Just one more meet for sure unless I do well then, I get to go to New England’s again up in Maine this year. Everything is happening fast I’m a senior I got my drivers license –have to chuckle thinking about that one and now we moved and Dad remarried seems like everything changed and somewhat came together overnight.
Amazed to get that letter from KU and Bob Timmons Jim Ryun’s Coach I mean is he really interested in me? Probably sent the same letter to hundreds of kids anyway I mean I ain’tnothing special. I really got to do something about my hair what a rat’s nest I got here and graduation coming up I’m just gonnasuck it up and get the mop cut off.
I did and it felt good, I felt lighter but the trip to the local barber was torture and I had to listen to the asshole barber make fun of my hair in front of all the old neighborhood barstools and punks.
What the hell am I going to do with myself all I want to do is run myself into the ground geezus there has to be something wrong with me but it’s the only thing that lasts.
“Hey Willy, you with us?” “Yes, sir Mr. Cut, I didn’t quite hear you.” The class laughed and Mr. Cut shook his head. “Willy, you’re a space cadet you need to pay attention in my class.”
Cut was okay but his class was a bore– but at least it was easy and I could do no worse than an average grade good enough and almost over. Just get me outa this place even when it’s good I still don’t feel right feel like the only person in the world standing in one spot and everyone else moving all around me.
I took the bus out to the stadium with the football team since I was the only cross-country runner with any season left. I met up with Coach Wild a real misnomer given how laid back and calm the guy was. He wanted me to start out and run our two-mile road loop “Willy, give it a good effort.”
I had no idea so I ran pretty nearly all out and when I came screaming back in to the stadium parking lot Coach Wild nearly swallowed his pipe. “Willy you just ran a 9:25!” “Well Coach, maybe it’s short.” “Willy, I measured it in my car and it’s a deuce, now trust me on that.”
He then had me run it again and I ran the same exact time. “Willy, you got a shot to win at All-State I only ever had a couple of kids ever run that loop under ten minutes holy friggincow man!” It was a pretty tough loop with a half mile long hill in the middle of it. Probably, and I sensed that I had run the workout way too fast but with my current mindset I really only had one gear and that was run until you nearly drop and then pick it up.
I jogged a few laps on the track and stretched out while watching the footballers go through their paces. “Man, I thought, “football is dumb-umb.” My fiend Chris came over “hey Willy, good luck at States.” “Thanks, good luck in your game, Coach and I should be back from Boston in time for the second half.”
Most of the footballers thought that they were God’s gift but when they had to sit there and applaud my sorry ass as I walked up on stage to collect that athlete of the year award a few years ago and get my photo in the papers ha. The paper had called me the “Sophomore Sensation” and later a group of footballer cretins had driven by me yelling out the window “hey look it’s the sophomore sucksation.”
I had recently been running more miles sometimes doing two runs a day but coach had warned me about doing too much and I was still growing and all that. I respected coach a lot and I knew that he had been a good athlete a middle-distance runner whose close friends called him “feets.” But I figured if I listened to him I would not be looking to win states or would I have been the AOY.
I had been reading about the great runners of the past mainly their biographies because I could relate to them and none of them ever talked about “burn out.” Famed New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard explained that a program too heavily based on interval training on the track as was practiced in the United States was the culprit and not plenty of moderate paced running that built the aerobic house.
The books provided motivation and methodology and I read them over and over again and passed them around to my teammates. I was a student of running I wanted to pursue it doggedly and was willing to exclude things that seemed to interfere. But now high school was coming to an end and college was not at all certain so how would I be a runner then and more importantly why?
It was a lot to think about so I focused on the dream of glory.
Coach gave me a ride home and wanted to talk strategy “now Willy you need to establish good position but don’t…..” His voice trailed off in my head– I had heard it all before ignored it and did what I always do because win or lose you will be tested.
In the morning I walked to the stadium to meet Coach and we drove down to Boston Franklin Park in his car stopping at HoJo’s on the way for coffee. We didn’t talk at all coach knew it was useless to try and converse with me before a race I was in another place.
I did not think about the actual race at all I just let my mind wander off with Joni Mitchells voice trailing in and out the peak fall colors the rapidly clearing sky floating past I was fixin to die a little.
Coach held my racing flats while I warmed up a bit following a ritual ceremony to become the slaughter of the lamb the petard was ticking inside me. Just slip my bare feet into those holy blessed shoes do a sharp stride and BOOM!
I walked the beach barefoot with my pant legs rolled up and a heavy hooded sweatshirt on. I began to jog and immediately felt the tightness in my hamstring conjuring up the Olympic Trials race a spot on the team within my grasp… had to laugh the hand of fate one that got away. As bad as that was at least it was an ending not like that long-ago state meet in cross country at Franklin Park when I was leading the field by fifty yards and ran off course man I have never lived that one down.
Coach was apoplectic, “Willy I told you they changed the course at the end there you pudding head how could you run right past the cones and the kid pointing the way?”
I wasn’t paying attention to coach at practice or in the classroom where he taught Algebra. I wasn’t paying attention to no cones or no kid pointing the way I was possessed channeling Pre, Ryun, Bikila, Halberg, Snell, Clarke all my heroes not to be distracted since I knew that course like the back of my hand until the peckerwoods went and changed it.
I was generally off somewhere else glory be.
I ran some good times that year setting the school records for the mile and two miles but I never did hear anything more from Bob Timmons KU or any other schools so in the end I enrolled at good old State U. just around the corner from my home but because I had done so poorly on the entrance exam I was accepted on a provisional basis.
With the help of a guidance counselor I registered for a bunch of classes I already knew I was going to hate. I got a part time job in a supermarket bagging groceries and on my days off I made trips to the mountains or the beach.
I ran twice a day and one week hit 105 miles total. I also ran some low-key road, cross country and track races where I did well even against the older fellas.
The college scene didn’t interest me much and if it weren’t for running I probably would have just got a job and said the hell with that. I thought the whole college gig was bogus fraternities and all that but the thing is I did love to read and learn especially history and geography anything that could make me feel a sense of place or the world and my place in it.
I sat in that old worn out classroom staring out the window just like high school but beginning to get a grip on myself not so panicky or insecure –one day the world was my oyster next day I was flunking out of college.
I figured I needed a reset all the way back to primordial ooze but college was just some type of security blanket keeping me from my true next steps.
A debutante hobo hood.
Everything seemed to be an indoctrination into something dominated by sycophantic types and I wanted no part of it wanted things to be more on my own terms.
I was having trouble being a student while trying to avoid any and all responsibilities. Running was still keeping me afloat on an even keel because it was the only thing that lasted but I couldn’t play along being the dutiful student athlete forever and I knew it but was in denial.
I was reading “Babbitt” by Sinclair Lewis and had just read an essay by Jack Kerouac called “The Vanishing American Hobo” yes, I was reading this not the Economics and Statistics texts I had been assigned.
My elders shook their heads and wagged their fingers at the little subversive some with a look of resignation thinking “Willy will come around, they all do in the end.”
I spent most of the money I had saved on a bus ticket that would take me anywhere in the country and Canada. I told my Dad I was going on a trip for the summer and intimated it had something to do with school so he wouldn’t know the truth that his son was going rogue with no definite plan.
I packed my rucksack and left early in the morning and when the driver called out “The bus to New York City” I had a moment of intense anticipation and a pang of remorse leaving my family with the wrong impression even though it was the only way out.
I was planning to visit a fellow runner an acquaintance who I had raced against a few times and who lived in Brooklyn in a very small apartment. His name was Pete and he was a law clerk attending law school and a very dedicated runner hoping to qualify for the Olympic Trials.
We would train together for a few days and if there was time he would show me a bit of the city. Pete was five years older than me but we were possessed to a similar degree by athletics and slept ate and breathed it. Pete envied me not having a job but was also worried about me bumming it around on my own a rube and rebel without a clue.
So, he set me up with some fellow runners I could contact and get together with in other parts of the country. I marveled at my luck to get this kind of support from my fellow dreamers– runners stuck together.
I ran early in the mornings with Pete usually a ten miler and when he went off to work I went back to sleep on his couch. I bought a few groceries and made simple meals pasta or cans of tuna. Pete had a nice collection of books for me to browse and read and also played guitar as did I and he let me mess around with it.
At night we did another ten or went to a local track to meet up with a group and run some intervals. Back at the apartment we talked athletics and books and Pete gave me lots of practical advice. He hit the hay early and I would read for some time before falling asleep. I ended up staying for a week and was loath to leave. But it was time to go– next stop Denver CO.
I awoke from my dream state on the couch where I had drifted off after my run and in my dream, I was back in that summer of Willy on the bus to Denver where I had awoken in the night to the sight and feel and smell of a dark-haired woman’s head asleep on my shoulder.
I watched her intently wondered should I wake her when she opened her eyes and looked into mine and right through me and she smiled and lay her head back down and I put my arm around her shoulder held her and fell asleep.
