This post outlines how I grew from boy to man and figured out who I really was through high school cross country. The pictures are from my race days -- I know I was a skinny skinny boy! Getting married and becoming a father has changed that, though ;)
Muscles tense, hands clenched as feet steady themselves on the frosted white line. Just hours before, fresh paint laid upon clean cut grass, marking an unmistakable path to follow. Arms touch, the individual becomes a sea of hushed spirit and pride as the gun is steadily raised. The air--saturated with apprehension and a deafening silence. Breaths are caught and held, eagerly waiting for their release. An indiscriminate cough could break the string holding the atmosphere in place. Instead, the blatant cry of a gun sounds. Muscles contract, hands swing as feet shift in a synchronized surge. An audible release of tension--exhale.
I used to run alone. I mean, really alone. No one beside me, and nothing but the steady footfall of my worn, Brooks brand shoes to keep me company. My breath--curt wisps of white in the winter air. The chill seeping through layers to grip my sweat-slickened skin, the wind threatening my rhythmic gait. During these moments, I relied wholly upon introspection as a means of communication. Just my thoughts and I. Questions swam wildly inside my scrambled mind, finding no outlet, but continuing their search for completion with unseen answers. “Who am I? Not superficially, but who am I really? What’s my calling in life? Why am I even running??” A time I believe every run-of-the-mill teenager passes through--searching for themselves. Well, a vast majority of my time was spent with myself, and it was apparent that “myself” was not going to be sufficient.
Elbows thrown, ankles crash as the wave of runners engulfs the hill. A victim of the intense rush lies in the gutter, hands over head in a feeble attempt to avoid the spiked, trampling feet. No Good Samaritan appears in the midst of the mob. Fresh grass worn smooth in seconds. The air shifts and sways with the pleading gasps, labored breaths.
Coach would yell at us. “Halfway! Six inches! Halfway! Six inches!” Our usual ab-workout as we lay prostrate on the ground, lifting our legs in unison to his commands. For a moment, I feel like I fit in, like I belong. Mostly because our groans of discomfort are all so comparable. But even that flash of familial feeling lifts me up. Other than those rare moments, I would run alone, in the gutter. Just trying to avoid the spikes of conversation that threatened to pop my introspective bubble. Simply put, I was shy. I didn’t like running alone but wouldn’t dare impose my life’s successes and woes to another. It was less complicated to keep those thoughts to myself. “Head to the weight room!” My thoughts are broken by the ever familiar voice of my coach. Again, I feel part of the “family” as a groan sounds in unison. “Stradley, get over here!” Coach points at me and I hurriedly rush to his side, feet stumbling. “You ran a good race last week, so you’ll be running Varsity for our meet this Wednesday. Train hard and you’ll do well.” A smile flashes across my face before I dutifully respond, “Will do, coach. Thank you.” For a moment I sense a hint of satisfaction on his grizzled face, followed by the predictable intrerjection, “Now get going!” I lithely turn as a smile lingers on the fringes of my mouth. Maybe I’ll “impose” this bit of success on someone in the weight room. Just maybe.
Vision blurred, consciousness paused as the roaring of crowds fades into another dimension. The wind issues an inexplicable urging onward. The green of worn grass intensifies, heartbeat and footstep combine in a symphonious chorus, the motion forward becomes the only reality. For a moment, gasps cease as breaths find their place in the symphony. Breaths steady.
Before every competition we would say a prayer--an effectual pause in surrounding pandamonium. Huddled like vagabonds around a fire, my teammates and I would come together as one, bound by the inextricable goal of victory--individually and as a team. I could feel the bond we shared, however brief it may have been, before we were released like a pack of ravenous beasts in search of prey. When the gun sounded something changed. The bond we had shared just moments before was still visible, but dimmed by the quest for personal glory, individual honor. There I was again, running alone amidst a crowd of competition. My mind, normally replete with soul-searching questions, joins the surrounding throng in its single mind--win. As I pass a struggling teammate, an unconvincing and barely audible “good job” exits my mouth, followed by an unscripted flash of pride. My single-track mind to win is flooded by a rush of familiar questions: “Do I think I’m better than him? Pride surely isn’t my calling in life, is it? Who am I?...” “You too!” The response of my beloved teammate interrupts my wandering thoughts, invoking a pang of guilt for my selfish emotions just strides before. I look back and muster a penitent smile, as if somehow he will understand this as a sign of my changed intentions and newfound understanding. “I’m not alone in this race,” I think to myself as I continue with a resolved stride forward. The realization makes me eager to find my next teammate, to wish him a clearly audible “good job.”
