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The Life of a Long Distance Runner: A very short story

Posted by on February 3, 2020 in Uncategorized

cross countryJake had prepared for the last race of the season, the County High School Cross Country Championships. He was now a Sophomore, the 10th grade. He was younger than most of his classmates. Jake was 14. He was very slender, in fact skinny. He stood at 5 feet nine inches and weighed 120 lbs. His legs were particularly skinny. His calves were barely wider than his shin bones. That was not due to lack of eating. He consumed vast amounts of carbohydrates every day, and sugar and fat, and at least a gallon of milk and a quart of Half and Half, when he ate an entire box of cereal, with a can of mixed fruit in heavy syrup, with a sliced banana in it. Nothing he did, including lifting weights for an hour every day, seemed to help him get any bigger. But then, he was a runner. In fact, Jake was known throughout his town, to people who did not know his name, as “the runner.” His was a town of about 30,000 people. It was an artist colony along a picturesque beach. He ran along its beach every day. He woke up at dawn and ran its length, several miles, before running to school, and showering and dressing in the gym. After school, he met with the Cross Country team, about 15 other kids from his school, and they worked out along the beach too. Jake showered after those work outs and then washed dishes at a Steak House before it opened for business. All alone, he would enter by the back door, and find stacks of pots and pans, and piles of dishes, that he patiently washed and ran through the giant machine for doing so. He wore thick rubber gloves, a face guard, a heavy apron, and big boots when doing this because of the scalding hot water. When that was done, Jake would walk home, eat some more, do some homework, while listening  to his music, and then take another run along the beach, before showering, going to bed and starting that routine another day.

Letterman jacketJake’s high school was in the “Coast League.” Their school competed against the other schools with towns along the beach or nearby. Jake’s high school, was in Breakers Beach, located between Los Angeles and San Diego, in a county once named for its millions of acres of Orange Trees, “Orange County.” Breakers Beach High School held a county-wide Track meet every year. Thirty other high schools sent their teams to compete for the weekend event. Jake’s small town was overwhelmed with people for those two days. Boys wearing their school jackets with their large Varsity letters of their school, paraded through Jake’s town in groups, with gold, silver and bronze medals they had won dangling on their chests. Jake wore his jacket too. He had become a “Varsity Letterman” in his Freshman year on both the Cross Country and Track teams. Jake learned how to win a medal, in his first year, when he was in last place, lagging behind older and taller runners on the Freshman squad. In a section of the course that doubled back near the starting line, Jake’s coach screamed at him “Get the f**king lead out of your ass, McDonald!” Jake hated being screamed at and so he quickly picked up his pace. He intended to run faster, just until he was out of sight from his coach. But as he continued to pass the other runners, he  became more and more elated. Soon, he was running with the leader of the pack, who sped up to get away from Jake. Jake sped up to stay with him. Together they ran for miles, each trying to tire-out the other and gain the advantage. At last, they came to within sight of the finish line. They both began trying to out sprint the other and win the race. But they both had exhausted all the reserve strength they hoped to find. Jake and his competitor ran side by side towards the piece of string being held across the finish line by two pretty girls. Jake did not even notice the boy next to him. He couldn’t. It required all of his concentration to be focused on his legs moving faster. Then, as if opening his eyes, which may have been shut for a time, Jake heard cheers and encouraging screams from the Varsity Team waiting with his coach. “Go, Jake! Go!” And then Jake felt the slight trip of string across his chest, being the winner. That race changed Jake’s life forever.

After that win, Jake’s Coach, “Pinky Green,” who once ran in the Olympics, but who was now aged and really no longer enjoyed coaching, announced on the bus the name of the boy on the Varsity team who came in last that day, and demoted him to the Junior Varsity. Then, he pointed at Jake and give that boy’s spot to him. “Let’s see if you can show the rest of this team what it takes to be a winner!” That did not help jake “fit-in” well with the rest of the boys after that.

