Spring Street was strangely archaic – white concrete, not asphalt, with meandering black lines of tar. It met my legs abruptly, returning their bounce with an equal shock back, deadening and harsh, until they would get loose on the dirt road. I turned along the edges of the campus-like collection of foster homes that were always oddly quiet with windows that were oddly black and made the sharp U-turn around the railroad track that jutted into the air, a bridge to nowhere, long since abandoned. Another turn and up the small hill passed the strange corporate-looking building where I had that scholarship interview in the chair that swiveled too easily but made me feel cool and relaxed, only to find out that that would be my last interview – I didn’t want it anyway – and then along the playground of the preschool, the one I attended just before I went to kindergarten and after Mim’s, the old lady who made us sleep in rows of beds that pulled out of the wall while she always side-eyed me while I didn’t nap. The playground looked back at me, quiet and still, and reminded me of that time I couldn’t be bothered to stop playing and peed there in the farthest corner, thinking no one could see me, only to hear the teacher yell at me from behind. The rest of the playtime I had to sit in the classroom of two-year-olds, while she’d be like, see, this is what you act like. Now when I run and get past the asphalt and houses, I don’t even need to look for the corner in the fence. Anywhere will do. How you like me now, teacher?
Reaching the end of the asphalt, I squeezed past the long metallic gate – the way Dad showed us – and onto the dirt road of the farm, the countryside, where cars weren’t threatening, and people weren’t watching. I let my mind drift, watching the dirt road in front of me, avoiding the bigger rocks and puddles in the tire tracks, thinking that this time next year would be very different. Soon I’d graduate. College running. Where? That school way out in glamorous and mysterious California with a new coach who always seemed distracted when talking to me? That school up in DC, all cold and gray but with the coach who promised a 4-minute-mile? The local school where it would be comfortable and fun but … it was local. I felt my legs quicken in their strides.
I passed over the creek and took the dirt road to the right and thought about all the times I’d done this run, beginning with the times we’d go out as a family and run through the neighboring farm with our dog Sandy. Two brothers and a father, just drifting along a dirt road while their dog meandered along the fields, each of us taking in the countryside as a break from work and school and right angles and cars that didn’t care. I don’t remember much conversation, but I do remember Dad telling us about running relaxed and having an easy stride; I’d think about loosening my shoulders and letting my feet kick out easily in front of me. Relax and flow.
“We called it the ‘church key,” he told us, referring back to his days running in college. The photo in our stairwell showed a close-cropped fit, younger version of him, narrow face, strong nose and a brow that pushed down intensely while he stared straight ahead. Apparently, he was a “straight arrow” then, before running was rebellion, like Dylan and the Dead, before running was cool, like Prefontaine and Quentin Cassidy in Once a Runner, and before it allowed him to break free of his father’s heavy-handed Christianity and grow a beard.
“You run with your hands loose, like your thumb and forefinger are holding a fragile church key that will break if you hold it too tight,” he continued, as the three of us trotted side by side down the dirt road, Sandy somewhere off in the fields.
Sandy, our beige cocker spaniel with floppy ears and as much endurance as us, would weave back and forth in front of our path, stopping to look up occasionally and make sure we were near and then back among the grasses, bouncing and sniffing and more running. She never stopped running. If we ran 4 miles, she must have run 10, dragging herself right alongside us for the last two blocks, the weavings and sprints all gone at this point. Her flashes among the fields were flashes back to her ancestors who hunted game and wildlife for medieval princes in lush, green European provinces, flashes between being cooped up in a metal fence for 23 hours of her days, where she could only watch us come and go, run for 20 meters from one side of the pen to the next chasing the random walker who just kept going after she had to stop at the corner, flashes of what it must have been like to be a free hunting dog who could run for miles and miles without the threat of cars and roads, like the way she sprinted out of the gate – a brown flash across the yard – when we opened it with our exercise clothing on, knowing what it meant, a light brown streak across our yard and into the street, while we always held our breath because her ancestors never had to watch for cars, and we didn’t know how to train her to watch out for that, and into the next yard until she, several seconds later, stopped and looked back at us to check when we’d be running down Spring Street.
Back on the dirt road, often it was enough to shout “Sandy!” every few minutes and have her look up, locate us, and swing back across our path, where new smells and new colors and new pleasures met her. Unfettered from fenced walls and city streets and strange pedestrians, she riffed to a constant stream of smells that hypnotized her in a million directions, a whole universe of scents among the twists and turns of fields and trees and grass and streams, never quick enough to catch anything but always curious and enduring.
