within”.
However, the nickname probably stuck so well because Ben stood a modest five foot five, had carried little to no muscle and his mounds of curly black hair probably accounted for the majority of his body weight. This body type now stood out against the backdrop of strong, rugged Bloomsburg men.
So it was not particularly surprising that, through his first semester of school, Ben struggled to fit in. He had eaten many of his lunches alone, determinedly looking down at a notebook filled with splits and workout logs attempting to project that his solidarity was a choice rather than a necessity. He was also slowly losing touch with his friends from his previous home, the connection between them sustained only by his out of date cell phone’s texting capabilities. And, perhaps worst of all, Bloomsburg Area High School did not have a cross country or track and field program.
Of course, that did not stop Ben. After meeting with the Athletic Director, he managed to negotiate club status at the school, meaning this “team” would have zero dollars in funding, but could still participate in the Pennsylvania Athletic League events, including the District and State Championships. In the fall of his junior year, Ben competed at one local invitational, funded by the money from his 17th Birthday and then the Class AA District Four Championships, where he placed 2nd and qualified for the State Championships. His experience at these championships would come to shape the rest of his high school career.
But that wasn’t the memory he wanted to clutter his mind. Especially now.
Mark Miller, May 2016
“Come on Miller, let’s go we’re gonna be late!” A tan Honda Pilot was parked outside the Miller residence. Two boys sat in the car, listening to music, while a third scrambled wildly at the front door. After a moments struggle, Mark came sprinting down the lawn, wearing one sandal and holding the other in his hand. He pulled open the back seat of the car, tossed his drawstring bag across the seat and flung himself inside. “Sorry, I couldn’t find my watch. You guys didn’t bring running shoes did you?”
“Heck no, I haven’t run since leagues. You have to take advantage of the benefits of being slow.” Mark’s teammate, Ian McPearson, had placed 7th in the 3200 meters at the Lancaster-Lebanon League Championship’s but missed the district qualifying standard by one second. “Can you drive a little faster Tom? We’re gonna be late.”
“Calm down dude, I’ve gotta be careful. This is my mom’s car.” The driver was Thomas Winslow, another member of Manheim’s Track and Field team. All three runners had just completed their sophomore season on the oval.
“Well you’re driving like her so I guess that makes sense … I still don’t get why I couldn’t drive.”
“Because Tom doesn’t drive straight through the center of a traffic circle,” Mark piped in from the back seat. “Yo, turn this song up.”
… Word on road is the clique about to blow, you ain’t gotta run and tell nobody they already know …
“This is sick, all Jayson ever plays in the car is country music …”
“You know I always keep the Drizzy loaded in the car, homie.” Tom and Mark shared a momentary fist bump.
“I don’t know how you two listen to this crap. Just another reason I should have driven.”
“Sorry Ian, but nobody wants to listen to ‘Bleed it Out’ on repeat.”
“Guys, seriously, I can’t race unless I listen to Bleed it Out first” Tom made his best effort to mimic Ian’ s voice while Mark laughed.
It was fantastic weather at Shippensburg. The clouds slightly obscured the morning sun. The air was almost perfectly still with the exception of an occasional cool breeze, gratefully accepted by the trio of sophomores exiting the parking lot. Even from a distance, Mark could see the bleachers were packed with family, friends and athletes.
“So I guess this meet is like a big deal or something?” Mark chuckled as Ian stepped to his left hip. He too was staring ahead at the stadium.
“It’s 9:25 now, so the small school boys are probably just about to start up. Probably got like 10 minutes until large schools.” Tom clicked the lock for his car and led the march to the entrance. At the gate, Mark and Ian chipped in for Tom’s ticket and, after their hands were stamped, they trekked around the outside of the track. The small school race was well underway, with a short, black haired boy leading the charge. A few runners were hobbling slowly off the back of the pack, unable to handle the pace.
“How fast you think those guys are running?” Ian asked Mark as they passed. “We could totally beat some of these kids if we were in this classification. What a joke.”
“ONE LAP TO GO! Havleck, Griffin, McKenzie!” The announcement came booming over the P.A. system as the front pack of runners surged by. Mark paused at the fence to watch. The curly haired boy at the front was straining to keep his lead. At the 200 meter mark on the far side, suddenly the runners in 2nd and 3rd sprang into action. They launched into an all out sprint, leaving the initial leader fighting through quicksand to keep pace. “It’s going to be McKenzie in 9:17! 62 seconds for the last 400 meters.”
