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by Cole Parker

Chapter 6

Our next meet came around—another home match. This was a team that had beaten us handily last year, and they had everyone back but one guy. But he'd been their best guy, and I thought that without him, and having Jensen with us, we had a good chance to upset them.

Jensen always used the girls' locker room and showers after training runs. She showed up for stretching wearing just what we were all wearing. Although you had to look pretty closely to see she wasn't just another guy, one of the members of our opponents' team that day, a guy I'd run against for three years now, noticed. He always thought he was funny. I'd never liked him.

He was with his team prior to the race and had to shout at me from that distance. "Hey, Xander, what's this? Ran out of boys for your team? You guys are dipping pretty low into the bag for runners, looks like to me."

He didn't even smile after that. This wasn't him making a joke. He was putting our team down. I yelled back across the field to him. "Guess you won't be too happy then when she stomps all over your ass."

"She can do whatever she wants with my ass," he yelled back.

Jensen stood up from the leg stretching she'd been doing while sitting on the ground. She looked at him, stared at him, and he stared back for a moment, but she never moved her eyes. Never changed her facial expression. Eventually, he yelled, "What's with that? You think you're intimidating me?"

"No," she called back, "just memorizing what an asshole looks like. You don't see many walking around in daylight."

He stood up and started to respond, but his coach grabbed him. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I thought I saw his lips form the words 'sexual harassment'. The kid sat back down but still glared in Jensen's direction. I looked around for our coach, but he was talking to the meet officials. I guessed I was supposed to be keeping our team in order.

I stepped over to Jensen. "Look out for him when we're running," I told her. "When we're out of sight of everyone, you don't know what he'll do."

She smiled at me, a rather feral smile, I thought. "Won't have to," she snorted. "I'll be way in front of him."

"How do you know that?"

She smiled. "I watched them run. They practice on their track at night. He was always in the back group. No sweat."

She somehow made it to their school and scouted them? Really? I knew she took this seriously. You could tell easily enough in practice. But I didn't know it was this serious.

"Wait a minute. I thought you were new here, just came to live here and joined our school with a late registration. Otherwise, if you'd been here at the beginning of the school year, you'd have signed up for our team then. Yet you've watched them practice? I don't get it."

"You're right." She sat down on the ground to stretch again as we spoke. I sat down with her and stretched, too. "I just moved here. But we have a house just outside town, actually between your school and theirs. I could have gone to either school. So I watched both teams practice before deciding which to attend."

She looked at me then, and her smile was genuine this time. "You guys need me. And you all look like decent kids. I didn't get that impression watching them. I chose you guys. Your team." Then she laughed, but I didn't hear any humor in it. I did hear a competitive edge.

"I'm glad you did," I said, then got up and called the team together. "No pre-race strategy meeting. Just a reminder to do the best you can, run the race you're prepared to run, that your body can handle. Scott and I will kick out to a lead, but don't try to keep up with us or you'll burn yourself out. Jensen, why don't you start in the second group but stay right behind me for a short way. I'll jump out fast and you can get a quick lead on the competition and stay away from that jerk.

"Anyone have anything to say? Questions? Comments?"

To my surprise, Jensen spoke up. A shy, retiring girl she wasn't. "Yeah. Let's kick butt today, guys."

It was hardly a race. Scott and I shot to the front and no one from their team challenged us. Jensen ran to the front with us, then dropped back to third and was able to pace their lead runner the rest of the way. Devin and Brian stayed with their second and third best guys, and Scott and I were on cruise control the entire distance, finishing together at the end. In the final kick, Jensen beat their best man. We won handily.

Our team was boisterous in the shower, and Scott, all winning personality, was a big reason for it. He seemed to set the mood for the team, and when he was happy, we all were. We were all feeling like hot stuff and quite pleased with ourselves. It was obvious that with Jensen, we now had a good chance to have a fantastic season.

Our first two races against our high school competition with Jenson now on the team went as I'd thought they would. We won the meets easily, with Scott and me the first two runners in, followed by the lead runner of the team we were facing or Jensen, who'd run about even with or ahead of their best or second runner. With Brian and Devin following not far behind her, we were winning these races by a more than comfortable margin.

I should have been jubilant, and I was, mostly. However, there was an irksome fly in the ointment, a prickly burr under my saddle, a gnat buzzing around my head that I needed to swat. One of those. The gnat was named Scott.

I thought I was the best cross-country runner in northern California. I checked the internet for cross-country race results, and my times were usually under 15 minutes for the 5K races. Not necessarily much under 15 minutes, but under. Only one of the local teams in our conference had a runner whose times were better than 15:45. The really good runners in northern California ran closer to 15-minute 5Ks, but none were regularly sub-15-minute runners.

And then there was Scott. He was running races just like his practices. Shoulder to shoulder with me through the race and then dropping off right at the end so I'd win and he'd come in second. He had to be doing it on purpose. And, it was obvious to me that should he try, he could beat me. I didn't know that for a fact but couldn't stop myself from believing it. The only way I could possibly beat him would be with a great final kick. And I didn't know if I could beat him even doing that if he were to try his hardest. Once or twice in training when I'd tried to separate myself from him with as strong and long a kick as I could manage, I hadn't been able to separate myself from him at all. He just walked off afterwards grinning at me, pissing me off to high heaven because I was almost heaving my guts out while he was trying his hardest not to laugh. Neither of us had had to kick at all to beat the competition. But I was getting awfully tired of him staying with me during the races and then dropping back a step to let me win.

I had to know why he was doing that. And more than that, I needed to know how he could be so good. I knew I was good. It wasn't ego or braggadocio with me. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to get a major college running scholarship, and to that end I'd worked hard at my craft, and I guess I had some natural talent for it.