What a summer and now just a memory. I got up to make some tea all a part of the little routine I had established retired from full time work puttering around writing and never getting too far with any of it which was okay—just mental exercise at this point with an occasional eureka moment.
I sipped my tea and remembered calling my Dad from California to tell him I was not going back to school that I had essentially flunked out when I stopped attending classes regularly. I told him I was studying running, how to become a better athlete and I was learning from some of the best in the country—visiting with them and training with them.
“Okay son, be careful and stay in touch.” That was all he said.
I went to shower have more tea and toast and sit down to read my rejections from myriad publishers but there was that one who offered helpful suggestions and encouraged me that what I was doing was a worthy pursuit, that was nice.
I wrote for an hour took another nap eager to return to my dreams, had more tea and went for another easy run on the trails.
Luckiest man alive.
Penny and I got off the bus together in Denver. She was travelling light as well with her rucksack but it was unclear where she was heading, she spoke fluent Spanish and struggled with English. I cursed not paying more attention in my two years of Spanish classes in high school. If I had known I would meet a Penny…
From a pay phone I called my contact in Boulder Jack, a fellow runner who I had met once back in Boston. “Willy, if you are ever in Boulder…” Now here I was. I explained about Penny and initially they were not pleased, “Okay Willy, but besides me and Billy here I got a paying guest coming in next week.”
Jack drove down to pick us up and we stopped for provisions on the way. Turned out Jack spoke passable Spanish and Penny said that she wanted to cook a good meal for us. Jack and I split the cost for the food.
It turned out we all loved having Penny around and one day we drove up to Switzerland Trail and she ran with us for several miles and at that point we were all completely smitten with her. I thought about staying in Boulder, “Willy, you could get a job with me at the café and Penny too.”
Penny called her family in California and they insisted she come right away and “leave the gringo behind.” I told her that I wanted to travel with her but in the morning, she was gone. Jack had given her a ride to the station. My first impulse was to go after her and then I found the note she left me.
Adios la amante…
Willy dream sequence
I awoke and fell out of my little bed not quite sure where I was “oh shit ya I’m at the cabin.”
Dreams sequence won’t let me be can’t write fast enough feel like it’s all shit but it don’t matter no more.
I thought about Penny every day all my life even more so now old aged her note lost but burned in my memory how she lifted me made me a better man. All of nineteen I was.
Boulder was brilliant all of sky and mountains a fairy tale land but the reality of my compatriots working eight to ten hours a day as baristas running on a hope and dream while in noble pursuit left me wanting needing to make further discoveries.
Heading to California but first a friendly competition a mountain race nine miles up Pat’s Peak.
It would be a good test against these mountain types a different breed from the usual track road cross country type athlete. These fellas were kamikaze and usually raced both up and down—no thank you.
The trail was good footing starting out not rocky and rutted like others we had run. After a couple of miles of what felt like easy running one runner started to assert himself—Pablo the local legend. I stayed a respectful distance behind him and the rest of the pack fell steadily behind us. I was happy he took it and I felt sure that I could hang with him but it was getting tough and we were only half way up.
There was not hardly anyone on this section of trail and all I could hear were our breathing and footfalls almost in unison. The altitude was having an affect on me playing with me legs rubbery I decided it was time to shake things up and so I came alongside Pablo but he wasn’t letting me pass he put up a fight all the way to the finish we were throwing round house punches at each other and with the finish in sight without saying a word we joined hands and raised our arms in triumph together.
I stopped momentarily not having reckoned how I would get back down I guess only one way and I started my long walk jog down to the trail head as the round trippers steadily passed me I just walked on and enjoyed the views.
California here I come.
Jack and Billy and I bought some cheap beer, hot dogs and veggies for a salad and had a little party my going away the next day. I had never been to California but I did have a contact in Oakland and another in San Diego. A small slice of the running community stopped by to send me off including Pablo my rival on the mountain. I tried to convince him to compete in cross country nationals at least but he just smiled “Willy, I been there done that nothing left there for me. I got my job making deliveries and good thing because I got five kids and another on the way.”
Pablo was 35 years old but he could pass for a teenager. Most of the runners here were serious racers either on their way to the top or heading back down to the bottom. I didn’t meet many “fun runners” though we racers certainly had our share of fun chasing our ultimate potential.
Jack and Billy took me to the bus stop in the morning and I climbed aboard with my rucksack and a shopping bag full of peanut butter sandwiches. The plan was for me to stop back by here on my way back east if things worked out that way hey, that’d be alright.
Figured I would never get lucky enough to meet up with another pretty girl on a bus trip but I was wrong. The bus barely left the station when a young woman sat beside me and introduced herself. “Hi Willy, I work with Jack at the Café he told me to look out for you, my name is Maureen all the guys call me Mo.”
“Oh Wow, Jack never said anything.” Mo smiled, “Ya, I asked him not to wanted to sneak up on you take you by surprise.” Well this really is the summer of Willy then and Mo told me her story heading home to San Francisco for her brother’s wedding. “Hey Willy, how you feel about weddings?” “Fine, long as it’s not mine” “You want to come as my date? I just broke up with my boyfriend.”
“Love to, but I don’t have any threads and no money to buy any.” “My brothers got you covered and you can stay at my parents house with me until I head back after the wedding.”
I told Mo all my hopes and dreams and plans and schemes and it turned out she had many of the same dreams as an athlete she had been a California State Champion in the 1500M. How did this happen to Willy never had a date in high school and meet two beautiful women in just a few weeks.
By the time we hit the state line Mo and I were making out and holding hands and all that good stuff another Greyhound romance, who said bus rides were long and boring?
Mo’s family were wealthy and they lived in an actual mansion on a hill. I felt out of place right from the get go. Her brothers looked at me as if I were some kind of stray their sister picked up on the bus well I guess that’d be right. I went along with things for a few days enjoyed the extravagance, one day I asked Mo, “honey don’t you feel embarrassed?” “Why Willy?” “I mean all this wealth and so many we know going hungry.”
“Willy, my family do a lot of giving but why do you think I am out in Boulder making coffee?”
“I know Mo, you want to make it on your own.”
When everyone was occupied I packed up and snuck out the back door down to the highway and stuck out my thumb. And there she was like a Beach Boy’s vision of California, good blonde in a VW Bug pink convertible with the license plate, BUBBLZ. I threw my rucksack in the back and hopped in, she never even asked where I was heading.
Summer of Willy was now on steroids.
Bub’s was a party girl so when I told her I needed to run ten miles she thought I was joking. “Listen, you can drop me here along this beach bike path I think it follows along the road and I will meet you ten miles from here in one hour.” I left all my stuff with her money too and I ran in nothing but my shorts and shoes. Bub’s didn’t let me down she was parked on the side of the road with a couple of cold Pepsi Cola’s.
Bub’s put on her bikini in the car and we walked to the ocean for a swim and then a long walk on the beach. “You must be some kind of athlete knocking off ten miles like that no sweat.” “I want to be Bub’s I am on a mission to find that out and visiting runners around the country who have been there to the Olympics and such.”
I stayed with Bub’s and her roommate Suzy and we had a great time talking, listening to some far-out surfer music and playing around with a nice Gibson a gift from a former boyfriend. In the mornings they both headed off to work while I slept in until the sun got warm and then went for runs on Mt Tamalpais in the forest and in the evening on the beach.
I wanted to hang there forever but summer was ending and it was almost cross-country season time to get serious. My funds were running low the pile of Travelers checks growing thin horror of horror’s I might have to get a job.
Bub’s dropped me off at the station next stop City of Angels.
I awoke at the cabin remembering last night how I got excited with the writing I was back in LA that summer of Willy about to meet my mentor Jack and the words came in a torrent. I would read them later as was my custom. Awake coffee and a nibble, putter around cleaning then sit and read the local news, poetry a novel.
Okay I’m ready let’s look this over.
I arrived in the LA bus station at midnight after we were delayed due to mechanical issues. I had no desire to stay in LA I was passing through and would catch the next bus to San Diego but first I had to kill about twelve hours. I changed into my running gear in the Men’s room and checked my bag with a clerk who gave me a claim check.
I hit the hard-dark streets of the city at night. It took me a while to get my body going it now being around three o’clock in the morning. I figured to go straight out and back but that wasn’t possible. I was lost until I saw a road sign on the freeway down below me as I ran over a bridge.
I ran down the entrance ramp onto the freeway breakdown lane and almost immediately a California State Trooper pulled over ahead of me. “Son, what are you running out here for are you nuts?” “Sorry sir, I’m lost.” “Let me see some ID.” “Uh, I left at the bus station where I checked my bag.”
“Get in.” And so, I went for a little ride in the police car lights flashing and everythang like I was a major criminal. Once they looked over my ID and listened to my story they calmed down and even gave me a ride to Griffith Park where I promptly fell asleep under a tree after eating some donuts and coffee.
