You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
We’re running down a gradual hill when Patrick tells me he isn’t coming back to school in the fall. I want to stop and ask for an explanation, but that isn’t an option because gravity and target workout pace dictates when I can stop. I keep bouncing along, trying to process what he’s said while concentrating on my foot strike.
“What?” is my best effort.
“Not allowed back.” He spits. “Grades.”
“Fuck.” I check my watch. It’s time to start another surge. I say that we’re back on, and we both accelerate to our respective race paces, which means Patrick is a few strides ahead of me and steadily increasing the gap as we glide through the five-minute interval. His blond curls bounce beads of sweat into the early morning June heat.
We boxed each other in the lobby of our dorm when we were freshmen. On the last day of finals, a major blizzard dropped over a foot of snow on most of the eastern half of the country, so we were all holed up with nothing to do but drink everybody’s leftover liquor stash and beat the hell out of each other. A kid from down the hall, Jersey Dave, had a few pairs of boxing gloves that he said his dad used to wear when he fought in Golden Gloves tournaments back home. The padding was thin and compressed and the leather was creased and cracked like they’d been folded up and jammed into a box since his dad gave up the dream.
It didn’t take long for Jersey Dave to talk me and Pat into boxing. “For fun,” he said.
A kid who wasn’t as drunk as us helped slide on and lace up our gloves. I could feel my heartbeat in my palms and was worried that my hands would fall asleep and I’d break my wrist during the fight, but I asked for somebody to dump a shot of Captain into my mouth and focused my energy on staying upright.
Patrick and I tapped gloves and Jersey Dave banged a pen off of a small aluminum bowl. Patrick swung his arms at me like I was a human-shaped swarm of bees. I put up my gloves and backpedaled until I felt hands and forearms against my back, shoving me toward the flailing red orbs. I blocked the first few punches, and then Patrick landed one that smashed my own glove into my face. He was breathing harder than he ever did during our toughest workouts.
I slugged him one good time in the gut with all I had. I can’t exactly say it was out of instinct because I have about as much instinct for fighting as I do playing a concert violin, but I do have a keen sense of how to capitalize when I hear the huffing and puffing that comes with over-exertion. I’d never been close enough to Patrick in a race to hear it come from him, and I relished in the chance to get the best of him. He doubled over and I slammed him in the face a few more times before I heard everybody shouting for me to stop. But I got in a few more, the last one sending Patrick down on all fours.
“What the fuck, dude?” Jersey Dave grabbed me by the gloves and led to me to the side. “You deaf?”
“My bad.” I watched as bloody snot dangled from Patrick’s nose, swaying a few inches above the green-gray carpet. I walked over to apologize. He raised a glove and shook his head. I rambled out a few basic apologies and went the other side of the lobby to get out of the gloves.
“They say humans are the best distance runners on the planet.” Patrick sat in the outer lane of the track and laced up his shoes. “We can outrun a horse over the course of a hundred miles.”
“You’d have to be crazy to do that,” I said.
“No doubt. But people do it.” He stood up and bounced around to loosen up. “Obviously, not a lot of people can do it or even try, so it’s not like you can just say that we’re all capable of outrunning a horse. It takes a stud.”
“And it probably helps if you race a really slow horse.”
“You ever seen a slow horse?”
“I don’t know.”
“You haven’t. Except in a glue bottle.” He laughed and started a slow trot. “If I ever get slow, just send me to the glue factory too.”
Each year on Spring Break, our team took a trip to Miami and usually hit one track meet on the way down and one on the way back. Between those two meets was our hardest week of training and our hardest week of drinking. By my sophomore year, it became routine to wake up on a piss-soaked mattress, chug some water, and shuffle out the door for morning practice. Coach never cared what we did as long as we made it to practice and got in the work. Gotta beat the heat was his simple rationale for having practice at eight in the morning.
In the middle of the week, maybe Wednesday or Thursday, we had a two-hour run on the schedule. During my morning ritual of stumbling into the kitchen and putting my entire face under the running faucet, I watched Patrick bong a beer, drop the funnel and tube, and head out the door. After I had sufficiently water-boarded away my cotton mouth, I made my way to the lobby for our team meeting. I smelled the leftover foam in the beer bong and fought back the mouth-watering induced urge to vomit. I was still drunk, and I knew the long run would be one of the most effective, yet unpleasant, ways to purge my toxins.
I don’t know what happened in the team meeting — none of us ever did, especially during that week. Somewhere in the first half-hour of the run, I felt like I was hovering over my shoulder, watching our small group of long-distance guys, except for Patrick, labor through a zombie-like state. Patrick yammered incessantly about music and how if you play vinyl records backwards there really are hidden messages but how he’d also never done it and never even physically touched a vinyl record.
