One of the things that high school me got roped into freshman year was cross country. I still don’t understand the logic even ten years later: I hate running. I don’t hate it in the way that I don’t think anyone should do it, as I feel about other things, but I don’t find the necessary joy in it that I need to do it regularly.
The real reason why I did cross country in freshman year was that I’d been varsity field hockey goalie for all three years of middle school (ask me about my letter jackets) and the high school I ended up at didn’t have a team. I think they’d had a team at some point, but the teacher sponsor gave up on it. They did have an impressive Latin program, though.
My parents hounded me gently about needing a sport to round out my college applications (and if you’re surprised kids start worrying about building college apps freshman year of high school, ahahahaha), and I chose running because I really liked how lithe and thief-like everyone’s builds were.
I know, I know. I was young and foolish and, surprising no one but myself, I was terrible at cross country.
Like, we’re talking eleven-minute-mile, wheezing through the course around the baseball fields bad, coming in last at every meet but being so stubborn about trying to improve that you’d board the bus for an hour there and back anyway. We’re talking the level of stubborn where the kids who came in first or second shake their heads at you and wonder why the hell you’re wasting your time when you are just not getting better, but the coach is so kind and encouraging you end up doing track in winter, too.
The stuff I loved about cross country was basically everything to do with it that wasn’t running. I liked the numbers we pinned to our jerseys on meet days because I liked paper and finding patterns. I liked the dumb jokes and how people called the fastest dude on the team a horse and meant it as the highest compliment. Most of all, I liked the places we ran. I got to run backwoods around gigantic courses outlining lacrosse fields, through towns and cemeteries, even through parts of a zoo, all as part of our meets. My favorite was running through the streets of this city by the sea, sidewalks and streets roped off for us, the scenery always changing when you took a turn, always keeping you not quite sure if you were heading to the beach or back into the woods or the downtown. I still have dreams about running and they’re almost all like that: going at a comfortable pace through a foreign city on a marked off course as buildings and vistas shift.
But cross country is not track, and track is different. One of my friends threw javelin in track. There are no projectile weapons in cross country, or at least there aren’t supposed to be.
My high school built their nice athletic and arts addition after I graduated, so while I was there there wasn’t really a designated place for us to run when the weather got cold. We had a course of our own, sure, but it gets damn frigid in the winter in Massachusetts (also, icy) and no one was going out there. We had an arboretum (that one of the priests used to smoke cigarettes in), but no indoor track. Go figure.
What we did have was a hundred-foot straightaway in the fourth floor hallway.
One thing I really admired my high school for was that while they didn’t have a lot of money for things, they MacGyvered like nobody’s business. When I’d been touring prep schools with my parents and interviewing places after lengthy tours of grounds and facilities, it seemed like every secondary school in the northeast was a mini-university: fancy dorms, state of the art athletics, art wings that were as big as public schools, the works.
I did not get into any of those. This was probably for the best.
Another feature of my high school was that my locker was on the fourth floor underneath a giant mural that spanned the entire corridor. It was vaguely religious, but mostly had student-painted pictures of trees, earth, animal and plant-life, the occasional saint. If you were lucky, you’d get a cool design over your locker to help you remember where it was. Me, I had a naked, faceless angel arching his back in ecstasy with an arm thrown over his forehead (or about the vicinity of the forehead– again, he was without facial features). I don’t know how anyone okayed this, but there he was. High school me was a Romantic with Victorian ideals of love and courtship, so I was all shocked and bothered but I reasoned, whatever, one year with the slightly lewd celestial being, no big, I’d change lockers next September. Seniors had lockers on the second floor, freshmen had the crap ones on the fourth where I was, and as you become more of an upperclassmen, the closer to the convenient lower-floors lockers you got. At the end of my freshman year, though, the administration said it would be too much hassle to switch locker assignments again, so you guessed it: I was indeed stuck with the suggestive angel for all four years of high school.
So I’d run track stampeding with the rest of the team through this fourth floor corridor, past my racy seraphim (some people actually commented on it! “man, how hilarious would it be to have that locker” and I’d just go all Stoic Face and pray my drama club training held), racing through the same place where teachers would yell at you during school hours for walking too fast. I maybe hated running, but this part was fun.
It was also fun watching the people who were good at track being really good.
There was this group of three Vietnamese friends who just excelled at track. They were always top of their events, and I always wondered how they did it. Sometimes our coach would have them practice sprinting down the corridor (we really did a number on that building–one time I was on the third floor asking a teacher about something and I forgot it was track day and was shocked when the lights were shaking) and we’d all just watch. At first I thought that they just ran with coins in their pockets, typical teenage dude: gotta sound cool, always carry change so people think you have car keys (or better, keep the car keys on a lanyard hanging out from your uniform khakis), but a few weeks into practice I found out it wasn’t that at all.
One of the guys fished into his pockets and handed his friend piles and piles of weights.
This guy was fast running normally, and by that I mean, not only was he faster than I was, but he actually won things like medals. He practiced weighted down– he also ran with weights cuffed around his ankles, but like the keen natural observer I was, I did not spot this until he’d stooped to remove them.
People got out stopwatches, counted down, and he was off.
It was the fastest I’d ever seen a human being run in real life.
It’s also just cool, seeing how people train themselves when they’ve gotten good at something. It’s not enough anymore to just do the meter run in a decent time; you have to do it weighted down if you want to improve. You’d don’t just want to finish the workout, you want to shatter your PR. You can finish and revise a manuscript, but now you want to write something you’re not sure you’re capable of.
I am probably at my best when I’m writing fantasy. I grew up on Diana Wynne Jones’ everything and Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic, and pretty much if it didn’t have magic in it I wasn’t interested. So it’s been weird writing a contemporary book, something void of magicians and lords and hierarchies, but it also forced me to re-evaluate a lot of techniques– why could I skate by in fantasy with this and why was it falling apart when I did it in the real world?
Back then, I watched that kid take off down the hallway and was instantly envious. I wanted that. I did not want to put in the time to get good enough at running because surprise! I hated running, but I wanted that feeling of training hard and getting frustrated and learning to be excellent even with a handicap and then taking the weights off. I wanted to know how that felt.
The past few days, I’ve been taking a break from my contemporary manuscript and returning to an old fantasy story of mine with houses and cities and magic, all the things I loved as a little kid mashed together. There were places in it that I knew I was messing up, and after having worked so long on the contemp and seeing those problems stark and isolated without the veneer of creative worldbuilding, I knew how to fix them.
And reading through the first chapter, getting back into the characters, the setting, the swirl and swing of the language, I finally understand how that kid felt when the coach yelled three-two-one and told him to go.
You take the weights off and you fly.