“Wow! That was pretty fast!” Tom said as they climbed up the steps, looking for an open seat in the crowded stands. The others murmured their agreement. They walked to nearly the top of the stadium before sliding in next to another group of student-age spectators. “Aren’t your parents here somewhere, Mark?”
“Yeah, they got here way earlier. Didn’t want to be cutting it close.” He perused the section to his lower left. “I thought they said they were sitting with Lauren in the middle of the straight-”
“Wait Lauren’s here?” Tom and Ian started frantically scanning the crowd in all directions. Mark smirked, shaking his head in amused frustration. Lauren Johnson was his brother’s girlfriend and, more importantly to Mark’s friends, was very good looking.
“Dude I found her.”
“Right there man.” Tom looked in the direction Ian was pointing. Lauren was standing with her long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, wearing athletic clothing displaying the Manheim Township insignia. She was talking to an older woman whose nose resembled Mark’s, but had blonde hair to match Jayson’s.
“So Mark, is everything still going well with her and your brother? Or like … is she looking for a better looking, more distinguished academic type?” Tom flexed dramatically to underscore his point. Mark stared back, eye brows raised.
“Alright I take it everything’s good, then.” He paused as they announced the last call for the large school boys’ race. “How ‘bout your mom is everything going well with her and your dad? Or like … is she looking for a better looking, more d-”
Mark punched him hard in the arm.
Now 9:45, they began to line up the competitors for the Boys Large School 3200 Meter State Championships. The 3200 (the approximate metric equivalent for Two Miles) was an eight-lap race around the track, the longest event the PAL offered at the State Meet. The field consisted of eighteen runners, including five from District Three, the region of the state in which Manheim Township resided. Mark recognized a few familiar faces on the starting line, including, most obviously, his brother Jayson Miller.
Jayson had won the District Three Championships a week earlier on this same track with a winning mark of 9 minutes and 7.34 seconds. His margin of victory was nearly 50 yards, most of that coming over the last lap when he really decided to put the hammer down. Here at Shippensburg, Jayson was hoping to become Manheim’s first state champion in program history. But one man stood firmly in his way.
“So which one’s Springer?” Ian asked as the runners took their marks, anticipating the gun. Mark scanned quickly before spotting a tall figure with an orange singlet and dark blue shorts.
“That one.” As if on cue, the gun sounded and Springer sprinted forth, clearing the crowded field and taking up the lead. It was a beautiful, graceful stride, effortlessly gliding to the front. Jayson followed him, running tall and powerful, a look of determination and focus engraved on his face.
Jimmy Springer, May 2015
He sat on the edge of the bed. Outside he could hear the laughter and joy of the other athletes on the lawn. It must be nice, he thought to himself. His face became warm once again. If the tears came with another surge, he may not be able to fight them off. Blinking furiously, a few drops slipped through his defenses and splattered the sheets beneath him. It wasn’t fair. This was supposed to be the moment that would make everything right. When everyone would be happy again.
A knock came at the door and startled the boy on the bed. The palm of his hand wiped his face before turning its attention to twist a knob. Standing in the entranceway was a shorter man with glasses and wild, messy brown hair. He smiled, holding up a stack of papers. “I thought we should discuss some strategy for tomorrow.”
Jimmy Springer and Coach David Ames entered the stadium at Shippensburg early the next morning. It was already packed with reporters, fans and parents, but Jimmy wasn’t too concerned about the pressure or the “bright lights”. He had already succeeded on the big stage.
He watched the other runners as they walked in. Some looked nervous, others overwhelmed by the fans, the stadium, or the atmosphere. Springer had long passed that stage. He had even passed the sadness he felt the previous night. Now he was simply angry. If no one cared about him anymore, he would make them care. He would make history.
Together he and Coach Ames sat quietly, almost awkwardly, as time slowly ticked down. Eventually, Springer rose to his feet, throwing his jersey around his neck like a cape and grabbing his spikes. Coach Ames rose as well.
“Remember Jimmy-10 minutes is full recovery.”
The 3200 was first. He jogged carefully onto the infield, stone-faced, trying to project an air of invincibility to those around him. Stretching. Drills. Strides. All in silence and seriousness. As they lined up the competitors for the event, someone stuck out his hand.