When I awoke I made my way back to the bus station and called Jack from a pay phone. He said he had arranged for someone to pick me up and bring me to his house where I planned to stay for a month and train with his guidance. We had a lot to talk over when I finally got there.
Jack was now in his thirties and married with a young child. He was a coach and a teacher at a Junior College and was continuing to compete at the highest level. He had just run in the World Cross Country Championships in March helping the US Team to a third-place finish.
I was a huge fan of his and had corresponded with him by letter and he had agreed to meet with me and possibly coach me if I came out there but he wanted to meet me in person and discuss things first.
I arrived in San Diego in mid afternoon and Scotty a member of Jacks cross country and track teams picked me up. Scotty was the same age as me and he was nonplussed by my adventures I guess he lived a sheltered life.
When we got to Jack’s place we were welcomed into the kitchen of the well-kept little cottage where Jack his wife Jenn and their young son Tyler were preparing for lunch. I was in awe meeting one of my idols he was wearing a beat-up t shirt was unshaven and had a few grey hairs but looked fit as a stallion.
Jenn wore a t-shirt, running shorts and some little sandals and was a stunner my jaw just dropped and I was embarrassed when Jack noticed and said “That’s okay Willy, everyone has that reaction when they meet my Jenn. You will love her even more when you get to know her a little.” Jenn just smiled and said “You hungry Willy?”
We talked about my running routine over the last six weeks for a bit and I handed over my running log. “Pretty impressive Willy, very consistent even with all the hoboing around.” “You run any races?” “Only the mountain race with Pablo who I believe you know.”
“Ya man, Pablo and I were teammates on World Cross and afterward him and I traveled in Italy and France and ran two more races. I’m happy to hear he is still fit and doing well.” “Jack, Pablo has five kids and another on the way.” “Wow, way ahead of me.”
“If you could hang with Pablo on Pat’s Peak that is a good sign you have to be fit.”
Jack and I talked for hours. “One thing Willy, you need to get a job.” “I know Jack I don’t have much money left anyways.” Jack handed over a job application.” “Willy, you ever done laundry?”
I moved into a room above the garage finally living large my own place for at least a month. In the morning I filled out an application for a job in the college athletic department athletics department gym.
They were hiring a couple of people so I liked my odds of getting something at least part time, nothing glamorous, washing the team’s uniforms, cleaning the locker rooms, checking student ID at the door and that type of thing.
The pay was minimum wage about $4.00 an hour.
Jack gave me a tour of the small campus where I honed in on the library. I also registered for a course on human anatomy. The course would be in the evening school with mostly adult learners.
In the late afternoon I met Jack at the track with the rest of the team. I would not be training with them regularly as Jack didn’t want to upset the team dynamic with an outsider. I would do long runs with them on Sundays, the only exception.
The team headed out on one of their regular routes for a moderate run and Jack had me do a two-mile time trial on the track. “Willy, I know it has been a while since your last track workout so just feel it out and shoot for 70’s, I don’t want you getting out ahead of your skis.”
I went out and did the first quarter in sixty-five seconds “slow the fuck down” Jack yelled. Well being the little pin head I hit the half at two ten and shortly after something hit me on the back. Jack had thrown his watch at me and chased me down and pulled me from the track.
“Willy, I ain’t gonna say this again, you friggin wise up and follow my instructions or pack up and hit your hobo trail.” “Jesus Jack I’m sorry.” “Good, now start over and do it right.”
That night at dinner Jack was silent and I knew I had upset him. Jenn asked about my day and I helped clean up the dishes. I grabbed a couple of books from Jack’s running library which he had invited me to borrow from. A two-volume autobiography by Ron Hill caught my eye and I holed up in my little room reading immediately caught up in this incredibly moving and forthright story.
I got the job in the athletic department, started my class in anatomy and trained according to Jack’s precise instructions. Soon we would plan a fall racing schedule and I had a decision to make whether to make this my home base or head back to New England.
Life was good a solid routine just what every athlete needs but I felt a little lonely thinking about home and my recent dalliances with Penny, Mo, and Bubblz. I learned some things about Jack that were unsettling and I was trying to put those things aside telling myself that we all end up with a few skeletons in the closet.
Jack had swagger and the guys on the team started to open up on our Sunday runs together about Jack’s abusive manner. I was appalled but also as I had suspected Jack was having an affair with a co-ed which really had me angry “how could he do it, Jenn was everything any man could ever want.”
Jack didn’t even really try to hide it he somehow put himself above it all on some kind of pedestal. He was a great coach and my running was going very well but I knew I could not stay with him so I planned to leave when the semester ended in December.
In the next few months I would race a few local roads and cross-country races pretty low key and then run the Senior AAU Nationals in Durham NC. My ultimate goal would be the Junior International Cross-Country Trial in Gainesville in February a qualifier for Worlds in Auckland New Zealand in March.
My first race came in October a four miler over some dirt roads and trails where I would line up against my coach and mentor. It was a small field of locals mostly from the club Broken Arrow, a great group of guys most with native American roots. I had joined their club at Jack’s insistence and would compete on their team at Senior Nationals.
The first mile was a modest pace around five minutes and Jack and I were cantering. Jack said “Willy work the hills.” We ran together the entire way and I figured we would tie but going around a tight curve Jack ran me into a tree and got three steps on me as I tried to chase him down then changed my mind and jogged across the line in second.
I was initially upset with Jack but that night at dinner he looked at me and laughed, “Willy, you got to be prepared for moves like that, cross-country is a contact sport sometimes.”
After dinner I went to a get together a house party with the Broken Arrow guys. I had not been drinking beer at all after being a binge drinker through my brief college days and sometimes on the hobo trail. Tonight, I look forward to having a few and getting to know the guys a little better.
These guys had some hair-raising stories. Their lives were not easy and yet they were happy go lucky , unlike Jack’s college team. College for the Broken guys was not really on the radar. Most of them hadn’t graduated from high school no matter the schools here were low quality anyway. But they were smart and had to be to survive and not wind up in jail.
I bought a six pack of the cheapest beer I could find. Axel, one of the leaders of the club, an older guy who acted as kind of a manager for the team looked at me closely, “Willy I can’t believe you’re gonna drink that skunk piss.” “Watch me.”
The group treated me like one of their own and I suppose It was because we runners’ athletes who if nothing else in common always had our next fix to look forward to. We also had a solid team for nationals and I was looking forward to competing and travelling to NC.
I explained to Axel and a few of the guys how Jack had run me into the tree. Axel smiled and stroked his chin, the others shook their heads and I could tell that they were very hesitant to be forthright in their feelings about him. No one said a thing.
It was time to call it a night. I had walked the two miles over to the party but when I left I immediately began to run home to my room over the garage, drunk as a fart.
Older and wiser thought I, I finished up my longest run in many years on a hot evening sun setting I grabbed the garden hose and dowsed myself and drank in huge gulps then I went into the house grabbed two beers and the ice bag and towel and took up a seat on the porch in my rocker.
The writing was starting to come around and go someplace though I wasn’t sure where. I was knackered but it was a good tired. Maybe I could escape my dreams tonight and just get a restful sleep, though the dreams were feeding the writing, that and all the jumbled thoughts coming together while out running for two plus hours. You have lived a long-life Willy and there are some things that you just never completely overcome.
One weekend Jack took the team to the regional championships an overnighter. Jenn and I and little Sammy had dinner and then Jenn put Sammy to bed while I cleaned up. As I was about to leave Jenn said “Hey Willy, you want to watch a movie with me? I’ll make some popcorn.” “Sure Jenn, what movie did you get?” “Dances with Wolves” I borrowed it from the library.” “It’s a long one about three hours.”
I sat down on the couch with Jenn with the popcorn bowl between us and as the movie started I reached into the bowl and then Jenn’s hand was in mine. My heart is ready to explode all these years later remembering what happened next. I never did see that movie, I heard it was a good flick.
I was nineteen years old then not too good about covering up my feelings. When Jack got back he was ecstatic that his team had won the region. Each day I had to see Jenn usually wearing those little Ellie Mae shorts and a tank top and my arousal nearly made my heart explode.
I started to skip meals with them and eat at the cafeteria at school and then stay late until the library closed telling Jack and Jenn I needed to study for my final exam. My training progressed and I ran an 8:45 for two miles with one of Jack’s team pacing me through the mile.
I ran one cross country invitational hosted by Jack on his home course, as an unofficial entrant. I ran the five-mile course in 23:08 over a minute faster than the course record. Jack and I had a great working relationship but I knew all the drama going on behind the scene would eventually blow up in my face.
I couldn’t be around Jenn, I was in love with her.
I would go to the nationals with Broken Arrow at the end of November and then come back for a few more weeks until school ended. After that I had no idea what I might do.
I started getting together with Broken Arrow more often even though Jack preferred that I train on my own. Axel called a team meeting to decide who would go to nationals. The Arrow’s were very good at running as a team working together and did not necessarily choose the fastest runners. They automatically included me on the team as a favor to Jack. That meant they would choose only six other athletes from the thirteen currently eligible.
