I became drawn to Liz like a honeybee to a flower, her gentle spirit and mothering qualities reminding me of the nurse who put the cast on my arm last December. Each day she came out to the garage when we lifted after our runs, providing me with updates on Alice as we did the reps, the short interactions growing in length as Steve and I finished recording our mileage on the June calendar. I looked forward to these moments each day, elated when she appeared, crestfallen when she didn’t. Each night it was impossible to think of anyone but her before I fell asleep, my body tingling following each morning encounter, the sensation like the tiny pinpricks on your arm from a 4th of July sparkler.
In early July while we were lifting, there was a shout through the kitchen window sending Steve into the house, Liz and I standing awkwardly in the garage, uncertain what to say now that we were alone. I struggled to find the right words, afraid to say something stupid. Just say something you idiot! The words burst from my mouth.
“Can I take you to a movie on Saturday?” I couldn’t read her face, rushing to fill the empty moment, afraid she would laugh at my query. “You’ve been so good to Alice. I want to thank you...for all the nice things you have done.”
I was afraid she would say no if I simply asked her on a date. She looked down for a second and then back at me, her face filling with a smile.
“I’d be glad to. I’d go with you even if wasn’t to thank me.” I blushed, wondering how Liz could read my mind. She covered a giggle. “What’s playing?”
“You know what?” I blushed, raising palms as I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t have a clue.” We both burst into laughter.
Two days later we walked up Iowa Avenue towards downtown, cicadas buzzing in the background, a lawn sprinkler hissing in someone’s back yard, both of us deep in conversation about “The Great Gatsby.” As I listened to Liz I was relieved I took Alice’s advice about a movie. I would have chosen “Blazing Saddles” or “The Godfather”– films filled with fart jokes or bodies riddled with bullets. Neither one appropriate for a first date.
Preparing for the evening with Liz I combed my hair about ten times, spraying on way too much Right Guard under arms, brushing my teeth until the gums bled, worrying that I wouldn’t make a good impression. Sweat was trickling from armpits as I knocked on their door, more nervous than I had ever been for a meet.
Liz looked so pretty when she opened the door, leading me wonder if this was the same girl who played with Alice; the same one I saw in cut-offs and a t-shirt each morning. How she transformed herself from a plain Jane into such a beauty never ceased to amaze me. We talked in hushed tones before the movie began, our shoulders touching so we could talk quietly, the fragrance she was wearing intoxicating. When the lights went down and the movie began I didn’t pull away, the contact of our shoulders and the nearness of her body making it hard to focus on the show, my hormones in overdrive.
In random moments I glanced over, drinking in the contour of her checks, the upturn of her top lip, the sparkle of her beautiful blue eyes. It was thrilling to be sitting next to her, the sense of peace and contentedness like nothing I had ever experienced.
During the scene when Mia Farrow and Robert Redford stayed up all night to talk, I gazed longingly at Liz, suddenly leaning over to kiss her on the cheek, my action the most spontaneous thing I had done in my life. I was immediately certain it was a mistake.
An apology flashed across my brain but disappeared when a smile filled her face. She grabbed my hand without looking away from the screen, interlocking her fingers between mine, resting her head against my shoulder. We stayed that way the rest of the movie. I was sad when the credits rolled down the screen.
Time with Liz grew exponentially as I tore the month of July off the calendar, my daily mileage increasing just as steadily, the weekly total consistently over fifty-five miles. Things were falling into place with my life.
The summer of my fifteenth year my body grew as rapidly as Iowa corn, the skinny frame shooting up to 5’11”, filled with eight additional pounds despite all the miles we were putting in. Dad must have noticed the changes because he seemed wary of any encounter, our eyes now at the same height, my shoulders and chest bigger from the weightlifting sessions with Steve. Mostly he ignored me, lobbing snide comments after I walked by him at home, unwilling to challenge me face to face – even when he was drunk. The tables were turning. We both knew it was just a matter of time.
How Steve conned his parents into letting him use the station wagon on Saturday was beyond me. His sixteenth birthday was just days earlier and already he was gaining privileges. He got use of the family’s car this morning. We were going to Cedar Rapids to run a four mile road race!
Since the 4th of July we had talked about the event, anxious to see where we stood, how the miles were paying off, and how fast we could run. At 6am we dropped Mr. Skogstad at the fire station for his twenty-four hour shift and then continued north on Dubuque Street through North Liberty, the radio turned up full blast as we sang to tunes over the noise of wind rushing into the car.
“Rikki, don’t lose that number, you don’t want to call nobody else, send it off in a letter…”
Through Cou Falls and back out into the countryside, we passed acres of corn well over our heads, laughing at farm kids in fields “walking the beans,” the aroma of cow shit drifting through the windows when a John Deere tractor slowed our progress near Ely.
A little after 7am we arrived at Ellis Park, located on the edge of the Cedar River, a breadboard at the pavilion with a homemade sign printed in magic marker and crayon – "Ellis Park 4-Mile." We parked and walked towards the shelter, both of us jittery as we stood in the short line to sign up. I pulled two $1 bills from the Cub Scout wallet I made years ago, the official handing me a medium t-shirt with Hall’s Sporting Goods on the chest along with a cardboard race number, pointing to the side at the box of safety pins. Cool.
Forty minutes later we were standing at a chalk line on the asphalt access road, listening to the instructions by the race director.