“Good luck James” It struck him the wrong way. James. Something burned slightly within him, his eyes briefly stinging.
“My name is Jimmy” And he ignored the outstretched arm of the blonde haired boy so that he could turn his face from him. They took seeds one through six and walked them up to the top of the waterfall, pulling Jimmy and a few other athletes away from the majority of the field. He took a deep breath to calm himself, wiping a trail of sweat from underneath his eye. Or at least he pretended it was sweat.
“Runners to your marks …” He took a long step forward to the line. “Get set …” A slight look to his right revealed five nervous faces. A quiet confidence emerged inside of him. BANG! The crowd erupted and Jimmy sprinted coolly through traffic to take up a spot at the front. Around him, the field fought for position, but subconsciously everyone was defaulting to Jimmy.
There was no doubt the first 200 meters was fast. Maybe a 29 second bend. They are scared now, he thought to himself. Casually and easily, he took his foot off the gas.
Coach Ames was waiting for him near the 300 meter mark as planned. He didn’t open his mouth, instead giving a simple nod. Springer glided along at the front. The first 400 would still appear quick, but really they had gone down from four minute pace to five. He knew it. If the others do, they sure aren’t acting like it.
No one so much as challenged him down around the back stretch. Or by Coach Ames. Or again into the straightaway. The clock read 2:23 and the reality etched clearly for all to see, spelling out the dramatic change from meet record pace to state qualifying pace, kick-started the field.
Panic was setting in from all sides. Coaches were screaming for athletes to pick it up. Frantic jostling and positioning recommenced within the pack. Yet Springer was clear of it all at the front, just as planned. He had wasted no energy and stayed out of traffic. As they made their way into the backstretch for a third time, a few runners came swinging wide. Scott Zarniack, the WPIAL champion at 3200, surged wildly to the front, pulling Owen Ward of Coatesville to his shoulder. The blistering early pace had resumed. Runner after runner seemed to be flying by on Jimmy’s outside. He was in 5th. Then 8th. But every time he passed the 300 mark, his coach spoke the same barely audible word: “Wait”.
Jimmy was keeping an eye on his 400 splits as he came through. He had dipped his pace evenly down over the next three laps, while the runners at the front had burned themselves out going from 76 down to 66, most already slowing back down. Just as easily as he had been passed, Springer floated back towards the front. Every runner he overtook sent a new burst of energy through his body. The adrenaline of his race was empowering, wiping clean the pain of his daily life and replacing it with the ecstasy of competition and the thrill of impending victory.
He was right on the shoulder of the leaders again, closing in on 900 meters to go.
“GO NOW JIMMY! IT’S TIME TO GO! PUSH!” For the first time, Coach Ames was positively shouting, a far cry from his silent, stoic demeanor he had maintained in the race’s early stages. Springer responded, pressing for a brief moment and breaking loose of the field with an impressive surge. A pair of Coatesville runners, Sean Williams and Owen Ward, were his only real competitors now. He could hear their strained breathing. A slight wheezing was coming from Williams. Ward’s arms were beginning to flail. But their spirit was perhaps more broken than their actual bodies.
Jimmy held the lead around the turn of the penultimate lap. I can’t believe it, he thought to himself. They bought it. He smiled to himself as he effortlessly loped down the back straightaway, Williams and Ward running doggedly in his wake. However, slowly the lead group of three was increasing in size. The chasers were making a bid to join them. Williams looked wildly over his shoulder, confused by the turn of events.
Springer’s initial burst. Ames’s wild cheering. It was all a ruse. Jimmy hadn’t gone to the front to start his kick, he’d gone there to delay it. Slowing the pace back down fit perfectly into his plans: save as much energy as possible while simultaneously guaranteeing a true kicker’s finish. Stunned by the ever increasing pack, Williams desperately surged his way to the front, going back ahead of Springer to hold the lead into the bell. Jimmy held his ground, stepping slightly sideways to avoid becoming boxed in on the inside rail. Now they were sprinting in earnest along the far straightaway, but he knew he still had gears left in reserve.
The roar of the crowd was growing as the runners rounded their final turn. Jimmy tried to remain patient, but he could feel sprinters closing in on both his inside and outside. And Williams was slowing. His push from home had come too furiously and too soon.