Jaws set, teeth bare as the rhythmic stride accelerates. Spread thin like a meager helping of butter on charred toast, runners find their destined position. Time fades with the setting sun, slowly inching its way to the finish. Passing one by one those whose strength wanes, the elite escape obscurity, shining through the approaching dusk. Pace quickens, breaths shorten.
“Lengthen your stride! Pump those arms, you’ve got it! Reel him in, he’s just around the corner!” The classic, cliche phrases my father barked at me with all the loving fervor he possessed. My gaze strays from my forward path as I search for his familiar face amid a sea of others. His eyes--loving, confident, determined--meet mine, and I am taken back to when I would run alone. Trudging along, inspecting the dirt in the gutter as if to find some sign of an archaeological artifact, I would look up, half expecting to see an accompanying dirt-inspecting runner by my side, but see no one. Then, an image of my father, waving and pumping his arms like he had during all my races, cheering me on and encouraging me to keep going. The image would last only a single blink of my sullen eyes and then disappear, but it was enough to remind me that, although I ran alone, I always had the memory of someone by my side. My sight would be turned upward, my stride with an added reassuring spring. “You’re doing great!” Awakened from my nostalgic daydream, I end our gaze with a final glimpse of the glint in his eye. I turn with a solemn nod of acknowledgement as I lengthen my stride, focusing attention ahead on my weakening opponent. “I’m glad my father is here,” I decidedly think to myself. “Like he has always been. I don’t think I’ll ever be running alone again.”
Sights raise, arms pick up slack as reluctant legs extend towards the finish. Gazes set upon the finish, latent will bursts the bands of mediocrity, empowering runners to heroic deeds. Late autumn leaves clap in excitement as a new wind stirs the slumbering trees. The grass willingly gives as feet find traction and spring off its worn, vibrant colors. Heart-beats create a growing percussion, breaths--an evening fog.
The thin strip of white marking the finish line looms on the horizon. Resisting the urge to look back at the fast-approaching, shallow breaths that give away the presence of the incoming runners, I look into the heart of the race’s terminal. Three hundred feet, two hundred feet--it arrives quickly. My coach--his usual rounded, grizzled self--issues an anticipated yell. “Stradley! All the way!” My father joins in to make his incessant screams a duet. “Push it in, give it your all!” My foot crosses the line in a flurry of spirit and pride, mixed with the fatigued gasps of my fellow competitors. I receive an indiscriminate pat on the back, look up and see a stranger smiling widely. “Good race! Thanks for pushing me.” I question his sincerity, but manage to push back the pride and fear inside. “Thanks. You too,” I respond with a reciprocating pat. To my surprise, I realize that I mean it. And I want to say something more. I frantically search for my teammates in order to wish them their much due congratulations from my previously wordless mouth. Surrounding me is a group of newly found friends, a tangible bond making us one. Like when the race began, yet different, now coupled with a lasting feeling of love and camaraderie. I have never felt such lack of loneliness in my life.
Arms extended, smiles forced as cameras snap a moment in time. Congratulations duly given, rest rightfully earned inundates the finish line. The field lies silent, nostalgic in the change it witnessed in the blink of an eye. Goals met, friendships sealed and lives changed. The sun sends its final salutation as it settles for a night of slumber, the moon eagerly awaiting its turn. Moods softened, hearts at normal pace, breaths easy and light.
Today, I’m running alone. It is not a lonely form of alone, but rather a self-assured, confident alone. Like being prepared for a test. Like years before, my faithful Brooks brand shoes with their familiar touch upon the ground keep me company. My breath shows like a phantom against the pale winter light. A slight breeze encourages a fast, strong pace that carries me footfall by footfall to my circuitous destination. I’m just your average, run-of-the-mill single adult, with thoughts swimming around in my head, bouncing back and forth with seemingly no direction. In a sense, I’ve been here before. I’ve always been here. But in a different way, another light. The questions, miraculously, have not changed, nor have the conundrums been completely solved. The same age-old quandaries plague my mind, yet a smile creeps across my face. “I’m running alone, yet I’m not really alone,” I think to myself. I know that now. A bank of experiences has been stored, ready for access. Experiences which readily take center stage in my mind, replaying themselves over and over, so as to not let me forget the lessons learned, the people loved. Alone? I may be alone. But I’m alone with myself, and because of the infusion of others in what used to be my insufficient self, I am whole, complete.
Shoes worn, muscles relaxed as I glide down the hill. Arms synchronize with oscillating legs. The final leaf falls from a barren tree, exposing the branches to the penetrating cold. Ice glistens as the sunset expands, sending shimmering light to play with frozen terrain. My heart pounds, a feeling of peace rests upon my swimming mind. An audible release of tension--exhale.