Honestly, I hadn’t been up before 9am for a few weeks and was groggy showing to the gym teacher’s office. Mandy the assistant gym teacher, eternally wrapped in warm-ups and running shoes (if I saw her on the street in anything other than a track suit, I wouldn’t recognize her), sat in the windowless office. She laid down the schedule for me as she would be taking O’Mally’s position, and I hers. It was simple, a “free choice day” if you will.
Ever recall the days in elementary dubbed “Options”, “Field Trip”, or the basic “Free Choice Day”. They were the purest form of “Hey, cut loose, take it easy, breathe deep homie. We’re gonna put this school-thing on hold and do the damn thing for a lil’ bit.” As a kid, you always felt some right to your freedoms during gym class, and when they were cuffed away with forced games of floor hockey or jump rope circuit you began to understand when an actual free day of gym was. I choked on many a hoola hoop, Frisbee, badminton, and other odd-shaped objects I may never physically care for, catch or toss throughout my adult life. Somehow in the end, we always encounter a reunion a badminton or two.
Today’s free choice was different. Not so much the “let the dragon out the cage” mentality, but more a “earn it, and ye shall be set free”. The “earn” part involved running laps around the baseball field. O’Mally had set it as ritual to run before anything get started in gym class. Although some kids walked at a snails pace around the entire field, the rule was still set that you will be moving your body before any reward or free time is given.
Daunting, fenced, yet somewhat attainable in one view to the human eye which could per chance deem it small, the baseball field lie a full 400m around. Pending where some classes were at with behavior or past indictments, determined how many laps they were to kick out before free time took place. Still groggy and wound up from the weekends past tour, I hadn’t ran or worked out in 4 days. This felt like a millennia to me. An overdramatic state of “Christ, if I don’t work out, I think I’m going to drown myself in food for the rest of the week and never retain the inkling to sprint or lift a push-up again”. Something had to be done, something quick. I could stand and watch these kids run laps for the rest of the day… or put my money where my mouth is and run with them.
First up were the 4th graders. I lined up along side the group prepped to run 3 laps. Mandy announced the schedule for the day, peppering reprimands to children speaking out of turn, and then turned us loose.
Just before the run began, it coursed through me like a drug. The feeling- the feeling just before every swim meet, track meet, football game, gymnastic feat- the feeling just before it all went down; vulnerability in its purest, at its best, clutching the moment in its teeth-
“SWIFF!” scrapes my dusty old New Balances against the ground to take off at Mandy’s command. Several kids beat me out at the first 20m, they fade. Three kids remain with me at 40m, they fade. Then there was one, a shorter kid with a parachuting oversized black t-shirt and baggy basketball shorts speeding against the pavement twisting round the baseball field. He begins to fade and I remember what I actually came out here for. “Keep your arms in, don’t lean forward so much” I coach him now running at his pace. It’s the moment you realize “Holy shit, I sprinted out the box like a f’ng mad man and now I’m paying for it dearly”. I would supply the angel on his shoulder to navigate through the cramping pain and lactic acid building up. We streamline the rest of the lap, maintain a safe pace for the second lap, speed up during the 3rd and start kicking out at the last 200m. “Toes, toes, toes- lean a little bit forward- arms in” I bellow at the last stretch.
He finishes, breathing deep as his 9 year old lungs can capacitate. Usually this kid has nothing to run faster against and/or rival his speed amongst his peers. I’d take the rest of the day to challenge each class- better yet, every fastest kid in their class to running a well-paced stride and finishing as strong as they possibly could. After that, reverting to getting the walking kids to jog, as a warm down for myself and some kind of participation for them.
My remedy for the walking kids, after pacing the fastest kids in the class, was to promote “Hey, let’s do a little fox trot!” jogging along side them. The popular response usually went “I don’t DO running!”, to which I’d say “Hey, ain’t nobody runnin’ over here. We’re just fox trottin’. Trottin’ the fox! Foxin’ the trot- check it out”. Jogging at such a slow pace, everyone was enamored to at least try it for half a lap or two.
