Day at the Races
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
I started running for the St. Mel’s cross-country team the summer before last, a year-and-a-half before I even started my freshman year in September. I didn’t know I was going to be a Mel’s man then. But, I was dead certain I was going to be on someone’s team.
My dad ran cross-country at St. Joe’s, on the east side, on the other side of Cleveland, more than forty years ago when he was a freshman. That isn’t why I’m on our team. It’s just a coincidence. There’s always room for coincidence, although if it happens too often somebody’s up to something, even if he’s anonymous.
I ran a tad in middle school, running against other grade schools, but they were all fair weather meets.
Now that I’m a runner, every day after school I run with the team down into the Rocky River valley, to the long trail that goes from the golf course to the Nature Center, no matter whether it’s sun bright raining snowing. It DON’T matter. I bring my own sunshine. When I run I completely zone out. It’s the only time I’m able to think about nothing. Before I know it I’m done.
When I began training it was with the Lakewood City Track Team. We had practice every day at Lakewood Park in the spring when I was twelve-years-old. On the first day our team met it was made of Bailey, his little brother, and some girls. There were a couple of random guys who snuck in from the ghetto, too, which is east of Lakewood, and me.
Most of the guys who live in the ghetto don’t call it the ghetto. They call it the projects or the ‘hood, two inches from homeless. Mr. Orwell laughed out loud about it one day in English class.
“Ghetto is me being refined,” he said. “The ‘hood is just showin’ and provin’.” Mr. Orwell was rapping that morning. “Look up what a slum used to be. Nobody had cell phones and flat screens in the slums back in the day. Down and out is just sideways now.”
Nobody in class knew what he was talking about. I thought he might have been talking to himself.
When we trained we always ran our warm-up run from Lakewood Park down Lake Road to the Marathon gas station, turned around, and ran back to the pavilion in the park. We’d meet there every day, run, run back, and stretch. Our coach talked to us, trying to train us, and we tried to pay attention.
I knew who our coach was, but I never found out our coach’s name. I was on the team for six months and didn’t know his name from beginning to end. I didn’t understand what he said his name was the first time he told us the first day and I never asked afterwards.
He was a freaking weird unsettling man. I don’t know if he didn’t have a job, or if it was something else, anything else. He kept his head shaved and always wore a hat. It was always a baseball cap, but every day it was a different one. He wore old-school Oakley sunglasses, too, the big ones that cover the side of your face.
HE NEVER TOOK THEM OFF!
One day when he did take them off when he thought we weren’t looking we saw RIGHT AWAY why, since his eyes were set more than four inches back into his head. They were creepy deep, funky, and nasty.
Even though he was a fit man, and wore running shorts and running shoes all the time, he never ran with us. He would loosen up with us and then wait until we came back from our run. When we did pick-ups he stood nearby and watched. I don’t think he was an American man. He sounded foreign, like an immigrant, from somewhere else. He wasn’t a bad coach, but he was old, more than fifty years old.
We competed against other schools and we were actually good. We ran in 5K races all summer and fall. An actual cross-country race is two miles, but we competed at road races. There were a butt load of adults running, too, most of the time. At one meet at some law college one of the guys on our team won the whole race. Lawyers will usually do anything to win whatever, but not that day!
I was an OK runner. I wasn’t anything special, at all, but I had fun. I ran every day that summer, sometimes seven days a week. My times kept improving and I got better. Some people think place is more important than time, but I think time is more important. Unless you’re in the top ten, it’s better to have a good time than trying to place.
What I do is I DON’T stop. I have endurance and I know how to pass people at the end. Once I hit the last 100 meters and see there’s a whole crowd of people, all cheering for the runners, I try my hardest to get there fast. That’s when I gear up sprinting and passing other runners.
That’s the one thing I’m good at.
At the end of most races many guys don’t or won’t sprint. They slog through the end to the grim end. They slow down and stop dead as soon as they cross the finish line. I always go go go. The first cross-country race I ran on the St. Mel’s team was the race I pushed myself the most. I kept passing people as it went on. I was going crazy, going really hard, the closer I got to the end. I sprinted to the finish line. When I passed it I started walking immediately and then threw up all over.
It was the first race of the season and it was awesome. I know for a fact it was the hardest race I ran until then, even though it was my first St. Mel’s race. After that the hardest race was the one we ran in freezing rain at the end of the season.
We were running at Gilmore, at a big meet with guys and girls, all mixed in. It rained through the morning and when we got there huge puddles were everywhere. It was cold very cold almost like freezing. You couldn’t feel your feet after a while, except when you’d take a step on your spikes. Then there would be a terrible pain.
At the end of the race I couldn’t even take my spikes off.
