Sunday, April 10, 2011

Chapter 18: Yellowjacket Relays

Beads of Sweat is a novel about running.  It chronicles the adventures of a high school team vying for a state title.  In this chapter the boys' team interacts with the girls' team in an annual intrasquad relay race.  Warning: this chapter is a little longer than the previous ones.

Hartman and Board didn’t dovetail their workouts often, but they did have this one pretty much set in stone.  The first Saturday after Labor Day the boys and girls got together for an interval workout that the runners self-named, ages ago, the Yellowjacket Relays.  Everybody’s role was defined.  The coaches had to come up with evenly matched relay teams.  Each relay team would be joined with a team of the opposite gender.  The runners had to run as fast as they could around a cow pasture that was approximately 1200 meters in perimeter.  Due to the fluctuating sizes and ability levels of the teams from year to year, alterations in the format of the event always existed.  One rule did not change: everybody had to run three laps.  The athletes could order themselves in any way, shape, or form.  Different teams had different approaches, and there was always strategizing on the warm-up before the event, even before the runners knew whom their teammates would be.  All of this for the prized bumblebee.  Every year Hartman would present the winning team with the coveted hand carved bumblebee.  Hartman crafted them by hand, woodworking was a hobby of his, and engraved each one with “Yellowjacket Relays 1st Place” followed by the year.  Jenkins already had two and  wanted another.  Torres got his first last year and was hungry for more.  And Hammond hadn’t won one since his freshman year.  Smitty had never won one and that Galiozzi had drove him nuts. 

            The excitement led to a faster than usual warm-up.  Everybody was talking and running and not paying attention to it.  The freshmen hung back and tried to figure out what was going on.  They picked up bits and pieces.  When they circled back to the starting point, the women’s team was already stretching.  It being a hot day, some of them wore only fitness tops.  The boys gawked.  Both they and the girls knew that Hartman would never let them do that if he were coaching them.  He wouldn’t even let the boys run in their skins.  Do you ever run a meet without a shirt on, he would ask them when one of them would attempt to go topless.  No, he would answer for them.  So why would you do it in practice?  Nobody ever answered this last question.  The boys just assumed it was part of his methodical, superstitious logic.

            As the kids stretched, Hartman and Board conferenced to finalize the teams.  Some of the upperclassmen desperately tried to eavesdrop on the coaches’ conversation.  They continued to speculate until Coach Board signaled for their attention.  The results settled, Hartman let him announce the teams.  Board brought them through the general rules of the relay and, in a suspense-inducing voice, gave them their teams. 


The “oh yeahs” and groans were simultaneous.  Coetaine was psyched; he thought his team an easy winner.  Katherine, a senior, was also happy.  Jenkins and Lindsey commiserated; Galiozzi thought his chances good.

            -We’re screwed, Jenkins complained, we got three girls on our team.          
            -Excuse me, Casey said.
            -Yeah, Katherine said, I bet I’m probably faster than half the freshmen on your team.

            Coetaine, seeing the opportunity of victory before him, immediately started strategizing.  Hartman chuckled to himself and couldn’t help asking Coetaine if his knee was feeling well enough to participate.  I think I’ll be okay, he deadpanned.

            -Five minutes.  The gun fires in five minutes.  Be sure to get some fast strides in.

            Those five minutes passed swiftly.  Casey and Jenkins were fighting about the order of their team.  Galiozzi took the leadership role of his own and the freshmen and girls listened closely.  Smitty and Maggie just so happened to agree on their legs, and Spidestrom tried to take charge of his group but was unceremoniously supplanted by the older Katherine. 

            When the five first leg runners toed the line, everyone yelled and hollered.  Coetaine pretended to elbow Maggie; Kimihara, akimbo, stepped between them with exaggerated mannerisms.  Amy, the slowest on either team stood in the pole position, and on the far side Buck leaned into his starting stance. 

            Board, who had brought the starting pistol with him, gave two commands then fired.  They were off.  Immediately some of the later legs ran out to the midpoint of the cow pasture loop.  They didn’t want to miss a beat of the action.  Others stayed by the start to yell at their brethren.  The real serious ones stretched and did strides. 

            After the first fifty meters or so, the runners entered a wooden thicket that obstructed the view from the start/finish line.  The view was again obstructed at 400 meters and nobody could see the runners again until nearly the halfway mark.  That’s why some of the later legs headed out that way.  They couldn’t stand waiting and straining their eyes to see whom would emerge first. 

            Halfway through and Coetaine had a commanding lead.  He moved gracefully along the dirt trail, almost floating over it with nary a glitch in his stride.  Next came Kimihara.  Hartman took one look at him and knew he was pacing himself for all three laps.  Maggie ran in the bronze position, and to almost everybody’s surprise Buck wasn’t far behind.  Who was far behind was Amy, and the people still at the finish line could hear clear as day Jenkins yelling at her to pick up the pace.  When he cut the tangent again to the finish line, Board grabbed him by the arm and told him to settle down.  Jenkins glared at the hand on his arm and shook it off with a look that said a lot more than you’re not my coach. 

