In high school I ran cross country and fell in among true friends. At the core was a half dozen of us who started together in ninth grade and were still running on the varsity team our senior year. We were a running band of brothers.
We ran year round for four years, through all seasons, even at night after summer jobs doing landscaping or roofing houses. At the height of summer training, we’d be running 75 or more miles a week.
The weekly cross country races, for me anyway, took on the drama of battle. It was not the concussive battle of football with the cracked skulls and collar bones, the crushed fingers and dislocations. Our battles were of a different sort: we passed out, gave way to anxiety or cramps, or diarrhea, or peeing blood after a speed workout. Once in a while things took a violent turn—an elbow to the face or ribs, usually when off on a trail through pine trees, out of sight. These blows were rare enough to shock you, bring on nausea, and destroy a race—the difference between fifth place and twenty-fifth.
While the state-champion football team played on a lighted field before a crowd of admirers, the not quite state champion cross country team competed, much of the time, without an audience. Some cheerleaders cried when they were assigned to an away-race with the cross country team. For them it was a dreary business, standing in the rain until we finally emerged from the trees for a sprint to the finish line, if we had anything left in us. If we had too much juice left for the finish, the coach told us we hadn’t pushed hard enough; if we stumbled the last hundred yards drained of all strength, we had pushed too hard. Whatever our condition, the cheerleader’s response was the same: Run! Run! Run! Run faster! We told them that we appreciated it and all, but it was okay for them not to come. And so it was that my best races were run in the rain at high schools across town, too far even for my parents to come watch. I was alone with my struggle and better for it. I was not lonely, but in a separate place out of time, learning something that could be learned no other way.
For me distance running was more than anything else a study in pain management, a psychological game. Your true opponent, more so than the other runners, was your response to pain and the fear of pain. Our coach told us a hundred times: the only difference between any one of us and the first-place runner at state was that he “hurts faster.” Coach tried to convince us that “the pain was simply the pain whether we went fast or slow.”
Our mutual pain created an iron bond between us as friends. When I finished races soon enough to have others still coming in behind me, I walked back up the course to cheer my friends on to the finish. I empathized to an excruciating degree: there they still were—hurting like hell—in the place I had just left. I choked up with emotion I couldn’t explain and went to great lengths to conceal. This happened many times and I guessed it happened to others, too, though we never spoke of it. I’m not sure I felt anything like this again until my wife pushed through her twenty-fourth hour of childbirth with Colin or when my son Quinn falls prey to the stomach flu or is tormented by a school bully.
Running and those I ran with shaped my life as a teenager. I don’t know what I would have done without those friends. In the high school cafeteria, there was the cross country table, a place I was always welcome, even anticipated. We met there mornings and at lunch to talk about J.R.R. Tolkien, or The Earthsea Trilogy or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or the new albums from Neil Young, Jethro Tull, The Who, Steely Dan, Elton John or Cat Stevens.
The months during the season took the shape of “before the race” and “after the race,” the nerves before, making small superstitious sacrifices (no TV, no junk food, no playing a favorite Neil Young song) until after the race. Then the euphoric relief that started at the finish line and lasted through the weekend, during the football games and Sunday night chemistry homework, until Monday workout, when we would travel to the site of the next race, running the unfamiliar course of our opponents for that week, or planning a strategy to beat a team on our home course. Our coach knew a lot about the opposing teams, even to the point of knowing runners by name: “Cantwell, your man is O’Brien. He’s their fifth position man. If you can beat him, we’ll be another point closer to winning.” And on it would go for each of us, whether we were front runners or the back of the pack.
We memorized our competitor’s courses and selected “speed points” at a particular hill or stretch of trees where we would all move ahead at once, passing at least one runner from the opposing team. It didn’t matter what it took or if we were immediately overtaken again by the same runner. It worked. The other teams rarely recaptured all their ground after one of these bursts.
