“What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.”
— John L. Parker Jr.
Spring break. A time for beaches, for beer, for babes.
Or maybe a 20-hour drive for no reason other than the chance to run an endless series of 400s in an effort to make your lungs explode.
I’m at the track with Mo. If you were to bottle up the perfect day to sell on the weather channel late-night infomercial, this one would be a good choice. I had forgotten how much I love this weather. It’s coming back to me.
We’re sitting on the bench theorizing the warning signs of a nuclear strike when they walk by. Six runners. College. That middle-distance physique that combines a muscular body with legs that are cartoonishly too long for the body to which they’re attached. Gazelles. They’re all wearing black shorts, no shirts, except one guy in a T-shirt and khaki shorts. One in every crowd. Matching backpacks. That quiet confidence of being the biggest cat in the jungle. We sit, awed.
They walk over to the corner near the long-jump pit and sit down to stretch. Who are they? Backpacks would rule out the local team. We’ve been awaiting the Dartmouth guys to mark the official arrival of spring, but there aren’t enough of them, and there are no coaches and no green. We wait. They’re in no rush. Someone has to make the first move. It’s us.
We head on to the track, taking lanes 7 and 8. There’s a guy upside down almost in 8. Mo kicks him out of the way and we head into the turn. Who are these guys and why are they here? A quarter mile later, Mo can’t take it anymore. She violates the Sacred Code of Silence and asks.
One guy has been left behind as the others have gone out for their warmup runs. His right calf is having quality time with a tennis ball. Seems like a nice guy. Mo asks him to fill out the index card telling their story.
They’re on spring break from Southern Illinois University. They have a weeklong break from running, so they’re running even more. They have a condo in Flagstaff and came down to Scottsdale for the day. Live high, train low. Mo asks how they like Flag and he gives sort of a puzzled look, like how the hell would I know we’re running all the time. I mention there’s a rather large canyon just down the road from there and he says they might go tomorrow. So there’s that. But mostly, they run.
Three of the guys head off the track and onto Dog Road, a stretch of dirt that leads on to the Hopi reservation and certain death from packs of wild coyotes. But I figure these guys can outrun the dogs. Good to break the mongrels’ spirits.
The other three trot slowly around the track. It’s amazing what sharing the track with gazelles will do to you. I feel myself involuntarily picking up the pace. There’s an energy you feed off. I love that feeling. The guys are all business. They’re half a country away from home, but it’s a 400 meter home away from home. Track, sweet track.
We run in the outside lanes and my mind wanders. You have a week off from school. Early 20s, endless possibilities. You can do anything. So you hop in a car and drive an entire day to get to one of the most beautiful destinations in America. Which you proceed to ignore because you’re running an insane number of miles. Removing, molecule by molecule, the rubber on the bottom of your training shoes. Then you hop in the car to lose 5,000 feet so you can run even faster. We’re home to the Cactus League, currently underway here, but for them, spring training has an entirely different meaning.
The three guys are ready to crank it up. We place our bets. Mo insists the thin guy with the graceful stride will prevail. I’m sure the other guy will kick his ass. He’s got a bit more of an upper body but it’s solid muscle. Built for speed. They’re accompanied by the guy in the T-shirt and khaki shorts. Good luck, pal.
They run a couple of 400s. Mo’s guy is hanging back in third, but nobody’s pressing. They run a cooldown the other direction, and get ready to suffer. And then.
Khaki guy takes off his shirt. Oh. They do the mark set go and take off. My guy is in the lead, followed by khaki guy, with Mo’s loser falling off. But maybe he has a kick? He does not. He fades in the back stretch. Khaki guy kicks going into the last turn, never looking back.
Another lap, same result. Khaki guy, my guy, Mo guy. We’re sitting on the bench next to the finish. You can see the suffering. They’re hurting, interval after interval. You don’t become a runner by winning a morning workout, Parker wrote. The only true way is to marshal the ferocity of your ambition over the course of many days, weeks, months and (if you could finally come to accept it), years. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials. You don’t understand till it parades past you.
Spring break. A time to relax on the beach. Or to try to kill your best friends on an endless set of death runs with no consequence other than the hope you’ll be 10 seconds faster in three months. Runners are weird. And heroic.
3.7 miles later, we head out. The Dog Road boys are flying in as we walk out. They must be doing sub-6 miles as they glide by, barely having broken a sweat, silent except for that graceful slapping of flats against sidewalk at 180 strides a minute. I look over my shoulder at the 400 runners, still trying to crush each other’s spirits a quarter at a time. I make a mental note to cheer for Southern Illinois this season.
They’ve earned it. They know The Secret.