By Rich Elliott
Phil stopped swearing before they reached the school, his anger nudged aside by anticipation. In the back seat of the car, his 13-year-old son Jerry hunched moodily over his cell phone game. In the passenger seat, his nine-year-old daughter Didi squirmed and bounced, as always.
The father’s outburst was triggered by his son’s willful forgetfulness: Jerry left his racing spikes at home—again. The father ranted that no serious runner would ever race in flats. So they’d been forced to stop at a sports store where Phil bought his son an expensive new pair of Adidas spikes. But not before chewing out his son royally.
That was thirty minutes ago. Now they were rolling into the high school parking lot, and the mood lifted with the sudden activity swelling in front of them—the disembarking families, the jogging packs of runners, and the colored flags quivering in the breeze.
“OK, guys. Ready?” The father, encouraging.
“OHHHH YEAH!” Didi, no longer able to contain herself, pedaled her legs and kicked the glove box with her pink Nikes. She’d applied black grease paint under her eyes, and she wore her favorite powder blue jersey, the one that said “Future Olympian.”
“Yeah, I guess you must be ready,” the father told her. “Just don’t be too crazy.”
“OHH, I’M NOT CRAZY!” she squealed and pedaled her legs again.
Phil turned to the back seat. “Son, you ready?”
Jerry tapped aggressively on his cell phone. He was searching for more weapons on the island. He needed the weapons to kill the other players so he could be the last player standing. He was quite good at this game.
“Sure, sure. Ready,” the boy muttered. He wore a plain white T-shirt and, in subtle defiance, the baggy basketball shorts his dad hated.
“Great. Let’s go see who showed up this year.”
Each year for thirty-some years the former Milford cross-country runners, in a spirit of camaraderie and nostalgia, met at their high school to race again on the old two-mile course. This annual reunion provided an excuse to stay in shape and a chance to reconnect with kindred spirits.
Because many of the alums now had children of their own, races for the kids were also held—a hundred-yard sprint for the younger ones and a mile run for the older kids. The children’s races followed the adult race.
Whenever Phil Mains stepped onto the Milford cross-country course, he got a warm feeling, which wasn’t merely due to the hot August afternoon. It was more about memory and familiarity and ritual.
It was the smell of fresh-mown grass and the way you sank into its cushion. It was the chalk line etching the course and the color-coded flags marking the turns. It was the way the red brick school building rose up right behind the starting line. It was the old, looming fieldhouse, that dark, cavernous chamber containing the indoor track. It was the odor of sweat in the locker room and the sheen of newly-waxed hallways.
It was the predictability of his former teammates, the same smart-ass smiles, same crude jokes, same insouciant airs, same distinctive running styles. Well, admittedly, the running styles had grown increasingly derelict with the passage of time.
Phil’s sentimentality was especially triggered by the changeless ritual—the trotting warm-up (shorter each year), the sucking on water bottles, the grunts during the stretching, the pre-race sprints (fewer each year), the goofy introductions and jocularity of the start, the withholding of effort early in the race, the steadying of breath, the welcome feeling of motion, of athleticism, and then the cruel onset of oxygen debt, of willing the body to hang pace, the losing battle with the lungs, the rebellion of the legs, and then of course the terrible habit of the final sprint.
Over the years he’d grown fond of these rites. Sure, he was being a sentimental fool, but it all felt to him like an old friend.
Each year in the alumni meet Phil raced against his old rival. Their rivalry started back in high school when, for two seasons, Phil and Chester “Chaz” Carter battled each other neck and neck. Ordinarily in such warfare, one runner ultimately breaks the other and becomes dominant, but because of their stubbornness and their coach’s wizardry, this never happened. Phil and Chaz retained an equanimity about their wins and losses, and they stayed friends, though it was a friendship with an edge, a friendship in which one always sought an opening where he could gut the other.
They had pushed each other all the way to a 1-2 finish in the State High School Cross Country Championship. Because of this success, their fellow alums indulged them now with a little extra attention even though the glory days were long gone. Chaz and Phil’s adversarial relationship persisted into adulthood. Year after year at the alumni race, to the entertainment of families and friends, the two men continued their pugnacious lockstep. As they aged and bowed to younger alums and regressed, they’d cross the finish in ninth and tenth, then 22 and 23, 36 and 37, and so it went.
Here was Phil’s rival now, striding across the field.
“Hey, Chaz, old buddy! And I do mean old.”
“Hey, Phil! Ready for a beating?” The two friends embraced.
“Looks like you gained a couple pounds, Chaz. You gotta cut back on all that pizza.”
“Hey, did I see you favoring your leg? Your knee acting up again, old man?”
“Just trying to get you overconfident.”
“Well, it ain’t working, man.”
They chuckled and went back to stretching their balky hamstrings, bending over like drinking-bird toys.
At the starting line their former coach, his shock of white hair always arresting, delivered some funny opening remarks about how it must have been a good year because his thoroughbreds had gained more weight than ever before. Then he fired the start-pistol and sent the alums scrambling over the grass.
