At our low-key family gathering today, I was encouraged by my mother to send the ten-year-old essay below to a couple of siblings of my brother-in-law, emerging runners both. She says that among every running-related thing I have ever written, this is the best (and she faithfully reads a lot of them despite having little actual interest in running herself). It’s not on the Web anywhere (it was once posted on the old Cool Running site), so I thought I would post it here.
“Just stare at my back!”
That phrase, tossed in mid-race over the knobby shoulder of a sixteen-year-old kid, stands as the greatest piece of racing advice I have heard, outlasting fifteen years of tactical hand-me-downs and carefully crafted stratagems and spanning hundreds of races and thousands of training miles. I have lived through scores of ups and downs since that 3200-meter contest unfolded in the New Hampshire twilight over a dozen years ago, but I’ll never forget Jeremy’s command, because it transcends this silly sport that I am – sometimes to my own amazement – still entwined in as my twenties draw unpretentiously toward a close.
A high-school sophomore, I was caught up in the frenzy of a race that meant nothing and the world. This was the penultimate contest of a closely contested dual meet, and the overall outcome depended heavily on the results. As an emerging but hopelessly skittish distance runner, I believed the weight of the world hung from my 120-pound frame. It was the truth – and a farce.
I had started running a year earlier and, through sheer desire and precocious compulsion, had bludgeoned my way into one of the top positions of a state-championship-caliber squad. I had a few miles under my belt, but not the confidence to match.
Jeremy, a year older than I, was the Man to Beat, a kid whose prowess had shone brightly even as a seventh-grader, when he’d broken five minutes for the mile. His father, a onetime 14:11 5000-meter runner and now an ophthalmologic surgeon, had performed corrective surgery on my all-but-blind right eye just a month earlier. Jeremy, all bravado and wisecracks and gliding strides, had long been an ethereal speck on my racing horizon, logging times beyond my wildest dreams of glory. Now, only minutes removed from a stellar 800-meter triumph, he’d been charged with the task of guaranteeing my – and therefore the team’s – success in this meet.
With five laps to go, I was tucked in behind Jeremy, the leaders a frightfully short distance ahead. Fear and giddiness and the inexorable burn of lactic acid accumulation all fought for supremacy as I followed his advice and fixed my gaze – one-and-a-half eyes now – on the white-and-crimson singlet clinging to Jeremy’s lithe frame. The laps ground by, taking on a life of their own as the daylight died, and I kept up what was for me an improbable pace. At some point, the ability to keep the pressure on shifted from the training I’d done to my own stretched will. And Jeremy’s advice: “Just stare at my back.”
In the last lap, I swallowed up two fading opposing runners and crossed the line after an eternal damnation in the homestretch. I collapsed in a heap. I think my time was around 10:30. Nearly a minute slower than I would run before graduating, but the first time I’d seen the bright side of eleven. We’d won the meet. And, right up until the final curve, Jeremy’s back had gotten me – us – there.
Simply put, Jeremy had offered his help. He had offered a share of his strength, and – being in no position to argue – I had accepted. The task in front of me was ugly and gritty, and in the end I was responsible for achieving it. But I didn’t do it alone.
It was, above all, a lesson in how to live well. I didn’t realize that then.
Jeremy, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t run anymore. But before he left Concord High, the two of us, dancing our competitive dance over and over, experienced both thrilling highs and abominating lows. We ran. When our schoolteacher blew up on the Challenger that year, we ran, little black bands on our singlets the best we could do in the face of a tragedy so surreal that I still wonder at times if it ever really happened. The whole school – students, teachers, administrators – looked for backs to cling to then.
In the state cross-country meet the next year we ran as favorites, our squad bolstered by the addition of a ludicrously talented kid from Hudson. Chris, a year my junior, had run a 4:24 mile as a freshman. He was the new Man to Beat. But he was different. He dared wear running tights. He was a self-professed nerd. He had to lead every warm-up jog, every workout, every course walk. He brayed obnoxious laughter at Bazooka Joe comics. But he had a heart of gold. And he was better than us.
For various reasons, our team folded in the state meet and finished a demoralized second. We all pretended not to care, then slunk separately away into far corners of Derryfield Park, our red-rimmed eyes betraying our disappointment. We didn’t know whose backs to stare at then.
I lost touch with Jeremy after he graduated, but sometime during my senior year I learned that his brother, Martin, never a runner but an avid spectator at our meets, had been killed in a dormitory fire in Ohio. Bewildered and sad, I wondered how Jeremy, now doing post-graduate studies in England, might be coping. Surely in England there were backs to be had. Again, I didn’t think in those terms then. But at some level I understood it.
