“Hey Mike, let’s talk,” Trish said.
Pennington had told her. He told her how I had texted him. Texted him about my doubts for the season. How I no longer wanted to do Cross Country. How I no longer wanted to be a runner.
* * *
I’ve always thought of myself as a runner, for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I ran nonstop around the bases in my backyard when my dad and I would play baseball. In Mrs. Lawson’s third grade gym class, I won the mile. It was the first time I was ever the best at something. The kids around me dubbed me “Iron Lungs.” I dubbed myself a runner.
That was the plan for high school: become a Varsity runner. It happened sophomore year.
I remember Chicago. Winning the Loyola Lakefront Invitational.
I remember everyone tearing off towards the lake when they announced that we won. I ripped off my sweat stained jersey and followed my teammates as they stormed the freezing, late September waters of Lake Michigan.
I remember standing out waist deep in that ice bath of a lake, posing while Chaffee took our picture. I was dripping wet, frozen to the bone marrow and happier than I’d ever been.
* * *
Something changed after Chicago, when I wrote about Jack Rooker and his mom’s campaign to become a state representative for my journalism class.
I came into East with my plan to become a great runner. That’s all I planned on doing. But I started to realize running wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do. I wanted to write.
I joined The Harbinger. By the end of my first quarter, I considered myself a writer.
Then track came around. I had to be a runner again too. But the two wouldn’t quite fit together.
* * *
It was past three o’clock. Everyone was already down at the track bleacher meeting when I walked into the empty locker room.
I stayed late in the J-Room, but I still had time to catch the end of the meeting. Instead I stayed in the locker room, leaned against the lockers and slid down onto the bench. My face sank into my palms.
I sat there taking deep breathes, in and out, through my cupped hands like they were a respirator. It’s all been too much. The stories and projects for Harbinger. The Track practices every day after school. My grades slipping away. I couldn’t handle it all.
One last practice. I’ll talk to coach after, but all I wanted to do was to go up to the J-Room. I just wanted to go and write.
I walk outside and I see Trish by her car. She looks over and spots me.
“Aww Mike,” she said, walking over to me. My mom must have told her I was planning on quitting. “Come here, let’s talk some.”
We walk down and sat on the turf. Everyone else was still over in the bleachers, listening to Coach Meshke as she passed out medals to all the runners who I used to dream of being like.
She gave me three options. I could either keep running track and trying to compete, or I could just come to track when I could and not worry about the competing. Or I could just quit altogether.
“I think I’ll go with the second one coach,” I told looking down. I hated how shaky my voice was.
“Okay Mike,” she said smiling. “Just look at this as conditioning for cross country. We need you more there.”
* * *
Track ended and the summer went by. I went to summer running, preparing my body for the season, but my mind was still stuck on track. It was over, but I couldn’t find that desire to run.
It was midnight, and I sat on the front porch with my dad, looking down 102nd street. The season was less than a month away.
“Yeah?” he said looking over. His Camel made his face glow with an orange hue.
“I don’t want to run this year.” I tell him about how I used to love running. How it used to be my outlet. Whenever I was stressed, sad, anything, I’d go out and run.
I told him running started to change. It started to feel like an anchor. It kept me grounded in my past when I wanted to move on, when I wanted to try new things in high school, like the Environmental Club and Coalition. But mainly it held me back from writing.
He listens, hearing my troubles. When I stop he sits there, smoke wisping out of his mouth.
“Mike, if you don’t want to run, then you don’t have to,” he says, like it’s a simple solution.
“But, if I don’t, I’ll be letting the team down,” I argue back.
“Do you know who the only person that you’ll have to deal with your entire life is?”
“You. So why not try to make that person as happy as possible?”
We sat on the porch and talked for a while more before I went to bed.
The only person I’ll live with for my entire life is me, ran through my mind as I fell asleep.
* * *
Mom didn’t take it the same way Dad did.
I just need to be at Dad’s right now. My mind guilts me as I drive down Roe.
She brings up good points you know, I tell myself, reliving my silence as she begged me to keep running.
You’re so good.
You’re a leader on the team.
I’m just scared that you’ll regret it.
She was crying while I just sat across the table, silent. What could I say?
What if I regret it? I think. All these great memories as a runner. Can I just leave that all behind?
* * *
As Trish talks, every memory and every argument I’ve had goes through my head. I thought about Chicago. I thought about Rooker. I thought about what my mom said.
I thought about what my dad said.
The only person you’ll live with for your entire life is you. Make that person happy.
Running isn’t making me happy anymore. My original plan wasn’t making me happy.
So why am I still sticking to it? It’s time to move on to something that will.
Trish stops talking, waiting for a reply.
“I think I know what I want to do, Coach,” I say, the words tumbling out of my mouth. “I think I need to take this year off.”
* * *
I left cross country behind to make room for new things. I didn’t want to spend all of high school focused on something that wasn’t making me happy. There isn’t a resolution to this story. I’ll always question my decision, but I made the decision so I could be happy. And I can live with that.