            The enthusiasm of all the teams remained high throughout everyone’s first turn.  Even the teams in the back remained optimistic because they sandbagged and put their fastest runners in the penultimate and anchor positions.  In fact when it was Jenkins and Hammond’s turn to go, they ran with such reckless abandon that Hartman worried about their hamstrings popping.  Jenkins caught two teams and Hammond extended his team’s overall lead.  After everybody’s first run through, Hammond’s team was in the lead, Galiozzi’s in second, Kimihara’s third, and Smith’s and Jenkins’ fourth and fifth respectively. 

            When Coetaine got the baton for the second time, he again exploded like a ball from its cannon.  What his competitors and coach noticed, however, was how long it took him to come out the other side of the thicket.  Kimihara and Maggie couldn’t see it at the time, but as soon as they crossed the line, their teammates coyly told them of Sam’s downward spiral.  Coetaine himself even gave it away as he started to rub at his knee and hip for everyone to see. 

            -You think you can run your 3rd lap?
            -I don’t know.  I’ll try it.

            Hammond was pissed.  Typical Coetaine.  Run the first repeat way under pace and not be able to finish the workout.  He wanted the wooden plaque and that Coetaine could deny him of it infuriated him.  Jenkins, too of course, was infuriated because his team wasn’t winning.

After all the teams had finished their first two laps, the first leg of each team started their bell turn in this order: Coetaine first but with a shrinking lead, Buck, Kimihara, and Amy in a close two-three-four, and Maggie just far enough behind for everyone to realize her team wouldn’t win it.

            Coetaine started this lap much slower than his first two and a hiccup in his stride developed.  Having been briefed by their teammates, Kimihara and Galiozzi acted like vultures circling a wounded animal.  When they came back into view after clearing the thicket, Buck was in the lead then Kimihara and then Coetaine.

            -Go Buck go, his teammates cheered.
            -Come on Deo.  You can do it.

            Buck—in first place?  The men’s team was in shock.  That little freshman was running his ass off and all the guys were cheering him.  Too bad for him cool hand Kimihara hung just close enough.  Instead of cheering Hammond kicked the dirt in disgust.  Even Desiree let a crude remark pass her lips.  Jenkins, renewed by a rival’s demise, cheered on Amy in a revised tone. 

            At the halfway mark, Buck was still giving a valiant effort but losing steam.  Kimihara came up on him and surged passed with ease.  As they rounded the corner for home, Kimihara, the precise tactician, put in one last surge that left Buck in his wake.  Maggie closed the gap, but Buck hung on for second by a nose.  The Yellowjackets greeted him with slaps on the back and words of disbelief.  Kimihara and Maggie received high-fives too.

            Coetaine came limping in a minute later.  His team reduced from first to fourth, he crumpled at the finish line and tugged at his knee from the ground.  Ola paid him heed but she was the only one.  Even Amy had closed the gap on him.

            Going into the anchor leg, the pursuit of the wooden bumblebee came down to three teams: Galiozzi’s, Spidestrom’s, and Smith’s.  In their haste, Smith’s group over-strategized and switched their order, a perfectly legal yet uncouth move.  They moved the men up in the order into the two-three positions.  They closed the gaps but weren’t rested enough to do as well as they could’ve.  They got themselves in the hunt but had Theresa and Maggie running the final two legs whereas Spidestrom anchored his team and Galiozzi his.  Those guys were still worried about Jenkins running last, even though his team had a better chance of being lapped than winning.

            In year’s past, the race would often be decided after the second lap.  Not this year.  Hartman and Board devised very even teams. By the team the anchors took their batons, however, it was a two-team race: Galiozzi v. Spidestrom.

            Galiozzi took off first with about a seven second lead.  Both he and Spidestrom knew that Spider was faster, so Galiozzi emptied his playbook and made all the moves Hartman had taught him.  Surge around corners, make a preemptive strike, only glance back around turns.  He ran tough but scared.  He kept waiting for Spidestrom to sidle up next to him, and Spidestrom finally did a little bit after the halfway mark.  Employing some racing tactics of his own, Spider thought he would just fly by Gales, but the junior hung tough and stayed on his shoulder for almost fifty yards.  Everyone was going wild and many began to run out toward them to cheer at them louder and closer.  Their teammates got real close to them, only arms’ lengths away, and if this was an officiated meet each runner would’ve been disqualified for pacing. 

            But in the end Spidestrom’s talent and speed were too much for Galiozzi’s toughness, a newfound toughness that impressed the coach.  Spider held up his hands as he crossed and his teammates huddled around him and they all told each other how great they ran.  

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