In his Sophomore year, most of the team graduated. There was only one other boy on the team who could now keep up with Jake in workouts and races, a new boy, Jerry. They became inseparable. They often worked out together before and after school. On the weekends they liked to run at night, in the summer. It seemed that in the cool air they could run faster and forever.

Jerry was a bigger, stronger and an older boy. He was  a natural born runner too. Neither was really faster than the other, except when it came to sprinting. Jerry could sprint faster. Jerry and Jake would run side by side until the final few hundred yards of a race, then Jerry would go into another gear, speed up, and win. It was terribly frustrating to Jake. Until one day in the middle of his 10th grade CC season. In a race at another school, Jake and Jerry were way out in front of the pack when coming towards the finish line, Jake began to sprint. But to his surprise, as he was about to cross the finish line, Jerry had not yet caught up. Inexplicably, Jake stopped. He waited for Jerry to catch-up, ignoring the yelling of his coach to finish the race. As Jerry came closer, Jake began jogging, think they would cross the line together this time. Jerry did not have the same thought. He sped past Jake and won the race. He even set a record and was in the town paper, receiving public praise the next day!

Jake was disappointed but also encouraged. Jerry was beatable. He knew this now. Jake began practicing sprinting regularly. Each day, by himself, he practiced sprinting the last 300 yards of their high school course. He put markers along the course as signals for him to speed up at those points. His goal was to create spurts that would distance him from Jerry, and then to beat him at the end with superior sprinting speed. It worked. Jake beat Jerry in the next 3 races. Now, the Championships were next.

The team got on the big, yellow school bus that drove them to a golf course in Huntington Beach. All the teams were there, hundreds of kids. They were divided into racing levels for separate races. Jake’s was the varsity championship, the highlight of the event. They ran first.

In preparation for this race, Jerry and Jake visited a wacky doctor that lived near the high school. He was a friend of most of the athletes at the school. The football team was allowed to have their parties at his house. Jake, Jerry and another racer, came by and visited Dr. Hopping the night before their big race. Dr. Hopping suggested that they get hypnotized. Jake was the only one that permitted it. He did not think it worked. He did not even remember being hypnotized, although he did recall agreeing to be.

At the Championships, Jake and 5 other top runners in the county were in the front line. The boy from Huntington Beach high school was very muscular and friendly. He had led all the runners in jogging through the course to familiarize themselves to it. At the start, after a few hundred yards, the course circled a large putting green area and then it circled the golf course and came back to the finish line.

The four boys on the front line with Jake were all Seniors, who would soon be graduating and going on to the colleges that gave them scholarships to run on their teams. Jake had never beaten any of these boys in a race before. He was intimidated but confident. He knew that winning at this level had a lot to do with who wanted it the most. On the line next to him was a very tall boy. Jake’s head came to just above his belly button. He and Jake had raced eachother before on that boy’s own school course. They were running neck to neck when they came to an open gate they needed to run through, along a wire fence. Just as Jake was about to run through, being slightly in front, the boy’s big hand slammed into Jake’s back, causing him to stumble and go crashing into the fence, instead of through the gate. He lost that race. But Jake determined to pay that boy back some day.

When the race’s gun went off, the top Varsity runners at the Championship quickly outpaced all the other runners. They went around the huge putting green and then down into a gully bordered by tall Eucalyptus trees. It was shaded and bedded with damp leaves. But it was broad and flat. It ran for about a quarter of a mile. Because it was hidden from public view, many of the spectators waited at the other end, when it rose back unto the level of the golf course and into the sunlight. The boy from Huntington High was a few yards in the lead with Jake and the tall boy a few yards back. Jake was feeling comfortable and was staying relaxed. He focused on his wrists. Jake had discovered that by keeping his wrist muscles loose, it transferred to his arms, torso and legs. He was enjoying the race. The pace was easy enough for him to take the lead when he wanted. Maybe then, he could increasingly outdistance those with him and win the race. “Yes. ‘Win the race!’ Win the race!” He repeated to himself, inside of his head. He could smell the Eucalyptus. He had built a tree fort in the ancient, Eucalyptus in his home’s front yard. Many hot days Jake spent just laying on the mattress he put up there, inside of his fully enclosed and roofed hideaway, wondering about his future. Mostly, he dreamed of running in the Olympics. His idol was Jim Ryun, the high school phenom from Kansas who had just beaten Peter Snell, the world champion from Australia, and set a world record in the mile. Running beneath these trees encouraged Jake. It felt like they were friends cheering him on.

