Jimmy Springer, October 30th, 2013
The seventh period bell reverberated through the classroom. It startled the freshman sitting near the back of the class, who had been absentmindedly doodling in his notebook. Getting to his feet, he fumbled with his books and made to stuff them into his bag. Next to him, another freshman with short buzzed hair was packing his things as well. The two got to their feet at almost the exact same moment.
“Man, that went slow,” Ryan Joseph said, hoisting his bag around his shoulders and exiting the classroom beside his slightly taller friend. “I think I looked up at one point and the clocks were literally going backwards.”
“They might have been, isn’t daylight savings this weekend?” Jimmy replied, leading the way through the crowded hallway.
“I guess so, but today’s Tuesday. We still have three days of classes between now and then.”
“Oh … right …” he scratched his head absentmindedly, “I can’t keep my days straight with all the school I’ve missed.”
The pair cleared most of the traffic as they cut down a side path toward the school’s gymnasium. Jimmy shifted his backpack on his shoulder to adjust some the weight.
“When do you get back from Hershey?” Ryan asked as they neared the entrance to the locker room.
“I’ll be back Thursday night after the meet. So I’ll be around all weekend to hang out.”
“Sick, I’ll text you.” The two extended their hands and half-shook half-high fived. “Good luck at states, man. You’re gonna kill it.”
Jimmy smiled. “Thanks, man.”
Mark Miller, September 2016
There were fifteen minutes until the gun was scheduled to go off. A pack of runners sporting t-shirts with a large, blue winged show were making their final preparations. A few were hurriedly trying to pull their spikes all the way onto their feet. Overwhelmed the most by the task, a boy with fiery-red hair was hopping exasperatedly on one foot at the edge of the group. One of his pant legs was pulled tight around his leg while the other flopped lazily through the air as he struggled for balance. As he careened back toward the tent, Mark strode over and caught him under his elbows, stopping the boy’s momentum and keeping him upright.
“Thanks,” Ian said softly as he pulled the other leg of his pants off and tossed them onto a backpack. His face was pale and his body was sweaty.
“You good, man?” Mark asked, smiling slightly as he released his friend. Ian looked back at him, swallowed hard and then opened his mouth to respond. However, no words emerged. His mouth hung open for an awkward moment as he attempted to speak, but ultimately had to settle for a small nod.
“McPearson!” A tall figure, standing over a bike called for Ian. He was standing with a crowd of six other runners. “Let’s get going.”
Today, Manheim Township was competing in their first invitational of the season at Gettysburg. And they had high expectations. The team’s goal was to win their first district championship in cross country at the end of October and each meet was a stepping stone towards that goal. But there was an extra pressure surrounding this race. As the varsity unit had set out on their warm up, they spotted the signature black and red sweat suits of Coatesville High School: the defending state champions. Usually, schools from outside the district didn’t attend this meet (Coach Vanderweigh typically liked to start the season at a smaller invitational), but for whatever reason, Coatesville had decided it was worth the trip.
For some, like senior captain Jayson Miller, the presence of a national power was exciting. But for others, like junior Ian McPearson, it was downright terrifying. Both McPearson and his friend Sam Berkow were competing in their first ever varsity race. Based on their workouts during the week, the duo had been selected for the two open spots in the team’s top seven alongside the five returners from last year’s state qualifying squad. That had left Mark Miller as the odd man out. He would have to wait an extra hour to contest the junior varsity race.
Mark fidgeted with the watch on his wrist until it said “CHRONO”. Then he held the reset button to clear yesterday’s run from its face. The junior varsity squad stood just under 200 yards from the start line, preparing to cheer on their teammates. Once the gun sounded, they would begin a strategically planned jog to key points on the course. Because of the upcoming race’s proximity to their own, the jog would also have to serve as the beginning of their warm up routine.
Even from this distance, Mark could easily pick out Ian, who had just finished an ugly-looking stride out to join Manheim Township’s team huddle. His head was tilting back and his legs looked tight and weak. Mark looked to his right nervously at a pair of his classmates.
“Gosh he looks miserable,” Tom said seriously, reflecting Mark’s look of concern. “I never thought I’d say it, but I think I actually prefer him as a cocky ass-hole.”
