John Trainor, July 2019
I’m a pretty quiet guy by nature. Typically, I’ll sit back in a group of new people, listen and react. But for whatever reason, when the situation presents itself, I love to make speeches. I guess it’s because I think of myself as a writer and as a story teller. Those are some of my only skills. So if I have the chance to use them to make someone smile or to fight for someone’s rights, I do it. And I’m excited about it.
That’s how I ended up here. Shuffling nervously with my papers, preparing to present my defense for the Bloomsburg Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams. We were set to be dissolved, cut from the budget, and we were doing everything we could to try and keep our squads on the books. Not much had worked so far and, considering the slashes happening around us, things didn’t look particularly promising for us Huskies.
I suppose using the term “us” is a little misleading. I’m no longer a part of Bloomsburg’s team. Or a member of the student body in general. I graduated in May and, in all technical senses of the word, became an independent individual. But, in this wacky sport, the line between team and individual is a little blurry. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’m mortal enemies with all the other schools in the PSAC and will hate them until the day I die. But if I see one of them out on a run, I’ll give them a nod rather than a punch in the face. Unless it’s Ryan Phillips. He’s the exception.
What I’m trying to say is that, ultimately, runners are all a community. We are each working toward the same goal: to be the best version of ourselves we can be. Even if there’s animosity, there’s at least respect. Except, of course, Ryan Phillips. Never Ryan Phillips.
So even though this budget cut doesn’t affect me directly, I felt compelled to do something for my future runners who would be following in my all too literal footsteps. And so I spoke.
“Track certainly has intrinsic value. It’s a really fun sport-most of the time anyway. You go out every race and try to push your body to its absolute limits. There’s no loop holes or short cuts. It’s just run fast. Jump high. Throw far. That’s competition in its purest form.
“But track’s greatest value is in the life lessons it teaches to its athletes. You need to be dedicated. You need to be disciplined. You need to make sacrifices. When someone offers you the chance to make a bad decision-anything from staying out all night to taking illicit substances-it can give you another reason to say no. It takes balance, time management and work ethic to achieve success. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that our Cross Country and Track teams have the highest GPAs in the entire school.”
I felt like this was a good line to really hammer my point home. I took a moment to let that line sit. One of the older members of my audience picked his nose. I may have overestimated its value.
“A lot of people complain that our generation is too entitled and expects everything to just be handed to them without any work. Well, there’s no better way to teach people about hard work than the sport of track and field. It takes constant training-tireless labor-to excel. If you slack off, you will get beat. Plain and simple.
“Socially it can be critical as well. Again, what people say our generation is missing can be found within cross country. When you go on a run with your teammates, it’s just you guys out there. We can’t run with lap tops. There’s no texting each other. It’s just you and your friends having a conversation. Learning. Growing. Communication in its most simplistic and cherished form.”
Appealing to the good old days. That was sure to get at least a nod of approval from these baby boomers on the committee right? I looked over at the nose-picker. He flicked his booger across the room. It could have been worse. At least he was awake.
“Anyone who has ever competed on a track or cross country team understands the unique attitude of these runners. The sport naturally allows you to enjoy everyone’s successes. Sure, there is a competitive fire to win and score points for your team, but there is also a joy that comes from watching hard working teammates set big personal bests. Or fighting with a rival and pushing each other under a big time barrier for the first time.
“When another team or athlete does well, we are happy for them. And the converse is certainly true as well.”
So there will the pillars. It seemed like maybe a few people were buying what I was selling. But, overall, I suspect people’s minds were generally made up. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Oh well, might as well bring it home.
“Just to be clear, I’m not lobbying for other sports to be cut instead. All sports have their place. My track is someone else’s tennis. Or golf. Or football. And why would I want to take away their passion? But I do hope that fans of other sports can see that my passion is the same as theirs. Even if my sport is more boring or less mainstream, it doesn’t mean my love of the game is any less important. That the lessons and skills that come out of my sport are any less significant. Right now, athletes are fighting an uphill battle and we need everyone’s support.