Then back home, where she’d lap up water from the hose while we’d comb through her shaggy ears and neck for any ticks that she might have picked up in the grasses. Sometimes, we’d miss one only to find it days later, swelled with blood the size of the tip of my pinky finger and we’d have to tug to get it off her skin – while she refused to stay still – and then burn it, hoping the blood didn’t squirt, because the only way to kill a tick is to burn its head. That’s how I knew dogs didn’t get Rocky Mountain spotted fever the way we always worried about getting it; otherwise, she’d never survive all those bloodsuckers.
Meanwhile, we’d plod on in our straight-lined pace, church key fingers gently jangling.
My dad knew what a hard, lonely sport running was and pushed us to sports with balls and teams. I think my dad’s dad was a runner too, some long hint of a muscle memory glint around the edges. Long, slow distance, a description made in Prefontaine’s early 70s that doubled as acronymic wink to other kinds of freedom, seeped through our blood like an embodiment of a work-first ethic knowing the joy would come later if we’d just relax and hold that invisible church key. Whatever a church key is and how it’s different from any other key I’d never know but would know only that my dad didn’t like to go to church, finding the freedom of the farm roads more satisfying than Sunday morning hymns that he was forced to like as a kid whose father was famous for sermons on Puritanical ethics and “God’s” promise to be there for us. Footsteps are not followed when forced, and that’s why we found it natural to see what he liked in running.
I did it also because it came easy, even though my true love was soccer. They worked well enough together. Because I was a midfielder, I ran a lot. Because I ran a lot, I was a midfielder. Then my first race, in 7th grade, I almost touched 5 minutes for a mile, a time the high schoolers were happy to run. And then the next year, running in “all-comers” meets saw me go faster, make new personal records and then race in the capital for the whole state. I kept winning, kept going faster. Then against the entire East Coast, and I’d win again. The last stop would be Spokane, Washington – a national meet in the middle of the summer, which we’d drive to, across the country in a van as a family. A privilege, it was.
So, at 13-years old I started to think maybe nobody could beat me and I got to Spokane and these kids looked serious in matching outfits, like they’d been here for years, and names I saw from last year’s national finals while I only wore a T-shirt and soccer shorts and that made me nervous, but when the 3rd lap came and I’d remember what my dad told me about speeding up on the third lap, I pushed the pace but it was only enough to keep up with the kid from Kansas whose matching neon blue and orange runner shorts and tank top made him seem professional. But we were only 13 and I remembered again those church keys in my hands, the ones that were easy to hold in the second lap, so I relaxed and let him lead the third lap and somewhere in the back of my mind, nervousness starting to fade, knew that this was faster than I’d run before, so I’d just hold on while we all prepared for the last lap, another kid swinging up to the front to take over and now I was getting excited because this race was almost over and because we were going fast and it was a national meet and I didn’t know anything but the joy of the speed, like the way Sandy would keep crossing our paths along the dirt road through the farm, and join back up with us when we hit the paved roads and signs of civilization came back, but she’d never let tiredness hold her back from a new smell because running was freedom, like on the backstretch of that last lap, when we should all be tired but I got up on my toes and found some kind of new speed and passed both kids, even the one with a matching outfit. He didn’t like it because I felt him surge again and now, I was on the outside going into the last curve and he was fighting me off since his outfit was matching and probably lived track the way that I didn’t because I had it in my blood, ancestors who ran through fields and forests before I was born, like Sandy’s ancestors running through European fields. I had a feeling he couldn’t beat me, and so I picked it up and felt a new power around the final curve, the joy of feeling that other guy slide backwards while I surged forwards and into the straightaway where there was a white noise of cheering and – church keys in hands – drove to the finish line beyond them all to win a national championship and stand on a podium in soccer shorts and a T-shirt with a time that would be close to a 4:40 mile. Lots of promise for a 13-year-old even if it felt like the luck of good genes. Lots of potential, even if I had parents willing to drive anywhere for me. Lots of pressure because, now, 5 years later I was only like 15 seconds faster and 15 seconds in 5 years is not that much and if you win once, you should keep winning even though I never saw those guys in matching outfits again.