Mark snorted softly through his nose, returning his gaze toward the field. The team had just finished their cheer, raising their arms emphatically into the air and shouting, “M-T!” A twinge of longing stirred within him as he jealously watched the varsity boys stride back to the start line. Once each runner was set, the starter raised his pistol. When the gun sounded, he imagined himself among the throng of athletes, flying through the opening straightaway, fighting for a suitable position in the narrowing path.
“Yo Mark,” Tom said, hitting him in the arm, breaking him from his revere, “We should try to get to the mile marker.”
“Oh-right,” he said hitting his watch and breaking into a jog. “What did you think?”
“Of the first 200 meters? I thought-wow, over the summer a lot of these kids forgot just how far a 5k is.”
“Well, they will probably remember soon.” As a pack of 10, the junior varsity team trekked along the borders of the course, heading toward a rapidly growing crowd of coaches and parents.
“Let’s cut up a bit, go where there won’t be so many people,” Mark said waving his teammates to follow him up the path. They gathered a few hundred meters ahead, in a much emptier space, and began craning their necks for the leaders. After a few minutes of waiting, the fastest runners were spotted.
“There! Looks like Jayson and Pasterano!” Called one of the members of the Manheim Township cheering contingent. Mark recognized the flowing blonde hair of his brother controlling the front of the race, flanked by a pair of runners in jet black uniforms. A step or two behind the lead three was Manheim Township’s #2 runner: Michael Pasterano. The longer they watched, the size of the packs increased and the spaces between them decreased until the race became a mass of bodies.
When the competitors eventually made their way past the Manheim supporters, it was hard to pick out faces from the crowd.
“C’mon Jayson! … Let’s go Streaks!” After Jayson and Michael, Mark cheered the team name rather than the names of the individual runners. The runners were passing quicker than they could be recognized. Despite the confusion, when the group reassembled to jog to the next checkpoint, they were in agreement about one thing.
“Coatesville had a ton of guys at the front,” Tom mentioned, “Looked like all seven in front of our number three.”
“Did you see Sam at all? Or Ian? I missed practically everybody.”
“I thought I saw Sam running kinda close to Delaney, but no clue about Ian.”
“I saw Ian,” piped in the duo’s fellow classmate Todd Battle. He quickened his pace to move up alongside Mark. “He was towards the back of the field. I think he kind of got stuck in the back off the start.” Tom swore quietly under his breath. Otherwise, they pressed on toward the two-mile mark as a group, hoping for good news when they arrived.
Unlike their previous check point, the Manheim Township boys barely arrived in time to watch the leaders pass through. Jayson was still at the front with the duo from Coatesville, but the gap was widening back to the rest of the field. With the race more spread out, it was easier for Mark to pick out the jerseys of his teammates. After Jayson, there was a large gap back to Michael Pasterano, but the Reilly twins (Brad and Craig) had moved up on his heels.
Coatesville also had four of their runners in the top twenty, but the dominance they showed early in the race was dwindling. The Reillys were gaining fast on Coatesville’s number three and four runners while their fifth runner was fading. That meant a comeback was feasible for the Blue Streaks. However, as Manheim Township’s fifth runner, senior Blake Delaney, came through, it looked as if he too was hitting the wall.
“Get after it, man!”
Blake looked downright miserable and, despite the words of encouragement, it seemed he had little chance of making up the deficit. But to Mark’s surprise, shortly after he disappeared out of sight, Manheim’s newest varsity members came chagrining into view. Ian and Sam were battling determinedly with one another, their rivalry from practice culminating on the trail. Neither wanted to give an inch to the other and, as a result, the two were flying through the field, quickly passing runners and chewing up ground.
“Let’s go boys, Blake’s up there hurting, he needs you!”
“Keep rolling Streaks!”
With a newfound enthusiasm, the junior varsity pack hurried toward the finish area. Todd was trying to analyze splits, subtracting and multiplying aloud in a hushed voice. Many of the younger runners whispered excitedly to one another, most experiencing their first race of this magnitude. After about a minute, Mark suddenly realized he was essentially sprinting to his target and forced himself to calm down. Despite the intrigue of this race, he conserved energy for his own.