A lead pack of younger, fitter men broke off quickly, while the rest of the haggard crew strung out behind them. The spectators lined the race path to cheer and shake their heads in bemusement and then wait as their loved ones trundled off, disappearing into the back loop through humid air.
When the racers finally appeared again, there was much separation, like bread crumbs on a trail, everyone strung out, except of course for Phil and Chaz laboring shoulder to shoulder in 46th and 47th place. The two of them jockeyed around the final flag and headed for the finish chute one hundred yards away. This was when they paid for their sin of pride because now they had to summon a kick. They not only had to fight their soaring oxygen debt and creaky frames, but also each other.
This time, twenty yards before the chute, Chaz got a half-step on his friend and claimed bragging rights for next twelve months.
The two old runners collapsed on the infield beyond the finish. In the drippy aftermath, they struggled for breath.
“Ha! You old son of a bitch,” Phil heaved.
“Damn, that hurt bad.” Chaz squeezed his eyes to shut out the sweat. “You had me on the ropes.”
There was this strange thing about the race that Phil found compelling: No matter how much slower you ran each year, the feelings engendered by the race stayed exactly the same.
The kids’ races were next. Recovered, Phil brought his children to an adjacent soccer field where he could oversee their warmup and give them words of wisdom.
“Hold your hands like this, Jerry.” The father demonstrated as they jogged. “Thumb on the forefinger. But keep everything loose, not tight.”
“Dad. I know.” The son looked away. “You told me a hundred times.”
“Dad, dad! How’s my form?” Didi was skipping along.
“Just fine, Babe.”
They stopped to stretch in the middle of the field.
“Remember to pace yourself, son. You don’t win the race in the first quarter mile.” Then the father couldn’t help himself—he brought it up. “Last year Bobby had more left at the end. He was more patient. You got to wait to the second half to pour it on.”
“Dad. I know, I know.” The son relocated several yards away to stretch in peace.
“Dad, dad! What about my race plan?” Didi pestered. She was circling, doing a high-knee strut like a drum majorette.
“Plan?” The father was distracted, pensively observing his son. “Didi, you don’t need a plan. Your race is a hundred yards. Just run your butt off.”
Didi slapped her behind like she was galloping on a horse. “OK! Yes! Run my butt off!”
Bobby Carter was Chaz’s son. He and Jerry, without wanting to, had found themselves thrown together in head-to-head competition. Their races were always close, and they’d become the focus of interest and expectations. Egged on by their dads and encouraged by amused spectators, the boys had inherited a kind of unfortunate blood match.
The announcer called for the kids races to begin.
“Jerry, get your spikes on,” Phil instructed. “And remember, double-knot them.”
The boy scoffed. For godsakes, Jerry thought, would you shut up?
Phil nearly missed his daughter’s race. He was searching for his son, who had not come to the starting line. Concerned that Jerry had lost track of time, Phil jogged the back loop, where he found the boy walking slowly toward him. The son had gone off to throw up behind a tree.
“Where you been?” Phil barked. “Your race is about to start.”
As they returned to the main field, the kids hundred-yard race was finishing. Didi was flying, her ponytail bouncing and her little hands clawing the air. She was ten yards ahead of all the others and grinning like a banshee. She leaped into the finish chute, sprinted out the back, and promptly did a rapturous cartwheel.
“Dad, dad! Did you see me?” she called out.
Phil, standing at the mile starting line, waved at his daughter. He gave her a thumbs-up and turned back to his son.
“Son, you can do this.”
Jerry shrugged miserably.
The gun sounded, and the nine runners in the kid’s mile, the day’s marquee event, hurried out over the field. The first part of the course skirted the football and soccer practice fields; the second part dipped into a heavily wooded trail mostly obscured from spectators, before emptying out fifty yards from the finish.
As the runners completed the first loop, their parents crowded the way, screaming into the faces. Bobby, with Jerry right on his shoulder, already had twenty-yards on the field.
Phil positioned himself so he almost blocked the course. “OK, OK! Looking great!” he yelled. “You got this! You got this!”
His son’s effortless stride always moved him. It was beautiful, breathtaking even. The boy was a real natural. His talent would take him far. Who knows, maybe someday a scholarship, maybe even a national team.
The runners plunged into the woods in the back loop. Sounds quieted, fans stared at stopwatches, the runners’ mettle was tested, pecking order determined.
Phil spied a flash of Jerry’s white T-shirt, and his heart leaped. Then his son bolted out of the woods. He had a twenty-yard lead on Bobby Carter. Jerry was moving fast, arms whipping across his chest, knees driving, an image of perfection.
The glorious image was betrayed by the boy’s face, which shone with twisted anguish.
Jerry sailed through the chute, an easy victor. His jubilant father jogged after the boy to capture him and pound him on the back.
