The road cambered only slightly to the left and to the right. Due to its desolation, even in the midafternoon, the boys ran down the middle of it. Via shortcuts and backyard cutthroughs, they made it to Springvale in twelve minutes. Wallan, Torres, and a few others marveled and appreciated how they could commute from the heart of downtown suburbia to backwater in such a short space.
When they first turn onto it, the road is paved. That lasts for no more than a quarter of a mile. It changes to dirt. That’s where the houses start spreading farther and farther apart, and the forest gets thicker and more ominous. It was the type of road where runners hear broods of semidomesticated mastiffs howl and bark. Their ululations reverberate off rock and tree and naturally catalyze the lonely harrier to pick up his pace. The good thing—for there was one good thing about this road according to the boys—was that a guy could duck in anywhere and relieve himself. Just watch out for the unkempt dogs and poison oak. And the road goes on and on this way for mile after mile through more than one town. In short, it’s the type of road, that perilous type of road, where the runner often thinks that he is almost done with it but then sees that rock shaped like Snoopy and remembers his true location and realizes that he still has much more distance to cover than he thought. A real joy of a road.
A big sweater, Smitty struggled down the road at his LT pace, his shirt soaked and heavy on his chest. Don’t wear cotton next time, a voice in his head. The devil on his shoulder told him to slow down and relax. He almost complied with one of these very many requests. He hated Springvale because of what it meant: LT runs. Lactate threshold runs. Runs just at the brink. They were not his forte. He ran here and always found himself alone and always found himself struggling to resolve the mind v. mind v. body conflict. On this day he slowed down. The devil smiled and fell silent.
That same devil had exiled himself from Jenkins’ shoulder after four years of unsuccessful pleas. He killed this workout. He killed his devil. Today it was four on Springvale, later in the season it would be six, last year it was five; it didn’t matter. He pounded it and left a baker’s dozen of guys in his wake. Spider tried to hang for the first mile and so did Hamz and Torres and Smitty. Tried but dropped. Two miles out Hartman stood in the middle of the road legs splayed under bike. Wordless, Jenkins pinned around him and looked up to see where the others were. Hartman told him to keep it at LT pace. He surged to make the gap that much longer. After fifteen seconds Spider came into view followed by the pair of Hammond and Torres. All three of them shouted at Jenks. He offered nothing in return except the slightest of bobs. He was working it hard and couldn’t spare vociferations. He had rhythm that he didn’t want to break and this made him untouchable. Shouts of encouragement? When a runner entered a zone like this none of that external stuff mattered. He knew he was rocking it and knew he would keep rocking it until he reencountered the street sign. Sometimes a boy gets going and even though he’s in a pain tells himself that there is no way on earth that he could possibly slow down. The boy doesn’t want to go any slower. He wants the pain; that’s how he knows he’s alive; the more discomfort the better the living. Ironically, man as machine. Men as machine. I am a machine. Nothing can stop me. An internal monologue of ceaseless badass chants. Some not fit for print. Chants keep legs on cadence. He only broke form once or twice to look straight down at his feet and ground. The kid in the train peering straight down through a crack in the floorboards and marveling at the speed at which the railroad ties passed.
Not everyone enjoyed this workout as much as Ryan Jenkins. They were one team but they all had their specialties. Spidestrom has the NMT, Smith the LSD, Wallan devoured hills, and this just happened to be the work that validated Jenkins’ dreams of an individual state championship.
Before long the Springvale sign came into view. One could spy it from a long way off but the letters remained indistinguishable for quite some time. Step after step his vision became less myopic. First he could see the S and then the V. He never noticed it before but there was something strange and out of place with that V. As he got closer, he realized that it was capitalized. That’s odd, he thought, is that a compound word?
When everyone gathered up at the post for the cooldown back to the school, Jenkins pointed out his find to them.
-Did you guys notice that, he gestured to the sign.
-The V in Springvale.
-You’re just noticing that now? After four years?
-Stop being such a nerd. Who do you have Miele for English?
-No. I noticed it too.
-Coach, why is the V capitalized?
-I don’t know.
-Let’s say it’s for victory, Torres offered.
A few eyes rolled.
-Do you want a noogie, Adam? He made a quick move toward him then Sam.
-Okay, okay, Hartman said. We come to this road and we work hard. That’s our thing. The V stands for our victories.
After a few more cups of Gatorade courtesy of Pereira the team started their jog back to the high school. Unbeknownst to Hartman, they all cut it short by doing a little more backyard sideyard running than they should have. They cut a good half mile. Jenks and Smitty, as seniors, led the way. They felt justified after a killer LT. Paws didn’t know what was going on but he followed. All the way home they replayed the workout without a thought about their course. Torres told of how he and Hamz gobbled up Spider because he went out too hard. Coetaine said he felt strong but Hartman made him stop. The underclassmen didn’t say much of anything. Between the likes of Gales, Coetaine, and Smith getting a word in was just about as challenging as the workout. Hamz and Torres were in nasty shape right now and their excitement along with Jenkins’ outright domination allowed the team to think and talk championship. Little did they know Paddington and Woodbury were kicking just about as much ass as they were.