Through a mile and a half Hammond led the race. He didn’t intend to, but somebody had to keep the pace honest. Through the first quarter the Jackets looked at each other incredulous that the Dansville team took it out at what seemed like a warmup trot. Surely they could run faster than that. Prerace, Hartman instructed them to run as a pack. Without Jenkins the objective morphed to a lowering of team time, the number of minutes and seconds—hopefully just seconds—that elapse between the team’s first man and fifth man. The top five score so the quicker a squad can jam them in, the better, just as long as that team isn’t too far behind everyone else. Having a small team time doesn’t much matter if the group is running twenty-four minutes for a 5K. The running community calls this condensed running strategy a pack attack. The motto every year finds itself on the back of a high schoolers’ t-shirts, but not on Springfield’s. Their coach liked keeping things esoteric; he used Latin, sometimes Greek, and abbreviations.
Hammond knew the pace was slow, but the people surrounding him were all teammates and not rivals. He flashbacked a week and panicked that Dansville was baiting them and outsmarting them just like Kelrock did.
-I think we should pick up the pace, he said.
-Let’s go, Torres seconded.
As one, they opened up their strides. Hammond, Torres, Spidestrom, Smith, and Kimihara ran together and produced a chasm between themselves and the rest of the participants. A second pack of Jackets (Coetaine, Wallan, Sellberg, Buck, Lee) sprinkled with a few Dansville runners also formed and hung about twenty, then thirty, then forty meters off the lead group. Undoubtedly, Gales and Paws would have changed the complexion of those packs but they were serving their suspensions. From the sidelines, they cheered their mates and relived the melee a couple times over. Jenkins, too, would’ve changed how the race was run but he somehow managed to get his bike on the bus and was out riding circuits of the course. The kid was determined not to lose conditioning and had it in his head that he’d be racing Starkfield on Saturday. In truth, the swelling in his ankle had contracted and the bruising started its magnificent kaleidoscope of hues. All he had to do now: convince the coach.
At two miles they started to thin and still no major threat from Dansville. Maybe they had a weak squad this year. Hammond’s mind sped faster than his legs. He worried about a Dansville onslaught in the last half-mile. Nobody did more worrying while running than this boy. He worried that his pace would be slower than his father’s liking; he worried that an inferior teammate might pass him. As the leader of the race, he started to realize how great things would be if he came home with a victory. His dad would be beyond ebullient. Then he started to worry if he won today would he be expected to win on Saturday? Snap to reality: with Spider nipping at his heels, Spider with his sub sixty quarter speed, those idealistic worries were quickly cast aside. Torres, too, could kick a man down with nothing more than gunsmoke.
Hammond did what he thought he needed to do. He one stepped Spidestrom and Torres and pushed the pace. He tried to gap them, make a move on them, but Torres sidled next to him and tapped his wristband to Hammond’s. Then Franklin twisted his torso back to Spider.
-Remember, remember, he said as he held Hartman’s word up to Hammond’s eyes and then Spider’s.
Hammond nodded. Spider said, right. The trio could fit into a basketball hoop they ran so closely. Spider this time twisted his torso to assess their status. No purple in sight. Only Springfield colors.
-We got this, he said, Get out the brooms.
He mimed a sweeping the floor motion then stopped suddenly. Like a sublimated ghost, Hartman appeared on the other side of the carriage road. He did not clap or yell or exhort. He spoke in a low voice, Keep it professional. Respect the opponent. The sport. No Dragons in sight Georgie boys.
-Let’s take it home, Hammond said.
-Nice and steady…Now Spider don’t get any heroic thoughts in your head about outsprinting us in the last fifty.
-We’re a team.
Torres held up his forearm again. You respect your team and your elders, he said. Hamz will take the W, I’ll take second, and you’ll take third.
-Oh…so do you want your noogies now or after Hamz takes a shit on your head while Gales and Smitty tie you up and hold you down?
Torres grabbed at him and attempted mid-race noogies. Hammond was so relieved he could’ve kissed Franklin.