I had a story published in “Young Author” magazine while in high school. It was titled “The Race,” and I based it on a run on a Wednesday afternoon at Southwest Junior High. When I wrote it, it was too short and I thought nothing of it. Surprisingly, the teacher told me to submit it.
The premise? It’s the finish that matters, not how you got there.
This isn’t the story that was published. This is what gave me the idea. I apologize if it sounds like I’m bragging about anything. I didn’t have a clue about what the heck I was doing in life. It was at times unbearable for me to be around some of the great people I went to school with. They might as well have been aliens. Mouthy, as I call him in this story, probably would have run faster than I had he took me seriously.
After I started running each day in 9th grade, I learned that I enjoyed running barefoot, like a savage. I looked like a savage sometimes; running in cutoff shorts or jeans, barely able to breathe as I struggled to run. It cost me more than one puncture. My feet, already accustomed to hard running and walking on all manner of surfaces, acquired yet another layer of almost impenetrable thickness. The first few years I ran, I was capable of running fast. In my later years, I just couldn’t do it, even when I still ran often. Every once and a while, I made my way over to Southwest Junior high. It still had an older surface. I loved the feel of the grit on my feet. My problem was that after running, I would have to walk from the track over to my cousin Jimmy’s house.
In my sophomore year, one of the runners for track tried to intimidate me. He overheard me telling someone in the band that I loved running. He told me I was full of it and if I could run so well, I would be in track with him. I didn’t have the energy to tell him that my home life wouldn’t have permitted my participation or that I would have caught hell from the coaches on staff.
“Yeah, right. You’re full of it.” He insisted I couldn’t run a mile.
“Just a mile?” I asked him, which made him irritated. “Any idiot can run a mile, whether it’s through soft grass or on a nice track.” I figured I’d turn the argument around on him.
“I can run a mile faster than you!” he said.
“Oh, it is the speed that matters? I normally only run fast when chased, so I’m not fast.” I was certain he could outrun me, but probably not outdistance me.
In short, I was demonstrably stupid.
And that’s the conversation that led me to be at the track at Southwest on a Wednesday. I had to walk there from the high school.
The track runner, who I’ll call Mouthy, met me there. Someone drove him over to the track. We went in through the narrow gate. Mouthy was looking at me strangely. I was wearing the same shoes I wore to school. I only owned one pair.
“You’re going to outrun me in those?” Mouthy asked.
Partly from bravado and in part from defiance, I said, “No, I’m going to run barefoot.” I sat on the edge of the bleachers near the track and began taking my Kmart shoes and socks off.
“There’s no way, man. It’s going to kill your feet.”
I took my pants off. I was wearing my one pair of shorts I could run in. My other running shorts were cutoffs that were too big around the waist. I ignored him and walked barefoot out to the marker. Mouthy had a stopwatch. “For real?” he asked me, still not sure I was going to try to outrun him.
He shrugged. “I’m going to start this and put it down. I’ll yell ‘go’ when ready, okay?” I nodded.
Mouthy pressed the stopwatch button and then set it on the edge of the track. He stood up, leaned over and then yelled “Go.”
He ran away from me. I felt like the Wile E. Coyote in the cartoons. I ran, letting Mouthy pull away. I knew I couldn’t beat him. A weird thing happened, though. I watched him as he arced away from me. His expensive shoes were simply mesmerizing to watch as he ran. I got angry. Not at Mouthy, but at my Dad. I thought of all the evenings in the last year when I went out to Piazza Road in Tontitown to run. My Dad ridiculed me. I know I looked strange: a fat, wobbly kid running in the middle of nowhere. As the weight fell off me that summer, I could see that my Dad hated it. He needed me to be fat. A lot of dads are that way, to the detriment of their sons. Little did he know that “The Eye of The Tiger” played in my head like a prayer on most of those runs.
Not many people know that the only reason I believe I made All-State band in the 10th grade was because I had started running unimaginable distances. (That, and the band director Pat Ellison told me I was going to do it. Whether she believed it or not was irrelevant. When she said I would, I believed it, because she seemed genuine in her belief. I always envy kids who had parents who emulated her example.)
I put my Dad out of my mind and instead imagined I was doing the last mile on Piazza Road in Tontitown. The last 100 yards near home were on a slightly sloping downward hill. There were times I ran the last half-mile with such intensity that I would see stars. The pavement ended past the hill. If I felt exuberant after the mad dash, I’d run to the end of the dirt road where the 4K dairy barn was. It didn’t take me long to realize that the best way to run longer distances was to fail to turn around where Fletcher intersected with Barrington.
By the first lap, Mouthy was far ahead of me. He seemed to be slowing though. I think he overestimated his ability to run at that pace. My bare feet began to feel like they were connected to the sky as I ran deliberately as fast as I could. By the end of the second lap, I was ten yards behind Mouthy. He kept looking back more and more often. By the end of lap 3, I was about 10 feet in front of him. “I’m going to catch you,” Mouthy shouted. He should have saved his breath. I decided that I was going to beat him so badly he’d never doubt me. I said it in my head as much to him as the idea of my Dad. Despite my bad form, I grunted and ran with everything I had. I sensed that Mouthy had noticed I was giving the race every iota of effort I had. I could hear him grunt. As I finished my fourth lap, I was only 5 feet ahead of Mouthy. I beat him, though.
I slowed to a walk and went into the grass. The grass felt like a luxurious carpet to my toes.
“Well, you won! I wouldn’t have believed it! What do your feet look like?” Mouthy seemed like he’d already accepted that I beat him. He was being a good loser.
I showed him the bottom of my left foot. It was a bit red from one of the inside curves, but not scatched or cut. “I think I only beat you because you started off too fast, didn’t you? Also, I was really, really mad. I felt like Clubber Lane on that last stretch.” Mouthy laughed. “Yeah, I was overconfident. I know better than that.”
We ran two more miles together that afternoon, both considerably slower. Mouthy told me I needed to consider track. So I told him an abridged version of what my home life was like. “Keep running, either way.” He didn’t know what to say when I told him I only had one pair of shoes, not counting my band shoes. His mom drove me to my cousin Jimmy’s house.
Later, my friend Mike invited me to run with him. I’ll share that story another time. I ended up eating a bit of dirt and mud on that run, vainly trying to keep pace with him. It was that day I discovered that he was not human. It’s likely that the terminator in the sequel to the original movie was based on Mike.
When I worked at the nursing home on Gutensohn, I worked at night. There were several times I went and ran barefoot on the junior high track. Some of my best runs happened under the stars. I can’t imagine the youth I possessed to allow me to work, run, and take advantage of such a simple pleasure.
All of us, if we’re lucky, have the joy of looking back on our own surprises.
P.S. That road in Tontitown looks almost the same as it did when I ran on it in 1983.