Like Tiny Little Cracks

By

Short shorts aside, there are lessons to learn about toughness from a sport that makes you bleed in places you don’t expect. A sport that spikes your calves and ankles, knocks you dumb with an elbow to the nose in a bottlenecked start. A sport that chafes your nipples raw, streaks red trails down your singlet from breast to navel. The first time Mike and I pissed blood, we did it side-by-side in a pair of urinals at East Detroit High. We ran our hardest when we ran ourselves, looped the school hallways long after the other underclassmen had dropped, long after coach had tried and failed to bring us in. We ran until it burned not to. “Shit,” Mike said. “Shit, shit, shit.” His hand pressed limply against the wall. Afterward, he looked at me through the bathroom mirror. He splashed water on his face as if he’d just woken up. He said, “It shouldn’t be this easy to make us hurt this bad.”

*

Steve Prefontaine, known simply as Pre to the hordes of teenage runners who idolized him, once said, “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have bleed to do it.” It’s the type of thing you’d expect from a cocky 21-year-old American at the top of his game, a runner who tried to blaze the last mile of the Munich 5,000-meter final in a suicidal four minutes so no one could sit and kick on the final lap to steal the win. In running, kickers get both hate and glory. A good kicker will sit on your shoulder no matter how slow the pace. He’ll go through a mile in five minutes and change if he has to, so long as he’s in the right position when he hits his spot—600 meters out, 400 meters out, 200 meters if he’s really got wheels. Pre wanted to turn every race into a guts race, to kill any chance of a long kick by stringing the pack out early. He said he wanted to create something beautiful when he ran. But there is beauty, too, in failure—in the world watching you run out of gas in the final fifty meters of a 5K. There is beauty in watching first, second and third place overtake you, knowing you’ve got nothing left to chase them. Beauty means there is always someone behind you who is willing to bleed.

*

Mike and I wore the word Runner tighter than the leggings and skullcaps that guarded us from wind as we pushed ten miles, eleven miles, twelve or more through Michigan snowstorms, hurdling snowdrifts and cutting wide corners on icy asphalt. Storms like these are how we learned the cut of our muscles, the height of our spines, the ways our bodies could strand or save us. We were sixteen and searching for new ways to define ourselves, tagging sidewalks with footsteps until the whole city was a series of dashes on the maps that lined the bottoms of our shoes. Three years later, my knees would splinter like firewood. Six years later, an X-Ray showed a spine that wandered, one leg longer than the other. The day I paid my chiropractor twenty dollars for a lift I was to wear in my right shoe for the rest of my life, I was coming from Mike’s funeral. I was wearing a white collared shirt and a black tie. My chiropractor told me the lift would fix everything. He said over time my spine would straighten and the crippling pain in my neck would be relieved, the muscles no longer pinched by bone. I tripped over myself on my way out, level for the first time. “Feels different, doesn’t it?” my chiropractor said. “After a week you’ll forget how to walk without it.”

*

Runner’s high, not unlike the female orgasm, is advertised by popular magazines as an elusive physical pleasure. Experts are happy to offer their suggestions for achieving runner’s high, which, they will inform you, does not require any great skill on the part of the runner. Instead, this phenomenon depends on a combination of factors—pace, mindset, temperature—that, if mixed right, will culminate in a burst of euphoria strong enough to turn sidewalks into clouds. The truth of it is, some days feel better than others. Some days, some miles, some steps. And though a run may feel easier than it was, your legs will find a way to remind you that mileage isn’t really something you can hide from. The myth comes in the popular assumption that there is, within every willing runner, a well of energy waiting to be tapped. This promise that a switch in the brain, once turned, will make everything easy. Really, the ones who know how to dig never know if the energy will be there when they need it. They only know how to reach.

*

Pre isn’t a tragic figure just because of his yearly battles with the Amateur Athletic Union, the laws dictating he would lose his chance at Olympic gold if he accepted money for his wins. It wasn’t just that the county’s best runner was working part-time at a dive bar while living in a gunmetal gray trailer in Glenwood, Oregon, nor was it that his stubborn refusal to pace himself followed him off the track, all the way to the bottom of a roadside ditch in Eugene. The real tragedy of Pre isn’t that he ended up pinned beneath a 1973 MGB convertible with a blood alcohol content of 0.16, dead at 24. It was that in his only Olympics he was beaten by Finnish runner Lasse Viren, accused but never convicted of blood doping, a then-legal practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the blood stream to carry more oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. Blood doping was banned in 1986, but Pre fans have only ever had these suspicions, this cloud that was only a cloud. They’ve only had these tire tracks, this broken glass, these numbers: 13:28, 13:26, 0.16.

