Senior Erik Harken’s legs ache from a five mile cross country run. He shakes them out, hopping from foot to foot, before he starts his sprint towards the first hurdle.
Erik leaps over the first two hurdles effortlessly, but he loses control and his toe clips the third hurdle. He grimaces in frustration, but he keeps going.
Track season is six months away, but Erik is already training to be perfect.
“Remember, pull that lead leg up this time,” hurdles coach David Pennington reminds him.
Erik nods, wipes sweat off his cheek, sucks in his breath and tries again. His eyes squint in focus as he controls every step. His feet beat a rhythm into the track as he clears each hurdle.
One, two. Three, four. One, two. Three, four.
In track, speed is Erik’s second priority. His main focus is getting into the perfect rhythm — arms driving in the right direction, feet landing with exact timing. If he controls his rhythm, the speed will come. If he controls his rhythm, he will win.
Running hurdles is simple for Erik, a controlled variable. After this summer, Erik has come to love the rhythm, the things he can control. If he spends too much time off the track, Erik starts to think about things he can’t control.
Erik couldn’t control six boys in a 2000 Ford Explorer hurtling down a beat-up country road the day after the Fourth of July. He wasn’t in the car. He couldn’t hit the brakes as the wheels swerved left, couldn’t stop it from flipping, rolling, smashing into a tree. He couldn’t save his older brother, Mark, from dying that day.
Erik remembers fragments of moments from the day he lost Mark. He fell asleep in the back of his mom’s car with his best friend Cole on their way to the lake. He woke up at a police station. All Erik could do was stare helplessly at Cole, whose brother also died.
“I never heard the news because I was still in the car,” Erik said. “But I heard my mom and my aunt scream. It’s something I’ll never forget. That noise — I still think about it sometimes. It’s like feeling your heart stop.”
The next two days were a blur of sympathy casseroles and condolence cards that Erik loved and hated at the same time. Then Pennington called.
Pennington knew that Erik needed to get back on the track. It would give him a sense of control, a distraction from funeral plans and grief-stricken family members. Erik needed to clear his head, and hurdling was the best way to do that.
Erik jogged the few blocks from his house to meet Pennington at the East track. After an hour of practice, Erik was panting and dripping with sweat in the July heat. It was the most calm he had felt since the crash.
The next day, he was back on the track. And the next day. And the next.
Before each practice, Erik tied a metal ring that his brother had welded to the laces of his track spikes, and he made a promise to Mark and himself — he would win state.
Erik qualified for state his sophomore year. Junior year, after a season of personal records and first place medals, it wasn’t a surprise when he qualified again. Mark wasn’t able to make it out to Wichita to watch, but Erik wasn’t worried — he would be there senior year, the year that mattered the most.
Erik won second in the 300 meter hurdles. He was seeded first in the 100 meter race and expected to win the state championship by a landslide, but he false-started and was disqualified.
“Erik is always hardest on himself,” Pennington said. “When I saw he disqualified, I immediately ran down to get to him before he could start beating himself up too much. I just put my arm around him and told him next race, focus on the next race because that’s all you can control.”
He came home, and Mark congratulated him on the big win. All Erik could remember was the 100 meter race.
“Don’t worry about it,” Mark told him. “You’ll get it next year.”
Months later, Erik still believes his brother. He will win state next year. He wants to win state for many reasons — for college scholarships, for a state championship medal, for redemption. But mostly, he wants to do it for his brother.
He trains every day, running for himself and for his brother. And slowly, he is beginning to feel himself fall back into rhythm.
Still, there are times when Erik feels lost and helpless again. At night, the silence is crushing. The crash stole Erik’s ability to sleep, and on sleepless nights his mind always wanders to the same place — anger.
Erik admits that he still hasn’t grieved, hasn’t had the chance to crumble and cry and then move on. Instead, he’s angry.
At first, Erik was angry at his brother, his friends, their recklessness. Then he was angry at God, at the crash, at the car for overturning and the tree for stopping it too quickly.
Now, he’s just angry at himself. For wasted memories, for not trying hard enough.
“My brother and I were really competitive when we were younger,” Erik said. “When he died, we were just starting to get really close, like we were just turning that corner. It’s like I lost the potential of a best friend, like I lost a whole future with him.”
Still, he remembers Mark, a boy with dark hair cut short, who loved to barbecue and explore museums on rainy Sundays. He remembers long runs around their neighborhood. He remembers cherishing his brother’s praise after a meet, knowing that Mark would always tell the truth, knowing that his compliments were always sincere.
He remembers, and he tries not to regret.
When he can’t sleep, Erik texts Cole. They were best friends before the crash; now, they are practically brothers. They drag their bikes up to the tennis courts at Windsor Park and play in silence until 3 a.m. Erik is always exhausted at practice the next day.
“At least I’ve gotten better at tennis,” Erik laughs. “That’s one good thing that’s come out of this.”
Getting back into rhythm takes time. It’s been three months, three months of sleepless nights and long texts to Pennington, three months of trying to remember and forget at the same time. But out here on the track on a September afternoon, he’s starting to feel normal again.
“He’s strong, but no high school boy is strong enough to take that on his own,” Pennington said. “There was nothing I could say. There’s no easy way to ease a loss like that. But when Erik is out here, he’s happy.”
His final run is smooth, precise. Erik’s legs clear each hurdle with several inches to spare. His feet tap a constant rhythm on the track, steady as a heartbeat.
One, two. Three, four. One, two. Three, four.
Erik leaps the final hurdle and keeps running, keeps sprinting to the end of the track before jogging back to Pennington.
“I just want to run at State right now.” The corner of his mouth drags upward in a grin as he speaks to Pennington. “And win.”
“You will.” Pennington returns the smile. “You have some unfinished business to take care of.”
They bump fists. Erik begins to tug off his shoes, carefully slipping his brother’s ring off the laces, and laughs.
“Yeah. I sure do.”
He’s almost back in rhythm again.