I was still cruising along the dirt road at a quick pace – early success hovering like a pointy finger pressing – and reached the end, where the gate was always closed to the country road beyond it. I stepped around it onto the two-lane road and hugged the shoulder full of gravel and patches of grass. The peace of the farm was broken by the cars that zoomed by, by the hard, unforgiving surface of the road, by the openness of the terrain that foretold big interstate highway, and by questions of how much better I should be.
But I also didn’t keep winning, like that time last year, May 1st of ‘93, against those 2 guys from the big city with 2 of the fastest times in the state. Doherty and Ystremski. Two regular white guys, like me. Yellow outfits with red lettering.
The pace went out at 4:30, not too fast but fast enough.
I had spent weeks thinking about them – where did they run their regular runs? Did they talk? Did their dad tell them about church keys and staying relaxed? Would I talk to them before the race or pretend I didn’t know them, like that national meet a few years back? Were they even aware of me?
I’d stay with them no matter what. I’d let them set the pace and sit on their shoulder. I’d wait and kick like when I was 13.
For 3 laps, everything was fine. I stayed with them and stayed within control of myself. I wasn’t gasping for air or barely hanging on. Going into the last lap – a slight sensation of the crowd beside us, I was ready, engaged. So engaged that in the backstretch, impatience seeped into my legs – what if I wait too long? – and pushed me to gently taking over the lead. This was too easy, where was the fight? Coming off the last turn, I made another surge, like way back in Spokane, surprised that there was not a breathy rattle sneaking up on me. An invisible wave of heat passed over me, and everything started to slow just as the white noise of the crowd glowed beside me. A deep molasses up in the sky stretching down into my legs, slow oozing while I watched it happen, and then, when the usual final sprint – electric and automatic – didn’t happen, my legs wouldn’t lift and my steps became smaller and smaller, stuck in a dreamworld of mud. My arms, weighed down by the sappy wave, started swimming, circular and spread, not tight and pumping, fighting something I couldn’t see. I curiously watched the heat take over. What is happening? Where is this coming from? Come on, man, flip the switch and drop the hammer, I thought. No answer.
Then midway down the straightaway, the slow ooze was shattered by the red rubber of the track. Boom.
My knees hit first. Bang. Then my hands. Swoosh. Swoosh. Two breezy movements on my right, yellows sliding past between me and a white noise. The shock of the red rubber track ruptured the slow heat. I climbed to my feet. The two guys from Charlotte neared the finish line, little blobs of yellow. I shuffled forward the last 50 meters.
We like to find causes. Figure out why it happened. What made you do it? What made that happen? How? Why? Was it what happened the day before? The week before? A year or two before? Something your father said or didn’t say? Something in the water?
In a race you don’t just fall in the middle of the final straight. That’s when adrenaline and the primal desire to win takes over. When you stop thinking and just leave it all out there. When it’s all down to who has the strongest kick. Who has the most left over. If you fall, you have to fall diving at the finish line. Not somewhere in the middle.
Electrolytes, my dad and coach decided.
But I secretly wondered if it was something else. Maybe I got too excited. Thought about it too much. Impatient on the back stretch. So eager to prove myself that I overheated. And then what next? Would it happen again? Would I be thinking about it during the next race? What if…
But sometimes we just fall.
We were not totally surprised when a neighbor knocked on our door and told us Sandy had been hit by a car. She always ran with abandon and that only worked out in the fields, not in neighborhoods where moving metal machines made no sense to her, their scents with no mystery, no magical colors. We reached her on the side of the road where she had been hit. Still alive, with those deep brown eyes she looked at us, like, this would never happen in my ancestors’ European provinces, where we would run until we were old and weary and I’m still not old and weary; like, I was just following a bright blue scent that did not know these boundaries; like, this would never happen in the farm if I was with you all running together. And we looked at her, my brothers and I, and because we were too young, not old and weary, thought she’d get better, but she never even made it to the vet and there’d never be another freewheeling Sandy, never another smart, beautiful, loving-to-run flash of light brown through the fields.
I crossed over the bridge of the interstate highway, all light gray concrete – the hardest surface to run on – and reached the stoplight by the county high school where only white kids went and turned back. I passed back through the farm, thinking now of Sandy and how maybe those college runs through the foothills where we’d abandon all caution and fear of the future would be flashes of what Sandy always knew – that the joy in running, in its freedom and purity, its joy and pain, its rebellion and discipline, was worth breaking out of the fence, no matter the speed.
Unlike Sandy, I could still come back.