“I never found a replacement for running; I know I never will.”
Just let them go,
Once a Runner
Once a Runner,
“I can’t,” I said, still stunned and confused. The loudspeaker announced second call for the last race of the day.
“OK,” he said, dismissing me and turning to Mike instead. “Coach said if he couldn’t do it, to get you instead.”
“Me?” Mike asked. He’d run an hour ago and was leaning coolly against the fence in his sweats, drinking water. The picture-perfect miler. “I don’t run the quarter,” he said.
“Coach said to get you,” the sprinter repeated.
Mike and I exchanged looks. If we could have exchanged bodies, I would have done that, too.
Of course I was faster than Mike over short distances. Of course I could have run. But before I could rethink my no, Mike was jogging over to the start line. This, another difference between us I’ll never fully understand: for all the strength we had in common, Mike didn’t share my streak of cowardice. I was already thinking ahead to a life without running—a life I thought I wanted—and even after he was supposed to be done for the season, running was still the only thing on his mind.
The relay team faltered, even going fastest to slowest, trying to build a big enough advantage to hide Mike in the anchor slot. My friend, strained to his limit, could only watch as three sprinters swung around him on the final turn. I used to replay this over and over in my mind, this race I never ran, but with me in the hero’s place, holding strong on that anchor leg. The cheers, the trophy: that version of glory, real as any other. What sticks with me now is just an image, frozen in time: Mike, wide-eyed, pushing down that backstretch, holding form as long as possible, willing his body to find another gear, not yet knowing that what he had wouldn’t be enough to hold off the rest of the field behind him, their hungry eyes locked on his back, ready to gun him down.
When I was a runner, I was a madman among lunatics. I rejected the idea of jogging entirely. Now, it’s all I have—a few miles two or three times per week. Friends who don’t know any better tell me I’m lucky to still have jogging, a substitute for running that’s no better than an urn of ashes in lieu of a lost loved one. “Sure,” I say, and grind my teeth into a smile. I thought the pull would fade, but I still find myself fighting it, year after year. Fall is for cross-country, winter is for making yourself tough. Springtime is inseparable from the rubbery waft of track, hard on your knees as you stretch for the season’s first workout, hot and soft beneath you during a championship run.
When I run for fitness, I run without creativity, without ambition, without love to balance the hate. Steve Prefontaine, an American running idol who died at twenty-four, once said, “Some people create with words or with music or with a brush and paints. I like to make something beautiful when I run.”
He wanted to make art from pain, exhibiting himself to the multitudes. Prefontaine was a front runner, stubborn and brash, who punished himself and his opponents start to finish. “It’s more than just a race, it’s a style,” he said. “It’s doing something better than anyone else.”
Gritty toughness as art—it makes sense. I was addicted to the incredible cry of my muscles when I willed them to do the impossible. Once a hurt like that is gone, there’s nothing than can take its place, nothing to supplant the simple act of putting on a pair of flats and beating the ground raw. The more you hurt, the more you think your pain is unique, that you might be able to do things no one else has done. To turn that pain—and yourself—into something beautiful. It’s a dangerous beauty, a fragile pursuit.
There was a time I thought running made me elite. I looked down on hobby joggers and weekend warriors because they couldn’t understand running like I did. They weren’t real runners. But now I’m no better—nor more fit—than any marathon stroller mom or sorority girl shaping up for beach season, or the high school football players we used to mock during hell week. At cross-country meets, the quote you see on team T-shirts is, “Our sport is your sport’s punishment.” Once a kind of sustenance, running is only punishment for me now—for myself, my ego and my knees.
I tell my friends, my girlfriend, anyone who will listen, “I’m getting fat.” They roll their eyes. I say, “No, listen, I’m serious.” I worry about it. What will I do? How will I lose weight when my knees are built like birds’ nests?
And there is a difference, enough for me to notice. A small paunch has appeared, evenly rounding my torso, reminding me of its presence with each step. It’s slight, but it’s there: an added weight, a flaw that knocks uneven my once-smooth stride.
Wings on my back, wings on my back, wings on my back: this used to be my mantra for taking hills.I read an article in a running magazine about positive visualization in sports—if you imagined big wings sprouting from your shoulders, and if you really believed it, the thought would somehow ease the strain of your burning quads. The hill would flatten out before you.
At the beginning of cross country season my senior year, on the bus ride to our first meet, I passed out eight copies of that article to my teammates and our coach. Some guys laughed it off, making dumb jokes about fairy wings as they crumpled the copies into their bags, but Mike liked the article. He was a year younger and always seemed to be searching for reasons to look up to me, urging me to give speeches even though my speeches always failed.
At regionals, I gathered the team around me and put on my most serious face. “This,” I said, slowly and dramatically, “could be our last chance . . . at greatness.”
Before I could look up to see the eye-rolling, Mike cut in to save me. “Listen,” he said. “No matter what happens today, it’s not like we’re never going to see each other again. No matter what happens, we’ll remember this team for the rest of our lives.”
Inevitably, I can’t go for a jog without thinking of my friend. I think of how powerful those drugs must have been to stop a heart so strong from miles of trials, trials of miles. When Mike died, he had been hurting for a long time, a hurt much deeper than anything physical we’d endured together. I think of how it must have been an unbearable burden for him, one I’ll never truly understand. It’s impossible to imagine him at my side now, slow as I go. I can only visualize him a half-mile ahead, sturdy and straight, arms stiff, occasionally turning to spit on the sidewalk.
All roads from my apartment lead up or down hills. I test my knees on them a little more each month. They voice their concern, creaking and popping, fighting my stubborn insistence to jog, to do this thing they weren’t made to do. The added weight on my body makes each step unfamiliar, even dangerous, and I feel a bubble starting to form around my left kneecap a minute or two into all of my runs. The area numbs, aches, and glows red as I stop to check it. Eventually the pain in my knees becomes no different than the pain in my back or neck or feet. It’s not a replacement, not fulfillment, not a sign, not a familiar friend or new enemy, not something to embrace or reject. It doesn’t make me better or worse, strong or weak. It’s just pain.
Justin Brouckaert's work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Passages North, DIAGRAM, NANO Fiction and Smokelong Quarterly, among other publications, and his essay "What Not to Do at the Starting Line" won Blue Earth Review's 2015 Flash Nonfiction Contest. He is a James Dickey Fellow at the University of South Carolina, where he teaches creative writing, edits Yemassee, and is working on a novel about runners.