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In the back of the closet, Riley Stanton found an old pair of Nike running flats that were still encrusted in mud. He held them up. They were white with red stripes, and the black swish was coming off the side of one of the shoes. The spikes on the bottom were very worn down, and they looked like they had never been removed from the shoes.
“Dad!” Riley yelled. “Where did these come from?”
“What?” his father called back from the other room. “Have you found the shirt yet?” He walked over to where Riley was kneeling by the closet. After his son had claimed that the 80s were coming back, Jim Stanton had told him to look in his closet since he had Talking Heads tour shirt back there somewhere. “Did you find the shirt?” he asked again.
“Not yet. Are these yours?” he handed the shoes to his father.
“Those?” He scratched his beard and squinted, holding the shoes up to his eyes. “Oh yeah, those are mine. Yeah, I wore those when I did cross country in high school.”
“You were a runner?” Riley started laughing. Considering all the stories his father had told him once he was of age—“the last month of school where he had showed up for class baked every day,” the one about “taking acid during the assembly,” or how one time the principal “found the bong he kept in his locker”—the image of his father in shorts, a jersey, and running shoes seemed pretty comical.
His father laughed and continued to stroke his beard. He adjusted his glasses. “Yeah, believe it or not, I did it during my senior year... My buddy John and I thought it would be pretty funny if we joined the cross country team so we could get high and run in the woods. ‘Course, I actually turned out being pretty good at it.”
“You were?” Riley shook his head. “I don’t believe you! My father, the same guy who spent all of his youth surfing and smoking joints was good at high school sports?”
His father shrugged. “I mean, yeah, I had some natural ability as a runner. I guess I didn’t really try that hard during the practices, but I ended up doing okay in the meets anyway... ‘Course, my buddies and I were high during some of them. So I probably don’t even remember right...”
But it was a lie. Right then in his mind, Jim Stanton, the father of Riley, was standing on the starting line once again. 10:27 AM. Saturday, October 16. 1982.
It was the state meet, the last meet of the season, and the gun was about to go off. John leaned over and whispered into Jim’s ear, “This is it, man. The last meet. Then we’re done with this sh** forever. God I’m so sick of these meets. I’m sick of running. A week from today we’ll be waking up with a hangover, not standing in the rain before a goddam race.” John laughed to himself.
They certainly were standing in the rain. When Jim woke up that morning, he was tempted to play sick after he looked out the window and saw the rain coming down in torrents. At the start, there was a 100-foot long line of runners who were all standing in mud up to their ankles. Some were doing jumping jacks, struggling to maintain a good body temperature. Other stretched compulsively, and others simply stood, waiting for the meet to be over so they could go home and take a hot shower. Jim shivered and hugged himself in an attempt to stay warm.
“Man, I wish I hadn’t smoked that joint in the woods during the girl’s race,” said John with a laugh. “Are you glad you didn’t? I heard this course is really ridiculous, so let’s hope I don’t get lost!”
Jim shrugged. Since it was his last race ever, he suddenly had a desire to run faster than he ever had before. He wasn’t sure why—he had never been a terribly competitive person, but now his heart was pounding and his fists were clenched. It was almost time. Jim wondered how he would maintain traction in the ankle-deep mud, even with the half-inch spikes he had put in his shoes. The starter raised the gun. “SET!” he yelled. Jim’s heart was pumping even harder now, and it felt like time was frozen as he waited for the gun to go off. Jim suddenly remembered his coach cornering him after the last race. “Stanton,” he said. “I realize you’re a senior and this is your first and last season of cross country, but I really think you got something. You got the natural ability—the body, the form. I wish you could just get some goddam focus. Stop screwing around with your dumb friends and stay up in the pocket during practices, and you could be great.”
Jim walked away grumbling, cursing his coach for calling his friends dumb, and promising himself, I’m not focusing on this jock shit.
He had maintained the same attitude the whole bus ride up to the state meet, even half an hour before his race. But when Jim realized that the finish line signified the end of the race and the season, he figured, Why not?
And here he is now. His beady eyes stare straight forward. His arms are frozen and ready. The gun is in the air. Jim inhales and chews on his lip for a moment, but then stops. The rain drips from his brow.
And he is gone. John practically starts the race in a jog, but Jim is already up at the front, leading the stampede of runners through the mud. Another top runner from Jim’s team glances at him in surprise, but Jim doesn’t even notice. The runners reach a corner up ahead. The trail grows progressively narrow. Jim’s coach is standing on the sidelines.
“YEAH STANTON YEAH! WAY TO HUSTLE WAY TO HUSTLE!”
Hustle, Jim thought to himself. Hustle? God I hate that word. Makes me feel like I’m playing goddam football. But there’s no time for this now. Breathe swing arms big stride rhythm. Rhythm. Gotta have that rhythm.
A hill is on the horizon, and soon Jim is leading the pack, his quadriceps aching, phlegm filling up his throat. He spits on the ground angrily, remembering a practice a week ago where everyone was supposed to do hill sprints but John and Jim had jogged the entire time, not even breaking a sweat.
Dammit, Jim thought. Dammit! Why didn’t I run harder then? Why! His body is on fire as he tries to compensate for a season of weak practices. But he is still in the lead. About halfway through the race, the course turns to downhill, and Jim’s inner monologue seems to shut off, his calves going numb as he charges down the hill into the dark trees, doing his best not to slip in the mud or gravel.
Eventually, Jim doesn’t feel anything, just a burning sensation.
He can see the finish line up ahead. There’s Coach on the sidelines again.
“COME ON STANTON COME ON YEAH YEAH THIS IS IT THE END OF HIGH SCHOOL AND KEEP YOUR LEAD KEEP THAT GODDAM LE-”
The words were all meaningless, at least to Jim. There is the finish line. All thoughts of surfing, beer, beach parties, girls, 4-foot bongs, gone. There is only one thing.
Finish the race. Finish the motherf***ing race.
He reaches for the finish line. In first place, in first place Jim Stanton the kid who used to party and not give a sh** about running and now here is the finish line and he is in pain going to win but in pain and oh my god this is it the end and where is his future going will he go back to old ways or live a champion forever reaching for the finish line reaching for that goddam finish line and here it finally is.
Years later, Jim was sitting on a couch at a party, high as a kite, wondering where life would take him next. Someone handed him a mostly-empty handle of vodka. “Man you want to finish this? I’m gonna throw up if I drink any more.”
Jim chugged it down as fast as he could. The guy nodded his head. “Finish that sh**. Always gotta finish. Always gotta finish.”
And there Jim is again, trying to finish, reaching, everything around him feeling silent, empty, cold. He crosses the line. First place. First place. Everyone screaming. But now it’s over.
Jim Stanton handed the shoes back to his son. “Yeah,” he said. “Believe it or not, I used to be a cross country runner.”
Riley shook his head. “But I don’t get it. All those years I ran cross country in high school… And now I’m running in college, and you never told me that you ran cross country?”
His father shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah… But I’ve never missed a single one of your races, have I?”