As expected, the finish line was lined with a drove of spectators making it tricky for the ten runners to find space all together. Instead, they spread out in pairs up the finishing stretch, beginning about 100 meters from the final shoot. Mark and the team’s stand out freshman, Francis McNally, were positioned the farthest from the finish with Todd and Tom at the opposite end of the spectrum, hoping to estimate final times and a team score. Mark stood at his full height, trying to see over those around him. His eyes were fixed at the next point he knew he would be able to see his brother.
All of a sudden, the crowd erupted into cheers as Jayson streaked into view, no one else around him. He was sprinting furiously for the finish line, his arms pumping powerfully and his long, efficient stride chewing up grass. There was no doubt that he was going to win the race, but the tall blonde was running as if he was being chased by an avalanche. Mark and Francis turned with Jayson, cheering wildly, trying to catch a glimpse of the clock ahead. It was ticking slowly toward the 15-minute mark.
“Wow,” Mark said softly, letting his astonishment escape his lips. His brother crossed the line at almost 15 minutes even. From his vantage point, it would be tricky to determine exactly what the official time was.
“About 15 minutes … is that pretty good for a 5k?” The young freshman asked inquisitively as he and Mark watched the next runner just come into view.
“Let’s put it this way,” Mark said as they watched Coatesville’s first runner sprint by in 2nd, “no one has ever run that fast in the history of this course.”
“I guess that’s pretty decent then.”
The second Coatesville runner came sprinting past shortly after, locked in a tight battle with a runner sporting a red jersey. Another pair of runners battled across the fray and then, head flailing wildly, Manheim’s second runner, Michael Pasterano, came into sight. A pair of black jerseys was pursuing him closely, one of which featured the Coatesville red “C”.
“C’mon Mike! Bring it home!” Mark looked eagerly up the course, following Pasterano’s battle to the finish. It looked as if he was going to power home for 7th as Coatesville’s runner was fading hard off the final kick. But still, this was three runners in the top 10 for their opposition. Mark turned back to look for the next runners and a pair of harriers whipped by him.
“Holy crap …” It was the Reilly twins, both furiously sprinting toward the next closest runner in black. The two were pushing each other faster with every step, neither giving any ground. They looked like a pair of synchronized swimmers as they each turned their legs in unison, pressing toward the finish line. Just before the line, the duo edged ahead of one of the runner’s in black, but just behind the other. From his distance, Mark could not tell which jersey belonged to Coatesville.
“Here’s their 4 and 5,” Francis said disappointed as a pair of black jerseys came into view once more. Mark swore loudly, frightening one of the mothers watching the race a few feet away. He apologized awkwardly before turning his attention back to the course. “Where is Blake?” he muttered to himself.
But it wasn’t Blake who came into view next.
“C’mon Ian!” Mark yelled frantically as Ian came flying into view, pursuing a duo of runners just ahead of him. Then, a moment later, Sam was in sight, his eyes locked onto Ian. With a look of determination, he switched gears, put his head down and forced himself into a top end sprint.
Without hesitation, Mark followed, running down the straightaway to try and keep pace with his friends. He almost knocked over a small girl and her mother, needing to lunge to his left to avoid the spectators. With an eye on the clock, he saw both of his friends were under the 17 minute barrier for the first time. He slowed as he reached the finishing area, an odd feeling cumulating in his stomach. On one hand, he was happy for his friends. They had put in work this summer and been justifiably rewarded with their fastest ever 5,000 meter times. However, he couldn’t help but feel jealous of their success. Ian and Sam were now considerably faster than him on paper and that meant his chances at breaking into the varsity squad were rapidly declining.
“How’d they do?” Francis asked, walking to Mark’s side. He was examining the crowd of recent finishers. “Did we beat Coatesville?”
Mark shrugged his shoulders. “Dunno. It’s gonna be close. Todd would probably know …” He looked along the line of spectators. “They must have all went back to the tent.” He trudged through the grass, heading away from the finish. Nodding his head, he signaled Francis to follow. A few junior varsity teams were jogging nearby, finishing preparations for the meet’s next event. It set off a flock of butterflies in Mark’s stomach. Shaking it off, he looked over his shoulder to check on the freshman. Francis looked as if he was going to be sick.
