Monday, July 18, 2011

Chapter 35: Sunday Long

Beads of Sweat is a novel about a hs cross country team.  Today the boys venture out on a Sunday long run, a religious experience for at least one of them.

     He brought them to different places each weekend.  In the offseason, he’d scout trailheads with small dirt parking lots.  Once he found one, he’d lace up and see where the path took him.  Sometimes it turned out to be a dud.  Other times, a gold mine, a hidden gem.  When he struck three sevens on the slot machine of trails, he’d go home and research it.  He liked working backwards.  Cartography was a hobby of his.  Maps and atlases cluttered his basement alongside the running books, so he’d pull out his volumes and go to work.  He never used the internet for such things.
     He put together a good loop for today.  Its shape a large capital D, the route consisted of two trails: Warner and Skyline.  Both made up parts of larger systems.  Warner cut a line from Diamond Hill to Blue Hill, and Skyline travelled from the fells to the southern part of the state.  Today the boys would run thirteen miles on mostly single track.  All they had to do was follow the blue inverted pyramids that marked Warner and the then the oblong yellow rectangles that signaled Skyline.  The switch came at about five and a half.  He told them that twice. 
     Every single scamper of a squirrel made him jump just about a mile into the air.  How could such a small thing create such obstreperosity?  He’d look and expect a bear or wolverine or at least a deer but only see two half-pint squirrels chasing each other through dried out leaves.  As he did on most Sunday runs, Hammond ran himself into a no man’s land, where he could be alone with the trail.  Up ahead Torres, Smith, Spidestrom, Kimihara (and Jenkins if he wasn’t on the bike), then Hamz, then the rest of the team.  He came to cherish the Sunday long.  It became the place for him to think good thoughts.  A place free of worry.  A place where he could talk back and yell and scream at his father.  A place where he could be a kid and not be scorned. 
     Over the last month, the Sunday long became something in which he could cherish.  He loved the solitude.  On them, he distanced himself from the prating of teenagers.  On them, he managed the pressure from his father.  On them, he envisioned defending himself, talking back, telling him to fuck off and giving him a shove in the chest.  Then in almost the same moment he imagined running unbelievable races and not needing to do any of that.  And that’s how it was for Hammond on Sunday mornings.  He got out there, found himself alone, and started conjuring.  And despite the domineering role his father played, he did not totally dominate him.  Something in Paul’s psychology would not allow the old man to enshroud the whole boy.  He carried a fire in him that nobody could expunge.  Couldn’t explain the ember—just knew that it was there and would always be. 
     While Hammond housed those thoughts on his Sunday longs, others, like Kimihara and Pawgoski for example, could think of nothing more than the task at hand.  The last three miles of the long run demanded their undivided attention.  Thoughts secondary to the immediate task of finishing vaporized over the last twenty percent.  They entered survival mode.  Similar to a Springvale threshold but not exactly the same.  At ten the fade started and Pawgoski lost sense of himself.  Form.  Focus on form, Hartman had told them.  Use your arms.  Not just your legs.  He tried but it didn’t help all that much.  Maybe it got him over a hill or through a narrow defile then he returned to his dead legs.  For the last mile he told, no promised, himself not to look at his wrist.  He held off as long as he could but gave way in a moment of unthinking.  He played this game every week over a route in which he wasn’t familiar.  Avoid, avoid, avoid for the first ten and then look, look, look obsessively over the last three.  Once you start, you can’t stop.  75:07, 76:01, 79:30, 86:05, 86:58, 87:59, 89:16.  He’d swear on his momma’s grave that at least ten minutes passed only to look down and discover that three had elapsed.  Devastating.  And it can’t be stopped.  Once initialized the watch game doesn’t end until the run does.  It becomes an exercise in psychological strength.  What does one do when he thinks he’s one mile from the finish only to learn that it’s two and a half?  Does he stop, slow, or quit?  Does he maintain, surge, bear down?  The answer to these questions defines the harrier.  That’s what Hartman was doing with these Sunday longs.  He was asking his team a question, a question that they must all answer for themselves.  It was always the same question and if they allowed themselves to be asked again and again they would arrive at the correct answer, for it was antithetical to the human condition to accept defeat Sunday after Sunday.

     At church he wished he was on trail.  On trail he wished he was at church.  Hartman’s installation of a Sunday practice caused the pious boy much ambivalence.  He never experienced such feelings; he had always possessed surety and confidence in all things.  In God.  In family.  In running.  In coach.  In favorite baseball team.  His personal angst led to the development of the smallest possible rift with his parents.  He wanted to please them.  They wanted him to go to church.  He wanted to run and go to church.  This dilemma manifested itself into impossible conjurations: an unwalled church in the woods with a mobile congregation or a miniature church that he could hold in his hand while running the trails.  In one moment he wished the whole team would convert and experience his conflict.  They were so oblivious and teased what they did not understand.  In another moment he denounced his religion and vowed to take a spiritual life devoid of bureaucratic dogma and mandates.  He wanted God on Sundays not an antiquated editorial.  And did Jesus really want him to wear a blazer in an eighty-five degree unairconditioned power?  He never thought such thoughts, never thought of emerging from the larva, before the fall of his sophomore year.

     Every Sunday morning Hartman picked them up in his van right in front of the Dank Tank.  Departure time was 8:28.  If he was in a good mood, he’d allow a two-minute grace period before leaving.  If you missed the van, somebody was in the backseat dialing a number or texting the location of the run.  He never told them where they were going until the morning of.  Starting on Thursday, their off day, they played a guessing game and nobody had guessed right so far in three chances.
     They were always done with the Sunday long before eleven am.  Hartman made that an objective: Run thirteen miles.  Finish by 11:00.  LSD to marathon pace.  He reiterated week after week that this run built aerobic capacity.  Just finishing it was enough for most of them.  Of course, he told his top five that this need not be so easy as he portended publicly.  Upperclassmen could handle it.  They didn’t mind because the faster they ran the sooner they could focus on the food.  An unspoken tradition had developed over the last month: you show up and run, Hartman buys you breakfast.  Probably illegal according to the state high school governing body of athletics but he did it anyway.  He knew gathering a group of young men to break bread together did more for team than the run itself.  Everyone appreciated breakfast on the old man who knew good, clean spirited camaraderie was hard to coach.  


Anonymous said...

Love the "unwalled church in the woods with a mobile congregation". Great line and great chapter that embodies what most people think and feel, no matter their viewpoints or mindsets. Running simplifies everything!


KG said...

Thanks Muddy!

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