The crowd gathered under the big oak tree for the annual handout of medals and comical speeches.
At the outskirts of the group Chaz approached Phil.
“Say, old buddy.” His face showed a hint of embarrassment. “I gotta mention something.”
“You want to give me your medal?” Phil joked. He tried to decipher his friend’s expression.
“You know,” Chaz began haltingly, “it’s kind of weird. My son said Jerry cut the course. Back in the woods. That’s how he got his lead.”
Phil looked around for his son and tried to assemble a thought from a tangle of thoughts.
“Damn, Chaz. I highly doubt that. Why would he do that?”
“Don’t know.” Chaz shrugged. “But hey, it’s no big deal. They’re kids. Just thought you’d want to know.”
“Jeez, Chaz,” said Phil as his friend turned and walked away.
Jerry did not show up to get his first-place medal. Phil and Didi looked for him to no avail. The father collected the medal for his son.
Phil’s old teammates gathered around him and shook his hand.
“Wow, your son! You got a real runner there, man!” said his friend Nick Demos.
“Chip off the old block,” said another runner. “It’s scary to think what he can run in high school.”
“Well, he looked pretty good today.” Phil tried not to sound prideful.
He and his daughter found Jerry waiting in the car, playing his cell phone game.
“Been looking all over for you, boy.” The father slammed the car door. “You missed the awards, you know.” He turned around to look at his son. “I got your medal for you. Here.”
Jerry tried to decide whether to take the medal. Finally, he did.
Phil looked wistfully over the cross-country course. In silence he pulled out of the school parking lot, drove through the suburb and then onto the expressway.
Didi could not let a silence go unbroken.
“Dad, dad! Did you see my race?” She bounced on the seat and pedaled her legs. “The gun blasted and I was like WHOA and I sprinted and I was like passing kids and pretty soon I was like way ahead and I said to myself, I can win this again, I’m gonna do it. And I did it!”
“You did fine, Didi.” But Phil was looking in the rearview mirror at his son. His son’s face was buried in his shooter game, his fingers racing over the keys.
The father gripped the steering wheel. Color crept up his neck into his face. His daughter watched with a mixture of fear and excitement.
“Jerry, can you put down that goddamn game for one second!” Phil growled into the mirror.
“Why?” The boy looked up.
“I heard something from my friend Chaz. He said something I know can’t be true.” The father’s knuckles were white on the steering wheel. “He said that Bobby said you cut the course. Back in the woods.”
The hum of the car engine and the passing trucks filled the space.
“No I didn’t,” said the boy matter-of-factly.
“Well, that’s what I told Chaz.” The father nodded hopefully into the mirror. “You were waiting to make your move in the woods. That’s when you surged and you broke him.”
The throb of the engine swelled. Trucks roared on all sides.
“Liar.” The daughter looked out her window away from the other two. “Jerry. I was there, in the woods. I saw you. I saw you cut.”
“Jesus Christ, son.” The father’s voice was almost a whisper. “Why?”
The boy turned to his window. Despite his best effort, his eyes filled.
The unsaid swallowed the car. Days passed. Three souls drifted in separate orbits. Finally, they made the harbor of their driveway.
“Do I have to run next year?”
Phil was getting out of the car, and he felt a hundred years old. It took him three tries to get his legs to work.
“We’ll talk about it later, Jerry.” He shouldered his gym bag. In the wake of his children he shuffled inside the house. His wife studied the refugees as they came in. Wise in the ways of faces and postures, she refrained from asking questions.
That evening Phil and his wife sat on the couch in the glow of the TV set. A new police procedural was on. The wife’s attention was on the TV show and also on her I-Pad. She was searching on Amazon for gift ideas. Birthdays were coming up.
Phil pored over the handout that showed all the results of the day’s races. He noted that if he trained a little harder next year, maybe go out faster and knock off just twenty seconds, he would jump up ten places. Chaz would have a tough time of it.
Phil marveled at how some of the old runners still ran pretty fast times, as if they’d made some deal with the devil. Or maybe they just had good genes.
And it was interesting to see how the times in the kids races changed from year to year. Nick’s son had slashed a full minute from his mile time.
Next year, Phil would make sure his son had his head right. And he would station himself in the woods to safeguard against any cheating. The kid was just going through a stage. He’d come to love the sport.
Upstairs, behind his locked bedroom door, Jerry had taken out all his medals from past alumni races. He was looking at each one, what place he got, and he was putting them in a small cardboard box. He put the box inside a plastic bag and knotted it tight. Later, when no one was around, he would bury the bag in the trash.
Outside the bedroom windows, down below on the darkened street, lost in the hum of the chattering TVs, came the soft patter of sneakers. The girl with the ponytail was running laps around the block. The future Olympian ran lap after lap.
Rich Elliott is the author of two nonfiction books, The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running and the anthology Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running, and short stories published in several literary magazines. His first collection of fiction, Duck and Cover: Eleven Short Stories, came out in 2018.