This second-person short is dedicated to my old running coach, Jeremy Mattern, a man who believed one school’s program could be great and has been making it such for almost fifteen years. You’re an animal, J-town.
It starts in the chest. It swirls around the abdomen, out toward the fingertips and into your feet and toes. It is brought on by the senses. You take a deep breath and look around. It is you and eleven others. They are going through their rhythms. They’ve applied the icy-hot and have sipped from water bottles. They are readjusting their headbands, re-tying their shoes, stretching and massaging their quads.
“Runners to your mark,” calls the bullhorn. The sky is grey and the track is blue like Hawaiian Pacific Ocean. Jerseys are trotting to toe the line.
You wear the number Six on your hip and you like that. It gives you a good feeling. You wonder if you’re really that superstitious. Well, I am a runner, you think. So yeah, of course I am.
“Set,” calls the bullhorn while a gun simultaneously points at the sky.
Nothing moves. Muscles are pulled back. Cocked. Ready.
The gun explodes and your vantage shows a sea of calf muscles and neon outdoor Nike, Adidas and Brooks track flats. Your arms propel you forward like they are digging you out of a hole. You’re in the mix; every runner seems to vacillate between third and ninth place in these first 100 meters.
The pack rounds into its first straight and runners fall into position. Everyone in this race is running and moving independently, but as a pack you look like you’re floating, coasting along as one. The pack floats and coasts like this into its second turn, the first 200 meters swallowed in exactly thirty seconds.
Now you notice the sound of feet. Rubber on rubber. You hate the way the runner in front of you is striding, his shoulders curling left then right, left then right, left then right. You move next to him. He continues to sway but doesn’t look, and you pass him at 350 meters. There are now six in front of you. You come up and toe their heels. At 400 meters, at 61 seconds, it is you in this pack, and them falling behind.
The front runners are fixed. None will pass and none will wain. All are still as one machine. 500 meters. This will be your third straight. However, what you thought you could predict about how runners will behave during lap two suddenly evaporates. One runner in red and white makes a move. Like a train there must be a chain reaction. The six who follow move too. The pack becomes two lines, runners running side-by-side.
600 meters. The runner in red and white is the first to make the turn: he is ten steps from you. He cranes his neck at a slight to see who’s behind. The train is pulled along and at 700 meters the double-lined pack whips from the turn and reconvenes along the straight. Red and white is making less effort. The life-size clock blinking neon green numbers blinks from 1:59 to 2:00 to 2:01 to 2:02 as the pack cross the halfway line.
Two others take the reins. They open their stride. They are hip Three and hip Seven. Seven, you think, your left palm grazing the Six on your hip. At 850 meters and then at 860 you pull to the right to pass and challenge the pace. You make five long and quick strides, and by 910 and 920 meters you duck left behind hip Three and hip Seven. It is you and it is them.
At 1,000 meters you’re watching how they kick their legs and wonder if they’re tired. You’re wondering if they’ve broken off too soon, wondering where hip One, Two and Four are. You whip into the race’s sixth straight away and now you hear the people cheering. For now they are yelling cheers, not screaming. This is their last straight to sit tight; from here their cheers will rise. From here the race gets great.
At 1,200 meters when the bell rings and the clock is just about to tick 3:06, it is hip Three, hip Seven, you, and now another kicking at your heels. No, you think. No, no, no. You keep your pace, or you try to keep your pace while you fight away the thought that you’d planned to be at three minutes upon completed lap three.
Your palms still graze your Six with every other stride. It’s Three, Seven, you, and now Four at your side. Coming into 1,300 meters you know the importance of this straight. It is where winners will make their break. There are other runners twirling towels from the sidelines. You breathe in and out and feel a twinge of fatigue. Just a twinge and nothing more. That’s all. I’m feeling great. I’m feeling so great, you think. You watch your strides mimicking those menacing all around you. You are eight legs pumping weight and energy into the rubber ground. Seven’s arms are beginning to flail so you move to his right and pass. You’re at 1,400 meters and now it’s Three, Four and you into the remaining 200. A click below an all-out sprint has commenced. You breathe, you divide the space between their kicking legs with your feet. You could part them, a half step behind. But you don’t. Not yet, you think. It’s 150 meters. It’s 140, 130. And now, it is time to go.
Here, here, here you step. Here, here, here, here, and around you push. It’s Four. He’s flailing. You’re sided for less than a second. Then you’re ahead. You kick at full capacity. The people are on their feet. Now they’re cheering. They’re women screaming and coaches with red faces yelling and poised so low on the sidelines that they are almost kneeling and spinning their arms like propellers toward the finish line.
You seem to be pushing a wall by running the ground out from under it. There’s 50 meters left and at your pace this is something like 20 steps. Hip Three is breaking because you can see the way his neck is falling back. You are gaining and the people are screaming more and you and Three are leaning letting gravity edge your bodies closer to the line. It is ten steps, eight steps, six, four, two…
When you open your eyes you’re looking at the ground. Your arms are slung along the top of a waist-high chain-link fence and you’re exhaling repeatedly. You start smiling and you’re thinking, I’m a runner. Yeah, of course I am.