I soaked my feet, still wearing my spikes, in a tub of warm water and took them off after that.
They ran everybody out at the same time because they didn’t want to make the girls wait in the cold. I couldn’t move my fingers for awhile while we were waiting and everybody was shivering. When they shot the gun or blew the horn or whatever they did, we all just went. Everybody was screaming, running and screaming, just going crazy when the race started.
It was fun, but it was a horrible race, because it was nasty. Everybody started cutting huge corners. Nobody cared because it was too cold. We ran the whole race, for sure, but at the point where a straight edge was a part of two big curves, somebody cut the straight line, and then, literally, we all did the same thing.
We weren’t cheating ourselves because everybody was doing it. We were all trying. Besides, if you go by ALL the rules, you miss ALL the fun. Running in the freezing rain was only the half of it. Having fun running in the freezing rain was the other half.
My dad wanted me to run track, but I didn’t want to, so I didn’t. Besides, track is in the spring and I wanted to train for cross-country. I took the winter off and started running again in the spring. But, I didn’t run every day for practice, only when I wanted to.
THAT’S THE WAY I AM.
I was going to start conditioning again when school ended, but I had to take a stone stupid Spanish class for six weeks. Every day for five days a week I had to get up early and be at St. Mel’s by 8 o’clock. I wasn’t good at Spanish, but the classes didn’t help me, either, at all. Now I’m good at it, but I’m still bitter.
I didn’t condition as much as I wanted to, but enough. Enough for the team, and enough for the Wasaga Beach manhunt, that’s for sure! When summer camp was over in mid-July I got it up to go seriously. When the season started I was ready and Coach Krister was ready for us.
Everyone would meet at the Little Met golf course in the Rocky River Metropark. I always rode my bike down Hog’s Back Lane. We’d either practice in the park, on the all-purpose path, or go to the Hinkley Reservation in the team van.
When the season started there were thirty-eight kids on the St. Mel’s cross-country team. The way you get on the team is you sign up and pay the fee. It wasn’t a ridiculous amount of money because all they gave you was your uniform, which wasn’t much. It’s not like football, where you have to buy helmets and pads, and all kinds of stuff.
Everyone had to buy their own running shoes and spikes, though. The St. Mel’s poobah’s call it pay-to-play. I call it pay-through-the-nose.
We conditioned in the Metropark three and four times a week. Not that many of the kids would go, though, less than ten or twelve. Everybody else, they didn’t go, because they didn’t care. We did push-ups sit-ups planks and side planks. They’re hard, but after awhile they’re not so bad. We would stretch, do a warm-up, and go for a run. When we came back we touched our toes some more and did pick-ups.
Pick-ups are sprints. Our coach would say, “Go out twenty minutes and come back in seventeen, or make it fifteen minutes.” It’s a negative run, or so they say.
“It’s a natural instinct to come back faster,” Coach Krister said.
I was, like, “No it’s not! We’re frigging tired.” Coach, you’re retarded, I thought, although I didn’t actually say that to him.
Hinckley was where the big hills were. That wasn’t fun, either, at all. Every time we went there it was hot. It’s a mile up them hills. So, we’d run the mile up the hill, stretch at the top of it, run down, and then run up another hill.
It was crazy, but that’s what we did, because our coaches wanted us to do it.
We had two coaches, not-so-bad Mr. Mirkenstall and bad Mr. Krister. I hated both of them.
Mr. Krister was maybe sixty-or-something, but definitely in his mid-50s. He kept his hair high and tight. He had a shaggy scruff most of the time and his jaw stuck out a ton. I don’t know what happened to his jaw. I think he got punched in the face, or something. His teeth were yellow crinkled nasty.
Mr. Krister talks with a New York accent. He doesn’t smoke, but I know he was an alcoholic. One of the guys on the team told me. This guy’s father is a lawyer, and Mr. Krister used to be a lawyer, and they used to be lawyers together. But, then he became an alcoholic and couldn’t be a lawyer anymore, probably because all his clients were going to prison. He had to go to rehab.
I don’t know how he came to St. Mel’s. He has a doctorate in something else, not the law, but he teaches history. He probably has an undergraduate degree in it, so he can teach us about the past, although nobody cares very much about it.
He’s sort of fit, but not super fit. He’s not very tall, either, and didn’t run all season. He would just ride an old bike around because he said he hurt himself. He tried to run a road race once, but almost passed out.
Most of the guys on the team who have him for class hate him. He thinks he can make fun of you because you run cross-country on his team and thinks he knows you better than not. He picks on you and makes fun of you in class. It’s really annoying. He grabbed my tie once when I was walking past and pulled it down hard. I was angry about it.
He does a butt load of crap to other guys, too.
