A squadron of spectators screamed and hooted, and Liam could feel his legs lighten. It was possible. He could run at any speed now; he would accelerate and accelerate and accelerate…
When Liam Walker joins a running club in New York City, it's with some trepidation. Liam has always loved running, but the world of team racing, and the camaraderie that goes with it, are new to him. Still, after years of stagnancy--working for the same magazine, living in the same apartment, and jumping from one short-term boyfriend to another--he's ready to try.
At the club, Liam meets athletes of every stripe. Some are fiercely competitive, others more interested in the after-race bagels or team nights out partying. The revelations on the track hardly compare to what happens off it--the romance and heartaches, rivalries and injuries. And as the year unfurls leading to the ultimate challenge--the New York City Marathon--Liam starts to realize all the ways in which life is measured by hills and valleys, in how far you're willing to push yourself, and in who's waiting for you at the finish line…
Robert Lennon works in corporate business development at a large global law firm and is a former president of Front Runners New York--one of the largest LGBT athletic clubs in the world. A former journalist for The American Lawyer magazine, Rob spends much of his time writing. As an avid runner who has completed the NYC marathon five times, Rob fuses his talents as a writer and a runner through this work. Rob has a Master's Degree in Journalism from Columbia University and a BA in History and Psychology from Duke University. He lives in Connecticut with his partner, Mark, and their twin sons.
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May 29, 2012
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Excerpt from The Miles by Robert Lennon
The morning could not make up its mind. The strong sun yielded, more and more, to the army of clouds taking hostage of the fall sky. Icy winds gusted around the fields of Van Cortlandt Park trumpeting the coming of winter, but then let up as the sun winked through the heavy sky. It was the middle of November, and the seasons were duking it out over New York City.
Like many of the runners, Liam waited by the baggage check, wearing his warm-up pants and gloves. He hopped up and down and ran in place to stay warm. The moment would come, and shortly, when the officials corralled everyone to the starting line, and Liam would need to strip his pants off and exchange the fleece pullover that warmed his upper body with his skimpy racing singlet. Having just joined the running club, he felt it was important to don the team uniform today.
The megaphone honked some indiscernible instruction and the throng of long-limbed runners jogged toward the far end of the narrow playing field. The grass had already browned and much of the normally soft dirt had hardened with the recent cold fronts. Liam felt the uneven turf through the thin soles of his racing flats. No matter how many races he ran, stretching back to grammar school, Liam always savored and dreaded this starting-line moment. There, standing among a sea of determined athletes, he understood that the race was still a font of possibility, the result dormant in the fast-twitch fibers of everyone on the starting line. This beautiful and cruel fact of running connected Liam with all of the other gangly runners out on this 45-degree Sunday morning at just a shade past dawn.
A wizened man, who looked to be in his early seventies, whistled to command the runners' attention. The wind shot down from the hills just north of the field, lassoing the man's thin wisps of white hair into a makeshift Mohawk. Nervous laughter rustled through the crowd as the man furiously batted down the errant hairs. Bristling from the unwanted attention, he picked up the megaphone to hasten the start of the race. "On your mark!" the old man shouted. Liam canvassed the start one last time to get a sense of the competition. After doing just a smattering of local races, Liam already recognized a few familiar faces among the anxious masses. After deciding to get back into running following a long postcollege hiatus due to burnout, Liam had participated in about a half dozen races solo before being approached to join the Fast Trackers. Apparently club leaders used their gaydar to scout for potential new members at the start and finish lines of local events. Having viewed running as a solitary endeavor for so much of his life, Liam looked forward to the camaraderie of being part of a gay running team. But right now, Liam enjoyed the eye candy offered by the super-fit runners from the other teams present at this race. One, a hollow-cheeked guy whose chocolate eyes and full red lips bestowed a vaguely French look upon his underfed face, had inched past him at the finish of the last 5K. Runners tend to remember moments like that and plot careful revenge. The gaunt man's eyes twinkled as he acknowledged Liam's stare. And the gun went off.
After jostling through the first hundred meters of the field, Liam began to feel comfortable and well positioned. He kept telling himself to control his breathing; the adrenaline could ruin a fine race with too fast a start. His high school coach, Daryl Humphries, an almost-member of the 1984 Olympic distance team who lived vicariously through whomever he was currently coaching, had always warned that a road race could not be won in the first mile, though it could easily be lost, "if you go out like a fool with something to prove."
As he rounded the turn toward the backstretch of the field, Liam caught sight of the three lead runners. They had already picked up a sizable lead after only five minutes of racing. There was something enviably effortless and offensively unobtainable in the way their lithe bodies moved. The pale November light emphasized the architectural beauty of their sinewy arms and legs. The thin straps of their singlets moved up and down on the knobs of their shoulders where the collarbone protruded. Liam tried to control his breathing and focused on his gait as those more naturally fleet of foot charged up the hills and into the woods, where the race course truly began.