“GO JIMMY, YOU GOTTA GO NOW!” This time Ames’s screaming was authentic. Seizing the moment, Jimmy flipped on his switch. Slingshotting himself off the turn, Springer came flying into the straightaway, a slight breeze brushing across his face, wind whipping gently through his hair. He tried to remain smooth, to keep his face calm. 75 meters. 50 meters. 25 meters. He chanced a look to his outside. There was no one. He chanced another to his inside. All clear. The emotion of the moment hit.
With a dramatic fist pump and a scream of triumph, Jimmy Springer won the state championship at 3200 meters.
Ben Havleck, January 2016
After a disappointing race, the worst part is the wait until the next chance at redemption. For Ben, that wait was going to be nearly three months. The money he had been saving was enough for only two meet entries this winter. Half the funds were for the PTFCA Indoor State Track and Field Championships on February 28th. But in order to even be eligible for this race, he would first have to eclipse the 9:00.23 standard in the 3000 meter run.
He had targeted the Muhlenberg Carnival on February 12th as the meet to chase this mark, feeling that it allowed the best competition relative to his limited resources. Currently, Ben spent a few nights and weekends working at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore to pick up extra cash for his racing expenses. His parents would have gladly donated to the cause. Their primary concern had always been the happiness and well-being of their children. But Ben did not want to be a burden. He understood why they had to move in the first place and knew money was tight.
The Havleck family, consisting of Ben, his parents Beth and Paul, and his five-year-old sister Cayley, had moved out to Bloomsburg in an attempt to cut costs and find work. Paul Havleck’s role in the technology and innovation department at Merck Laboratories had been eliminated as the company was making a push to “get younger”, improving its technological understanding and embracing the cutting edge, fast moving new generation of workers. As a result, Mr. Havleck had turned to the open market, and graciously accepted a teaching position at Bloomsburg University. With two kids, one of whom burned and refueled calories at an unthinkable rate, and college tuition prices rising, the position was doubly beneficial. As long as he was employed, both children would be able to attend Bloomsburg for free: removing a looming anxiety.
But money was still a concern. Beth had returned to work for the first time since Cayley was born and the family’s usual summer trip to Sea Isle City, New Jersey was put on hold until things were better settled. Ben felt the extra stress of funding a full racing season on top of his sister’s gymnastic classes would be an unnecessary strain on the budget. Of course convincing his parents to let him take a job without letting on his reasoning had been a bit tricky.
“Why is it that you want a job Ben?” His father said to him from the head of the dinner table as he spooned a helping of Mac and Cheese onto his plate. “You made solid money at camp last summer, didn’t you?” Ben took a sip of water before responding.
“Yeah it was fine, I’m just looking to-have a bit more that I can use when I need it …” he trailed off awkwardly. His mother took the Mac and Cheese from his sister and passed it along to Ben.
“Honey,” she said sympathetically, “this doesn’t have to do with college payments does it? I think, with time, your father and I will be able to pay for whichever school you want to-”
“It’s not about that,” he cut across her more hastily than intended, “I just-well if I go out to eat or need to go to the mall, I’d like to have some extra money to pull from.” He was paying particularly close attention to spooning food on his plate, avoiding the gaze of either parent.
“You know you can always come to us if you need something.”
“Wait Beth, I think I see what’s going on …” Snapping his head up, Ben eyed his father nervously. “You have a girlfriend, don’t you son?” There was a bit of an awkward pause. This certainly was not where Ben had seen the conversation going. “Well, when you go out on a date, you need to have some money for gas or a nice meal. That’s understandable.”
Well … no I-there’s no girl I just-” he did not know how to finish his sentence. “Um … Not yet, but maybe one day …” It was at least partially true and if it got him to where he wanted to go …
He could see his mother eager to ask a multitude of questions, but thankfully, she restrained her impulse and instead chose to smile cheerfully. “Well as long as the job doesn’t interfere with your school work … And we still want our family dinners as close to intact as possible.”
“Sure, no problem,” Ben scarfed down a few more bites of garlic bread. “I have an interview tomorrow afternoon so I figure if you guys can drop me off, I’ll bring a change of clothes and then I can just run back.”
“Didn’t you just run today? And now you’re going to run tomorrow?”
“Everyday, Mom.” He smiled and turned his attention to his salad as the conversation mercifully switched to focus on his sister.