I could only nod and grunt, so Patrick tried to involve Larry and Sherman, our two stoic freshmen, in his conversation. They were naturally quiet guys, but they were also both peeved with Patrick for making them streak naked into the suite full of girls as part of their “initiation.” We’d never done initiation – we were a team, not a fraternity – and Larry and Sherman knew that but didn’t want to upset Patrick while he was swinging a handle of Captain Morgan over his head, splashing rum on everyone and nearly taking out the ceiling fan.
Somewhere in the middle of run, we found an old guy watering his flowers and trudged up to him like a pack of mangy coyotes. Before we could say anything, he told us that we looked like we needed some water and offered the hose. He made small talk as we took turns slurping down the cool, rubber-tinged water. He said he used to live in Fairmont, West Virginia, but hadn’t been back for over twenty years. Patrick excitedly shook the man’s hand and thanked him with slurred speech. “Son, you smell like skunked beer,” was the only thing I actually remember that man saying word-for-word.
When we started our trek back to the hotel, Patrick slowly edged ahead of the group. I yelled up and asked him why he was picking up the pace.
“Am I?” He glanced back over his shoulder.
“Just feel good, man. I’m gonna keep it going.”
The rest of the run was a struggle against the coastal winds and increasing heat, but we made it back in one piece. I lost sight of Patrick with a few miles to go, but when I got back to the room and collapsed face-first onto a piled-up comforter on the floor, Patrick stood over me drinking a beer with one hand and passing me an unopened can with the other. While I dry-heaved at the thought of beer, Patrick laughed and stepped over me on his way out to the balcony.
One night in April, a few weeks before the conference track meet, I missed dinner with the team because of a group project, so I ordered takeout to avoid feeling like a weirdo who sits alone in the cafeteria. On my drive to pick up the food, I saw the reflectors from a pair of shoes moving along a block ahead of me. They were moving too fast to be a high school kid, and all of the guys on our team had already been to practice and worked out at least once that day. When I got close to the runner, I recognized Patrick’s stride. He was the most efficient runner I’d ever trained with — his legs worked in harmony to propel him forward, each muscle doing its fair share of work, and his upper body was loose but balanced without any of the bobbing or swaying.
I pulled up beside him, rolled my window down, and yelled for him. He didn’t look over and waved me off.
“Hey, what the fuck are you doing?” I leaned with my elbow on the passenger seat and looked up at him. “We already ran twice today.”
“Just felt like getting out for a bit.”
“Never better.” He flashed a smile and accelerated.
I moved up beside him again but he shook his head, got over to the sidewalk, and cut down an alley beside someone’s garage.
Back in the room, I ate chimichangas and wondered what the hell Patrick was doing and when he’d be back. His phone vibrated so many times that it eventually fell off the desk and bounced across our gray linoleum dorm-room floor. I picked it up to put it back on the desk before heading out to the meeting.
At the conference track meet, Patrick won the five-thousand meters, three-thousand-meter steeplechase, and ten-thousand meters, which had only been done once before when one of the schools from the Northern Panhandle had a Kenyan runner who they recruited with the pretense that he was the missing piece in taking their sorry team to a national championship. Patrick had to outsprint a couple guys to win the five-thousand, but his other two victories were commanding from start to finish. I saw most of this from one-hundred to two-hundred yards behind, either looking far ahead or directly across the track as Patrick loped away from everybody. I couldn’t even congratulate him afterwards because I knew that he didn’t take any pride in winning minor conference championships in the mountains when there were guys he went to high school with who were winning Big East titles at Rutgers and UConn. All he ever said after a win was, “I shoulda gone faster.”
As we finish the second to last surge of the fartlek workout, I struggle to catch my breath. I’ve gone too hard trying to keep close to Patrick, and I don’t want to wait until the cool-down to get an explanation for why he’s dropping out of school. I use all my focus and energy to catch up to him, wheezing and huffing like an asthmatic in a game of tag.
“Is there… not any… way for you to… still come back?” I’m pathetic.
“We got about ten seconds until we’re on again.” He shakes his head.
“Why you even still doing the workout?” I run my words together to maximize the breath used.
“What else would I do?” He grins and accelerates before I can even check my watch.
I try to respond and stay close to him, but my body has had enough strain. My sides feel like they’ve been assaulted with a tenderizer and my breath catches at the back of my throat each time I inhale. I slow to a stop and clutch my trembling knees, the sweat making it difficult to keep my hands from sliding down. Up ahead, Patrick is running away.
Zach Williams is a 2013 graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College’s MFA program. He was awarded the 2013-2014 Irene McKinney Postgraduate Teaching Fellowship. He currently teaches English at WV Wesleyan. In his spare time, Zach enjoys running and drinking craft beer, although he avoids doing both simultaneously. His work can be seen in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact and Still: The Journal.