Autumn had come late this year, and mounds of recently fallen leaves coated the middle section of the running trail. Knowing how uneven and rocky this winding path was, Liam looked for the open spaces between the leaves throughout the race. He played a game where he tried to find leafless patches large enough for his entire foot, and used that challenge to keep his mind off the pain that now funneled through his body. You weren't running your hardest if you didn't feel these slight twinges of pain. That was another one of Daryl's famous running credos. Liam's lungs were always fine while racing, but his stomach heaved whenever he ran at top speed for more than a mile. He knew that if he ignored the awful sensation, then nothing bad would happen to him. The body can withstand amazing stress.
The first set of rolling hills proved to be easier than Liam remembered. He had hit his stride and was neither being passed nor passing other runners. A good omen. The course took a sharp downhill and then hooked left before climbing into a monstrous uphill. Even though Liam had readied his body, the steep rise began to take its toll. He shortened his stride and focused on quickening the turnover of his feet to maintain his pace with slightly less effort. So much of running well was about physics and mechanics. Liam didn't realize that his breathing had become grossly audible until the Parisian runner strode up alongside him and asked if he was okay. Understanding this as a psych-out technique, Liam nodded and choked down his abbreviated breaths. He knew that if he just stayed in step with this runner through the crest of the hill, he would be completely fine. While not the greatest uphill runner, Liam had complete faith in his ability to tear down hills with unmatched speed. As they moved above the peak of the trail, Liam imagined all the tension in his spine uncoiling as he worked his arms and let gravity catapult him down the hill. He knew that he had to step confidently and allow the momentum he generated to glide him through the next series of rolling hills, which would deposit him near the finish line of this 5K loop.
As soon as he passed his newfound nemesis, Liam wondered how far back he was and found himself listening for his competitor's breathing and for the fall of his feet along the cross-country trail. Remembering a cardinal rule of running, Liam refused to look over his shoulder and instead concentrated on the runner ahead of him. The tall figure was just a smudge in Liam's field of vision, too far ahead right now to be passable. Liam moved his arms with more force and determination, so that his legs might not slow from the exhaustion.
Bearing right at the final fork of the cross-country course, Liam could see the bright yellow banner that hung above the finish line. He directed all his attention toward his legs and leaned into his stride. He reminded himself that pushing through the end of the race, speeding toward the finish despite exhaustion, is what separates the extraordinary runner from the average one. Anyone can run fast when they're fresh; it takes desire and determination to run fast when tired.
In a matter of seconds, Liam realized he was closing ground on the runner in front of him. Was he truly running faster or had this other runner slowed down? The orange star on the blue microfiber tank top soon became clear. This was a team member whose head now bobbled and whose arms flailed as he attempted to finish the race. A squadron of spectators screamed and hooted, and Liam could feel his legs lighten. It was possible. He could run at any speed now; he would accelerate and accelerate and accelerate. As he passed the Fast Tracker, Liam shouted, "Come on, man! Suck it up and count to ten. We're there!" And with that wake-up call, the sluggish guy was roused and attempted to match Liam stride for stride. Liam could not hold back, though he knew that finishing on the line together would be a pleasant gesture of camaraderie, a way for the new guy to show that he was a team player. And Liam did think of himself as a team player. But he had to be true to the instincts that overtook him during races. What was the point of training to the brink of exhaustion during workouts and then pushing your physical limits on race day to suddenly rein it all in? Liam flew through the finishing chute, practically crashing into the man recording the times and places of the racers.
"Good job!" Liam felt the sweaty touch and knew it was the Fast Tracker he'd just bested. As he lifted his head to offer congratulations, Liam saw the emaciated Frenchman cross the finishing line.
"That course kicked my ass!" It was the truth, but Liam felt embarrassed to have offered up the least original thing one runner had ever said to another.
"Yeah, right!" The sallow-faced man struggled to catch his breath. "Your ass seemed just fine to me." Now he brushed some sweat from his brow before extending his hand for an introduction. "I'm Gene . . . You must be new to the team."
"Excuse me! Excuse me! Could you take the small talk somewhere else? People need to walk through this chute to get out of here."
The Frenchman scissored by in a huff, but Liam couldn't help admiring the angles of his face and the self-important manner with which he moved.
"Maybe he's sore that I got the best of him out there." Liam chuckled.
"You'll get to know that one," Gene said. "Didier Vallois. He's a real peach. All the Urban Bobcats take themselves way too seriously. They're the fastest guys in town so they expect a parting of the seas worthy of Moses."