Wednesday, October 20, 2004

The Big Chill

"You got a letter from Kent School. Do you remember a person from high school named Brian?" Leanna's question caught me a little off guard. It says here he went to Kent and then Cornell, and ran cross country while at Kent. I went to Kent and then Cornell, and ran cross country while at Kent. Yes I knew Brian. I hadn't seen him since May 1988, graduation day at Cornell. I briefly wondered why Leanna was asking me that, though I for some reason I feared I knew the answer. "Brian passed away."

I have run for as long as I can remember. I remember my mother, frustrated with my attempts to get her attention while she prepared dinner, "Why don't you go run around the block!" I took her exclamation literally. I would run around our city block. I'd imagine I was a piloting a spaceship as a banked my body around each corner. I always wanted to be an astronaut. Once out on the pavement, I was. It was fun.

I chose to attend Kent School because they had an excellent horseback riding program, and I loved riding and jumping horses. However, my experience with horses had been at summer camp, and while I had the riding skills, I was not ready to interact with the privileged "Horse People." My last day in the riding program I missed the bus back to the boys campus at Kent, so I ran 6 1/2 miles in riding boots back to my dorm. That day one of the seniors in my dorm recruited me to run cross country.

My first race was against Trinity Pawling. It wasn't pretty, but I finished. I raced low JV cross country the remainder of my 3rd Form (freshman) year at Kent. I followed that up by making the Varsity squad for much of my 4th Form (sophomore) year. I trained under the tutelage of the great British runner Bruce Tulloh. I discovered interval training in the form of a drill called "Indian runs" (do I need to call those "Native American runs"?). And I discovered winning. True the wins came in JV races, but they were wins. In fact each of those wins would be a redemption for a bad race (if a JV runner's time beat a varsity time, the varsity runner would get demoted). One of those wins, at Avon Old Farms, stays with me today. I remember the call of our team captain as I started the final 1/2 mile climb to the finish, "It's all you! There's nobody in sight!"

My fifth form year was a bust. I quit cross country because I was more interested in girls than running.

Now it was the fall of 1983, and I was entering my 6th form (senior) year. What was my legacy? What could I do that was of note?! What could I do to get anyone to notice me?! I could run, so I rejoined cross country. However I was two years removed from my last race, and the faces were mostly new. It quickly became clear that there were no "entitlements." I needed to prove myself or be a "has-been." It's tough to accept being a "has-been" at 17.

As fate would have it, one of the new faces on the team was a classmate of mine, Brian Simmons, who had joined cross country during our 5th form year (while I was on a hormone induced hiatus). He had been a low JV runner that year. Brian and I had never been close friends, but we never disliked each other either. Our paths just converged. He apparently had something to prove as well. It's tough to accept being a "never was" at 17.

A typical long cross country practice would consist of the team starting out together, and then splitting up as we ran, the faster runners moving ahead. As this selection process took place, Brian and I always found ourselves running side by side. There was instant synergy. Despite the disparity in our heights (Brian was taller than I), our strides matched perfectly. Mile after mile we ran in perfect sync, as if there were but a single set of foot falls. We talked about things teenagers talk about; which teachers we liked, which we didn't. We talked about which girls we thought were hot, and why did they always like jerks. We talked about the underclassmen “gunning” to take our spots on the varsity. And we talked about making the Kent cross country "honor role." The honor role was a sheet of paper hung in the cross country locker room. On it were the names of every runner at Kent who had ever posted a time faster than 15 minutes on our 2.8 mile home course. (In our teenage minds) Make the honor role, and you were someone.

Brian and I were two different people who shared some of the same demons. Getting our names on that type-written piece of paper would, at least in our minds, exercise one of them, anonymity. We both ran well that season. Brian was more consistent than I. I had returned to my previous form, having some bad races and following them up with solid performances. However, race after race passed and while we both inched closer to that 15 minute barrier, neither of us broke it. Finally the last home race of our careers was upon us. It was parents weekend and we were racing against Trinity Pawling. Three years earlier I had begun my cross country career against TP. Now I would end my home career against them. Fairytale endings seldom occur in life. Instead life seems to be self-moderating. Good things happen, but they are almost always tempered by terrible things. In the fall of 1983, on an overcast day, Brian and I lined up for the final time on the Kent cross country course.

Brian's gone now, and I'm sitting here drinking wine and remembering a friend. Tomorrow I'll tie on my running shoes, as I always do, and go out on the road. The spaceship will most likely stay in the hanger. And while there might be some intervals run, there won’t be any victories. There will be but a single set of foot falls. I'll think about things older men think about; which managers I like, which I don't. Which women are hot, and why do they always like jerks. I’ll think about how, if someone really wants to take my job, they can give it their best shot. And I'll remember a day in the fall of 1983 when Brian and I made the Kent cross country honor role.