Monday, May 16, 2011

Chapter 27: Brian Sellberg

Beads of Sweat is a novel about running.  Once every six chapters or so, a character gets his own chapter. This is Brian Sellberg's.

When I look back at my high school years, I think about my travails on the cross country and track teams.  For my own self-preservation, I have blocked out many of the other experiences: namely dances and proms.  We all do it.  Black out the bad (unless it’s so bad we can’t) and relish the good.

            Despite all the of work that goes along with school and the school of hard knocks that goes along with girls and all that other important in the moment but tertiary stuff, I always come back to my days on the team.  Sure, Hartman was a manic obsessive coach that monitored our progress as if we were rats in his diabolical lab, but he was our coach.  I recall my teammates with the warmest affections and sentimentality.  On a cold winter night, I’ll sit down with a tumbler and recall how Pawgoski dragged me over those damned hills.  He had a drive that few of us do.  Myself included.  I just happened to be his friend and clung onto his heels for the ride.  From our first summer of structured running, the summer after eighth grade, I did almost all my miles, thousands of miles, millions of steps, with my best friend Paws.  Of course, he did many more miles than I did but when I ran, I ran with him.  And as we soon found out, running often turned out to be just a small part of the experience.

Back when we were freshmen, I remember the old ice cream parlor and walking in on a hot summer night and having the older guys embarrass us by addressing Paws as Tinkerbell and me as Buttercup.  We were both frustrated and abashed—I had to hold Paws’ arm so he wouldn’t swing—but I think we understood, even though we couldn’t name it at the time, that we were undergoing a necessary rite of passage.  Beat us, haze us, berate us internally, and defend us, support us, protect us against any other team or outside threat.  Funny how those ice cream parlor moments of loathing evolve into moments of appreciation over the years.  Hell, when we were seniors, we did the same thing to the bluebirds.  Even called them the same names.  Vowed we’d never treat freshmen the way they treated us, but two, three years later that covenant was broken.  Those same guys who did it to us probably made that same pact when it happened to them.  Oh the things time can do.  And it goes on and on.

I remember my frosh and senior years the best.  Those middle years get lost in the haze of middle age.  I’m good with the beginnings and endings of things; it’s the middle that gets me.  So, in the beginning I remember being fat.  Not fat in the way one goes to the doctor and is told to lose thirty pounds.  Fat in the way of a cross country runner.  I had a little pudge.  Baby fat.  Love handles.  Nothing horrible.  Even after a summer with Paws, I still had what the guys called my momma fat.  Said I still suckled my momma’s teet.  I hated that.  I wanted to be a post pubescent man, but I was still a little boy with hardly a hair in his pit.  The guys chided and teased me.  Pinched my handles in the lockerroom.  If I were a girl, I’d be either bulimic or anorexic.  Still, I took my ribbing and didn’t do much about it.  Back them I ate like a hedonist.  Just everything.  I didn’t know any better.  I thought the running would take care of the pudge.  Oreos, whole milk, pizza, ring dings, ice cream sundaes.  My mom loved to bake, always had something in the house.  Dessert equaled happiness in the Sellberg abode and there was a whole lot of happiness among my parents and siblings.

But then it happened.  He waited until the end of September to pull me in.  He did it with all the guys.  He had one-on-one meetings with each of us over the course of the season.  Moreso with the upperclassmen than the greenhorns.  He only met with me once my first year.  I think he waited until the end of September intentionally.  By then he figured I was getting tired of the fat jokes, and it gave him time for me to buy into him.  He also needed to size me up just right and determine his approach.  Our “conversation” probably lasted three minutes.  After two, he cut to the chase.  He did all the talking and told me he knew I didn’t like having the highest BMI on the team.  He told me he could fix that.  He didn’t ask me what I ate but he told me to stop eating the junk that I was.  I had no clue at the time but he drew a line and connected the dots between running and eating.  You need the right fuel for the tank, he said, you’re clogging it up with donuts and cupcakes.  He told me what I should eat and what I should limit.  I was pissed at him but I listened.  I crossed my arms and I listened.  So, much to my mother’s chagrin, I slowly started substituting apples for chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter sandwiches for marble cake.  I didn’t end up losing weight in high school.  As I grew (puberty final came), my frame thinned out and my times started to drop.  The foods he recommended helped out with my energy too. 

That was the way with Hartman.  He never told me I was fat or that I needed to do this or that.  You just talked and somehow by the end of the conversation you had in your head that you agreed to something you weren’t quite sure of.  Then you had to follow through with it.  He knew just how to manipulate intrinsic guilt.

Then there was my senior year.  The four horsemen made it all the way through: me, Paws, Buck, and Lee.  We had such good times.  Real glory days.  We knew each other so well.  We pushed each other’s buttons in good ways and bad.  Pushed Hartman’s too.  I mean the four of us spent twelve seasons with the guy; you had to get a little fresh sometimes.

My proudest running memory came in my final cross country season in high school.  Things were never quite the same after that.  I went on to do other things.  Kept running but didn’t prioritize or only did in fits and starts.  I put it together my senior year, and like I said, I owe it to Paws.  That whole summer leading into the season Paws and I trained together and he would get in my ear about going all conference and finishing in the top ten in the class meet.  You gotta want it.  You gotta picture yourself duking it out down the final straightaway.  For Sebastian’s sake, the kid was a mini-Hartman.  Well, he was a major pain in my ass, but it worked.  I ended up making the all league team and two weeks later the unthinkable happened: I pr’d by a minute oh three and came in the top ten, tenth.  I collapsed in the chute.  Never been happier to be so dead.  Paws gathered me up and put my arm over his shoulder.  He walked me over to coach and passed me over to him.  Hartman actually hugged me.  I cried.  What a day.  One of the best of my life.  I still replay it from time to time.

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