Axel brought up my name first and asked if there were any objection and there were a few jokes about me but no objections. They then chose the rest of the team and it was a tight battle for the sixth spot which made me feel bad given that I was taking a spot.
The college athletic department let Broken Arrow use one of their vans through some community outreach program. That’s right, we were going to drive to NC in two days and would only stop to run and re fuel. Jenn packed a couple of coolers for us with good food and drinks.
I met with Jack the night before we left. He tossed a copy of Track & Field News on the table and we perused the NCAA cross country regional results together plus other assorted invitationals. The AAU National would be a mix of older athletes from clubs like the Florida Track Club that had won the team the last few years. I was eager to see how I would fare against both the collegiate and the older dudes.
“Willy, just get out well– I hear the course is a bear and becomes narrow after the first half mile.” “But don’t go crazy these are most of the best distance guys in the country, rookie.” Jack had begun to call me rookie and his general behavior around me had changed, so I was worried he knew about Jenn and me.
“Jack, after nationals I’m gonna be leaving but I hope you will continue to coach me.” “We’ll see Willy.”
The Arrow’s picked me up at six A.M. There would be nine of us in the van, Axel brought another driver who everyone called “Uncle Lou” It was nice having time to just sit and think and watch the country roll by. Everyone was pensive and quiet as the miles rolled by. Axel had mapped out the route with ideal places to stop for a run and it was nice to break up the monotony of the road going for easy group runs.
We ate nothing but sandwiches but Axel promised us a good meal the night before the race. The first day was easy but the second day after not getting much if any sleep in the van sitting upright we were all beginning to feel washed out.
We arrived in Durham in the afternoon of the third day and went straight to the race course to have a run over it. It was a tough one lots of hills but the ground was dry so it would be fast. We only got two rooms for all nine of us at the hotel. Axel slept in the bathtub and Uncle Lou slept out in the van to give the rest of us room.
It was getting late and we all needed some sleep so I suggested to Axel that we just get some pizza and a few six packs and everyone agreed, Axel said only one beer each. While we ate I told the guys the story of my high school race at Franklin Park when I ran off course. They thought that was hilarious and started calling me Mr Magoo. I was anxious but I slept well and was up early out for a walk while the others still slept I sat in the coffee shop and looked over the local sports page with a story about today’s race.
I started feeling like I was in way over my head.
We got into our running gear, packed up and hit the road. We would be leaving immediately after the race heading back west. We did a short warm up, found our start box and stripped down to our shorts and singlets with the Broken Arrow logo, made by Axel’s wife and daughter white singlet and blue shorts. The logo was black just the arrow not lettered.
A guy in the next box with an Oregon singlet took a close look at mine and said, “nice singlet, righteous.” Turned out it was Billy Hernandez the NCAA Champion recently crowned. Uncle Lou was our official photographer with a couple of disposable cameras. Axel was making notes throughout the race and would be trying to identify as many finishers and their places as he could.
There were over three hundred on the start line, I had never run in a race this large. As I stood there in those last moments before the sound of the gun, I knew I would remember this moment forever. I figured to stick with Hernandez, and I was off to battle.
I sure got off the line and as we hit the end of the open field about a half mile in things began to thin out. Something snapped in me though and I just kept the hard running going leading the pack through the mile where through the crowd noise I heard four something teen. Had to be wrong too easily on the other hand how am I leading? Jack would be pelting me with rocks if he were here.
When it came to racing, I was a born leader too much of a rook to even think about the consequences over your head. I felt good and was committed now and just could not slow down. We entered the wooded section with few if any crowds and I heard no footfalls or breathing. I was out in front by a good margin waiting for that two-mile split, not that it mattered but eight fifty something.
“Just relax Willy it’s only running, and you know running, we all know running.”
I hit the halfway mark still out front. I was getting caught up in it felt so good I wanted to shout back at the spectators, the ones with the quizzical looks “hey, this is what I do, this is who I am, how you like me now, how you like these apples!”
I loved this course, made for me and one minute a big crowd and next minute back in the woods, silence and my mind floated away, I thought of Jenn and Jack how he got me primed and I snuck a look at the sky and clouds because I never look back and down, down, down, I hit the ground and lay in shock.
Twisted my ankle badly on a tree root, got up slowly, tried to get back in gear as the pack came streaming by and I cursed, the rook lost his concentration and focus at the most important moment. One-minute Cinderella boy on the cover of “Track & Field News “next minute a chump.
I limped it in a couple of my Arrow teammates slowed to encouraged me and I urged them on worst I let them down greatest mates I would ever have with my stupid rookie mistakes. I finished and lay on the ground and Axel and my mates walked me over to the medical tent for some treatment.
As I lay on the cot in the tent, I could hear some conversation outside. “Who was that guy leading at four and a half miles? He had this race in the bag.” “His name is Willy Desmarais, probably a Canadian.”
I got a chuckle over that in my pain not physically but just overwhelmed, humbled and not sorry for myself but grateful to have had the good fortune to even have this experience whether everything went sideways or not, counting my blessings.
But I did feel the need to get drunk and get drunk I did.
The Broken Arrows finished tenth and would have been fourth if I had held on, I was not even sure what place I finished.
Axel wrapped my ankle in ice, and we got in our ship and sailed west home to talk it over with my captain and his spouse whose impossible love broke me like a walnut.
My ankle swelled like a baseball, Axel said “Willy you should get an x-ray. Go to the trainer at the college when we get back.” “I’m sorry Axel, I messed up.” “Hey Willy, you gave us the thrill of a lifetime seeing someone in our singlet leading the National.”
Axel got me a six pack of “that skunk piss beer you like” and I sat back and slugged em down. Uncle Lou came over for a chat “Willy, I know you are planning to leave but if you change your mind you can stay with me.” Uncle Lou’s wife had died recently and his son was incarcerated.
“I appreciate that Uncle Lou, I need to give my running a chance or I know I will regret it when I’m older, also I just love it, the feeling I had leading that race with a shot at winning.”
My ankle was still very swollen when the guys dropped me off. Jack and Jenn came out to greet me, Jenn giving me a hug. Jack squeezed my shoulder, “Willy, Axel called me with the blow by blow and he was so excited talking a mile a minute boy you put on a show.”
“Ya, until I lost my concentration, rookie mistake.” “Willy, I thought you would be doing well to make the top twenty-five and you were on your way to winning the whole thing. Let’s go to the trainer first thing tomorrow and maybe you can get in the pool for some water running.”
The next day Jack handed me a slip of paper with a phone number, “It’s a writer from “Track & Field News” would like you to call him.” I didn’t want to talk with him and I threw away his number.
I did not run for ten days, an eternity for me but my ankle would be okay. I just needed to be careful, continue my treatment and not get impatient. My Dad was excited that I might come home for Christmas but I wasn’t ready. I had a few more mentors to visit.
“Track & Field News” had a photo of me leading with the caption “Desmarais nearly steels the race.” There was also a story about a new club that had just formed in Boston called the Beantown Bombers and that caught my interest a club for mainly post collegiate runners.
I continued to stay at Jack and Jenn’s but spent more time on my own in my room reading and planning out my next hobo time on the road. I spent most of Christmas day with the Broken Arrow’s at Uncle Lou’s. Lou had some good pictures of Nationals and he gave me one of me in full flight.
Now an old man I cherish that black & white photo three inches by five inches. It is framed and sits above my writing desk, sometimes arousing a state of melancholy at all that went down.
I gave notice at the college and finished up my course in Human Anatomy getting a B. The professor didn’t like me too well because there were a few instances when I had to leave the room when he was using very graphic examples of say, bleeding and I nearly passed out.
He made a case about it in front of the class that was just embarrassing for me.
On New Year’s Day I went for a twenty-mile run and my ankle felt fine thanks to the treatment I had been getting and after not running for ten days and then holding back for a few weeks I was like a caged animal. I then packed up my rucksack and headed for the bus station. I didn’t want to face Jack and Jenn and so I wrote a long note of thanks and left it for them to read and then I slinked out and was gone.
I was heading for Atlanta where I had a few running acquaintance’s but first I wanted to visit New Orleans and maybe spend a couple of days there but where? I would look for a cheap room with my meagre funds saved working at the college. I had read “A Confederacy of Dunces” and Got it in my head to visit New Orleans where the book is set.
Today, all these years later I remember the lost and lonely feeling of leaving these people who had become my family on New Year’s Day on a bus and I cried and a young woman came over to console me. One of only four people on the entire bus. I got over it.
Jude was on her way back to Houston where she went to college and the miles went by quickly as we shared our stories. I showed her the picture of me leading the National from “Track & Field News” “Willy, you are almost famous.”
At one of the many stops we made I bought some Mateus Wine and we drank it on the bus from little paper cups and had some snacks. We found seats way in the last row and cuddled up and went to sleep.
