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All On The Track
The first time I saw James Symanski, I didn’t do a double take. He was like every other guy on the boys track team, pounding out hard 400’s on the bouncy new turf. He, along with every other guy out there, was someone the girls would tease about his obscenely short shorts, or his bony frame. The only really new, different thing about James was that he was new here. Fresh from sophomore year at John Carver High School in Oregon, and before that Paris, France. For the first few months he had the aura about him that every new kid has. Because of their new-meat status, cliques quickly mesh and wave around him, testing his personality and likeability. James was likeable, all right. But he never fell in with the popular crowd, nor the drama heads, or even the geeks, although his academic inclination would lead many to believe so. His hobbies consisted of running track, hiding behind his macbook, and swimming. From what the girls track group had deduced on one of our many scheduled ‘runs to Hill park’ which was always code for ‘run halfway up the street and discuss boys for the duration of practice’, James was an 8. He got points for his killer legs, lots of points. They were chiseled and formed in a way no other track boys legs were. He was really the only guy who could pull off the short-shorts, and no one had an issue watching him run the 12 laps he signed up for in them. Being a one and two miler, he ran with me. Well not with me per say, but rather he ran the same event I did. He was one of the very top of the pile, cream of the crop, pumping out 4:45 miles with ease and charisma. He quickly became the crowning jewel of our distance team, the mysterious boy from the foreign country with the name no one could pronounce. Because of this, many a girls had their eye on him, inviting him over to their houses and fawning over his every movement. It was quickly noted, however, that James did not return the feelings of any of his admirers, no matter how attractive or forthcoming they were. Many practices were spent discussing why he was so off-putting, and we came to the collective conclusion he must be gay. He effeminate voice, we decided, was the icing on the cake, and we consoled the dejected souls that were victims of his seemingly oblivious nature. Personally, I had always thought the boy was over rated. He was a track boy, alright, he was an amazing runner, but not nearly as phenomenal as the ones our team ran against in states. Granted, he was quite attractive, but after he nearly gave Madison whiplash with his mixed signals and boyish behavior he was quickly a taboo no one wanted to touch. We admired him – at a safe distance. One can never get hurt if they are far enough away.
Joining track was simply a given for me. I lived and breathed running, and I was never sure why. No deeper meaning or history or emotional trauma accompanies that statement, just the fact that one day I ran and I didn’t stop. I was no world-class runner, no future Olympiad or anything like that. But, I was top of our distance track team. I led our division in the two mile easily, and our team in the one mile. Long, Slow, Distance was my specialty. No one seemed to understand it, and would always give me strange looks when I answered “because I like it” when asked why I would ever want to run that far. Most girls, to be fair, did not join to break school records, or get to states, or even be competitive. They often were forced into it by their friends, parents, or siblings. More often than not, it was to flaunt what their mother gave them in the skimpy track uniforms. I never felt quite as comfortable in the outfit as some of the other girls, who were curvy and filled them out nicely. Mine kind of sat there, like a potato sack around my slender frame, the forest green colors of our town washing out my already pale skin and clashing violently with the white-blonde hair. Needless to say, I was built like a runner, but plain looking at best. Next to the rest of the team I looked perhaps thirteen, so I couldn’t pull off the lazy boy-catching excuse many others used as an excuse to sign up for track. No, I ran track competitively, with the goal of first place in mind, and only first place. Which, I suppose, is why this story began.
First meet of spring track. First time we all don’t have to wear those god-awful under-armor things beneath our uniforms. On top of making us look like confused ninjas, the whole sweat absorbing running in a wetsuit feeling is not in the least bit comfortable. Winter track is always like one big yawn in the middle of the school year, and the track we compete on is indoors where we all breathe each other’s recycled air. Running in the spring feels like home again.
Except for, today its 45 degrees out. Everyone trudged out of the buses at the Whitman-Hanson track, covering themselves with blankets and school bags, leaning into each other for body warmth. Typically, the meet would play as follows: one mile – sprinting events – two mile. However, today the one and two mile are only one event apart. This means essential running suicide for the distance runners, giving them maybe 5 minutes rest between races. Who knows why they did this, all I know is I wanted to crawl up under a blanket, and never come out again. If I could run all day in a hot sauna, I would. Annie Tarbok grabbed my arm, and pulled me to the outer edge of the track by the warm hot dogs and the covered concession stand.
“Seriously, you’re going to have a track meet, and it’s forty-five f***ing degrees out. Put up a god damn tent for C****t’s sake, I’m not going to PR in a tank top and short-shorts when it’s this temperature!”
I ran my hands up and down my arms, groping for what was left of my body heat, jumping in place.
“They moved the events – what’s up with that?” I pointed to the shabbily constructed sign, half-falling off the chain-link fence.
“They hate us, that’s what’s up. I don’t know, the MIAA is staging a coup against distance runners? Look at the 400 runners – they know what’s up.”