“I hope that we can all remember the pillars of track and field. Competition in its purest form. Communication in its purest form. Humanity in its purest form. And if that’s not worth saving, I’m not really sure what is.”
“So it turns out nothing’s worth saving.” The boy to my left took a long swig of his beer. We each had our own coping mechanisms. While he drank quickly from his glass, I sat staring absentmindedly into my own, as if I could somehow find a couple thousand dollars to solve my problem as long I searched diligently enough. Surprisingly, that’s not where they’re hiding it.
Just a few hours after my fervent defense of our cross country program, I posted up at a local bar with my best friend and co-captain Gary Fox, mourning its demise. Yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but a well-crafted think piece wasn’t enough to change the hard line facts of an increasingly bankrupt state government or a consistently underappreciated sport. Ok, so the word “underappreciated” may have some bias to it, but if you thought I was going to play this perfectly neutral, I haven’t sufficiently introduced myself.
“If it makes you feel any better, I thought your speech was really good,” Gary said comfortingly. The statement itself didn’t make me feel any better, but the intent behind it helped a little bit. “Can you print me out a copy?” His direct question forced me to speak for the first time since we sat down.
But he was going to have to work harder than that to get a full sentence.
“Cool,” he polished off his beverage and stood up from the table. “And you might as well drink it, Train. Can’t get drunk with your eyes.” Nothing about my behavior changed. He stared to walk away, but added “When I get back, I’m buying you another one.”
I hate it when he buys me drinks. Something about the principle of not letting things go to waste makes me feel obligated to finish it-even when I don’t want or need it. That’s how my twenty first birthday ended with a sobbing phone call to my mother from the dormitory bathroom floor.
No, I won’t be elaborating. I’ve already divulged too much.
After a few short moments, someone slid back on the seat beside me. Figuring it was Gary, I decided not to look up from my relatively untouched beverage.
“You lose something in there?” It was a female voice, so I was pretty sure it wasn’t Gary. Unless he had gotten way better at impersonations. I raised my head, looking into the face of a pretty girl with brunette hair. By now I was at least 99 percent sure this wasn’t Gary.
“No … uh … I know it’s just beer in there,” I replied, my voice cracking slightly from lack of use. I think it’s my clever wit that helped me win over so many women during my collegiate years.
“Is everything alright? I’m just guessing here, but something seems wrong.”
“Yeah … it’s a long story.” I looked back over toward the bathroom, wondering how quickly Gary might re-emerge. “I should probably tell you that my friend-”
“Oh, I know,” she replied. “He’s over there talking to my friend.” She pointed to another girl, about the same age, with red hair and freckles. She was indeed talking to Gary. “To be perfectly honest, I’m just here to hold down the fort until he gives her his number.” She added bluntly. Looking a little closer, her friend did look a bit more recognizable. I think she was in my calculus class or something. “So, you might as well tell me your long story.”
“Well, if you’re gonna be stuck listening to me talk, I should probably get you a drink.” I caught the eye of the bartender. That was about as smooth as I could possibly hope to be.
“That’s OK, I’ll pay for my own. I don’t want to lead you on or make it seem like I’m interested in you.”
Super. I took my first big swig from my cup. I needed it. She ordered a drink of her own and then turned back to me. “So, let’s hear it.” I looked across the room at Gary. He was smiling and laughing. I’m not super well versed in the bro code, but I’d wager breaking that pair apart would violate it.
“Today I spoke in front of some of Bloomsburg’s board members, trying to get them to reconsider cutting the Men’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams. But they didn’t.”
In retrospect, it really wasn’t that long of a story.
“We had a cross country skiing team here?” My new drinking mate asked, looking astonished. “No wonder they decided to defund it. There’s been like no snow.”
“No, Cross Country running.” I tried my best to be civil, but it felt like her words had been a personal attack on my family. “Have you never heard of that?”
“Nope. What is it?”
“Have you ever done, like, a local 5k race?” She nodded. “Well, it’s a lot like that. Except instead of running on streets, you run across terrain. So hills, grass, mud, things like that.”