“How was your day at school today Cay? Any exciting news like your brother?”
“Well …” Cayley tapped her nose carefully while pondering her response, “Today at recess me and Tommy Finster got married by the swing set,” she said matter-of-factly. The family laughed together at the news.
“This is so sudden Cayley, we didn’t even get to meet the guy!”
“That’s ok, I saw him picking his nose at lunch time so I divorced him.” She nibbled from her meal. “Chuckie Pickering let me share his chocolate pudding so I think I’ll prolly marry him tomorrow.” As they continued to laugh, Paul glanced sideways at his son.
“We have a few puddings left in the fridge if you want to take them with you on your date. Sounds like they get results.”
Chris Cline, September 2016
He stared across the table, staring blankly, his thoughts focused internally. “Do you ever wonder … Am I playing the wrong game?” Chris paused, thoughtfully. “Is this what I’m really meant to do?” He stroked his chin artfully in the moment. Then he drew back his free arm and launched the Ping-Pong ball in a high arc through the air. It soared across the table before splashing gently into the lone cup on the other end. “Because seriously, I might be the next Jordan.”
“Whoo yeah, that’s game baby!” Ernie and Chris exchanged a casual low five as their opponents on the other end walked away solemnly. “How many games is that now? Like six?”
“I don’t know, but I’m gonna need to take a break.” Chris wobbled slightly as he took his first step, but steadied himself quickly before sitting down on the couch. He turned to look at the clock, his vision slightly behind his head. 11:05 PM. Ernie flopped down to his right.
“You know I really enjoyed the overdramatic, existential routine you pulled back there. Nice twist on the cocky flare you usually play with.”
Chris grinned, “I prefer to think of it as confidence.”
“Liquid confidence maybe.”
They sat briefly in silence while the music from the party filled the air. As I recall I know you love to show off … But I never thought that you would take it this far …
Ernie momentarily considered his cup. He lifted it to his lips for a moment but then, thinking better of it, lowered it again. “So what time are we going in tomorrow?”
It was officially the last night of summer. West Chester North’s first day of classes began in less than eight hours. Well, for most of the school anyway. West Chester’s football team had been given a special reprieve from morning classes so that they could fit in an extra film session in preparation for the opening game of the season: a match up with cross-town rival Coatesville.
“I assume we still have to be there by 7, we just won’t actually have to do any school work until after lunch.” Chris looked across the room and noticed Paul Mintz slumbering peacefully in a reclining chair. “Our only job is not falling asleep during film.”
“Which is going to be harder than a typical first day most likely …” Ernie said, stifling a yawn. He fiddled absentmindedly with his sweatshirt zipper and looked around the party, eventually catching sight of something behind Chris’s head. “And that’s my cue …” And Ernie rose to his feet and exited casually through an opening to his left.
“What are you talking-” but Chris’s confusion was alleviated when a pair of hands covered his eyes from behind and a female voice came to him in his blindness.
“Guess who?!” She said in a playful tone.
“Hey Melissa,” Chris said, half-laughing, half exasperated. She removed her hands and moved into his line of sight, sharing a passionate kiss before taking up a position beside him.
“So I was just talking to Shannon and she said that her sister thinks that ….” Chris put on his best attempt at an interested face. She had been his girlfriend for a few months now so he had learned to mentally prepare himself for gossiping and fashion discussions. “…. And I was all like, well of course I’d be happy for you, but like really if she gets it instead of me I would be, like, totally outraged because she barely even, like, knows any of our cheers or anything …”
Melissa Fredricks was head cheerleader for West Chester North’s squad and easily one of the most popular girls in school. A simple look at her Facebook page would reveal over 1,000 friends (and double that in pictures). She had spent her early high school years dating older boys, including the previous quarterback of the football team. Chris’s mother would have described her as one of the “fast” girls at North: she was doing things at a “faster pace” than a typical girl was at her age. The outfit she had decided to wear to the night’s party would have supported his mom’s theory.
“I can’t believe we have to go back to school in a couple hours. And you’re not even going to be there with me for half the day!” She hugged him as she finished her sentence.
“Yeah … it’s a bummer …” Her hug had pinned his right arm to his side, allowing for only an awkward one-armed response. “Did we ever figure out how we are getting home by the way?” Chris glanced over at the clock again. His parents were likely already concerned about his lateness. “Can your parents still come by?”