Even huddled at a safe distance from the track, we can see the wind whipping around the faces of the participants. The girls pushing the hair out of their face as the chills swept through them like a tidal wave.
“They’re running….maybe one lap.” Annie mused in mock-consideration
“We, are running twelve. Twelve freezing, cold, laps.”
They took their marks, and we watched them hurtle around the track at incredible speed
“At least it’s motivation to get done quicker.” I pondered for a moment. I began to tap my toes in anxiety, as the events came and went quickly rather than the snail-pace they usually run at.
“Katie,” Annie hissed “You’re moving the blanket.” She tugged on the corner until it fell completely off my shoulder. I stood up and looked to the distance, their cross-country course, covered by trees and protected from the angry storm.
“Hey, Annie, I’m taking a lap.” I hopped up and bit the bullet, picking up my pace across the baseball field to the woods
“Katie! Our event isn’t for another thirty minutes!”
I pretended not to hear her. I was cold, and the woods looked inviting. Plus, I had to warm up somehow. The quilt just wasn’t cutting it anymore. Slinking into the forest, the wind almost completely dissipated. Although the trail had clearly not been taken care of for quite a bit, I didn’t mind. This was the kind of running everyone should experience. You, your feet, and nature. Just together, pounding dirt. I picked up speed as I turned the forest corner, opening to a lake behind the school. I pushed harder and harder until I was under the brush again, when I realized something frightening, and then annoying. Footsteps behind me, right behind me, almost intruding on my space. I moved to the right and slowed my pace a bit, waiting for them to pass, but the footsteps just slowed down to match mine. I picked up the pace now, moving more swiftly over the roots in my path only to find they did the same. I couldn’t handle it anymore. Glancing behind me, I saw the face of James Symanski. Smiling, as usual, and he picked up stride to run alongside me.
“Nice day, huh?” the words flew out of his mouth as if he were walking, not running a hard 5k pace.
“If you were an Eskimo.” I exhaled quickly, coughing and turning my head away from the wind.
“What! This is great running weather! Then again, I practically am an Eskimo.” He grinned again, and headed toward the next opening in the woods
I couldn’t think of anything to say. What are you supposed to say to someone who follows you in the woods and tries to start amiable conversation with you when you are clearly trying to warm-up.
We ran in silence for a minute, but not even the silence could ward him off. Surprisingly, he wasn’t even breaking a sweat, or breathing hard in the least. I watched his limbs swing beside mine as we pushed the hill that came ahead of us.
“So. How about this whole re-working the meet agenda, how do you feel about that?”
Why would he care what I felt about it? I literally just met him a second ago, other than the times we had discussed him behind his back I knew nothing of the boy personally.
“I feel like it’s ridiculous. I mean, let’s be real here, I want to run a good time. There’s no way that can happen with my events right next door.”
“Oh, I love it!” He half-laughed “I am such a big fan – I mean think about it, this way you’re completely warm for your next event. It’s like the meet was made with distance runners’ in mind!”
He took a hard left back towards the wooded opening
“Huh. I didn’t think of it that way.” I pushed hard over the rocky bridge and listened to him run. It was kind of definitive, like he knew where he was going. Or maybe it was more he didn’t know, but he didn’t care. That was kind of sexy.
No. No, it was not sexy at all. James was off-limits, he did this with girls. He made them think he liked them, then acted all confused when they tried to return his clearly intimate feelings.
“Well, the glass can be half-full if you want it to!” he said cheerily, as we exited the forest and began running across the baseball field again.
“You know, for a sophomore you have a pretty impressive record.” I noted his respectful tone, and didn’t know what to say.
“Hm. Thanks, you too. For a Senior and all.”
We ran together all the way to the gate, where Annie looked up from her blanket, and Cody from the high-jump mat.
“I’ll see you around, most likely. Best of luck in the mile Katie, break 5:45. I know you can do it.”
He hurried off to the boys’ team, ready to do his stretches and pre-race frog-jumps.
“Hey, whoa, explain that.”
Annie pointed to him and dragged me under the fleece again.
“There’s nothing to explain, we just ran into each other in the woods is all.” I shrugged and went to put on my racing spikes.
“Hey, missy, I saw that face. You better not be falling in love with him or something.”
“Wait, what! No, I like, just met the kid I hardly even know him, what are you talking about!”
The boys’ two-mile was lining up on the starting line, and I saw him take off his sweatshirt and training pants. His gaze was deliberate. Eyes on the track, focused on racing against the clock.
“Good.” She replied
The gun went off and he took the lead, turning the corner of the first 100 at fifteen seconds.
“No good can come of that.” She turned to head back toward the concession stand.
With a smile, a wave, and a quick wink, he finished with a time of 10:11:52, a first place ribbon, and the heart of a chilly blonde girl in running spikes.