Susquehanna University. Indoor track. Left-leaning sprints along the banked oval. I felt reeled forward on an axis. Then to the green-carpeted weight room, still under construction after two years, where I did squats in even rhythms and rested the bar on the rusted rack. Sit-ups. Knees to chest (both on my back and in the air, forearms on sweat-covered armrests). Endurance is a full-body effort, especially for the 800 meters, a half-mile of hell. Not the metered strides of a mile nor the gut-spinning sprint of a quarter-mile (though the final straightaway is usually taken in one breath), the race is a hybrid without brother or cousin. The shittiest race of all, we would say, running an inch past the finish and then falling into the track. All of our day and night sold to this race: morning and afternoon sessions followed by an hour in the training room before dinner. Bubbles curled along my thighs while I leaned against the silver tub. Arm cold along the curved edge while a baseball player (second-year shortstop) flirted with the trainer intern and the lacrosse coach asked if anyone had seen his Rusted Root tapes. Then wrapped ice under a pale bandage and ate thick roast beef sandwiches in the cafeteria, where the ice melted and dripped through warmup pants. Left a puddle in my wake.
I think I ran in college. Though I can’t say for sure. I have no varsity letters (and I have a compulsion for saving athletic papers: high-school scrapbook triple-stuffed with repeated clippings from The Star Ledger and The Daily Record and The Hanover Eagle: always worried that something will be lost, I would have kept such notation safe). I might have not been issued one. Or I might have not earned the distinction (not placing in the top three in dual meets or top ten in invitations). To this date my NCAA eligibility remains active; perhaps untouched. I consider that during trail runs now: I could try-out for my graduate school’s track team. Rutgers-Newark had no half-miler at the 2010 Swarthmore Last Chance Meet, where a sub 2-minute run would have given me a decent finish in one of the heats. I know that in 2007, at 59, Mike Flynt played linebacker for a season at Sul Ross State. Played, not just sat on the sideline. I am 29. I still run, though I’d have to shave a healthy set of seconds to reach my old college time. But the possibility remains.
Yet I appear in the team photograph, on page 100-something in the 2001 edition of the Lanthorn. You can see me stuffed on the cold bleachers with the other middle distance runners. I remember walking across the football field that afternoon, cornerbacks back-pedaling in pairs, nose guards spraying water down their throats from green Gatorade bottles. I still wear a Susquehanna University Track & Field fleece with my name stitched yellow. And a Susquehanna University Athletic Department sweatshirt (stitched heavy, XL-216 centered in a maroon oval, a ruddy stain on the left arm from leaning the sweatshirt on a fence during a practice shortened by thunderstorm). I swear I trained. Pyramid workouts on the track. I ran with the same guys every day: Clint, who ran for Warrior Run in high school and placed fourth at 152 pounds during his senior year of wrestling; John, half-a-foot shorter than me, red-haired, went to St. Pius with me for Sunday morning mass; and Jason, hemp and seashell necklaces jangling while he sprinted, who I’d mistaken for someone else at a Lambda Chi Alpha early in the season. He never let me live that down. After one set of 400s I drifted to the side and puked lunch while second-string punters practiced their steps. I ran my right knee raw. The same knee that carried my weight on the indoor track. I remember six-mile road-routes woven between pig farms behind our campus. Jogging past Amish selling peach pies and afghans. Peddling quilts spelled with a “w.” Passing an 18th century house so close to the road I could smack the brick. And then running through loaned farmland (supposedly the owner did two sweeps with his John Deere, balding the grass so that we wouldn’t break an ankle and sue) with a shaved-head sophomore who said he was only running track for basketball. I remember breaking 2:00 in the 800 during practice. The assistant coach’s high-pitched voice continued the litany of times after mine but I stopped, in shock. I was keeping pace with seniors. I was out of my league.
Why I do I care so much about a Division III sport? Because my high school career ended with a pause. A separated shoulder my junior year stopped my days of baseball (I was a varsity relief pitcher), so I tried out track as a senior. Long, slow distance hooked me: the pressure of knowing that so much training distilled into a nearly two minute race was addicting. I placed in state sectionals but passed out afterward. I woke drenched, sticky. My coach had dumped Gatorade to wake me instead of water. He asked if I was alive. I asked if I had qualified.
I spent the next week of school playing Blackjack with the wrestling coach in the locker room of Whippany Park. I had passes out of Calculus, English, Small Engines. Other students in gym lobbed softballs and wore sweatpants; I paced laps around the track, training for group finals with Brian, who cut class to stride a mile. He blazed down the track: keeping him in sight meant I finished with a good time. But my body had worn down. I could only eat soup: celery, carrot, broccoli. I took long showers and nearly fell asleep against the tiles. I felt gone, wasted thin.
I spent the day of the NJSIAA Group I finals in bed, watching and rewatching Back to the Future Part II.
Career? What a fucking joke. This was high school track.
My wife ran hurdles for Susquehanna. Matt, my roommate, long, high, and triple-jumped. Their names appear on long Hy-Tek lists, archived for all history. Though I know the fallacy of names and numbers: in certain meet results Matt’s last name has been transformed from Lowe to Louie. Ripatrazone could have been bastardized beyond recognition. My wife says I ran track, though she remembers that I quit soon after she started (I was a junior when she was a freshman). Says I wanted to devote more time to classes, the literary magazines, writing. I remember that: I had written an e-mail to Coach Taylor (a stoic but caring clone of my high school’s Coach O’Brien). Or, rather, I’d drafted one, left the Degenstein Hall computer lab to go to the bathroom, and when I came back someone had added a few lines to my message, saying that the team could go fuck. None of the usual subjects were in the lab. I still have no idea who was responsible. I deleted the e-mail, when to Taylor’s office, and quit in person.
Why did I train and not race? I know I trained. I set my alarm for morning runs and pissed off my roommates. Ate omelets in the cafeteria after running to the river and back. Called my parents to tell them running was good but my legs felt like rubber. Or worse, like rubber. My father told me to take it easy: he’d run track and played football for Holy Cross in the sixties but is the most forgiving athlete-father ever. I never raced but I do remember the meets: windy straightaways. Gettysburg, Lycoming, Drew. Invitational long-sleeves for 10 dollars. I remember it all. Isn’t that enough? What does it mean to be on a team? The varsity letter? One practice? Who is counting (or caring) besides me?
Now, during long winter runs, footfalls on uneven snow, I wonder. Afternoon hill repeats, early morning stairs, midnight miles to the Susquehanna River. Was any of it real? Or have I created, coaxed these curious fictions stride by stride? Will I ever be able to stop running backward?