Wham! Being out of sight of all other runners, suddenly the tall boy next to Jake slammed his fist into Jake’s jaw. Jake does not remember that happening. He knew that is what happened though. He must have laid there, out of sight, laying unconscious on the leaves, as dozens of other boys ran past him or over him. By the time he awoke, he was in dead last. He could not even see anyother runners. This is when something somewhat miraculous happened.

Jake got up. He ran through the funnel of trees and up into the sunlight. The boys in last were a hundred yards ahead, about to start the 4 mile circle around the golf course. It was flat when he ran out from beneath the trees. Jake could see about ¾ of a mile in the distance the lead runners, especially the tall boy, who stood head and shoulders above the rest. He became Jake’s target. That was who he focused his vision on. He did not even notice how many other runners he was passing. He had one goal. He had to catch the tall boy. His conviction was adamant. His legs obeyed. Before reaching the final mile of the race, Jake had caught up, and even passed the boy who hit him. It was like his first win as a Freshman. He only intent was to catch up. But now that he had, he was still not tired. It was as if he had awakened from a dream, to suddenly find himself in front, after being so far behind. He realized that his legs should be weary and his lungs on fire. But they were not. Like a horse running free from a stable, Jake’s legs wanted to keep going and run faster.

As he came near the finish line, which he could see less than a few dozen yards away, he became confused. To his left was the Putting Course they were required to run around at the beginning. “Am I supposed to run around it again?” Jake asked himself several times in a split second. Then he turned to run around it. He was so far in the lead, all by himself, too far from the others to even hear their pounding feet and hard breathing. He would win this race. It was as if he was like the wind, and without feet. Jake seemed to be soaring towards the finish as if being blown toward it.

As Jake rounded the last turn, he saw his mistake. No one else had followed him. It was not required to run the putting course twice. There were already several runners ahead of him speeding to the finish line. Jake ran furiously. He crossed the finish line behind the two seniors and Jerry, into the funnel lined by ropes that narrowed to a small opening where each runner was given a popsicle stick with their finish number on it. Then suddenly, two runners from Huntington burst passed him in the line who had finished behind him. They bumped hard against his skinny shoulders. They knocked him against the ropes. By the time he regained his balance those two already had their popsicle sticks with for 4th and 5th places. Officially, Jake came in 6th. There was nothing he could do about it. He had made a mistake. It cost him, just like when he waited for Jerry that day.

Jake’s only consolation was that next year, there would be no one faster than he was. He would win the Championship for the next two years. He would get scholarship offers from major universities. He would choose Stanford. He would Master in Comparative Literature and become a professor. That is how his life would turn out.

He was sorely disappointed about losing the race that he should have by all rights won, especially after being knocked out. The loss was difficult to accept. Jerry was written up again in the town newspaper. He was the school hero for a while. Jake had to wait for the next year.

During the summer, after that school year, Jake began preparing for Cross Country in the Fall. Living at the beach, he bodysurfed a lot. But now, he also swam distances. He would swim well beyond the waves and their swells, into the deeper ocean where the color went from light blue to dark. It surprised Jake to find how extremely tired it made him. He could run for miles without even breathing hard; but, when he swam more than 100 yards he was exhausted. But as he kept at it, he knew he would improve. And by the end of summer, Jake was swimming a mile a day and running ten. He was ready.