*

In winter, I used to run the three miles to Mike’s house to lift weights in his basement, and then afterward run the three miles home. We worked our core, chest and quads. Together, we weighed well under three hundred pounds—glamor muscles weren’t a concern for us. One summer a man stopped our team out on a run and said, “You’re not allowed to be shirtless unless you have muscles.” Mike looked down at his chest. The man said, “That’s not what I meant.” Mike and I ran six days a week and lifted three. We pushed each other through speed work on the track, fought through chest press sets and pull ups, spent breaks between reps talking trophies and scars. Years later, a friend would imply I was a masochist, and it’s true we didn’t shy from the pain—the weights were really just to keep our muscles used to screaming. They were for the third lap of a mile, when the mind either is or isn’t strong enough to say “Dig.” Mental toughness is a kind of toughness, but there’s no denying the mind is given a set of tools to work with. If ready, the body will respond.

*

My running career ended June 5, 2009, some time after 4 p.m. on an East Detroit sidewalk a block and a half from my childhood home. I was on my way out for an easy five-miler when I pulled up lame, stabbed through the knee with a sharpness I knew even then was a promise and not a threat. When I told my friends I was injured, no one was surprised. “You run seventy miles a week,” they said. “What did you expect?” I had never thought of what I did as harmful, but runners often have warped interpretations of pain. When I used to say I fired off an easy eight at a 5:20 clip, what I meant was only that there is a point where the body takes over, when your arms and legs become a part of something, but not something you control. There is such thing as runner’s high. There are such things as endorphins. When my knees failed me, I drank myself into foam and fracture. I swam laps until I vomited in locker room trash cans. I worked hard at rehab, but it was never hard enough. I hurt and I hurt and I hurt, but it never got easy. I was never rewarded for my destruction, so I destroyed myself more. There is such thing as addiction: to get up and run every day because you need this explosion, this release. To go harder because you have to, farther because you have to. It is difficult to fight this, but it is easy to run so fast you don’t feel your own bones breaking. It is easy to find these grooves and grind them raw. It is so, so easy to go fast.

*

Admitting we weren’t world-beaters does nothing to lower the stakes. For all our talk of trophies, this isn’t a narrative about winning. It’s about addiction. About how running, at its best and its worst, can suck the satisfaction from everything that is not running, make you spend years coping with how thin your wrist feels without a watch around it. It’s easy to blame the addict, but Mike only turned to pills after people failed him. He quit running around the same time my knees stopped me. He left me stoned voicemails while I rehabbed in the pool and the training room, trying in vain to build up the strength in my atrophied quads. He told me he just didn’t love the sport like he used to. He told me it just wasn’t the same. After a while I stopped listening to the voicemails. I got tired of hearing he was sorry for being healthy when it’s what I would’ve given anything to have. I have had my troubles with patience, and with seeing that like things do not always look alike. What I should have done was called him back, helped him get over this new addiction like he helped me. But the tricky thing about running is that after a loss, the only thing to do is a recovery run, then 600-meter repeats the next day, then six miles again. Neither Mike nor I ever learned anything about stopping; we only knew the way to get better was to go faster every day.

*

The story I’m not telling is the one where running saves us before it wrecks us. The one where we all grow strong and healthy and proud and for a few years believe that it might just go on like that forever. The story I’m not telling is the one where we learned more about our teammates on a ten-mile run than we’d ever known about certain members of our immediate families. The story I’m not telling is the one where Mike was leading a mile at the end of lap three and I screamed for him at the edge of the track and a race official pushed me back and I screamed louder and louder and after the race Mike won he found me and we hugged and we laughed and I never told him how close I was, in that moment, to breaking out in tears with my head on his shoulder. The story I’m not telling is the one where Mike and I went out too fast in a cross country meet and died in the final mile, watching as our teammate rolled up runners at a steady clip, crossed the finish line and kept walking through the chute to the shore of the lake. The one where our teammate took off his socks and shoes and let his knees crumple inward as his bare feet hit sand. The one where he twitched and moaned, released, dropped to his elbows as slower runners continued past him into the water. The story I’m not telling is the one where another teammate blazed a personal record in a two-mile race without anyone to push him. The one where he crossed the finish line laughing, kept running past the scorer’s table to a tree in the shade and sat down while the scorekeeper called out for his name. He just sat there, alone, and laughed and breathed and laughed and breathed and laughed.

*

In running there is no greater push than a body next to yours. This is the logic behind rabbits, pacesetters paid to take a field of runners through a certain distance in a certain time. When the rabbit hits his mark, he steps off the track. He collects his paycheck and his pride. For Pre, this is the opposite of a pure guts race. There is nothing pure about following, letting someone else do the work you trained your body to do. He would only have approved of the very few who hit their mark and keep racing, letting a vision overtake them, more often than not dying off but sometimes holding on for the win. Mike always liked to position himself just behind the lead pack, but his senior year of high school, when I was already gone for college, he started taking races wire to wire from 5K down to the mile. He started dictating the flow of the field, setting a pace that bridged the gap between comfort and pain. Mike and I prided ourselves in taking after Pre because Pre was a man who prided himself on taking after no one. Among his many quotes, a credo: “The best pace is a suicide pace, and today is a good day to die.”