“Getting a little nervous there, big guy?” Mark asked with a smile. He had hoped to calm his young teammate’s nerves. However, Francis shook his head and, averting his eyes, pointed straight ahead. Mark followed the line indicated by his finger and, with a cringe of revulsion, he noticed his friend Ian bent over, vomiting a few yards from the team’s tent.
“Oh-yeah-he does that.” Mark said, waving it off and steering the pair far away from any potential splash zone. “You’ll get used to it.”
When they arrived back at the tent, Coach Vanderweigh and Todd were comparing notes on a clipboard. A few of the younger junior varsity members stood around awkwardly as the upperclassmen talked excited with the varsity runners. Mark walked over to his brother first, who was talking with the Reilly twins. They shared a smile and a brief embrace.
“That was a sick race. Did you end up breaking 15?” Mark asked excitedly. The twins to his right looked at one another in shock.
“I’m not sure, it’s going to be pretty close. I was gunning hard for it.”
“Wait a minute, you might have broken 15?”
“How did you not mention that?”
“Dunno,” Jayson shrugged and grinned at the twins’ incredulous looks. “Didn’t seem relevant at the time. Either way it’s still just one point, isn’t it?”
“If you weren’t so fast, I would hate you.”
“I still kind of hate you.”
Mark smiled and glanced back toward the front of the tent. Wandering back under cover, was a taller, pale boy with red hair. On the surface, he looked miserable and distraught. He was sweaty and sickly looking, walking with a slight limp. But underneath the initial layer of hysteria, there was a coating of satisfaction. As he and Mark locked eyes, Ian somehow contorted his mouth into his familiar smug grin. Mark approached his friend, flashing his own: a careful mixture of admiration and amusement. “Sick race, man,” He extended his hand, but Ian pulled him into a hug instead. “Agh …” Mark pulled himself away, looking disgustedly at his chest while wiping his wet hand on his shirt. “I guess ‘sick’ was an appropriate word.”
“Did we beat Coatesville?” Ian asked excitedly. “We were closing on them the second half of the race. I know I passed two of their guys toward the end.”
“It’s gonna be close, I think. Todd and Vandy were talking about it but-” he looked back over his shoulder to check on the pair, but both had exited the tent. “It’s gonna be close.”
“Yo, Mark,” Tom had poked his head into the tent, “Shouldn’t we be doing drills or something?”
“Ah, crap,” Mark looked down at his wrist and pressed a button on his watch. There were only twenty minutes until the junior varsity race was due to start. “I’ll be right out … just start without me.” He patted Ian quickly on the back and made to duck out the side of the tent.
“Hey Mark,” Jayson touched him on the shoulder and leaned in close beside his brother. “Varsity spot might be open after today.” He said quietly. “Go get after it, kid.”
After a moment’s confusion, Mark looked over at Blake who was sitting just outside the tent, taking off his spikes and looking miserable. Then he looked back at his brother, gave a small smile, and went to join his teammates in their pre-race preparations. A new sense of optimism having crept up on him.
Jimmy Springer, cont.
The door fell shut behind him, breaking the silence. The locker room was empty with the exception of the freshman who had just entered it. He sat quietly on a bench and carefully spun the dial in front of him. Once the door was open, he removed a duffle bag and began throwing various objects into it. He added a t-shirt, then socks. Then a pair of pants. A hat and gloves. Finally, he came across his orange and blue cross country singlet. The bib number from the previous meet, the District One Championships, was still pinned to the chest, crumbled and slightly ripped. As he stuffed it into a side compartment of his now crowded bag, Jimmy’s mind wandered back to its last race.
The Union Valley team was aiming for the first district championship in school history. They had dominated the league championships, but would have to face other conferences’ champions like Coatesville and Hatboro Horsham. Despite a tumultuous week, the Vikings were excited to get out and race again. The most jubilant of the bunch was team captain Glenn Fisher. The senior had been battling injury earlier in the week after a fall in practice. However, after the team’s mid-week workout, Glenn’s spark and enthusiasm had returned.