The day began to wrap up. I’d treated myself to a delightful meal of orange chicken and rice prepared by the cafeteria, posted a blog for Big Villain, and was pondering laying off running with the 2nd graders for the final half of the day. At this point, I’d already run well over 8 miles and didn’t need to go any further to workout for the day. Enter Leonard…
A tall-ish skinny kid draped in sweat pants and t-shirt. Something about his shoulders lead you to believe that he was going to grow a tall body, however his legs seemed to be already ahead of his torso. Something was different about this kid, something I couldn’t quite label… but was curious enough to find out. I was usually able to pick out each kid in every class that would keep up with me for the first lap, which I would then coach to the end of the run. Leonard was unseeming, awkward in his stance, a genetic misfit of sorts. Ears protruding, shoe size ahead of his class, arms swinging uncontrollably about- I’d almost swore Leonard grew taller within the first minutes of meeting him.
Mandy reprimanded the out-of-turn talkers, laid down the day’s law, and “GO!” she shouted to send us off on a 3 lap tour de Hathaway Baseball Field. I put out my usual feel for the class and paced behind two or three kids to see where they were at. Leonard streamlined along side me, letting up none at all.
At 20m, several kids remained with our stride; at 50m, two kids stayed in stride; at 200m, Leonard paced along side me as if he were about to give a clinic. My mind went docile for a moment, reset, and came to. It hit me that I’d been running all day, eaten orange chicken way faster than I should have, and had also been skimping out on water for the day. “Sweet Christ of Kenosha” I thought to myself. I’m fading.
Leonard’s pace was anatomically sound as a Kenyan veteran marathoner. Arms swinging tightly square to his shoulders, knees driving up like Ray Rice plowing through a defensive line, and a slight lean forward. Most 5th graders couldn’t hold a candle to this kid, and now here I am drudging through a thick lunch and lack of water trying to keep up with him. We race paced for the first lap. I let up none on the kid and he stuck with it the whole time.
Coasting into the 2nd lap I could sense Leonard beginning to fade. He hit his wall just as every other fastest kid in their class had, it’s just his was at the 400m mark… not the 50m mark. Still with impeccable stride, lapping the rest of the class, I coached him through the 2nd lap and told him we’d be lifting the pace a little bit at the 800m mark and then kicking at the 1000m mark (which on the U of MN track team I ran for Freshmen year, the coaches referred to it as the “Run to Jesus” portion of the workout).
Hitting the 800m, Leonard’s form began to wobble. “Arms in buddy, arms in. Put that elbow in.” I hollered from ahead of him. We were moving faster than any pace I’d been on throughout the day. The rest of the class was really balling up in front of us. Crowding the track path, I shouted ahead that we were coming through. Walking 40m ahead of us: Girls with gellies, clogs, rain boots; boys with high tops, oversized Jordan’s, dress shoes. Approaching the unsuspecting glob of children, something happened that hadn’t happened throughout the entire day… and enthusiasm like no other shot into the crowd as they all began running with us.
Like lions amongst a pack of antelope, or that one scene from Jurassic Park where the paleontologist and the kids run for cover as a flock of sprinting dinosaurs heads their direction just before they duck underneath a giant tree trunk. Leonard and I float like fish through a river apparatus of rocks and debris. Where I thought he or I would totally plow into a classmate taking them to the ground in horrendous fashion (imagine a purse thief cutting through a State Fair-thick crowd and colliding with an elderly using a walker, yeah kinda like that), nothing of the sort happened. At the 1000m mark, the bleachers, I drop the hammer for Leonard to kick. I swear the earth had spun an inch more than usual once his feet began plying the ground on the last stretch. Perfect form, knees piercing the atmosphere driving toward the yellow finish line, he left nothing on the track.
Breathing heavily between words, Leonard admitted “It’s easier to run it with shorts”. Forgetting he was dawning baggy sweatpants, I laughed “You’re absolutely correct, it’s easier to run with shorts than sweatpants”.
Free time commenced to a vicious game of kickball and side play of double dutch. I stretched until I felt like I could handle the next class. “That kid is damn fast”, I said to Mandy. “Yeah, O’Mally said he was one of the top 3 runners last year… when he was in 1st grade”. Great Mother to rights of Miranda this kid is going to put a dent in the school record and the egos of some poor high-schoolers when they find that 8th grade Leonard is faster than the entire 800m relay team.
Mandy and I administer the game to a civil boil, let the rest of the classes go about as the sun slowly set on another day of school.