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Triumph over Tragedy - Chapter 11

Our varsity squad got through the six meets in September undefeated as a team, Steve and I finishing 1-2 in every race, the back page articles in the school newspaper prominently displaying the weekend invitationals we won. But we still needed more help if we were to continue the victories at the big meets in October. They were the ones that really counted.

At practices we noticed a nineth-grader running for the frosh-soph squad who impressed us with his attitude, doing his damnedest to be the best – no matter what the workload. He was drawn to competition like me, possessing an innate drive to excel in sports, unwilling to settle for the status quo. His results in meets were erratic but I was convinced he would surprise people if we could take him under our wing and show him the way.

We talked with Coach Raffensperger before the Monday workout and he agreed to let Mike Wilkinson join us, the small bit of recognition reward for his work ethic. It was clear he was excited to join the best runners on the team, our encouragement providing all the motivation he needed to work even harder. Mike tagged along with us on the warmup like a puppy, killing himself to win our approval, never complaining during the intervals no matter how hard we pushed the pace.

In time we learned who he was. A runner from the opposite side of the tracks. The good side.

My life, and Mike’s life, were as different as could be. His father was president of the local bank and went to work in 3-piece suits. My father was a painter who wore patched white pants and stained white t-shirts. Though we were drawn together by the need for competition, our social status was as different as the upper and lower castes of India.

Each day Mike’s mother dropped him off at school in their Cadillac, his button-down collared shirts cleaned and starched at the laundromat, the jeans neatly pressed, his shoes spotless. He had friends with fathers who were lawyers and doctors and businessmen, not car mechanics and firemen and plumbers like Steve and me. But when we were at practice he understood none of that mattered. Only working hard. Being his best.

Temperatures were cool at 6am the following morning, Mike watching for us from the front window of their brick house, his mother waving in the background as he rushed out the door to join our run. Yesterday he didn’t bat an eye when we told him we would pick him up bright and early, putting in four miles before school.

It had to be done. The big meets were here.

The next four weeks would set the stage for the State Championships in Marshalltown – the focus of all my summer training. I was dying to see how I ranked against the best in the state. Whether I was legit or a wannabe. It was scary to bet all my chips on the summer training because I had never run at this level, but so be it. Such is life. The anticipation of the big invitationals made it hard for me to sleep nights prior to the races, to think of anything but winning.

Each weekend Scott and I religiously scoured the back pages of the Des Moines and Cedar Rapids sports sections, looking for results or shorts stories about the senior phenom from Mason City – Mark Johnson. The returning state champion. His margin of victory was always more than twenty seconds no matter who the competition and we were anxious to see him in person and find out how we compared. The thought of the upcoming encounter at the state meet was more exciting than Christmas.

But that was still three weeks away.

On tap Saturday was the Jefferson Invitational at Noelridge Park. Sixteen of the best squads in eastern Iowa would be racing – teams from Waterloo Columbus, Davenport Central, Cedar Rapids Washington, and Pleasant Valley. Raff moved Mike Wilkinson up from the frosh-soph squad for the last invitational of the year, using him like a secret weapon for this crucial meet. With our latest addition we knew we would surprise a lot of teams.

We hadn’t seen Jefferson’s Doug Schmidt since the summer race at Ellis Park, and neither of us had run against Matt Burke of Columbus, reputed to be undefeated this fall. Our mood on the bus ride to Cedar Rapids wavered between nervousness and excitement as we stared out the window at fields of corn, concerned about the outcome of today’s race. These moments were torture, tension smothering my mood like a wet blanket, making any conversation uncomfortable. I would soon find out if my confidence was warranted or braggadocio, the reality of this pivotal point disconcerting. A loss would be devastating.

It was a cool Saturday morning when we stepped off the bus, the long shadows, and layers of yellow locust leaves on the ground indicating cold weather was just around the corner. At least I won’t be sweating from the heat. The course was flat so this was going to be fast - probably the chance for our season PR.

At the gun Steve and I sprinted to the front of the colorful skein, joining the two others to our right, running four abreast with Schmidt and Burke near the pond on the southwest edge of the park. Neither of us acknowledged the competition running alongside, pretending we were the only ones in the race. Eyes were straight ahead, opponents refusing to do anything but stare straight ahead as we opened a gap on the rest of the field, by the half mile mark runners trailing behind in a long, thin line.

As we neared the first mile I went through my personal checklist, as though I was in communication with the director at NASA mission control. Bowels emptied? Check. Breathing slow and steady? Check. Shoulders and hands relaxed? Check. Confidence? Check. How’s that hamstring? A-OK. First mile split? On predicted pace.

The split was 4:38. I knew this was going to be a good one. The big show would be beginning shortly. Everyone knew the initial mile and a quarter was just a tune-up for the final three minutes of the race, everyone’s breathing deeper as the four of us neared the 1.5 mile mark.

I checked my internal gas gauge one last time, pleased with what remained, excited to put a big hurt on these guys in the next hundred yards. Many runners overestimated how fast their fuel would take them, letting their ego get in the way of success, in the end dying like a dog because they miscalculated poorly. I had made the same mistake as a freshman - but I wouldn’t today.

We recrossed the foot bridge with a half mile remaining, the staccato beat of our spikes on the wooden planks echoing loudly as Steve hung off my shoulder, his breaths strong and steady as we floated alongside our opponents.