After workouts or the last days before the race, the team would sit in the dark locker room with our eyes closed while the coach talked us through the upcoming race, describing the course, how we would feel at the one-mile mark or just after the speed point behind the ball diamond or at the top of the steep gravel path: “You’ll feel winded, you’ll be hurting, even a little sick,” he would say, “but then it will ease up and you’ll hold your position and close in on the next guy, running right at his elbow until it feels right to pass . . .” Coach would talk us through this way and more times than not it would happen just as he said. To this day, I run myself through this same discipline before business reviews or presentations or medical procedures.
When Colin laughs he looks so much like JR. He scrunches up his face, showing his top teeth in an uninhibited smile. He has so many of the same mannerisms as JR: the way he holds his arms awkwardly at his sides when he knows he’s supposed to stand still. Or the way he stares at the ground instead of meeting your eye and then the next moment gives you such a penetrating look of shared understanding that you imagine he knows your thoughts and what you’re about to say. Also like Colin, JR had a harmless social awkwardness that played in his favor more than not. They both had this enviable ability to ignore, and at times be entirely oblivious to, the taunts and sarcasm of peers. Most of time JR knew what peers might be thinking, but it did not have power to hurt him. He stood above it in a way that most teens, including myself, could not. Perhaps it didn’t feel this way to him, but it was how we all saw him, not just me. He could be among us, not judging our own foolishness, yet he had a wisdom we lacked and we knew it. I can’t conjure a single instance of teenage cruelty or thoughtlessness in him. He was like no one else. You could trust him. And we, with unspoken accord, were loyal to him.
Case in point: JR has just crossed the finish line at the District Cross Country meet, one of the few times in the year when we had a large audience. He’s performed far beyond expectations, even though he is one of our best runners. But he runs the last 50 yards, ashen faced, stumbling. After the race, he collapses onto a bench.
Someone snaps this photo from the finish line, before we see JR’s predicament. He is violently ill, his body entirely spent, his legs flecked with diarrhea and mud. He’s trapped in a crowd of hundreds of runners and onlookers.
If it had been anyone else than JR, there would have been jokes, snickering. But with JR it was different. Seconds after this picture was taken, we made a circle around him, a moving screen, a many-legged creature making its way through the crowd to the outhouse. Then one of us, I can’t remember who, strips off their own shorts, quickly getting back into their sweat pants. JR cleans himself up. We hand through the clean, though used, shorts. We throw his soiled ones in the trash. And he emerges, relief on his face, pride intact. All of us the better for protecting him: no one had to suggest it. JR didn’t ask for it, it just happened.
JR was the only one of us with his own car, a bamboo yellow Studebaker given to him by his grandmother who had kept it in her garage virtually unused for twenty years. It was a car like no other, rescued from time. We all took turns, but JR did the lion’s share of driving. Back and forth to Sunset High School basketball and football games, to the Skyliner drive-in for bacon burgers and chocolate shakes. There were trips to the northern Oregon beaches, runs along Portland’s labyrinthine Wildwood Trail through various inner city parks—such as Washington Park and Hoyt Arboretum, night skiing at Mount Hood Meadows and Old Town Pizza afterwards.
One weekend JR and I drove to the Oregon coast to run a biathlon. We camped on a logging road off the highway, confident no vehicles would need to pass in the night. We probably didn’t talk much at all. More likely we listened to one cassette after another—Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Jackson Brown, Yes, or one of Steve Martin’s comedy albums. What I remember is being at ease, safe with a true friend, no need to be on guard. Then the early morning race: I couldn’t keep JR’s pace and fell back, the pile of shoes at the edge of the lake, the icy plunge into the water, fighting cramps, and then running barefoot through the sand to the finish line. And JR was there, a shoe in each hand, shouting encouragement.
There are a thousand other stories about this band of brothers. Stay tuned . . . I can only hope my sons can find such friends.
For more about JR. See the post, “At the Hop.”