In Houston Jude showed me around and said she would invite me to stay but her roommate would not like it. I went for a run from her dorm and showered quickly before the roomie got back. Adios girlie, it has been fun for the ride. I made my way to the Galveston- Bolivar Ferry and took the short ride with some great views, giant tankers and shrimp boats, the Bolivar Lighthouse and Dolphins.
When I got to the other side I decided to hitchhike and eventually got a ride with a van full of hippies smoking weed. They were students at Tulane University and they were going to be camping out the next few nights as they made their way back. They said it was fine if I wanted to tag along.
The first night I went for a run from the campground “Hey Willy, how far did you run?” “Ten miles.” “What? That’s crazy man.” I then went for a nice swim in the lake and slept in my bag under the stars.
I dreamt about all my myriad experiences since leaving home and I thought about my family, mostly my Dad. I had written him a long letter and sent him a copy of the “Track & Field News” article and photo.
I felt like I had made much progress, might I have done as well if I stayed in college? I thought not, rather be out here hoboing around a learning experience you don’t get at any college.
I dreamt about all my myriad experiences since leaving home and I thought about my family, mostly my dad. I had written him a long letter and sent him a copy of the “Track & Field News” article and photo.
I felt like I had made much progress, might I have done as well if I had stayed in college? I thought not, rather be out here hoboing around a learning experience you don’t get at any college. Lo and behold I had a visitor with me in my bag that night. “Summer of Willy” continues into winter.
In my youth, a voracious reader with no agenda but just only following my instinct I had come across some writing that knocked me sideways realizing that there was something to this life and I was not the only one trying to understand and survive and thrive and deal with whatever hand I was dealt.
John Kennedy Toole for no exact reason and his posthumously published “Confederacy of Dunces” made some powerful impressions on me. I think just the weirdness, the language of the place, the honesty is not barred. It is a weird story with highlight comedic moments and sad so sad.
Well, anything can have a powerful effect if it captures you at the right time and place.
The hippies and I got along okay, I mean really, I was just like them just not so overt about it. We had another night like the last and then arrived in New Orleans where they dropped me off on the banks of the Mississippi and I met a few Navy men who were singing sea shanties.
I toured around the city a bit on foot and then left my ruck sack at a local bus station where I changed into my running gear and went for a long easy run scouting out places where I might be able to camp out for the night.
I found what looked like a nice spot adjacent to a golf course at a public park called Bayou South. New Orleans felt like a foreign country sophisticated but funky at the same time. It was a lot to take in and I just needed some shut eye. When I arrived at the park with a few supplies just as it was getting dark, I spotted a police car that seemed to be watching me.
You know it is difficult to hobo though you are doing nothing wrong just want to lie down for the night under the stars and rest your weary head and be left alone. Perhaps it was just my paranoia and they left and stopped following me.
I had a good sleep that night and woke up early to the sound of the sprinklers on the luxurious grass of the golf course. I put on my running shorts and hid my bag in the woods and then ran barefoot around the edges of the course avoiding the few golfers who were out this early.
When after an hour or so I finished my run, I stood in a sprinkler to cool off and clean off. “Hey, what are you doing?” “Oh, sorry, just rinsing off.” “Where are you from?” “Massachusetts.” “Is that how you do it for their son?”
The groundskeeper told me I could shower at the clubhouse if I wanted and I was surprised by this friendliness and hospitality. “Thank you very much sir, I will do that.”
He watched me as I walked off into the nearby woods to grab my ruck sack. When I got to the clubhouse he pointed the way and handed me a towel. “You been hoboing son?” “Yes Sir, I just wanted to see New Orleans.”
“Of course, but I wouldn’t overstay your welcome.”
In the afternoon I left for Atlanta, a bus ride that would take about ten hours. I planned to sleep through most of it and re-read “A Clean Pair of Heals” about Kiwi Champion Murray Halberg. Early in his career but after he had reached an international level of performance he travelled to Europe and the United States for a lengthy tour of racing and training living sometimes right on the edge of poverty with other athletes all determined to get their kicks and hopefully “come right” on time and win a medal at a major games.
It was me against the world fighting my own battle of Thermopylae defending my own free will, just barely nineteen years old, a sometimes-lonely struggle, but in Atlanta I would be joining up with another mentor who now owned a running store and would hire me to work for him as well. I would be pointing for the World Junior Cross-Country Trials in Gainesville FL in February.
My new mentor, coach and employer was Sal Parker, a former Olympian in the 10,000 M. Sal opened a store called Spiridon a specialty store with nearly all running related gear for inventory and a knowledgeable staff.
I was not sure yet where I would be living or if I would even be making enough money to get a place of my own. Sal was picking me up at the bus station when I arrived and we would talk things through. There was a pretty vibrant running community in Atlanta with a solid schedule of cross country and road races and track meets.
Spiridon had their own running team and I would compete for them at least until cross country trials six weeks from now and probably for a month or so afterwards somewhat depending upon if I made the team by finishing in the top six.
The bus trip was uneventful, I only had a cup of coffee and a stale donut and was starving when Sal picked me up around three in the afternoon. He suggested we go for a run from the store out around Piedmont Park. At the store he introduced me to Dickie and Freddie and Annie, my new clubmates and workmates.
I was immediately smitten with Annie, a little red head cute as a button beautiful and smiling. These three would become my constant companions and I gave them all nicknames. At some point Annie became “fire plug” Dickie became “jocko” and Freddie became “Hazel.”
They were all about four years older than me but somehow, I was already worldlier or world weary due to my recent lifestyle and experiences of life. We would share living space in a small house in a runner’s commune.
Dickie was mostly a road racer and pointing toward the Boston Marathon in April. He had recently run a 2:22 and won the Atlanta Marathon his first. Freddie ran the steeplechase and the mile in college and liked track racing best and Annie was aiming for the Senior Cross-Country Trial in Gainesville as well.
That first night we had dinner together with Sal and he handed us each an outline of upcoming workouts and races to prepare us for our upcoming events. We would run together every morning, usually a five miler, a combination of roads and dirt trails. In the afternoons Sal would meet with us for more individualized workouts which we sometimes did alone or with one or both of the others.
After a few weeks Annie and I ran in a small cross-country invitational with mostly college teams. I won the five-mile race in 22:45 breaking the course record by over a minute. Annie won the women’s race in similar fashion. Sal told me “Willy, I don’t really gush but that was fucking nuts. You have to be the best talent in the entire friggin country and you’re riding around on busses sleeping in parks…. WTF.”
Sal gave me and Annie the afternoon off from the store. We put together a picnic lunch and went to a nearby lake and found a secluded spot where we went skinny dipping. Annie let her longish red hair loose from its usual ponytail.
I finished up a long slog of a run known only as “the loop” by me and my old man friends who only occasionally these days, would take it on. Eight miles of up and down murderous hills with beautiful views of the Whites in the early Spring snow melting rivulets of water flowing down the roads in all directions.
Last night’s writings and dreaming’s brought me back to my youth, the days in Atlanta and Annie, beautiful Annie. None of the young women I met that year on the road wanted any kind of long-term relationship, I think knowing that at my age of nineteen and my peripatetic lifestyle I just was not ready.
Jocko had a big road race coming up the National 20KM Road Race Championship in Massachusetts. Hazel and another runner from Spiridon would also compete there as a three-person team hoping to knock off the favored Beantown Bombers, some of whom I knew from growing up in Mass.
I had only a few weeks to go until the Cross-Country Trials when disaster struck. My Plantar Fasciitis flared up likely due to the workouts I had begun doing in spikes on the grass. Sal wanted me to stop running entirely and rest but I didn’t want to so he taped it fairly effectively, problem was if you taped it too loose it was ineffective and too tight and it could make matters worse.
For a while it got progressively worse and it didn’t help that I was on my feet all day at the store, but there was nothing to be done. They needed me there. I continued to do my easy five milers in the mornings at a very slow pace but in the afternoon, I would run maybe a mile or two and then come home and stick my foot in a bucket of ice water. I took aspirin as well.
The week of the trial I finally took two days off entirely and Sal gave me a full day off from the store. It helped but there was no way I would be able to compete in spikes. Sal said, “Willy, maybe you shouldn’t run trials. “ “Sal, I’m running even if it has to be in training shoes. I am going to be on that team.”
Annie and I travelled to Gainesville together leaving on Friday morning flying down for the Saturday race. Sal was not able to make the trip but he had arranged for a friend of his to pick us up at the airport and this friend would also doctor my foot and tape it for me before the race. Annie was a long shot to make the team and Sal had planned with her to have a conservative strategy. “Willy, what do you think about Sal’s race plan for me.” “Honestly I think you should go from the gun their fire plug because there is a good chance they will let you go since they won’t know much of anything about you and once you get that lead darling you ain’t coming back to them.” Annie smiled, “Oh Willy you give the best pep talks.”
We jogged the course together on Friday afternoon, a flat as a pancake course which was going to be fast, not good for me since I could barely get up on my toes on my injured foot. The Junior Race would be eight KM two four KM laps. I brought spikes but decided to go with flats and I had to take some of the tight turns on the course real wide to stay on my feet.