But as Glenn’s confidence increased, Jimmy’s took a sharp downward turn. Not long ago, Jimmy had imagined himself winning this race, but by the time he reached the starting line that dream had been put to sleep. Coach Ames had instructed Jimmy to stay behind his teammate Matt Burke until the two-mile marker, claiming that he didn’t want the inexperienced young star to get caught up in the wild opening stretch. Considering Matt’s recent struggles, waiting behind him for over half of the race would put him way out of position for a run at gold.
During the week, Ames had also pulled Jimmy early from the mid-week workout, citing concerns about fatigue and overwork, despite the fact that he was comfortably keeping pace with Glenn at the front of the intervals. Then, Ames had Jimmy go on separate, individual, shorter distance runs to close out the week, leaving him isolated and concerned. Eventually, Ames would explain. But his reasoning didn’t come until after the District Championships were in Jimmy’s rearview mirror.
From his seat in the locker room, Jimmy got to his feet and walked across to the far corner. On the farthest locker, a sheet of paper was taped. For what felt like the hundredth time, he scanned the results page, soaking in statistics he had already memorized.
2. Union Valley 120
4 Glenn Fisher, Sr
9 Jimmy Springer, Fr
31 Matt Burke, Sr
35 Reggie Armstrong, Sr
41 Thomas Dooney, Sr
(92) Everett Paulson, Jr
(105) Dan Scatena, Sr
Scrawled across the top of the page, someone had written 37 points, indicating the deficit Union Valley would need to overcome to win the state title on November 1st when they raced at the championship course in Hershey. Jimmy liked that course and felt the hills would create a very different race than the flat, speedy surface they had just contested at Districts. That gave him hope for redemption.
He jumped as the door behind him swung open. Matt was walking through, unaware that Jimmy was standing in the corner. Obliviously, he continued forward head down. Then, raising his eyes, he spotted the freshman waiting awkwardly in front of him. Without hesitation, Matt turned around and pulled the door open to exit just as quietly as he had entered, leaving Jimmy alone with his memories once more.
Mark Miller, cont.
Mark leaned forward deliberately at the start line and then took off into a fluid, relaxed sprint. Faces and bodies whirled by him on both sides until he slowed himself to a halt some 75 meters from his origin. Here, he turned around and crouched into a squat, looking back across the field. There was a commotion of athletes completing their final preparations before the Junior Varsity race. His own teammates from Manheim Township were scattered among the masses, a few doing their own strides, others stretching.
His classmate, Todd Battle, was the first to join him. His stride looked far less fluid than Mark’s. He approached more quickly than he expected and forced himself abruptly to a stop, banging his knees together as his feet clipped. Todd flashed a nervous smile and then focused his attention on stretching his arms. The freshman, Francis McNally, came next. His hands flopped wildly as he ran, his wrists limp and uncontrolled. Then a consistent flow of sophomores and freshman and, finally, Tom Winslow.
“Should we huddle up?” he asked upon terminating his sprint. The rest of the team turned to face Mark who looked unprepared for the attention.
“Um … right. Let’s huddle up, guys,” he wrapped his arms around the shoulders of the boys closest to him and drew them in tight. The others followed his lead and waited in anticipation for his next words. Looking nervously around the circle, he wracked his brain for something to say.
Before each race, a member of the Manheim Township cross country team would typically organize his fellow Blue Streaks and give a motivational speech. The goal was to fire up his teammates and prepare them for the battle that lay ahead. However, in every other race Mark had contested, there was always someone older or faster competing alongside him who would assume this leadership role. A year ago, his friend Sam Berkow had done the honors for junior varsity and handled himself brilliantly, while Mark’s brother Jayson took the reins for the varsity contingent.
Now, I guess it’s my turn.
“Well, boys,” he began, trying to pull something elegant from thin air, “I’ve seen all you guys training really hard in practice … And I know that you’re ready to drop some big PRs out here today.” A few members of the circle nodded enthusiastically. “We may only be JV guys, but we still have that ‘M-T’ on our chest.” Another set of nods gave Mark a bit more confidence. “And so we run for more than just ourselves,” He glanced around at the group and caught side of Francis, who was smiling widely, trying to hold back a laugh. “We-um-” It was nearly infectious enough to throw Mark from his rhythm, but he bit back his smile. “We run for our school … and we run for each other!” He tried to finish with an extra flurry of passion, but it felt out of character.