“No, I never asked. I thought we were just getting a ride with Jacob.”
“Jacob? Are you serious?” Chris stared across the room at Jacob who was laughing hysterically at something Ernie had just said. Both had their arms around each other’s shoulders. Possibly in a display of friendship, possibly out of necessity to maintain balance. “I’m not getting in a car with him.”
“It’s fine, it’s just right around the corner-”
“No way. C’mon, I’ll walk you to your house and then I’ll-I don’t know-run home or something.” He looked again across the room, his face hardening. “It’s not that far and I’d rather make sure we get back safely.” Melissa smiled slightly. She appreciated his efforts to protect her, but also looked slightly put off about the thought of walking nearly a mile.
“Ok … But can you hold my shoes?”
Darkness. Silence. Chris felt like it probably would have been an enjoyable experience to make this jog under normal circumstances. He could immerse himself in his thoughts, undisturbed. These days, it was rare to get a few moments alone. Of course, tonight his thoughts were dominated by concerns. Would he be in trouble for being out so late? For being at the party?
Snap. He stepped on a twig as he continued to stride along through the night, causing him to look about frantically before realizing he was still alone. His feet ached as he bounded. Boat shoes were a counterproductive choice. Sweat was slowly starting to fall from his face and collect on his upper-body. The collar of his shirt was moist to the touch. Well, at least I won’t smell like the party when I get home, he thought to himself. Another two to three minutes and he would be home before midnight, able to sneak up to bed with little suspicion. Chris took a deep, calming breath and turned onto his street.
Behind him, car lights brought the street in front of him into view. Probably just Jacob on his way home. He checked back over his shoulder, trying to make out the vehicle. No luck. As he continued on, the car pulled even with him and he could take another shot. A Subaru. Definitely not Jacob’s car. But the car was slowing down. A little farther along his path, it pulled over at the side of the road, sitting, apparently waiting for him. Oh, shoot … Please don’t be a cop, please don’t be a cop …
“Hi there,” It was a friendly voice, projecting from what appeared to be a tall, skinny man with glasses. “That’s quite the stride you have there.”
“Um … thanks,” Chris mumbled. What the f- is going on?! If he says he has candy in his car, I’m bolting …
“Have you ever considered running cross country?”
“Uh … not really …” Chris looked around as if searching for someone hiding in the bushes. The situation was so bizarre, he wanted to make sure he wasn’t being punked. “Honestly, I didn’t really want to run this far, so I can’t imagine making it across the entire country …”
“No, no” The man laughed briefly, “For the Cross Country team. We compete in distance races, about three miles long, across a variety of terrains. Against all the top schools in the area. Our team will be competing throughout the fall.”
“Oh …” Chris’s mind jumped back to the runners he and his friends had encountered at various points during the summer. To the bullying and dislike from his teammates. “I play Football in the fall so I wouldn’t be able to swing it … Um … Sorry.” He finished awkwardly.
“Well, if anything changes, feel free to let us know,” the man said happily. And with that, he drove off into the darkness, leaving Chris in silence once again.
You couldn’t catch me dead in those shorts.
Ben Havleck, January 2016
It was a crisp fall day at the beginning of November: stereotypical cross country weather. A long row of boys, jumping up and down to stay warm, was confined on either side by two long seas of fans and parents. A lone man in an orange vest fiddled with his starter’s gun about halfway down an empty straightaway of grass. Ben stood alone in a box nearly dead center on the course, wearing a plain, maroon cotton t-shirt, black running shorts and a pair of white gloves. Bloomsburg did not have an official team, which meant they did not have official uniforms. While the other kids wore carefully designed racing singlets, Ben fidgeted in his gym uniform top, trying to adjust the sleeves to his liking. He knew the first straightaway narrowed quickly and was deceivingly short, making the first 200 meters a dogfight for position. He looked at his competition to either side. They seemed much taller than he was. Or at least how tall he felt.
As the gunman raised his arm, a hush fell across the crowd creating an eerie moment of silence. Ben took a deep, calming breath. Then there was a shot. Then an explosion of noise. The crowd erupted into cheers and Ben sprinted as hard as he could, struggling desperately for space. Elbows were flying. Runners were collapsing down on top of him from all sides. Beginning to panic, he stepped wrong and lost his balance. He tried frantically to steady himself. He could feel his position slipping, but he managed to not fall. He was in a decent spot. Probably about 12th. He made to go around the first turn, but as he did so, he took an elbow to the chest and again started to wobble dangerously. Behind him, jockeying had caused another runner to extend his arms out for balance. There was a push in the back and Ben’s already fragile balance crumbled away.
