Saturday, June 20, 2009

The original random hammerfest (redux)

Hobbyjogger's note: The following entry was originally posted on the swamp messageboard this past April, a few days before the Boston Marathon. I was on my way to bed one night after watching a Celtics playoff game against Chicago when for some reason I sat down at the computer and this poured out of me. Call it taper madness combined with the adrenaline of a Celtics playoff win combined with the nostalgia brought on by it being my oldest daughter's 12th birthday the next day. But for some reason I felt the need to write all of this down and then hastily post it somewhere for someone to read. Because this piece is one of the things that inspired me to start this silly blog in the first place and for other reasons that should become obvious, I thought it fitting to make it the first ever Father's Day edition of the Hobbyjogger Chronicles. So here, with only minor edits, is 'the original random hammerfest.' I hope you enjoy it.




In the summer of 1988 it was hot as balls, and my dad died. I graduated from high school in June of that year and in late July, he died. I did a decent amount of running that hot summer, sometimes at odd hours like 11 o'clock at night when I couldn’t fall asleep and the stress of my household would press on me like a great weight and I would sneak out of the house and just go. Anywhere. I would sneak back in during the middle of the night and lie in bed soaked in my own sweat but so exhausted I would just drift off. Then I would get up the next morning and go to work painting houses for TJ Bane & Co.

He died on a Saturday night. I remember sitting on our front porch shortly afterward and calling over to a friend’s house where I knew there was a party going on that most of my friends were attending. I asked for my buddy, Sean, and when he came on the phone I just said, “Hey, Sean, my dad died.”

“Ah shit, Mike, I’m sorry,” he said.

“Yeah, I know…just tell the boys, will ya?”

Soon after that they all started rolling up in front of my house and a bunch of us were sitting on the front porch when the funeral home people wheeled him out the front door and took him away.

A couple of weeks later--after a day spent standing on ladders in the hot sun--I came home, rinsed off under the hose, changed shorts, threw on a pair of trainers and drove down to the high school to meet Sean. We had planned to meet that night to run The Lynnfield, our 10-mile loop from track. I parked my dad’s Civic by the edge of the baseball field and waited for Sean for a few minutes until he rolled up on a little motor scooter that he had borrowed from another one of our friends. We chatted for a few minutes and then when we heard the big bell in the Old South Church toll for 5 o’clock, I tossed my t-shirt and watch through the open window of the car onto the front seat, Sean tossed his t-shirt on the seat of the scooter, and we headed off.

Getting underway we chatted about the usual stuff like girls and work. We joked and made fun of each other like normal. I had spent the day sanding the side of a condo complex in the sun and Sean had spent it stocking beer in the basement of a bar. We were the negative image of each other—I was dark and made darker by the sun, he was pale as a ghost with blond hair and blue eyes.

We rolled on up Pearl Street, went right on Franklin and then turned left on Haverhill and headed into North Reading. It was flat here and we were jogging along carefree in the moment. When we crossed into North Reading and turned onto Chestnut Street around the 3 mile mark, the intensity started to build. It was nothing serious at first--just a little faster.

The conversation began to die down as the pace increased approaching the Lynnfield line and by the time we hit the stretch of rolling hills there, things had gotten pretty quiet. There was still the occasional word here or there, something added to a previous argument or a funny expression said randomly to get a laugh. But mostly it was quiet.

When you run The Lynnfield, at the end of Chestnut Street you approach Route 128 but just before you get there, you make a hard right onto Bay State Road at the Lynnfield Animal Hospital. Here the road is pancake flat as it runs parallel to the highway for a mile or so. The rush hour traffic on 128, about 150 yards to our left, was heavy enough that we were going as fast or faster than the cars. And so the sound we could hear over low traffic noise was the rhythmic, “pfft, pfft, pfft, pfft,” of our feet striking the ground in unison as we hammered along that flat, black asphalt with those summer heat ripples rising up into the late-afternoon haze. We crossed into Wakefield and passed the Elks lodge then the road veered slightly away from the highway and we were left with just the “pfft, pfft, pfft, pfft” and our breathing and the fact that neither of us had said a word in quite a while now and, lets face it, we were flying.

We hauled past the National Guard base and across the Wakefield rotary and headed up Salem Street toward Reading Square. The road goes from flat to slightly uphill around Memorial Park here but we barely noticed as we slid along faster than the cars that were backed up for the light at the square. Just before Main Street there is a short, very steep uphill that was the bane of every teenager learning to drive stick, but to our legs of steel that night it was just a bump. I don’t really remember looking to see if any cars were coming as we tore ass across Main Street through the square and right in front of the Old South church. I’ve often wondered what we must have looked like—two shirtless, skinny-ass teenagers ripping through town at five something pace in the midst of the afternoon rush. I wish I could have seen us.

Passing the Laurel Hill cemetery and turning onto Highland Street, we crested the highest hill on this route and it was all downhill now back to the high school campus. We were racing unabashedly and neither of us was going to blink. Our feet slapped the ground as we hurled ourselves down the steep but mercifully short hill just before the end of Bancroft and made the sharp right turn onto the path of the high school campus.

Upon turning onto the path we slowed to a jog and then a walk and then stopped at the water fountain by the little creek and just like that it was over. We took turns intermittently guzzling water from the fountain and letting the water flow over the backs of our necks and heads and at some point during this soaking we heard the big old church bell slowly sound out six times.

As we walked across the basketball court and the little field to my car, we still didn’t really speak. We just looked at each other and grinned and even giggled a few times sort of shaking our heads as if to say, “What the hell was that?” We made our plans to meet up with a few buddies later that night and then went our separate ways. Ten hot miles in the books.

A few weeks later I went off to Providence where I found out Ray Treacy had no use for a 2:03 800 meter runner who had never run more than 50 miles in a week. And so I drank beer, played some rugby, lived like a regular college idiot and that was that. Sean had one last year of high school to light up the track and then he ran a year at Cushing before winding up at Umass Lowell where a chronic knee injury finally got to be too much and he hung it up too.

Over the years I got pretty out of shape and went many long stretches without running a step. But I always, stubbornly perhaps, considered myself a runner and had a pair of trainers in the closet and knew where they were just in case. Eventually running did call me back and I began, tentatively and painfully at first, to undo the damage of years and sloth and idleness. And now, years later and a runner for sure, I know that it was not the memory of any schoolboy triumph, or individual win, or relay, or team championship, or race of any kind that kept me from ever getting so far gone that I couldn’t come all the way back.

It was just a random hammerfest.

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