“Um … hands in,” Mark stuck his hand out to the middle of the circle and his teammates followed. Once they were all stacked, he yelled out, “Run ‘til you’re!”
And his teammates shouted back, “M-T!” Then, with the adrenaline coursing through the squad like electrical current in a wire, they shot off back toward the starting line for their final pre-race strides. Mark and Francis finished side by side, easing up a few feet short of the line.
“What was that about, man?” the junior said playfully, “You almost made me burst out laughing.”
“I don’t know,” Francis grinned broadly, “It was just funny. Something about you and the speech … it just didn’t fit together.” They stepped to the front of the group as Manheim organized itself in their starting box. “It’s not who I know you as, I guess.”
Mark smiled and shook his head. “Eh, nothing’s easy the first time … speaking of which, good luck out there.”
“Thanks, man.” They each positioned themselves in a ready position as the starter took his place in the middle of the field, his pistol at the ready. “You too.”
Jimmy Springer, October 29th, 2013
After the district championships, Glenn was the most exuberant Jimmy could ever remember seeing him. He was positively bouncing around practice, telling anyone who would listen about the little things they would have to improve upon in order to beat Coatesville at states.
“Dooney and Armstrong, you guys just need a little bit more pop for the sprint at the finish. Really focus on those strides this week.” He had said to the team’s 4th and 5th finishers. And “Jimmy, just get out a bit faster and that kick will get you into the state medals.” he added to Jimmy during stretching. Glenn even gave himself a pep talk at the end of yesterday’s final strides. “Just take off up that final hill and break those guys, Glenn. Nobody wants it more than you.”
But he knew better than to try his motivational tactics on Matt Burke. His fellow senior had struggled once again at the district championships and faded hard over the final mile to 31st overall. Reggie Armstrong was closing in on him over the final 400 meters, a fact that had made Matt visibly irate. After seeing the results, he had taken his spikes and thrown them into a creek that bordered the course and left them there.
To Jimmy’s surprise, Glenn was far from discouraged by his classmate’s misery. In fact, he seemed to be slightly smug about Matt’s failure and after some thought, it was clear why. Ultimately, Jimmy felt that the disparity between the senior’s performances may have indicated Glenn’s approach to the sport was a superior one to Matt’s. And he wasn’t the only one thinking it. Union Valley was more united than he could have imagined a week previously and Fisher led practice with an air of awed respect from his peers. You could almost feel a big breakthrough was on the horizon for him at states.
The team captain had finished 4th in the district championship, despite an unusually tentative start to the race so there was reason to think he could better his finish at Hershey’s championship course. Maybe even win. He seemed particularly sharp in practice early in the week, with no signs of lingering injury from his fall. In fact, Jimmy had begun to wonder how much of the injury was actually physical and how much was simply mental.
Today, the team had scheduled one last workout before the championships. Jimmy’s leg felt strong and fresh. His confidence was beginning to regenerate and he was once again setting big goals for himself. As the Vikings jogged around the school’s perimeter, he let his mind wander back to his former victorious daydreams.
“Hey Springer,” Coach Ames said as the Union Valley boys filed onto the track after their customary fifteen minute warm up jog, “hang back a sec?”
Uncertainly, Jimmy slowed to a stop and dislodged from the back of the pack to walk over to his Coach. Glenn and Matt both watched the pair curiously, distracted from their drills before Ames waved them back to work. Only once the team was re-absorbed in their preparations did the coach address his athlete.
“So, as you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been extra careful with your training over the past two weeks.” He said in a soft voice. Jimmy nodded slightly but otherwise did not respond. “And you also may have noticed, that Glenn seems to have made quite the miraculously recovery. He’s back to his old self.” Again his reply was just a nod.
“We have an excellent chance to post a historic finish at states this Thursday. But if we are going to place well, we will need both of you to be at your best.” The coach spoke very judiciously, taking particular care with each word. “I think we’ve both seen that Glenn does not, um, respond very well when you beat him. And in the interest of keeping him mentally sharp, I think it’s best if, at states, you follow in his shadow for the entire race.”