From the ground, a stampede of runners were beginning to go by, like a heard of scared gazelle. He reacted the best he could: dodging and rolling through traffic, shielding his face to avoid being stabbed by shoe spikes. And now there was music playing, loud blaring music, not coming from any source in particular but sounding vaguely familiar …
I tried so hard, and got so far … but in the end , it doesn’t even matter …
Ben awoke with a start and whirled through his blankets to turn off his alarm, which was loudly trumpeting “In the End” by Linkin Park. Coming to his senses, he checked the clock as it turned from 5:45 to 5:46. He lay flat on his back and stared at the ceiling for a moment, the scenes from his dream still lingering in front of his eyes. He reluctantly flicked his blankets away from his body and dressed for his morning run to school.
He pulled out a pair of white gloves and his knit hat from the basket by the door. After a momentary struggle, he was able to corral most of his hair beneath its surface. He gave a quick glance at his reflection in the mirror, tied his house key into his shoe and ran off into the darkness. His light breathing and his efficient stride gave a rhythm to his morning, accented by the occasional click-clack of key meeting shoe.
Circling by the school, he checked the status of his track: still covered in snow. He was getting tired of making up workouts revolving around arbitrary distances and longed for a bit more scientific approach to training. His previous workout was five repetitions of the school perimeter with ninety seconds of slow jog recovery in between each interval. Before that, he had done an out and back run to Molino Park, running conservatively the way there and as hard as he could for the three miles it took him to return home. He was able to make these tests challenging, but the imprecise nature of their design made it impossible for him to track his progress. He knew he was improving, but he wanted to know how much.
The Muhlenberg Track Carnival was only two weeks away and, although he was confident in his fitness, his goal time was light-years ahead of his personal best from the previous winter. Without any additional data to prove otherwise, he could not fight the notion that he was being foolishly over confident.
He ran some splits through his head as he circled back through the side neighborhoods of his high school, carefully dodging a student driver rolling straight through a stop sign. 72s per lap outdoors, 36s indoors. He jogged through the parking lot, imagining himself clicking off the marks one at a time. 36, 72, 1:48, 2:24 …
With eight miles under his belt, Ben scarfed down a bagel before transitioning to some light core work in the locker room. By the time he had showered and sidled into history class, the second bell that signaled the start of 1st Period was fading into silence. Hastily, he pulled out his notes and flipped to a fresh page. Unlike some other classes, to which he would gladly have been late, Ben immensely enjoyed his history class. It was amazing for him to learn about all the little facts and subtle circumstances that ultimately had a gargantuan effect on the shaping of society.
Currently, they were studying the 1960 presidential election between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy. It was an interesting example of the power of public opinion and a good first impression.
“The debates were televised and Nixon seemed nervous and uncomfortable, while Kennedy was just the opposite …” His teacher paced through the rows of attentive students, “Even if you are a hardworking, dedicated student, sometimes those who are blessed with natural gifts like confidence or charisma will still get ahead … It calls us to question what we perceive or what we want to be important and what is actually important …”
Chris Cline, October 2016
“Hey! Are those new?”
“Yeah, I just got them last night.” Chris was smiling as he stepped out of his car, flaunting a pair of jet-black running shorts. They covered less than half of his impressive quad muscles.
“Well now you’re officially a cross country runner!”
“How does it feel?”
“Honestly …” Chris fidgeted a bit with the lining in his shorts. “I’m a little cold.” He hopped up and down for a second and the trail surface grinded slightly beneath his shoes. “You guys ready to run? I’ve got a doctor’s appointment at 12 …” Chris trailed off as he spoke, realizing the implications of what he had said. The mood among the runners, previously upbeat and jovial suddenly became awkward and tense.
“Finally getting your cast off?” Sam asked with a forced casualness. Chris looked down at his left hand absentmindedly.
“Yeah … Should um … make me a bit lighter …” He purposely avoided his friends’ eyes. It might not even matter. If they lose tonight, there’s no decision. “C’mon, let’s get this run in. I’m freezing in these things.”