At the end of the first lap I was in the middle of the pack with a lot of work to do and I dug deep and started to pick people off. I could see a straight line of runners ahead and I figured I was about twelfth.
With about a half mile to go I went into an all-out kick all I could muster and I moved all the way up to seventh before I started to run out of gas slipping all over in my flats.
I caught the runner ahead of me but could not get past him. This was for the team I never imagined not making it. We finished in a dead heat. I was unsure if I had made the team and the officials were all huddled around conferring.
“Are you the Desmarais who was leading Senior Nationals back in November?” “Ya, that’s me.” “Why the hell are you wearing flats?” “Plantar injury.”
Annie was lining up for her race and I headed over to watch. She was right out into the lead, man if this strategy doesn’t work I hope Sal never finds out it was my idea. After the first lap she had fifty yards but the pack was closing. “You look marvelous fire plug, keep your foot on the gas!” I think she actually smiled at that.
I watched as they came out of the woods for the final half mile, Annie had fallen back to fifth and was passed by one other but she made the team. Annie and I did a short cool down run and my foot was killing me. Sal’s buddy took us to the airport, no shower no time no room anyway off to Atlanta.
“I hope you are on the team with me. Willy, it would be great to travel to New Zealand together.” “Ya, thanks fire plug, guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
I ordered a beer on the plane, the first of many I would have that evening.
Sal was in touch with the US Track & Field Cross Country Committee that week and the Manager/Coach for the team wanted to put me on it as a sub after it was determined that I had finished seventh. But that would not be happening. USATF weren’t known for being magnanimous.
The plantar was still hurting in any case even worse than ever after trying to race on it. Annie and the others tried to cheer me up but I was despondent. Dickie had finished second in the National 20KM and looked to be coming right for Boston. Freddie had just run a four flat mile indoors.
I continued to limp through the five miler each morning and then after work, on the days where I didn’t go for ultrasound treatments, I would go by the library and borrow some books and then buy a six pack and sit with my feet up reading all night.
I realized the truth of athletics that all athletes get injured no matter how careful they are. The human body will have its way, no matter how strong you are mentally you cannot outrun that fact. No question I was in a funk and Sal came over one night and saw all the empty beer cans and piles of books. “Willy, you look like a frat boy college student.” “I had no use for college Sal, that’s why I’m here with you.”
I staggered off to bed around midnight looking forward to my run the next morning hoping the plantar would be better. I pulled back the covers and there lay sweet little fire plug Annie, resplendent, naked as a jaybird. I right then forgot all my troubles and all my cares.
The next morning, I was up early making breakfast coffee for me and Annie whistling and smiling stupidly when Hazel walked in and said “Willy, you have the look of I just had sex repeatedly all over you.” “Ah Freddie, just looking forward to another great day.” “Well from the sound of things you had a great night.”
On our run that morning I never even thought about my plantar and it was like the injury had never even happened. I went for ultrasound that evening and the therapist could not believe the difference from just a few days before. That evening I ran our ten miler alone in fifty-one minutes singing “sexual healing” in my head and smiling the entire way!
I rolled out of bed legs creaking back and hip achy I shuffled my way to the bathroom slowly waking up ever so slightly easily slowly and then downstairs kettle on the boil newspaper retrieved from outside slice of toast nicely burned with lots of butter the sit down on couch roll foot on roller old plantar injury and stare out the window while I slowly sip my coffee bringing it all back home.
The days in Atlanta were some of my best days and memories but Massachusetts still tugged at me in New England in my bones, family there and friends who thought I had gone mad.
Annie left for New Zealand and I was so very happy for her and envious too, but now that my own running was coming around my outlook on the world had improved and also through my reading I was beginning to broaden my horizons and Athletics was the prism I saw this world through.
I did some long runs with Jocko and Hazel, one a twenty miler at 5:15 per mile, the pace that Jocko hoped to run at Boston. It felt okay, not as hard as I thought it was going to be and Jocko was cruising. “Jocko, you can handle 5:05’s no problem.” “Kid, what do you know about the marathon?”
He was right, I didn’t know much.
Me and Freddie went to the Florida Relays in March where Freddie ran a 3:39 for 1500M qualifying for Nationals which would be in Knoxville in June. I won the 5 KM in 13:44 a huge PR but I had never actually raced a 5KM before only three miles.
Sal planned for me to run a 10KM on the track in May to hopefully qualify in that event as well. Sal gave me fatherly advice and explained that I had some bad luck mostly brought on through inexperience and just plain bad luck.
Yes, luck plays a part I’ve learned and mine had been running well but I had worries and concerns I was not immune, no.
Back home in Mass. My Dad had had a stroke and his recovery went well and my brother and sister made sure he and my stepmom were going to be okay, but out here on my own engrossed in my own obsession, hesitate to call it a career where none existed, I wondered if I was doing the best right thing.
Annie ran great in New Zealand and didn’t come back cause the fire plug went and met her a fella, a New Zealander international.
She sent me a long letter, so I knew she loved me, but I was just a dumb kid and needed to mature, my interpretation.
I felt elegiac.
I was hurt but truth be told my running was going great and she was my real mistress.
Over the next few weeks heading into the Nationals everything went according to plan although Sal had been trying to petition the AAU to allow Annie run the five thousand unsuccessfully. Annie had one of the fastest times in the country but no concern of the AAU, her entry was late and they decided not to accept it. It is disheartening and demoralizing when your governing body works against the sport and against the athletes it should be serving.
The Fire Plug added a lot to our little group and she seemed changed by her recent experience living in New Zealand. “Willy, I will be honest with you. I just missed home and you guys too much being way down under. We may get back together someday, he is a great guy and I miss him too. We will just have to wait and see if it was meant to be.”
Sal had each of us in his office before we left for a bit of a strategy talk. It had been decided that I would run the ten k only. “Willy, the forecast is calling for extreme heat. I want you to keep the pace honest but don’t try and go out there and blow this field away or they will make you pay. These guys are the real deal and they are no more than slightly impressed by your 3:55.”
Unfortunately, Sal’s strategy was not lining up with my dreams.
We ended up driving the couple of hundred miles up to Knoxville with the store van full of merchandise we would be selling outside the venue. We would all work after we had completed our events and Annie would man the van for both days since she was not competing.
The ten k was on Friday night at 7 and we arrived at our hotel at noon. I went for a three-mile shakeout run and then had lunch and took a nap. I was nervous and was overloaded with adrenaline. I was thinking that the heat wasn’t so bad and that Sal was being too conservative. “He knows how I love to run, how I must run, why insist that I do it his way? I need to go by feeling that is all I know.”
At 5 I put my gear on and as I was trying to pin my number Annie came in and did it for me and then gave me a hug. “You OK Willy? Sure, Fire Plug I’m doing great for someone who is preparing to die a little.”
I got to the track and put my spikes on and did a few strides on the back straight and I chatted a bit with Hernandez, the NCAA Cross Champ I had met briefly last fall on the starting line of the AAU Cross where I ran with Broken Arrow. “Hey Desmarais, we have to stop meeting like this.”
We were twenty-five strong and they lined us up, me on the outside of the first row. The pistol cracked and I broke for the front, bye, bye Johnny, bye, bye Johnny be goode.
The meet organizers had given the coaches a little seating area near the finish line. I was 65 for the first lap and 2:10 at the half. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sal waving his hands at me. Next lap I ran a 63 and I am now clear of the field and then 4:18 at the mile.
Anyone there who was paying attention sat there with their mouths agape but when I kept pouring it on well they got into it too and a group of high school age kids kept a rhythm clapping going every time I passed them. “Willy’s gone mad! They shouted.” At two I was 8:43 and at 5 k 13:41 a PR. I was on an American Record pace and had a 100-yard lead, maybe more.
I was off somewhere my mind began to wander and drift, my hands started to tingle. I couldn’t remember what lap I was running and was shocked to see a 7 card and I was sinking into the abyss. I was now in survival mode with waves of runners passing me and Jocko patting me on the ass as he went by and I was far away.
The last lap I was wambled and looked like Dorando Pietri in the 1908 Olympic Marathon. The medical crew were already prepared when I finished and collapsed into their waiting arms.
Don’t let the Sun go down on me.
The medical crew put me in a tub of ice and hooked me up for some I.V. fluids. Annie came in to see me and she started weeping it up. “Don’t fret Fire Plug, I’m only partly dead.” “Willy, don’t be an asshole, I was really worried about you.” Sal wouldn’t speak to me, he didn’t even look at me so I just ignored him too.
Jocko finished seventh in the ten k, very respectable and Freddie would wind up finishing fifth in the 1500M in 3:37. He followed Sal’s instructions to the letter. I was super happy for those guys.
Sal took everyone out to dinner but I stayed behind in the room and then went out and got some fast food and a bottle of cheap red wine. I didn’t get drunk though, I just sipped it and contemplated my navel.
The next day we were back in Atlanta and back working in the store when Sal called me into his office. I was happy and I figured we would talk it over and everything would go back to normal but I was wrong.
“Willy I am going to have to let you go. I have other athletes I can coach who are not as stupid, selfish and just plain crazy as you are.” It was a real gut punch.
“Sal, I appreciate everything you have done for me so thank you for that but don’t ever call me crazy, you don’t know nothing about me. I’m just twenty years old trying to figure things out.”
I got up and left and went back to the house and started packing my things. Maybe I was crazy. My Mom died at the State Hospital when I was ten years old though I never found out what she was in for. That was where they sent people with psychological conditions, manic depression etc.
Maybe it’s crazy to try and run yourself into submission but wasn’t that how you became a champion by pushing the boundaries and going where no one was ever willing to go before?
“I beat my body and make it my slave.”
Annie told me that Sal said I could stay as long as I needed but that he had another athlete to take my place coming within the next couple of weeks. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be okay once I get over the shock.”
I went out for a ten miler mostly on the trails in the State Forest, except I just kept going and ran the loop three times in three hours. Then I bought some beer and pizza and got drunk. Jocko, Freddie and Annie were all out. I think they were as shocked as I was.
When Jocko got back he said “Geezus Willy why don’t you beg for forgiveness or something Sal would keep you on.”
“Willy don’t play that.”
I had a little nest egg so I bought a tent. After a few days sitting around plotting out my plan I packed up my rucksack while everyone was out and left them a note and then I hit the road hobo Willy again.
I got down the road a piece and stuck out my thumb. I headed for the Great Smoky Mountains for some forest bathing.
The memories weigh and come, go and sometimes overwhelm. I awake disoriented in my little tent in the White Mountain National Forest of NH remembering my long hike through the Smokies with Jared the “Mississippi Mule.” All those years ago.
I had caught a couple of quick short rides that left me stranded and then I walked along with my thumb out worried the State Police might hassle me. In the late afternoon after I had walked for an hour or so a beat up pick up stopped and a friendly face peered out.
“You headed for the Smokies?” “Yup.”
“We should be there by sundown if Nellie here don’t get too cranky.” “I am Josh, I am meeting my brother Jared who started at Springer and is hiking the AT.”
“I’m Willy, been down in Atlanta just looking for a little escape for a week or so hiking and camping.”
Josh was bringing Jared supplies and camping out at Fontana Dam where Jared would continue his hike through the Great Smokies. I figured I would do the same.
When we were nearly there Josh said, “Just so you know, Jared ain’t much of a talker. Guess I ain’t neither.” We found Jared sitting at the entrance to the campground and then drove around looking for a site. I set up my camp and made a fire and sat down for a bowl of soup and some crackers.
I was feeling at peace with myself. I didn’t even think about going for a run and decided right then to hike the AT through the Smokies for a week and think things through. Hiking close to twenty a day will keep me fit and clear my head.
As I was about to hit the hay Josh came over with a few beers and offered me one. I laughed when I saw it was the same “skunk piss” I drank. “Jared is taking off early around 5 A.M. and he is pretty tired so he is asleep. I’m going to hike with him for a few hours and then head back here and back to Georgia.”
“I appreciate the ride and the beer, I may see you in the morning or out on the trail. I am planning to go the entire trail seventy miles over the next week or less.”
I hit the hay but couldn’t get to sleep right away thinking about the last phone call with my Dad who had been contacted by some meet promoters and AAU officials regarding my invitation to run a big mile race in London the first week in August.
I knew that some thought that my 3:55 mile I had run was a fluke and I doubted myself as a miler but since my reputation as a racer could not get any worse I was thinking “what have I got to lose? Go to London town, see what you got.”
Fact was if I ran like Sal thought I should instead of the reckless abandon I had in that race, I would be a 3:59-4:00 miler and never would have got to 3:55.
Nationals were different and maybe Sal had been right, a ten k in the heat was a different animal.
I awoke with the sun in my eyes and knew it must be close to mid-morning. I slugged down some water and a few slices of bread while I quickly packed up my gear. From the time I first opened my eyes to hitting the trail was about twenty minutes. If Josh and Jared hit the trail at 5 A.M. They were four hours ahead of me but I would likely see Josh on his return trip.
I walked slowly at first limbering up then began steady climbing and as my heartrate rose so did my pace and my mind and body clicked into a solid groove in this for the long haul. I passed some hikers taking a break and they were eating hard boiled eggs and man they looked delicious and I wondered if I had brought enough real food.
I would be surviving on peanut butter, chocolate, cookies, apples and soup.
Josh came down the trail toward me in the early afternoon. “Jared is heading for Mollies Ridge Shelter that is eleven miles from Fontana, I guess you’d be about half way there.” “Thanks, that is my goal for today if I can make it by dark, I did not bring a light.”
Josh handed me a flashlight. “You can have this, I won’t need it today.”
I stopped once late afternoon to eat and rest and then pushed on. I knew I was approaching Mollies when I saw the light of a fire and smelled the smoke, I had been on the trail for ten hours. But I wasn’t prepared for the scene I was about to witness.
As I approached I could see people dancing wildly around the fire chanting and banging on pots and pans, like a scene from “Lord of the Flies” I was passed a bottle of whiskey by a guy who was chewing tobacco. No thanks.
Someone else passed me a fresh bottle so I took a tug and took them all in, a motley crew. Jared came over and introduced himself. “Will, they will all be in their bags asleep shortly, a bunch of peckerwoods.” “Me too, that was a long day. I’m going to get set up yonder and come back here and heat up my soup.”
One by one they scattered off to sleep and I sipped my soup by the fire. It became deafeningly quiet and the night sky brilliant with stars. I thought about Annie, the fire plug would probably be worried about me and it was a good feeling knowing someone gave a shit.
The next morning, I awoke late again around mid-morning, everyone who was there the night before was gone. I would follow this routine for the next five days where I would get a late start and then come upon the wild scene after dark at the next shelter when I arrived. Someone nicknamed me “two-step” but I never figured out why.
I met two women hiking together, at first, they seemed kind of leery of me but at the next shelter we camped out close to each other and shared some food. Sadie was from Vermont Connecticut River Valley and Mary Jo was from North Carolina. I told them of my adventures over the last six months or so but I’m not sure if they believed me.
Sadie said, “Well Willy, you just snub your nose at everything and everybody, don’t you?” “Well, that’s a harsh girlie, you don’t even know me.” We went on like this for a while before I realized the girl was flirting with me.
I hit the hay early and planned to go all the way to Hot Springs the next day, the end of the line. I was anxious to get back to my running routine. In the morning I slept late again and Sadie and Mary Jo were gone so I hit the trail alone.
I arrived in Hot Springs after dark and debated whether to spend the money for a hotel. I found a little dive hotel and crashed after eating several fast food burgers. I watched a ball game on television and read the local newspapers. In the morning I would call Pete in NYC and hitchhike to Gatlinburg to catch a bus. My future plans are still evolving just as I like it.
Wild and crazy dreams again getting older no one told me I would have to re-live everything, all the trauma and joy every time I closed my eyes at night. My old coach with the Beantown Bombers I will never forget our first meeting he just called me 355. “Hey hotshot you think we’re buying that 3:55 mile you ran at the rinky-dink palace track meet in southern east bumfuck?”
I arose early unlike out on the trail and I took in my surroundings. I went for my first run in over a week an easy hour and I felt pretty good, just a bit sore in spots and weary. I took a quick shower and then headed to the coffee shop for the lumberjack breakfast. The pretty waitress asked me if I was a thru hiker and I said “Ya, I’m all through hiking and heading for NYC.”
I hit the road and stuck out my thumb and right off the bat a VW Bug pulled over and Sadie from the trail a few days ago sticks her head out, “If it ain’t Willy our old friend.” Somehow, I got squeezed into the back seat amongst all the hiking gear. We talked over the last few days experiences and then Mary Jo said, “Hey Willy, when you need to be in New York because we have decided to head to Vermont but we are planning to go to the coast and hit a few beaches and other sites on the way.”
“I’m in. I just need to be able to run as we travel.”
I called Pete in New York with my revised plan and told him I had accepted the invitation to run in London three weeks from now. “That’s great Willy, got news as well, I got married.”
Sadie and MJ were smart cookies learned college students and they talked non stop so it was hard for me to keep up but sounded interesting like “hey, maybe you do learn some things in those there ivory towers of higher ed.”
They were also sexy and beautiful, about as different in appearance as two women could be but definitely stimulating in their little shorts and t-shirts. I was hoping they packed their bikinis. I managed to get stretched out a bit in the back seat. We were headed for the Chesapeake Bay about five hundred miles. We would spend a day resting up and enjoying the beach before leaving the following day for Atlantic City and then on to New York.
We stopped in the late afternoon in West Virginia and I went for a run. Sadie started out running with me and I was shocked that she had no problem running five miles at a decent pace, I mean I almost started to push it just to see what she got.
I confessed to the girls my apprehension about competing against the top milers in the world as an unproven kid. Sadie said, “Willy, I can’t believe what you have gone through trying to reach your potential as a runner, man you like a hound dog and once you get the scent you sure gonna stay after it.”
Why not? All of life is a gamble.
Still old I go on and remember.
Old man take a look at my life dream on dream on Sadie and MJ on the beach at Chesapeake one old man dream worth having and I do and I don’t give in to my old man, carry on, carry on.
Long ago long gone lust is a many splendored thing but love hey ho there we go.
As I write and remember I know I am in this for the long haul as long as I’ve got.
I remember my young man wistfully his whimsy.
I re visit him often as past and future collide.
Five years after many trials and tribulations I did learn about love when it grabbed me by the nose and kicked me in the ass.
It is a monumental occasion when you give your entire life to someone full of trepidation at first then lasting peace.
We arrived at Sandridge Beach VA on the Outer Banks around 9 P.M. We found a hotel and the girls went to check in. It was a small room with a double bed for the girls I would curl up on the floor in my bag.
We pulled up some lawn chairs by the motel pool and sat for hours talking fueled by a cooler of beer and some wine and snacks. I swam some laps in the little motel pool and did some leg kicks to revive my legs after so many hours stuffed in the back of the Bug.
I left the girls talking and headed in to have a shower and then I got into my sleeping bag with a copy of Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels.”
The girls came in laughing and MJ said “there is plenty of room in this bed for you too Willy.” I just ignored her. Sadie said “Mary Jo, we don’t want Willy getting a woody.”
Hardee har har, silly girls.
I drifted off dreaming of the sea and the beaches just down the road from the hotel where I would run tomorrow and swim in the surf and relax and read and watch the girls go by my oh my.
I awoke to the smell of coffee brewing and the girls had gone out to get some pastries and juice. “Willy, I hope you didn’t mind us teasing you last night.”
We were blessed with a perfect beach day and strode the half mile to the beach with our provisions. I ran on the beach with a thin running flat on my feet in only a pair of shorts wearing some cheap sunglasses.
I went out just over an hour and then turned around. I stopped to take my shoes off and carried them while I ran by the water’s edge and in a few inches of water my footfalls splashing and I wanted to run all day.
Other than a quick trip to get more sandwiches and beer we stayed on the beach all day. I fell asleep for an hour in the afternoon. I decided to do another short run before leaving and Sadie ran with me for a half hour. “You know Willy Mr. International miler to be, I threw the Javelin and ran cross country in high school.” “But not at the same time, right?”
The girls had been invited to go to a bar with some guys they met at the beach. They wanted me to come but I was not in the mood, I was a good tired and just wanted to hit the feathers early. After they left I worried about them like a parent or sibling would.
I had a good talk with my Dad that night, he had been collecting my mail and sorting out anything looking like they needed attention, especially anything from the AAU or race promoters. It was weird to picture myself back home in Galway in a few days after nearly eight months away.
Passage to India
by Walt Whitman
SINGING my days,
Singing the great achievements of the present,
Singing the strong, light works of engineers,
Our modern wonders, (the antique ponderous Seven outvied,)
In the Old World, the east, the Suez canal,
The New by its mighty railroad spann’d,
The seas inlaid with eloquent, gentle wires,
I sound, to commence, the cry, with thee, O soul,
The Past! the Past! the Past!
The Past! the dark, unfathom’d retrospect!
The teeming gulf! the sleepers and the shadows!
The past! the infinite greatness of the past!
For what is the present, after all, but a growth out of the past?
(As a projectile, form’d, impell’d, passing a certain line, still keeps on,
So the present, utterly form’d, impell’d by the past.
I was up early the next morning and out running and had a swim in the pool when I got back. I was beginning to reflect on my time since leaving college and travelling this road. I had begun to keep a journal and had read some of my writing and observations to Sadie and MJ and we got into a discussion about America, the good, the bad and the ugly.
Hypocrisy is rampant, the country was founded in hypocrisy slavery, manifest destiny, trail of tears, civil war, the Alamo, imperialism all underlying the unkept promises and ideas all men are created equal.
It seemed to me at least possible at least here in America you could live more on the edges. You could hike the Appalachian trail and live in a cabin in the woods very simply and not get any more involved than necessary in the daily madness and silliness that is the daily lives of most citizens.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Yes, we do but it doesn’t follow that we can’t be fulfilled in some ways. Freedom is breaking free of possessions, all the crap shoved down your throat on TV break free of TV step outside and sit and be quiet there is your freedom.
Sadie and MJ were cheering me on as I blathered on from my journal, Willy, the rebel without a clue.
I’m not sure why we were landing in Atlantic City; it was just somewhere that Sadie and MJ wanted to see. At the time we arrived there it had been in serious decline from its heyday as a top resort in the country. Recently gambling had arrived and casinos were going up rapidly. It was like the former gold rush in California to me, reaping where you have not sown.
I only planned to spend a few days with Pete and his wife in NYC before heading home. I had been in contact with some friends who ran for this new club, the Beantown Bombers and their fiery coach.
“Come join us at the Boston State track on Tuesday and Thursday nights.” And I did and so then I was on the chosen path.
We arrived in Atlantic City after dark and found a run-down hotel in a seedy neighborhood but the price was right. I went for a short run just twenty minutes feeling ill at ease. The next day was wonderful though at Branigan Beach for the entire day and in the early evening we travelled to Brooklyn where Pete and his wife were putting all three of us up for the night.
When we got to their place Pete and I went for a run to Prospect Park while the girls got acquainted. Pete was excited for me and envious, his career as a runner having wound down he was a wealth of knowledge and just a great friend to have. It was like I had known him my entire life and we hardly even spent much time together before this year.
I told Pete I was going to move to Boston and I had a few leads for a job in a shoe factory. We talked about Coach Gerry and the Beantown Bombers “Willy, wait ‘till you meet the WAC he is a great guy, very knowledgeable has a little trouble sometimes getting his point across but lovely guy, would give you the shirt off his back.”
“Why do they call him the WAC?” “Long story Willy, right now I have got to eat and hit the feathers. I hope you can stay another night I have some more news and information to share.”
“Sure thing, Sadie and MJ will be off to Vermont.”
I stayed up late talking with the girls, Pete’s wife Maria was lovely and I was just very happy for them. I could not ever see myself getting married, of course I was only twenty and knew nothing of that longing nagging pounding in the heart.
Sadie and MJ got the couch and I rolled up in my sleeping bag on the floor. I awoke in the morning long after Pete had left for work at the law office. Maria had the day off and was making a big breakfast. I went for a short run and then came back to eat.
It was tough to say goodbye to Sadie and Mary Jo and I hoped that I would see them again. We went for a walk in Prospect Park and Sadie and I sat for a while on a park bench making out all kissy face fortunately or unfortunately nothing further and later MJ and I did the same thing!
“You better come see me in Vermont Willy.” “I will, I love the mountains and of course you’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”
I spent much of the next day on the phone with my pals in Boston. Donnie and Neil had an apartment in Cleveland Circle area a two bedroom. But, they were willing to put me up on the couch or a fold up cot if I could help with the rent. Donnie was working at the local shoe company his job opening letters from people requesting shoes who had sent a tracing of their foot and Donnie would pick out the correct width and package them up for shipment.
Neil was in Graduate School at Boston University and received a stipend from this shoe company being an accomplished runner who had done well in the big one the Boston Marathon. Donnie also received a stipend in addition to his regular pay. Of course, these payments to amateurs were not really legal but were under the radar of the AAU. The athletes were ostensibly employees of the company and paid for work not directly related to their running prowess.
Alby, the Bombers best athlete a Boston Marathon Champion and Olympian was in the process of opening a running store in Cleveland Circle so I might be able to get a job there as well.
Donnie said, “Willy, you can work in the factory whenever you want to start they are always in need of people, but the work is dirty gluing the shoes together all day breathing the fumes.”
When Pete got home we went for a run and discussed the Boston scene. “Willy, there is a lot of excitement being generated there with Coach Gerry and Alby and some great post collegiate athletes joining the Bombers.” “Pete, how come you never joined the Bombers?”
“I would have loved to but I felt some loyalty to the BAA even though they have gotten old and stodgy at this point.”
“I also spoke with Coach Gerry and he said that they might want me to rabbit that mile race in London. He said if I did a good job they would pay me.” “Yes, Willy you should make at least a few hundred dollars.”
“He is trying to get another race for me in Finland a 5 k.” I’m worried about losing my job at the shoe factory if I miss too much time but Coach Gerry said “listen numb nuts you don’t get these opportunities every day. Would you rather sniff glue or run your balls off in Europe?”
“He is right Willy, I never regretted choosing a running opportunity over work when I was younger but I did regret choosing work over running on some occasions.”
I had a relaxing evening with Pete and Maria and hit the hay early. The next morning, I was on the bus back to Boston, Massachusetts.