“So, let him win?” Jimmy said, trying to wrap his head around the new information.
“Essentially … yes,” Coach Ames replied slightly awkwardly before adding, “But stay as close to him as possible. Every point will count.”
“But I still don’t get it,” he said, feeling even more confused than he had previously, “If every point counts so much, why should we not just race all out? So are you just expecting Glenn to-I don’t know-collapse-as soon as I go by him?”
“You mean like he did in our workout at Lehigh?”
“Well … that was different … I knocked him down-”
“You don’t honestly believe that do you, Jimmy?” And as he said it, the freshman felt his heart drop into his stomach.
“Um … yeah I did, I … well-I …” His lie wasn’t at all convincing.
“I watched the whole thing, Jimmy,” his coach said softly, “He flopped like an Italian soccer player. You were well past him.” He looked sympathetically at his athlete. “I had just assumed you were lying to avoid the impending inner-squad civil war. Our team was coming apart and, whether you knew it or not, you saved it.” They sat together quietly, Jimmy staring down at the palms of his hands. The rest of the team was nearing the end of their drills and would soon be undistracted from the increasingly long side conversation between teacher and student.
“Now we just need one more sacrifice. For the good of the team. Can you do that for us?”
He looked into his coach’s eyes, a whirlwind of emotions swirling through his thoughts. He looked back over his shoulder at the seniors, who were now doing leg swings on the fence bordering the track. Then he looked back at Ames and gave him a small nod of tacit agreement.
“Yeah, I’m good.” Jimmy replied bitterly. He and Matt were returning to his car after the day’s practice. After his discussion with Coach, Jimmy had tanked the team’s workout to try and further Glenn’s confidence heading into the race. Ames was doing all he could to fortify the fragile ego of his team captain and number one runner. As a result, his freshman’s ego was now the fragile one.
“You got an injury or something?” Matt asked, studying the younger runner.
“Nah, I’m good.” This time Jimmy replied with an extra touch of venom. He could feel his temper rising as his frustration continued to mount. It’s not his fault, he thought, trying to calm himself, he doesn’t know what you’re doing. He’s just looking out for you. As they walked further in silence, Jimmy hoped his teammate would be content to drop his interrogation. He kicked a stray pebble in the lot that skipped across the lot and landed beside the wheel of the vehicle they were approaching.
“Look, I can tell something’s up.” The senior pressed again, unable to contain himself, “I never beat you anymore-”
“Yeah? And who’s effing fault is that?!” Any hopes he had of governing his temper were gone in a flash.
“What are you-”
“You beat me once, remember? And I run every race like you’re still chasing me. What happened to that guy?” Now that he had begun to yell, all of his suppressed negative opinions came flying to the surface, readily available for an attack.
“You’re better than me!” Matt replied with a frustrated laugh, “I’m not an idiot and I’m not afraid to admit it and I’m definitely not gonna let it get in my head like-”
“Glenn?!” The name echoed slightly around the open space, “I bet you’re secretly thrilled he went off like he did.”
“No I’m not, because it didn’t do any good. You still see him as some hero. Not as the lying, fair-weather friend he actually is.”
The hidden truth that Matt’s suspicions were right ate at Jimmy. A part of him wanted to tell Matt the truth, explain why he was so upset. But another part of him, a more powerful, enticing part, just wanted to be angry. It didn’t matter that Matt wasn’t the reason he was angry. He was angry and Matt was there to be a target. So he went on the offensive.
“You think you know sooo much better than him, don’t you? You think he takes this sport too seriously? He’s too extreme? Well guess what, you’re just as extreme. Only the opposite end of the spectrum. It can’t be all work, but it can’t be all play either. Face it, you’re just as bad as he is!” Both boys looked at each other. Matt was fuming now; any traces of mock laughter had disappeared.
“Whatever, let’s just drop this, alright? C’mon I’ll drive us home.” He opened the door to the driver’s side of the car, but Jimmy remained standing with the passenger’s side shut.
“Go ahead just give up again. Same old Matt Burke. Is there anything you are going to fight for?”