“Oooh, so it’s like a Spartan-”
“No, it’s not a Spartan race. There’s no obstacles to climb or anything. It’s all running based.”
“Do they still spray you with colors?”
“No,” I was becoming increasingly agitated, now starting to fidget in my chair. “It’s not some gimmick driven event. It’s about racing head to head against the guy next to you. Whoever is stronger and faster is gonna win. Simple as that.”
“Sounds boring. But I don’t really like sports much.” She shrugged. I smiled weakly before looking back over toward Gary. I was grateful to see he was heading back this way. She noticed it too and, equally relieved, prepared for her exit. “Well, nice meeting you, uh …”
“John,” I filled in for her.
“Stacy.” She lingered for another second before standing, “Good luck with your-well-your not a Spartan race.”
“Thanks.” I looked down to take another drink of beer. When I looked back up, Gary had filled her vacated space, causing me to double take in confusion.
“She seemed kinda cute. Did you get her-what’s got you in such a huff?” He changed tone, noticing my disgruntled tearing at the paper on the outside of my bottle.
“Nothing,” I replied, tossing a moist scrap onto the counter. “So, who were you talking to?”
“This girl Elizabeth. I tutored her last semester in like Calculus class or something. She kept trying to get me to give her my number.” He finished sourly.
“What’s wrong with that? You like her, don’t you?”
“But I saw you! You were smiling and laughing.”
“Nah dude, I was giving you the signal! Didn’t you couldn’t tell that was the fake laugh with the ‘save me’ eyes?”
“No. Because that’s not a thing.”
“It’s a thing.”
I sighed and went back to picking apart my label. “So what did you do?”
“I gave her my number.” Gary said flatly. “Not like I had much of a choice. She had me cornered” He looked at me carefully. “I’m guessing your experience didn’t go much better?”
“We didn’t have a lot in common.”
“So she hates running?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Well it’s the only interest you have, so I figured it out.” I opened my mouth to respond, but, admittedly, he had made a good point. “At least she got you to drink half of your beer. That’s a positive.”
“Why do people not get Cross Country?” I blurted out in frustration the question I had been deliberating the whole night. “Like … nobody cares.”
“You’re just figuring this out?”
“No, I guess not … But I just thought maybe, if I could teach people more about the sport, get them to really understand what it’s about-”
“You’re going about it the wrong way. The sport in and of itself, it’s fine, but what makes it truly great is the people. The journey. The struggle. You can’t just make people understand that. They have to experience it.” Gary reached over and grabbed the beer from my hands. “And people aren’t exactly going to line up for that.” He tipped the bottle back and chugged the rest of the drink before placing on the counter. “Now, c’mon let’s get out of here.”
As we walked away from the bar and toward the exit, we walked past the two girls we had interacted with earlier that night. I gave a polite wave, but Gary ushered me forward to make sure we didn’t get caught in another conversation. While rushing forward, I noticed Gary’s ex-tutee’s shirt for the first time. Printed across the front in orange text were the words “Vikings Field Hockey”. Seeing them flash in front of me while dwelling on Gary’s last monologue, something clicked in my mind.
“Gary,” I reached out and grabbed his arm. “Did Elizabeth go to Union Valley High School?”
“I don’t know,” He said, continuing forward unperturbed, “Maybe That does sounds vaguely familiar.” We exited the bar and trudged back up the road toward our apartment, conveniently located just a few minutes away.
“I’m gonna need you to call her.” I said decisively.
“You’re kidding right? Didn’t we just over this?” Gary shook his head. “We move out next month and then my goal is to never see her again.”
“This is important. I’ve got an idea.”
“Unless it’s as good as our DadHat YouTube series, I don’t care.”
We continued our journey down the road before turning east onto a darker side road. Although Gary said he didn’t care, I knew him better than that. His curiosity would eventually cause him to break down and ask about my idea. It’d probably take a couple days, maybe even a week, but in the end he’d-
“OK, fine. What do you want?” Gary asked sounding defeated. Wow, he broke even quicker than expected. With a rush of excitement, I turned to him and firmly relayed my request.
“I need you to help me get in contact with Jimmy Springer.”