One day between classes my friend Colt booked another one of my friends, Perry, and Perry pushed him into a locker. When you knock someone’s books out of their arms it’s not a big deal. You even help them pick the books up, sometimes. We were all standing there laughing when Mr. Krister rushed up, grabbed Perry by the jacket, and yanked him towards him nose to nose.
“What’s that for?”
“Why did you push him?”
“Because he booked me.”
“That doesn’t matter,” Mr. Krister said, and bum-pushed Perry back into the hallway.
Teachers are allowed to hit you at St. Mel’s. They don’t do it, though, because if they did they’d probably get sued. I don’t know if it says they can hit you in the booklet they give everybody, but they’re definitely allowed to hit students.
I heard of a brother, back when there was a boat load of them at St. Mel’s, who decked a kid. The kid was mouthing off to the brother in class, and walked up to the front of the class, still mouthing off to him, not stopping the flapping. The brother PUNCHED him SQUARE in the FACE. He broke the kid’s nose, there was blood all over the place, and the guy cried.
The brother didn’t even get into any trouble. Back then they were all in it together.
Gavin and Cooper are always messing around in Mr. Krister’s class. He kicks them out all the time. Gavin is a freshman, but he’s so jacked out of his mind he’s going to be on the varsity football team next year. He’s crazy strong, like a monster man.
Mr. Krister makes it a ritual making fun of Gavin. Every day before prayer he will start staring at Gavin and Gavin will start laughing. Gavin’s got a deep voice, but when he laughs it turns into a high-pitched giggle.
We say prayers, the Our Father, or the Hail Mary, before all our classes. We pray eight times a day. That’s a lot of praying. “Prayer is where the action is,” Mr. Rote always says. When Gavin laughs Mr. Krister tries to stare him down, because Mr. Krister’s a jerk. He will keep staring and staring and then Gavin starts laughing like a girl.
Gavin’s best friend Cooper is just retarded. He plays baseball, but he’s crazy bad at running the bases. He always falls down, or at least almost always. But, he made the team because he’s got a snake arm. Before class he asks guys for pencils and then throws them across the room into the trashcan. I’ve never seen him miss. He ALWAYS makes it.
He sits in the back corner where Mr. Krister put him so he can’t bother anybody, especially Caoch. One day Gavin asked Cooper for a pencil.
“I got a pencil right here,” he said, and smacked his nuts.
Then he fell on the ground, laughing. Mr. Krister tried to pull him up.
“Mr. Krister, I’m sorry, I won’t say anything more during class.”
“Get up, I AIN’T got all day,” Mr, Krister said.
He got up and had to go see Brother Ed, who’s the freshman baseball coach.
We had a quiz about World War Two and Cooper answered Il Douche instead of Mussolini. Mr. Krister sent him to see Mr. Streck instead of Brother Ed and he got a detention. He gets them all the time.
There’s a poster on the wall where Cooper sits and one day he signed his signature in big letters all over it.
“Coop, is that your signature?” I asked him.
“Uh, no,” he said, and started laughing.
Mr. Krister walked back to Cooper’s desk.
“I’m pretty sure that’s Cooper’s signature,” the guy sitting next to Cooper said.
Mr Krister started yelling at both of them. Cooper laughed and laughed.
Duffy sits next to me and is absolutely retarded, just like Cooper. He plays hockey, even though he’s hardly any good. He has trouble lacing up his skates. He pretended to smoke weed during class, making the motions, like he was blazing.
“Duffy, get your books, you’re going downstairs.”
“I wasn’t doing anything, Mr. Krister. It was all Cooper. It’s his fault.” He almost started crying, or laughing.
“WHAT?” Cooper said. “You blame me for everything.”
Everybody in class cracked up.
“Cooper, get your books, you’re going down with Duffy.”
But, since Duffy was actually crying, he didn’t make them go to Mr. Streck’s office. I call Mr. Krister a softie because he won’t always crunch time anybody.
Our class is full of idiots. My friend CJ, who’s gay and is on the swim team, sits in front of me. He absolutely hates Duffy. He always swears at him.
“Duffy, I HATE you SO much.”
“CJ, shut up.”
“No, you shut the hell up.”
I don’t know why CJ hates Duffy. He will just whirl around, stare hard at Duffy, and mouth off random obscenities. He yells them out in the middle of class. Everybody can hear him. He doesn’t scream, but he says them loud enough. It goes on every day, even when Mr. Krister is lecturing about some peace treaty, or other.
Mr. Krister doesn’t do anything about it because he loves CJ, since CJ tells on everybody. He’s the town crier. He never tells on me, because he knows me, and we’re friends.
I hate the class, but it’s an easy A, and I get to be with all my bud retards messing around. It’s a day at the races. It’s awesome.
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus