Cold November slush and mud coated his calves as Walter tore up and down the back hills. Some of the runners were coming back to him now. He ran in a blind fury, dumb and animal like and unconscious of his pain, tearing in air as he flew by the other boys one by one by one slowly and slowly in the dark dunsplattered woods. Leaves of brilliant autumnal pastels tore underfoot, his spikes tearing into the earth and flicking the loose wet gravel back and up his pulsing calf and into the eyes of the boys behind him. He came to a final incline and then a long flat, and in the flat the long line of runners ahead of him and behind him stretched across the gray light and drizzle and to the bridge over the Henry Hudson Parkway beyond. Redfaced, deep in oxygen debt, his mania heightened. There were still too many people. There were still so many people. Cross country racing as he understood it was the gradual tortured process of attaining independence and solitude. Yet there had been so many that had started so fast the first mile, and he had forced that unnatural patience (so lauded by books and coaches and even certified by logic yet still unnatural) to govern and contain his early strides.
Countless hours comprised each step, ten sunburnt summer miles behind each breath, dashing over concrete and trail and track envisioning each time these very dark and damp forest corridors, these very winding quadburning hallows, a hundred pushups for every second spent on an incline, a year’s worth of early nights and broken toenails and missed dates and appointments and assignments, all, so he believed right then, for roughly fifteen minutes spent on the bitter edge of sanity in a park in New York City.
He crossed the parkway and made the right hand turn down the long and steep hill and sidled up along the brush and the trees and sprinted down with the momentum of the hill. He demanded room be made for oxygen in compartments that had long since ceased to have room to spare. In a rush the other boys slipped behind him one by one by one, and then yet more came into view, as in a race car game that endlessly invents faster opponents as the skill of the driver augments. Deeply into his lungs Walter heaved the frosty latefall air. The roar of the crowd came from ahead as the runners were expelled from the woods and onto Van Cortland Park’s legendary finishing straight.
The cinder path arced around the fields, the banners of the finish only just visible in the moiling fog and drizzle. The fans and coaches and other athletes lined the path and Walter hugged the turn so tightly that some of the spectators issued in irrelevant sibilance warnings to back away. And still he passed them, one by one by one. Tall boys, loping boys, struggling boys, muscular boys, suspiring needy breaths and approaching and shying from their threshold, crumbling at the sight of the homestretch, the deceivingly distant finish. And the line of them still vanished into the fog, ten at least, probably closer to twenty, some dying and some only just striking, and some like Walter manic and crazed in the eye like a rabid dog gathering itself for a final display of frothy viciousness before death.
Though his conscious mind made no logical connections, though he did not for even a second consider that the world of his childhood, the emotions that had fueled his youthful passions, were powering this very hysteria, there was nonetheless evident in his every step the desperation of someone who has spent more than he can afford to not win back on a single task.
He began to tighten, his legs like glue hardening and contracting, the rapid turnover of his steps limber and athletic in the cold slushy cinders beginning to fade and diminish and slow as he breached his oxygen capacity. And then it was a different boy who came alongside him and sidled past him, equally irreverent and equally manic, and went on to the next boy ahead with the same calculated indifference. And it was Walter who slipped now, slowing into anonymity, straining futilely and watching without recompense a few more go by him, before the timestopping agonies of the penultimate steps passed and the finish line relieved his furor.
The gray day swam in his vision; someone put his hands on the bony shoulders of the boy in front of him, and soon he felt grimy paws on his own shoulders, and as if in some perverse congo line they traipsed together through the finishing chute. Walter dry heaved to the side, felt his stomach convulse again and retched out dry notair into the latefall bitterness. A card was placed in his hand that had the number 16 scrawled across it in black marker.
Without knowing what he was doing he exchanged frozen halfembraces with the other anonymities that had finished before him, after him, that happened to moil in nausea or an endorphin-crazed affability in his general vicinity. Coach came up to him and shook his hand.
That’s not too bad, he said. Not too bad at all.
Walter dry heaved again and cursed. Coach shook his head and slapped his shoulder and started to walk away.
I’ve never lost a race that bad in my life, Walter said.
Coach turned, his form blurry in the postrace haze and the mist and the runners passing between them vomiting on the grass and stumbling and limping their recoveries about.
Well, he said, turning briefly and nodding to the wounded, Neither have they.
Coach moved on. Walter put his hands on his slushfroze kneecaps, felt the hot blood boiling in his legs beneath his numbed fingers. His neck joined other necks, dozens of other necks, spines supine to the sky, spitting or bleeding or cussing violently to the tundra, searching in that frantic state of heightened and unreasonable emotion for some answer, some reassurance, some mitigation to the raw truth all too evident in that massed collection of bodies, that unfamiliar postrace company.
And as more and more necks joined the fray, as the exit from the triage swelled steadily with the bodies of the countless hundreds yet incoming, there did seem to move within that rolling fog and mist the palpable presence of a generation of kindred spirits, their dreams held still in that same warground soil which had seen their undoing. For it is a truth universal among runners that each must one day run the race that tells them they are more than they thought they were, and each must run the race which tells them they are not (and never will be) what had they dreamed they could become. And though these wraiths knew better than to laugh, they did grin slightly, knowing, perhaps, what was to come to those who had the serenity to take wisdom from the brutality of finishing less than best.