Meanwhile, Chris and I had developed a monstrous rivalry in cross-country. We traded the number-one spot the entire season and our efforts to squelch the other, neither cordial nor mean-spirited, brought our team to new heights. We stumbled in the early postseason but wound up with the low score at the New Hampshire Meet of Champions. Jeremy would have thoroughly enjoyed a team championship, but, ever the impish instigator, would have appreciated the playful rancor of Chris’s and my escalating rivalry even more. Even the parents had become involved. Chris’s father Sid would scream with glee every time Chris popped into view with the lead – and as an accomplished choir member, the guy could scream – but would sag visibly when I darted out of the woods ahead of his son. It was after these contests that I, ever wavering between snide and diplomatic, would trot by him, grinning and waving. Sid would give a sulky little wave himself, then wait for Chris to shuffle over so the two of them could commiserate about his loss – to a teammate, but a loss was a loss. I always begrudged him this habit, devoid as it was of team spirit. But I fiercely enjoyed these wins, because I knew nothing of “team spirit” in the grand sense. But I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
Spring track was really another world for Chris and me. We never competed against each other on the oval: I favored the two-mile, Chris the mile. But he would have easily destroyed me in both events. My senior year, Chris, then a junior, set the New Hampshire state record in the 1,600 meters with a 4:15.5. He had a promising career in front of him – or so everyone thought.
After I graduated, I began a walk of young adult life which, in my naivete, I somehow believed would be paved with gold every step of the way. At first, through hard work and good fortune, I realized the beginnings of all of my righteous dreams. But bit by bit, reality set in. I wasn’t a top runner anymore. I pretended to accept this but never really did. By the end of college I was fed up, burnt out from intense but sporadic training. Through it all, there may have been scads of backs to stare at, people whose wisdom and presence might have made my journey more gentle. But I chose to go at it alone. It was what I knew.
Somewhat later, well on my way to the career I’d long treasured, my world was rocked when I became medically ineligible for the military standing I held. The same bad eye was the culprit. I still had one good eye, though, for staring at backs. But I also had my running, which I thought was enough. I squeezed my eye shut against the world and floundered around for awhile, alone in a sea of friends.
Eventually I washed up in New Hampshire again, and there, by no machinations of my own, things began to happen. I joined a running club and renewed my competitive vigor. I got back in touch with old friends, hesitantly at first, then with the same casual gusto I’d worn as a kid. I met an incredibly special person who showed me how little I knew of selfless love. It began to dawn on me how trivial my concerns really were, and it was hard to believe how much energy I’d invested in them. But I’d been their sole owner, and for far too long.
Things finally came full circle for me at the Concord High School alumni cross-country race last weekend, when I met up with people I could scarcely remember having forgotten. A dozen years of memories telescoped into five kilometers of muddy racing, the smell of freshly mown grass at Memorial Field, and a gaggle of kids in loose-fitting singlets. But the race itself was inconsequential.
Chris, I learned through a mutual friend, hadn’t made it through college; some combination of events, financial and family-related, had conspired to take the most talented high-school distance runner I have ever personally known away from his astonishing well of talent and drive. He’d moved on to other things, good things, and still lived in the area.
But that wasn’t the story that bit me, either. What I also learned was that Chris’s father Sid, a vivacious man at worst and borderline hysterical at his spectator’s best, had died of cancer the week before at age 57. Chris had made him a grandfather of two before he’d passed away, and I had to smile at the idea of a scrawny, screechy kid known for hooting away at Bazooka Joe’s tacky exploits raising a family. Good for him. Good for Sid.
And I hoped that the sea of backs in front of me was as wonderfully vast as it seemed. For Jeremy and Chris, and for all the little blind mice like me – runners who, nearing the age of thirty, begin to realize that our chief obsession and all the drive in the world cannot, by itself, propel us through the muck and mire of this four-wheel-drive extravaganza called life. There’s always a runner just ahead, though – a few steps older and wiser and willing to chart a course for us. The divine glory of all this is that each of us, knowingly or not, can all serve as that runner, that broad back, for someone else.
On that note, I’m now coaching high school cross-country, and this season my top runner is another Jeremy. Early in the season I paced him through a 3,200-meter time trial. Jeremy was hurting early on but his Nordic skier’s implacable drive and endurance allowed him to hang on. Our time? A familiar 10:30-ish. He’d never broken 11:00 before.
“Wow, coach,” he exalted five minutes later, still winded. “I didn’t think I was gonna make it, but I just focused on your upper back. Man…”
Following the sage advice of a namesake he’ll likely never meet, he just stared at my back. And it worked.
Fortunately, some people learn this all by themselves. And I say, good for them. It makes running – and life – a much easier ride.
– October 1999