I set my mind for the big push, our foursome making the big turn on the northeast side of the course as the distance diminished. Time to drop the hammer. 1964 US Olympian Tom O’Hara used to hitch his shorts every time he started his kick. Kenyan Kip Keino tossed his hat into the infield. All I did was take a deep breath and wink at Steve. He was ready.

We came out of the turn and charged towards the man-made pond in tandem, separating from the pair like a space capsule dropping its booster rockets, the gap between us and our challengers growing rapidly as we made the last turn around the water, staring at the finish banner flapping in the gentle breeze as we sprinted towards the line side by side, pumping our fists in victory from ten yards out.

I slowed when we entered the neck of the chutes, pushing Steve in front of me, so happy that I could have kissed him, instead squeezing him in a hug like the one Ashley gave me last summer. Burke and Schmidt finished fifty yards behind, both broken by our surge, their eyes down when we shook hands at the back of the chutes.

Steve turned, pointing down the last straight at our teammate, Mike Wilkinson approaching the finish line like he was riding a skateboard downhill, passing five or six runners the final hundred yards. We grinned and clapped as he walked towards us after the great finish, extending palms for him to slap as he neared. He had to be in the top fifteen. I gave him a big hug as a reward for his efforts, grateful for what he added to the team. Today's victory was in the bag.

The squad was joyous on the cool down, our 1-2-13-46 places taking the big trophy, Raff so happy he promised to take the six of us to Denny’s for a late breakfast.

After the meal, our team leaned back in chairs and shot the paper on straws at each other, laughing when Dave stood, Steve clinking a spoon to his water glass like we were going to witness something important.

Mesdames et Messieurs. MAY I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION?”

No one had a clue what our captain was going to say. Dave gazed around the dining room with a serious demeanor on his face, waiting for every patron in the restaurant to quiet. Suddenly, a grin filled his face. He picked up the trophy and raised it overhead.

“We just won the Jefferson Cross Country Invitational!”

Laughter and applause blasted from the booths, Dave bowing and then immediately flourishing his arm in a long arc, recognizing the rest of the East High cast. Each of us stood and bowed to applause as we left the restaurant like conquering warriors.

That evening when dad asked how I did, all I said was second, not mentioning I let Steve cross the line half-a-step in front of me. He smirked at my loss, pulling another beer out of the refrigerator, heading for the couch, not bothering to ask more. For the first time, I didn’t give a shit what he thought. His words couldn’t hurt me.

Mom doted over me that evening – meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and corn, Alice sneaking peeks at her when she got up to serve us more, excited she was in such a good mood. It felt like old times. I hugged her after the meal, thanking her for the good food. Her smile and a kiss on the cheek was my reward.

Life was good for the next two weeks, dad surprisingly civil, mom displaying a semblance of emotion, Alice free of taunting from Jeff Jones and his pals. My little sister’s buoyant conversation at the kitchen table and youthful exuberance made the meals fun.

We easily won the conference meet on our City Park course, Liz watching me take the MVC title by fifty yards over Steve, the first place medal hanging around my girlfriend's neck as we walked home hand in hand, listening to her description of what she was wearing to tonight’s Homecoming Prom. That night we double-dated with Steve and his girlfriend, after the dance driving out to the reservoir overlook to watch the submarine races while hidden under a blanket.

At that moment I wondered if life could ever get any better.

Six days later I woke at 2:56am to ringing from the kitchen phone. Who in the hell was calling so late? Mom knocked on my bedroom door a minute later, telling me dad had been arrested by the Iowa City police for drunk driving. She was frantic, unable to deal with the late night stress, possibly unaware that I had a big race Saturday morning.

She handed me the checkbook as I sat up in bed, begging me to go to the jail and get him released, saying she had to stay with Alice. I sighed and got dressed, riding my bike downtown through the darkness on quiet streets, thinking about my race in seven hours.

I got to the police station at 3:25am, sitting in the lobby with forearms resting on my thighs, wishing I had a different father. What a fucking mess. The van would be leaving for the sectional meet in four hours. Just what I needed. The officer at the desk wouldn’t tell me how long I had to wait. Twenty-five minutes later they were ready to bring him out but balked when I showed the checkbook. No checks. Only cash. Fuck me. They wouldn’t even give me the keys to the car.

I sighed and turned to ride my bike back home, wondering what else could go wrong. Mom and I cobbled together $50 in cash, some from the cache in my closet, much of it in ones and fives, counting the wad twice before I headed back to the station. It was just after 4:45am when I got him released, dad and I walking wordlessly towards the lot, unlocking the trunk so I could throw my bike inside, the car smelling like a brewery when I opened the driver’s door. I shook my head as I started the car. I still wasn’t legal to drive.

When we got home he plopped on the couch as I headed back to my bedroom. He didn’t even bother to thank me. I re-checked the alarm before I crawled under the covers, hoping to sleep a couple of hours before I had to get up. It was a waste of time because all I did was toss and turn, worried about my race.

After my shower Saturday morning I popped a piece of bread in the toaster and then walked back to my room, so weary I couldn’t remember what I came to do. My gym bag. I need my meet gear. The toast popped up as I set the bag on the kitchen floor, pulling out the jar of peanut butter to spread it on the bread, eating the slice in four bites, swallowing the glass of milk in one swig.

There was no one to say goodbye to as I walked out the back door towards the Skogstads for a ride to school, returning seconds later to grab my gym bag off the kitchen floor. The rest of the day didn’t get any better.

At least our team qualified for state.

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