“Knock it off, Springer,” his response was ice cold, but Jimmy’s fire burned through it.
“When did you quit on yourself, huh? Was it when Glenn started beating you?”
“Just get in the car-”
“He told me, you know. He told me you used to beat him when you guys first started. And then he outworked you.”
“Let’s go.” Matt slammed his door shut.
“Then it was me. And next it’ll be Armstrong and Dooney.”
“Jimmy-” he was walking around the car now.
“Because you’re just a scared little bitch-”
Before he could defend himself, Matt lunged forward and grabbed Jimmy by the shirt up around his neck. He hoisted him up and pinned him against the side door. Matt stared at him angrily while Jimmy returned his gaze defiantly. They were both breathing heavy, as if they had just finished a run.
“Now do you want to apologize to me so we can go home?” Burke said soft yet menacingly.
“Yeah … I’m sorry, Matt,” Jimmy replied, “Sorry you’re such a little bitch.”
It was the last straw. Matt tossed Jimmy away from him and the freshman staggered to the ground, scraping his hands on the concrete as he extended them to break his fall. He looked up to see his school bag flying through the air toward his face. Extending his arm in front of him, he blocked it down, clearing his line of vision just in time to watch Matt hop in his car and drive away.
Mark Miller, Cont.
A pair of Coatesville runners had taken control of the early pace and Mark had filed in behind them. It was a quick start, but his goal was to win the race and he knew that he couldn’t do that running scared. He tried to keep his breathing relaxed as he followed in the wake of the two Coatesville runners. Together the trio moved into a sharp turn. If he had wanted to, he could easily look back over his shoulder and check the distance back to fourth place. But he fought the urge, choosing to focus on the men ahead rather than behind.
As the pack continued, they passed different pockets of fans. A few Coatesville runners were cheering eagerly for the boys at the front.
“Let’s go, Russ!”
“Atta boy, Drew!”
Then, shortly after Mark had passed, “Get after it, Chris, they’re not too far from you!” From the cheers he could gauge his lead over his closest Coatesville competitor. It didn’t sound like it was much. A little later, he heard cheers from voices he recognized as his parents. Finding a small reserve of energy, he surged up and past the Coatesville duo as they approached a set of small rolling hills. It was the first time he had ever led a race and, as the moment began to hit him, he felt incredibly exhilarated. The pace suddenly became easy and he felt surprisingly fresh.
Mark kept the pace fast as he opened up his stride to take advantage of a small down-hill. He could feel himself opening up a slight gap on the former leaders. The competitors wrapped around a tree and began a long gradual turn back toward the direction from which they had just raced. But instead of continuing straight, the course turned sharply to the right. He followed the course markings carefully and, based on the sound of breathing behind him, felt confident he was headed in the right direction. If not, at least they are going the wrong way, too.
Every step he took as the leader felt euphoric. It was rare that Mark had the chance to do anything in the spotlight, to be the star. To his delight, each fan he passed looked back at him with a sense of respect. Heading around another turn, he noticed a group of girl spectators and tried to relax his face and appear comfortable and cool. One of the girl’s whispered something to her friend who giggled. As he powered past, he felt a Coatesville runner moving up on his outside. Mark reacted swiftly and decisively, surging powerfully forward to maintain his lead. His designation as “race leader” was not one he was ready to relinquish.
But after nearly two miles of racing, he could feel his legs beginning to tire. The adrenaline that had helped him had dissipated and in its place was the familiar fatigue that he had long associated with cross country racing. Compounding his tiredness was the resurgence of the Coatesville runners as they challenged for the lead again. One of the boys, a shorter runner whose head wobbled side to side as he ran, made the first pass. Mark doggedly followed, trying to make it difficult for his rival to complete the pass.
But the strain of putting another surge on his body had weakened him even more. When the second Coatesville runner passed him, he had little fight to offer physically. And, perhaps more importantly, his mental forces were depleted as well. The course had circled back to some familiar rolling hills that he approached meekly, without his previous vigor. As they entered each section of the course, he looked wildly for some sign of the finish. Once he saw it, he knew he could find that extra gear needed for his final kick. But around each turn, it failed to appear.And he thought he could hear the sounds of new feet behind him.