On Monday, word of my father’s arrest spread through East High like the Spanish flu pandemic, quick glances and nods directed my way making it clear they heard the story. Coach Raff looked at me quizzically when I told him before practice that I had forgotten to tell him about a dental appointment, hustling over to Horace Mann before I did my eight miles, wanting to make sure Alice got home safely.
I knew which bikes to look for this time, sitting on the crossbar at the racks, looking forward to the upcoming encounter. The three of them came out of the building engrossed in conversation, talking with heads down, upon me before they realized my presence. By the look on each face, they all thought about running.
“Even if I can’t catch all three of you.” I sneered. “I promise to catch you.” I pointed at Jeff as he cringed. “This is just a reminder that Alice is off limits. You don’t speak to her, bother her, or let anyone…ANYONE annoy her or I’ll beat the shit out of you three. Is that clear?” They all said yes, eyes cast to the ground.
“The last guy who didn’t take my advice got kneed in the balls. The poor bastard was in the hospital for a week. He still walks with a limp.”
I let my words sink in, my laughter at the lie making me sound sinister.
“Now you wouldn’t want that, would you?” They all shook their heads. “Well, it’s been nice talking boys.” The interaction was the highlight of my day.
The first Saturday in November we left for Marshalltown at 6:30am for the State Meet, some heads tilted against the Travelall windows, others tipped straight back in awkward positions, everyone seemingly staring at the ceiling as we cruised west on Interstate 80. I was too amped up to sleep.
Leaves on trees were mostly brown, piles of them gathered along the fence as we walked towards the clubhouse at American Legion Golf Course to take a leak. On the team warmup it was hard not to look for Mark Johnson, the Mason City stud who hadn’t been beaten in two years, eyes drawn to the non-descript runner in red sweats. It was rumored he would be running at the University of Wisconsin next year. He was certainly worthy of a Big Ten school.
I snickered to myself when I saw Fort Madison’s Ed Lash and Burlington’s Ricky Jones, both who beat me at the sectional meet last weekend. I made a promise to beat those fuckers for thinking they were better than me. The thought kept me free of nervousness for this competition. Resigned would be a better descriptor. Resigned to the pain I would face, the courage this race would demand, and the challenges my manhood would need to survive. I didn’t relish the suffering ahead, but if that’s what it took to win - so be it.
The whistle blew and I toed the white chalk line, taking a deep breath before I looked down the initial straight. At the blast of a gun Steve and I shot away from the starting box, chasing after Johnson, Burke, and Lash – the trio who were leading the race. Steve and I were content to relax alongside Jones in the group of six trailing in their wake, simply biding our time before things got interesting. I stared at Lash running directly in front of me, his short quick stride so different from mine, relishing the thought of kicking his ass. Don’t forget the smirk on his face when he shook my hand last week.
The early portion of the race reminded me of Liz’s description of the Tommy Bartlett ski show in Wisconsin – six water skiers trailing behind the boats, one by one individuals dropping from the group when they couldn’t match stunts of others off the ramp. The stiff early pace we had run for the initial half mile hadn't slowed a bit as we neared the marker, first Jones, and then Schmidt dropping behind the pack like fallen skiers with three quarters of a mile to go.
When I pulled up on Lash I looked him over for five seconds, waiting until his head turned and eyes locked on mine. Then I smiled and took off like the roadrunner on Saturday morning cartoons. It was as much fun as my words to the sixth graders last week.
A last U-turn around the eighth tee box and we were down to four competitors, Johnson and Burke leading Steve and I into the long straight down the 8th and 9th fairways. Like the steam in a pressure cooker Mark Johnson was relentless in his demands, forcing each of us to accept the fatigue or succumb to the pain, testing our toughness every step the final 650 yards.
Steve was the first to fall off the staggering pace as we flew by the 8th green, sliding from my peripheral vision as our trio approached the 9th tee box. We had to be running a 4:30 pace, a tempo 99% of the runners in this race couldn’t match in an open mile, the intense pain pummeling my body in a steady rhythm. The next fifteen seconds were going to hurt like dad's kicks to my ribs.
Burke was the next to surrender to the torture, Johnson was still six feet in front of me with the finish banner only a football field away. My mind drifted as pain wrapped itself around me, but I refused to give in to his kick, staring as the blond crewcut as spots began to appear in front of my eyes. I thought of my father and responded to Johnson's challenges, eyes locked on his as I took blow after blow, refusing to acknowledge his dominance. The last kicks he gave me were impotent, his eyes turned away from mine, unable to accept the fact I was tougher than him.
Suddenly we were ten yards from the finish. I gave it everything I had.
Steps from the finish banner I was so close I could have tapped him on the shoulder. I made one last push, diving at the line and landing on the grass with a thud and a weak uff, desperately trying to get air into lungs. I don’t know how long I laid there gasping for breath, only the sensation of bodies flying by and a steady drumbeat of footsteps registering in my brain.