“It’s a two-mile loop so you go through it twice.” The official laughed at his gaffe. “Charlie,” he pointed ahead at a guy on a bike. “Will be leading you on the first loop. We have chalk arrows on the ground so look for them if there is any question. My wife will be at the one-mile and three-mile marks reading off splits. You can’t miss her. She’s the beauty in the red blouse.” He looked at his watch. “We’ll start in two minutes.” He blushed. “I left the pistol in my car.”
We scanned the participants, curious to see if there were any recognizable faces. Maybe forty or fifty runners, most of them in their teens or twenties, a couple older men who had to be 35 or 40. Behind us were a pair college-aged runners (they looked like they could shave) with butch haircuts and matching navy Keds, and an old man with little hair carrying a beat up shopping bag. Why is he wearing slacks? As the starter jogged towards us the old guy dropped his pants, pulling them off over his shoes, folding the slacks into the brown sack, cinching the waist of his running shorts with thumbs as he set the bag to the side.
I elbowed Steve and nodded over my shoulder at the face on the other side of the starting line, a teenager who was doing trunk twists. The runner looked especially familiar. Steve cupped a hand and whispered.
“That’s Steve Schmidt, the guy from Cedar Rapids Jefferson who was second at our sectional two-mile.” What? My intensity just amped up a notch as I recognized the name.
The starter got a nod from the biker and then shouted.
“Runners set.” Boom.
Steve and I shot to the front, the CR Jefferson runner beside us before we traveled fifty yards, neither of us acknowledging our opponent’s presence. We ran about 600 yards at a steady tempo but he picked up the pace as we ran through an open gate where the dirt trail began, both of us resisting his effort to take the lead. There is no way I am going to let this SOB beat me. Not when I discovered he was one of the runners who took my spot at State.
After two and a half minutes our breathing was steady and relaxed, the three of us content to run side to side behind the lead biker, everyone briefly glancing through the trees at a canoe as it floated lazily down the Cedar River. I dropped back a bit so I could analyze my competition, listening to the sound of his foot strikes, checking out his running mechanics, gauging the ease of his breathing. I was impressed with what he had. This guy was the real deal. I surged and pulled back into my spot.
The lady in the red blouse was just ahead as we began the U-turn back towards the pavilion.
I turned my head towards Steve. He was thinking the same thing I was. We were flying.
The returning portion was an asphalt road that paralleled the dirt path going out, just ahead a goldfinch racing us along the river, swooping in a series of short arcs, laughing at the struggle it took for us to stay with his easy effort. I stared at his progress until he alit on a sunflower, my eyes searching out the halfway point hidden behind a grove of cottonwoods.
Thirty seconds later the pavilion finally appeared, our starter shouting splits as the two mile sign slid by my hip.
A U-turn around the shelter and we were into the second loop. I glanced over to the asphalt path we’d just left, looking for challengers, only a single runner about one hundred yards behind. Just as he had tried on the first loop, the Jefferson J-Hawk surged when we reentered the dirt trail, but Steve and I easily handled it, beside him four or five steps later. A smile crept onto my face. If he thinks that is going to break, he better think again.
I swore to God he wasn’t going to win today. Even if it killed me, I was going to beat this son of a bitch. As we neared the three mile mark he surged again, sneaking a look over his shoulder to check on our response. The effort was challenging but we were both on his hip in seconds. Now I knew he was worried. If I wasn’t so tired I would have laughed.
“15:23…15:24…15:25” from the women in red.
Sweat was pouring off my brow, the heat of a relentless sun now extremely uncomfortable, the constant pressure of this pace beginning to break my resolve. My breathing was much faster and heavier, each exchange every other stride instead of every fourth, my gold tank top clinging to my chest like a second skin. Yet the discomfort didn’t faze me because I was going to give him some of his own medicine.
With a half mile remaining I took a deep breath and then surged, curious to see how he would handle my challenge – one I knew he wasn’t excited about taking on. Steve’s breathing gradually faded behind, but the Jefferson runner stayed with me despite breathing that was becoming raspy like an asthmatic. For a second I faltered but summoned the rage I felt for my father and pushed the tempo again, anger driving my body like a frothing horse. My opponent’s breathing faded away.
I crossed the finish line in first with a small shake of my fist, quickly slowing to a stop and bending over with elbows on knees, watching the rapid motion of my stomach as air went in and out of my lungs. Man, that hurt. My breathing finally slowed enough that I could stand tall, lifting the tank top strap with a thumb to wipe sweat from eyelids, extending the other hand for Steve to slap.
We walked over to the Jefferson runner and I reached out to shake his hand, tossing a bone at my defeated opponent with a smile.
“Good job. You just about killed me.” He shook mine and then grabbed Steve’s, looking back at me with a gentle smile.
“I killed you?” He smirked. “I’d say it was the other way around. When you two handled those early moves I knew I was in trouble. Where you from?” Steve jumped in.
“East High. We were in the same sectional last spring at Kingston Stadium. Matt was sick that day so he didn’t compete in the two mile.” His words made me cringe.
“What year are you guys?”
“We’re going to be sophomores.” He sighed and put a hand over his forehead.
“I’m gonna be a senior. Looks like I got a lot of work to do. Congratulations to both of you.”
We drove home with the gold and bronze medals between us, the radio at full blast, and the windows down low, certain it was going to be a great cross country season. My 10:01 split for the final two miles convinced me it was true.
That afternoon Liz and I biked with Alice to the City Park pool, my sister proudly showing off the swimsuit my girlfriend gave her, the figure which had been so chubby when Alice was younger beginning to creep into puberty. I bought snow cones at the concession stand afterward, Liz and Alice sticking out blue tongues as we rode home with smiles on our faces. The afternoon was so idyllic I was sorry it had to end.