Beads of Sweat is a novel about a high school cross country team. In this chapter, the boys face off against league rival Kelrock.
Their junior runners took off like bats. The Yellowjackets, tiny api in comparison to the insect-devouring bats, struggled to keep the pace in the first two hundred meters. Coetaine, running in his first dual meet of the year, thought something had gone horribly wrong in the interim of his injury. Had racing completely changed in the last ten months? Were full-out sprints the new order of cross country?
Spidestrom caught Jenkins’ eye and gave him an incredulous look.
-What the fuck, blurted Jenkins. Two strides later he was going wide left in an effort to pass the mass of Kelrockians ahead of him. Spider jockeyed in behind and followed his captain. Hamz and Gales took a different track. Elbows out, they tried forcing their way through the middle of the throng.
-Watch it asshole!
-Fuck you, Gales said.
-Don’t fucking cut me off again.
-Eat a dick.
At that, Claude Hindley extended out his foot and tripped Hammond. He stumbled, stumbled, stumbled, touched his left hand to the ground but somehow managed to maintain his balance. Still vulnerable, another runner passed him by and lightly tapped his hip. It was enough to topple him to immediate abrasions on forearm, shin, and palms. Points passed in an instant. Gales turned and slowed but kept going. But he slowed too much; his concern allowed the herd to eat him up. He, too, was now in the back of the pack. Lee sidled up next to Hammond and asked him if he was okay.
-Get your ass moving, Hammond told him, we may need you.
With that Hammond got to his feet, gave himself a once over, and took off into full velocity with a bit of a hitch in his stride. If Hartman had seen that, he would’ve pulled his ass of the course, but he didn’t see that; he was two hundred yards away and heading for a lookout point. Neither coach witnessed any of it.
Gales moved up and shouted at the back of Hindley.
-Wait ‘til we get in the woods.
Gales was pissed.
-Let’s get ‘em, he said to Pawgoski, who passed him in the melee. Paws just nodded.
Meanwhile, Jenks and Spider were thirty meters ahead trying to move around some jv fatboys. Anytime either of them attempted a pass a Bat would speed up or nudge left to prevent it.
They now ran on a tree-lined single cart gravel path which made passing—either wide left or wide right—nearly impossible, especially if a competitor’s sole function was to prevent that pass. The two of them were double the distance of the straight-line runners, who increased their lead with every tick of the clock. Kelrock was dominating. They had three guys out in front and the barricade of fatboys before a single Jacket showed his face.
It dawned on Jenkins a little too late. What these guys were doing was intentional. They were trying to steal this meet in the first mile, the first six hundred yards. And the cart path didn’t widen after that. It narrowed. Narrowed into a bottleneck. We’re fucked, he thought to himself. Kelrock’s home course was only 2.4 miles to begin with. Their coach had done his homework. Box them early and hang on for dear life. They had one strong frontrunner and if he could drag two guys with him, they might just steal this thing. It would make their season. Couple these bold, aggressive tactics with the help Hartman gave them and it was a recipe for Yellowjacket disaster. Smitty was a healthy scratch and Buck sat out with a gimpy ankle from last Sunday. The sidelined senior had a bird’s eye view for the start of the race and was jumping out of his skin when he saw what was going down. He grabbed and pulled at Buck and asked him rhetorical questions. Buck tried to answer them but was confused and agape. Smitty started screaming at his teammates and slandered his rivals before grabbing at Buck again and stealing off through a deer path to the next vantage point, which was the fenced-out side of the bottleneck.
The two of them arrived at the bottleneck before the first runners. They breathed heavy and put their hands on their thighs. This narrow defile, which covered a piece of land some sixty meters, came after the mile mark but in front of the halfway point. It nestled itself between two short seven percent grade inclines. The bottleneck’s width measured out no wider than the broad shoulders of an average runner in football pads. Some of the bigger guys could barely manage their own bodies down the path without getting scratches on their right sides. To pass somebody here was all but impossible, even more so since the brush remained slovenly and unkempt after a summer’s worth of growth. A tall, rusting chainlink fence on the left side and overgrowth saplings and briers on the other created a sixty meter chasm of stagnation for anybody caught behind a slow body. Smitty’s heart sank when not one, not two, but three green Kelrock jerseys came into view. The first two were upfront and booking it. The third, linebacker like compared to his teammates, labored and moved at a slower pace. The kid blocked Jenkins’ path perfectly. Not only Jenks but Spidestrom too. Smitty got it now. He slowed his pace purposefully and intentionally, not more than a walk, closer to a waddle. Jenkins attempted passing by running right. The briers clawed at his skin and the slim boughs slapped at his face. The linebacker sped and moved every time Jenkins tried to pass him. If they were smarter, Jenkins would have moved one way and let Spider go the other so at least one of them could pass, but in the heat of the moment frustration won out over intelligence. All he had to show for his hassle was a rosed face and scratched legs.
Smitty yelled at the both of them, Move it. Move it. Let’s go. Pass. Pass. Pass. Jenkins with those mean, darting eyes shot him a glance of unrestrained futility. Spider didn’t even look his way. Just said a few cuss words. The Kelrock linebacker would be dusted in another twenty meters; that was a given. The remaining question: did he give his two frontrunners enough of a pad?