Two officials lifted me off the ground by the arms, my heart beating like the school bell between classes as I staggered towards the back of the chutes, barely able to stay erect. The cardboard race number was ripped off my chest, four safety pins and a patch of green the only remnants on my gold jersey. Mark Johnson approached and shook my hand, leaning forward and whispering in my ear that I was a “fucking badass,” nodding as he smiled before he walked away.
Coaches I didn’t know came up to congratulate me, others patting me on the back with a smile, each mentioning that was the most exciting finish they had ever witnessed. Teammates circled around me like the moons of Jupiter, Steve and Mike hugging me in quick succession, John and Kenny shaking my hand, Dave extending a palm. “Give me some skin brother.”
Coach Raffensperger rushed up and put me in a bear hug, shouting in my ear.
“We did it. We did it. We’re State Champions!” He put his hands on my shoulders, looking me in the eyes, thanking me for all I had done. Mike Wilkinson’s father approached timidly and shook my hand.
“Son, that was an amazing race. Simply amazing.” Mr. Wilkinson shook his head. “Your courage was astounding. That last stretch…well. You led the Little Hawks to a State Title. I can’t thank you enough.” He patted me on the shoulder.
Liz appeared out of nowhere, rushing at me with tears running down her cheeks, wrapping her arms around a sweaty body, whispering in my ear that she loved me. I kissed her on the temple.
“How did you get here? I didn’t think you could make it.”
“I rode with Mike’s parents and the school photographer.” I was afraid to ask the next question. No one had told me.
“Did I win?” Her head dropped.
“They said he beat you by one foot.” I sighed.
“Oh well…we’re still State Champs!” My smile was genuine.
They put the finish line picture on the front page of the school newspaper. “Matt Wilson gives it his all.” It mirrored the iconic photo of the Cincinnati Reds Pete Rose diving into third base in the World Series, flying as though untethered by gravity. On the back page was the photo of team standing behind the State Meet Trophy, six of us holding up an index finger, Raff smiling from ear to ear.
The following weekend Mike’s father arranged a congratulatory party at their house, inviting every member of our cross country team, parents, girlfriends – anyone we wanted to bring along. Steve and I walked over Saturday afternoon to their palatial house on Summit Street, the front yard bigger than our entire lot, the inside of their home like the mansion in The Great Gatsby.
We ate hot dogs and hamburgers until we could barely move yet still found room for ice cream and a sheet cake decorated with the team picture from the meet. In the living room we could hear tapping a spoon on a glass, everyone gravitating there, the square footage of the massive room equal to our entire house.
Someone shouted from behind.
“Not Dave again.” Everyone erupted in laughter. Mr. Wilkinson waited until we quieted and got everything started, the championship trophy sitting on their marble mantle.
“I want to thank all of you for coming to this special occasion. Right now you boys…oops, you men don’t appreciate how this victory will change your lives, how it will bring tears to your eyes in years to come.” He paused and nodded. “You’re a special group and I want all of you on the championship team to know how much we appreciate the esteem you brought to East High. We thank you.”
“And none of it would have happened without Coach Raffensperger. His leadership. Thank you Coach. Let’s give him a big hand.” Raff smiled and waved as hoots and hollers echoed around the room.
“Doris and I want to give our State Championship team, and Raff, keepsakes to remember this moment, to give you something no one else possesses. So, Coach…would you escort the six up here for the presentation.”
We shuffled up beside him, the trophy just over our shoulders. Mrs. Wilkinson handed us each a shirt box.
He indicated for us to open them, inside a black nylon Adidas jacket with “East High Cross Country” in gold letters on the back, over the heart “1974 State XC Champions.” We put them on without asking, eyes as big as platters, ooh’s and aah’s bouncing around the room from jealous teammates. It was the coolest award I had ever received.
Steve and I walked home that evening burping and farting, proudly wearing the new jackets, a royal blue Adidas box with Tokyo ‘64 spikes under our arms – the same shoes that Steve Prefontaine and Jim Ryun wore at the 1972 Olympics.
Mr. Wilkinson had corralled us before we left that evening.
“Matt and Steve, I can’t have you two representing East High without a nice pair of spikes. So, these are for you. Thanks for giving Mike such a great season.”
“Oh my gosh, thanks!” We turned to each other and slapped hands. “Thanks Mr. Wilkinson. Thanks. We couldn’t have done it without Mike either. He ran a great race.” Mr. Wilkinson looked at me.
“And he couldn’t have done it without you two.” We turned to go. “Oh, and Matt, say hi to your mother for me. It’s too bad she couldn’t come.” He stared at the door and smiled wistfully. “Well, good to see you both. Good night.”
He knows mom?