Jake was a Christian. His family were not. But he enjoyed the bible studies at students’ houses that his church had once a week, and the fellowship, and the singing. (Too, there were also some pretty girls that attended that Jake hoped to make friends with.) His group, along with many others throughout the area went to a mountain retreat every year, just before school started again, called Forest Home. It was 5,000 feet above sea level. It was rocky with white granite, speckled with black flecks. And it was heavily forested with giant pine trees. There was also a big, rushing river that ran nearby over millions of rounded rocks and big bleached pebbles. They slept in tiny wooden cabins that held several bunk beds. Dozens of these were spewed around the Chapel and dining area. For a week, kids his age from nearby churches played together and gathered to listen to some of the most profound preachers and also most humorous. They swam in a nearby lake that had a platform and a slide in its middle. And there were always fun cabin competitions that the camp counselors created for them. But this year, Jake went for a different reason. Forest Home that year was also holding a “runners camp.” High school runners from all around were attending. Jake joined too.

Learning to run in a higher elevation was a painful lesson to learn. On the first day, the runners, about three dozen, had to race from the Chapel to the lake. Jake was amazed at how quickly it made his lungs feel like they were breathing fire when he raced. He was way out in front of the other runners at first, but he had to stop because he began coughing and spitting because of the pain in his throat from breathing cold, thin, mountain air.  It took a week before he adapted and could run and win without gasping for more air.

Then one day, after chapel, the coach gathered his team together, with all of their clothes still on, and challenged them to meet him at the lake where he would give them a drive back for lunch. “Go!” the coach suddenly screamed, as he took out his stopwatch and clicked the timer. Everyone took off, in whatever they thought would be the shortest path to the finish. Jake burst out the side doors of the chapel and began running down a grassy hill to the road below. He did not see, or know, that there were water sprinklers and water lines running above ground below the thick foliage. His foot caught on one as he took giant leaps down the hillside. He fell and rolled to the edge of the road, where he fell again, six feet unto the asphalt.  Stunned, Jake got up. His right leg was stiff. He could feel that he was bleeding, and pain was shooting like flaming rockets up his leg. Jake knew he was hurt.

Fortunately, almost directly across from where Jake fell was a medical office for the camp. Jake went in and got seen. His thigh was torn and bleeding and had some pieces of rock embedded in it. It was swollen and the pain was increasing. But there were several other kids who wanted to be seen. So, they cleaned his wound, bandaged it, and sent him out the door.

Jake went back to his cabin, slowly and in tremendous pain. He managed to climb into the top bunk that was his and fall asleep.  When he awoke some time later, he was still alone. The pain was now unbearable, and his leg had swollen so much that it was stretching the thigh part of his jeans. He had to pee. But Jake could not figure out how to get back onto the floor. Too, he knew it would be impossible for him to walk. So, without remedy, Jake just allowed himself to wet himself and his bed.

Eventually, he was found by his cabinmates. The nurse was called. And someone drove him back to his home at Breakers Beach. No one was there when Jake arrived, so the people left him there, assuming his parents would return soon, and drove back. Actually, his parents had taken a vacation themselves. Jake eventually was able to climb into a window and fall asleep on his bed in a torrent of sweat and tears. He stayed there for another week. The only time he moved was when he had to go to the bathroom. He used the handle of a broom for a crutch. His weight dropped to below 100 by the time his parents returned and found him.

The doctors said he had fractured his hip and tore several tendons and muscles. He was to stay off his leg for six months. He was bed ridden. By the time he recovered, Jake slowly regained weight, muscle and strength. He also ran again and won a few races. But Jake’s hopes for glory, a scholarship and the Olympics were dashed. Jake’s entire life was altered due to that one innocent fall.

Sometimes, as Jake became older and older, he would think back and wonder what might have been. Who would he had become? Who would he have married? Would he have become a college professor? Would he have been much happier than with the life he lived, instead? Sometimes Jake wondered about that.

Jake did eventually go to community college and eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in English. He became a high school teacher and a coach. He had 3 kids. None became a runner. He was divorced 3 times and never had the close relationship with his children that he wanted. He built a janitorial business to enhance his teachers earnings. He watched sports on TV. He especially loved watching the long distance running events. He was lonely most of his life and not ever really happy. Jake was just another man among millions who had a youth, had dreams and had disappointments. Jake died at the age of 70. He was cremated by the county. Who knows what happened to his remains after that? 

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Mark Baird

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