*

Mike and I both had posters of Pre on our walls. We wore his T-shirts, read magazine articles and books, memorized his quotes. I say I learned everything I know about toughness from Mike, but the truth is we both learned it from Pre, and from each other, and from ourselves. We became obsessed with the idea of toughness. We became so obsessed that it killed one of us, and it could have just as easily killed us both. Mike and I trained together for four years, and each of us always thought of the other as the tough one. I never beat Mike in a mile, or a 3K, or a 5K, or a 10K. I never qualified for state finals like Mike, never got the scholarship offer that was promised to him. I was never the front runner that he was, only because I had more trouble getting to the front. When his love for running started to waiver, I knew all he wanted was for me to tell him it was OK. But it was too hard not to tell him to fight it when I was fighting harder than I ever had, willing fractures to heal and muscles to remember themselves again. I was sleeping with a singlet in my window for motivation, gritting my teeth through electrotherapy and ice baths and MRIs. When one of us wasn’t running, Mike and I lost our ability to communicate. We lost context for ourselves, the reasons for our friendship we had never second guessed before. Our timing was off; we forgot to text, to call, to say the simple things we had always known to say to each other. Apologies stuck like plaque to my tongue. Pre was long gone from our vocabulary when Mike sat down in his Lay-Z-Boy recliner for the last time, the pills already starting their work on his nervous system. Overdose, not suicide. Overdose, not suicide. Overdose, not suicide. I keep telling myself I had nothing do with any of it, that there were so many things I didn’t know—so much of his life I missed after I started silencing his calls. I keep telling myself that even if I would have been there with him, I probably wouldn’t have known what to say.

*

When someone asks me why I don’t run anymore, I point to the geography of my patella and map them a route from seventy miles a week on the road to three months with an icepack on my knees, six months swimming laps in a university pool while my teammates hammered twelve, a year with an athletic trainer and two years for my heart not to break like bone every time I took a step faster than a shuffle. When someone asks me why I don’t run anymore, I ask them why their old lovers don’t call. I show them these curves in my spine, this bowed gap between my knees. I say scoliosis. I say meniscus and atrophy. I take my body in my hands like the doctor I’ve taught myself to be. Stress fracture, I say, and point to the fault line in my knee that used to glow hotter than an ember. Like tiny little cracks.

*

When people ask why Mike stopped running, they are praying to his gravestone. At his funeral, the entire team got back together for the first time since high school. All of our Mike stories turned into us asking each other when we’d seen him last and realizing it had been years. Our coach, a teacher at the high school, said Mike had been showing up at the building stoned in the morning, trying to get past the security guards to see him. Mike’s family and neighbors had tried getting him help, but he hadn’t listened. I never knew how serious Mike’s addiction had gotten. I never knew his father died, that Mike had been living alone. We told ourselves it wasn’t anyone’s fault if he wouldn’t take the help, but I know Mike was picky about the people he trusted. I knew how to recognize the things people said only because they felt they needed to be said. And in the end, all anyone could say was that it was a shame about Mike’s talent, as if what he didn’t do was the thing they remembered most about him. As if it were the only thing.

*

In a 2004 Runner’s World article, marathoner Amby Burfoot—an American legend whose calf injury kept him from Olympic gold—starts an article, “I remember my first runner’s high as if it were yesterday.”

The last time Mike and I ran together was four years before he died—long before my injuries, before he quit his college team, before either of us began to spiral. It was winter, and we were strong. Mike had always been the faster of the two of us, but it was closer at this time than it had ever been. I set the pace for our six-miler, and he settled in at my side.

runnersnow“For a mile, maybe two, I slipped into another world, a timeless one where there was no effort, no clocks, no yesterday, no tomorrow. I floated along for 15 minutes, aware of nothing, just drifting.”

Easy doesn’t look the same to me anymore. What I can say now is that there are no moments on a run that come without effort—only some efforts that go further than others. There is only pain and pain and pain and the reasons we love it.

“I don’t get runner’s high often enough. I want more.”

At the end of the run, Mike and I stretched out on the high school track and shook the lactic acid out of our arms. He told me, “You’re a lot stronger now. I can feel it,” and it was at least true that I had never pushed him that hard before. We were hot and thirsty, so we laid back and buried our faces in the snow. We were silent for a long time. Neither of us had the energy to disagree.

***

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Justin Brouckaert is the author of the chapbook Look At This Fish (Burning River Press, April 2014). His work has appeared inMetazen, Monkeybicycle and Squalorly, among other publications. A former NCAA Division 2 walk-on, he is now a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina. Read more of his work at jjbrouckaert.tumblr.com or follow him on Twitter @JJBrouckaert. More from this author →