Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Dying

Moments before the starter said "set," Steve was throwing up in the grass.  We were all nervous, but for me it was my last and only chance at qualifying for the Michigan state track and field championship as an individual.  I had already qualified as part of two relays, but I wanted my own racing contest.

I wanted what in retrospect I can see is simple redemption.

After the race, after I'd left high school, the race remained.  It took those years for me to realize its significance.  For several years following those seemingly insignificant two minutes, and less frequently over the rest of my life, my sleeping brain would churn through the race again, always altering the final seconds in precisely the same way.  I have a thousand more powerful waking memories, but to my sleeping self, this race is paramount.  These two minutes repeat, edited, and I still wake feeling as if I have just crossed a finish line and my feet tingle with the pressure of steel spikes driven two decades past into tartan track .

My family was not there to watch.  They hadn't asked and I hadn't told them I was racing the regional finals, that in the qualifier for the regional, I had finished second in our district.  I never told them what I was after when, my senior year, I suddenly found my brother's old shoes and started running through December snowbanks.  I had decided, before I graduated, to run, to race again, to capture what we had all given up on those four years prior.

I wore his spikes, the ones he'd worn his final year when he had won so many races, all except the one that mattered.

His loss came of his own pacing, a too-fast start and too-slow finish.

The family had driven across the palm of Michigan to see him contest the state championship, held on a crisp golf course, the kind we could never afford to play.  Halfway through the race he had already put two hundred yards on the field.

I ran alongside him when I could, urged him on, faster, faster.  A mistake.  I should have told him to slow up, to be patient, because he was running beyond himself and later suffered the consequence, seizing up before the end, dying too soon.  A blond prick named Ian (with no ties to the UK) caught and passed my reeling brother in the finishing stretch.

There is nothing in sport as stomach-churning as the silence before the track starter's gun.  A runner awaiting the gunshot crouches in silence facing only the effort to will himself toward pain.  Push, he urges.  Suffer.  Don't mistake the pain of dying for death.  Hold nothing back, not even the sensation of life, because even if it feels like dying, you will not die.  There is no distraction from this, only silence.

Then, pow!

My brother finished high school and stopped racing the year before I started.  I ran one uninspiring season of cross country, then dropped out.  I'd stopped caring.  My family had stopped caring.  Running, for whatever reason, no longer mattered to the ones who loved me.  I don't know why.  Maybe because I was not as good as my brother, and the chance of a championship not as likely or as inspiring.

And there was the pain.   I no longer wanted to push myself toward this feeling of dying, especially since the rewards of victory hung far from me.

Instead, I bagged groceries and mowed lawns for minimum wage.  I bought a guitar.  I built model airplanes. I played Tecmo Bowl and Blades of Steel.  I watched Operation Desert Storm destroy Saddam's army, then  pack up and leave Saddam's regime intact.

The attic held boxes full of press clippings and videotapes from the local paper, even the local TV channel, which had spent ink and film on my brother and what he might accomplish with his legs.  That dream, whether his or ours, hung over us unfulfilled--he'd missed the state championship by seconds, missed the school record by two seconds, quit running, and finally talked about it as if he'd done it only to make Dad proud.

He'd been a cross country specialist and a miler.  When I came back to the track at the end of secondary school, I chose the 800, not the 1600.  I never bothered to race the 1600 and only timed myself in the distance in training.

Why?  Maybe I was afraid to be slower than my brother, to never measure up.  Maybe I wanted to preserve that distance for him, hang his best 1600 time, 4:26, up in the family rafters.  Maybe I wanted to suffer half as much.

No matter.  Redemption for me, for my family, was at stake--the 800 championship, the school record (1:55). The state championship even, although victory there would require a run below 1:50.  My best had been 1:58.

No matter.

The field that day was large and it made for a more tactical race than I'd experienced.  I'd never been tactical, I'd simply run.  When the gun sounded the field sprinted far too quickly and I found myself on the outside as we rounded the first corner.  The outside runner must travel further, and to avoid this, I sprinted to the front on the back stretch and took the lead.  The first 200 yards reeled off at near my top speed.

On the front I kept the pace high through the second turn and heard the families and teammates of others shouting the names of those behind.  A digital clock displayed a first lap split of 57 seconds, four seconds off my fastest.

My thoughts fly, even as my body slows.  I am dying!  How can I sustain this for 300 more meters?  I am dying!  The heat.  My legs begin to wobble with each stride and the 65 seconds just past now haunt me when I should be readying for the sprint.

Too fast a start.  Why did I do this?  My best times all came of slow starts.

Now one runner passes, then blue and yellow, green pass, then I am in the thick of the accelerating field.

Steve, who threw up only 90 seconds ago, passes me on the final bend, and my legs are locking and I fail to swing my arms properly and I feel my face convulsing through the final one hundred.

I have lost.

Except to remember this loss, I have to put aside my brain's alternate ending, the one I've woken to so many times, in which I sail through the final lap faster than my first, increasing, feeling better and better, my breathing slowing and the throbbing heat cools and I hit the tape alone, with no one on the track, as if I have left them so far behind they are simply not present.

I'd rather my brain be more creative in its revision--let me fly off, save the world from a terrorist attack, perform a miracle or two.  Why not?

Instead, I simply have the triumph of winning a race I lost, with no suffering or effort.

Four years later my brother married and had a baby boy.  Born healthy, at ten months we discovered my nephew had a horrific and fatal genetic condition called Krabbe's disease.  The child lived only three years, and my brother had no time to do anything but care for his boy and ease his passing, then mourn the loss.

Racing was the last thing on his mind for the next two decades.

Recently my brother has taken up riding a bike.  He rides as hard as he used to run.  He wears a specially absorbing sweatband that fails to corral the farm-animal level of perspiration he generates, and he has little regard for his style or comfort.  He eschews warming-up.  He sets his Garmin, then accelerates to a completely unsustainable pace, heaving mightily, and inevitably dying far from home and willing himself onward through the failure of his ambition.

He teaches philosophy and has faith in a loving God.

The shortfall of his running past does not seem to bother him, and it doesn't bother me, except when I sleep.  Our shared race--I say shared because he ran with me those two minutes, even if I never told him he did--sits in my mind, churning in the narrative of a gunshot, an ambitious start, and winning.

I carry that feeling sometimes with me mornings when I ride: going out hard, coming home easy.  Of course, it proves false in the end--I suffer for going out too fast and I die.  These are the limits of biology, dying is inevitable.  No matter.  We suffer from thinking we were better than we are, and in our effort the pain and the sweat flies beyond what any fabric in this world can dam up and there is an uneasiness in our guts.

And then the dying is over, and we are still alive.


Anonymous said...

Powerful storytelling. We always went out too hard and died, thinking that it was "all mental" and you could gut it out to the line, no matter how exhausted, if you wanted it badly enough. That's why my first mile splits in cross country were never less than 30 seconds faster than my other splits, and why my first 400 in the mile was usually 10-15 seconds faster than my other splits.

Kevin Cross said...

Thanks, Anon. Funny, because Graeme Obree broke the hour record doing the same thing. Went out way faster than he finished. Something awesome about it.