I read the times of other runners. I was very good. But that damned Scott was better! Why! How? I wanted to know.

So finally, I just asked him. It was after I'd tried to honestly beat him for the last time. It was in training, and I'd told him in advance that I was going to try a fast pace that day, and I did. I ran my usual sprint from the start, and when I slowed down, it wasn't nearly as much as usual. He stayed with me. We ran the next three kilometers at that faster pace, and I could feel it. I doubted I could sustain a long end kick, but thought I'd try, and with a little less than one K to go, kicked into top gear.

I was hurting as we neared the line. I was done, but still racing. I crossed the line and took two more steps and collapsed, my lungs revolting on me. Telling me that wasn't nice and don't do it again. For once, Scott sat down next to me, not acting as it would be fun to do this all over again right then.

He'd run with me the whole way, and when I was dying at the end, he was right next to me. At least I'd been able to hear his labored breathing this time.

This irritation had eaten at me long enough. I still had all these feelings for Scott bottled up in me, and then this aggravation because it didn't make sense a younger kid could run like he could. And right then, I decided enough was enough.

"Okay," I said, trying my hardest to make my voice even and not succeeding. I was still breathing too hard. I'd stopped gulping air but wasn't close to breathing normally yet.

"Okay?" he asked, with that despicable smile on his face. I felt like hitting him or kissing him or both, and I was tired of it!

"Okay, tell me how you're doing it. I don't get it. No one in the state your age can run anywhere near your speed, and you don't even get winded. So, okay, what gives?"

He didn't look at me. He looked away, and he took his time answering. When he did, he sounded sorry, but I wasn't sure what he was sorry about. It could have been for not telling me earlier, or it could have been he was sorry to have to stop tormenting me. Or something else. I didn't know. I just knew he sounded sorry.

What he said first wasn't what I expected.

"So how old do you think I am?"

"You're a freshman. Ninth grade. Ninth graders are usually 14. Sometimes 13, rarely 15. Usually 14. You look like you're 14. Uh, most of you looks 14." I think I blushed.

"I'm 15. I missed a year of school when Dad was assigned a job where there wasn't a school close by. I didn't mind. I got to run more." He stopped after saying that. Maybe he thought that was explanation enough. It wasn't.


"What do you mean, 'and'? Fifteen-year-olds can run better than freshmen!"

He was trying to sound provoked. He couldn't pull it off. What with his heavier than usual breathing and his desire to laugh, the ability to assume anger was running a poor third.

"No guys who're 15 can run like you do; none I know at least. There's more to the story. Time to come clean. And then you're going to tell me why you're letting me win."

That made him swivel his head to stare at me. Then he shook it. "Un-uh. No. I guess it's fair to tell you about my running. But not the other. And if you insist on both, I won't tell you either. Your choice."

There was no mistaking his voice this time. He was adamant.

"Okay, how come you're so good?"

He laughed. "I was wondering when you'd lose some of your pride and ask me."

"Pride? I'm not proud. Well, maybe a little. But when you've earned something, it's okay to be proud of it. If you've spent the hours I have running in all weather, no matter how miserable, all year every year, you've either gotten good or you're wasting your time. But I've put in that work. And I've seen how it's paid off. And no fuzzy-cheeked 15-year-old should be running rings around me. So . . . ?"

"I cheated."

I stopped to take a breath and look at him. My heart might have skipped a beat, too. I didn't want him to be a cheater. I wanted him to have beaten me on his own. I wanted him to be a good kid. I wanted him to be the type of kid I could be boyfriends with. If I ever found out he was gay.

He saw the look on my face and started shaking his head. "Hey, I'm kidding. I guess it was sort of cheating but not in a bad way, like taking drugs. I had an unfair advantage over you, but I didn't really cheat. Nothing illegal about it at all. I guess I'd better just tell you."

And he did. "I've done a lot of high-altitude training. You know, like all those African marathon runners. Except I did it here. My dad works for the US Forest Service. We spent time in Laramie, Wyoming, before we moved here a couple of years ago. That's where the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests are located; there's a ranger station in Laramie. I lived there, and I ran there. I've always liked running. People don't generally realize that Laramie's elevation is over 7,000 feet, not quite half again higher than Denver."

"So that gave you this kind of advantage?" I was trying to get my head around this. Scott was a great runner. On the surface of it, running in Laramie didn't seem to account for that.

"I've looked it up," he said. "When you run at elevation, you produce more red blood corpuscles; they carry more oxygen, so for a time you can run longer and harder than people who haven't had that boost. It's like legal cheating, which is why I used that word.

"The thing is, the effect will slowly wear off now that I'm living at a lower elevation, but since we're still pretty high here, it'll wear off more slowly. Another thing was, I spent the summer in Santa Fe visiting relatives, and it's very high there, too. That's why I was so good when we started training."

"So you won't always be able to run like this?" I hoped my eagerness for that to be true didn't show. I didn't want to be like this! But I defined myself by my running. Scott's ability had brought me down to earth. Maybe it was just human to not want to lose what I'd had: the superior feeling of being the best around. And being hopeful of getting that back. Even as I said this, though, it didn't feel right. I wasn't proud of feeling this way. I decided to stuff that attitude back in a drawer and then lock it.

He grinned. "No, you'll be better than I am by next year, maybe even before the end of this year. I don't know. Today was hard, I'll tell you that. But, you know, if you wanted to, you could gain the same benefit I have. There's a high-elevation town near here, Aspendell, and you could do some training there. It's less than an hour's drive from Bishop. Camp out there, train there Saturday and Sunday and just that fast you'll start feeling the difference. I've looked it up on the internet. I read that if you spend a full week training at high altitude, the benefits will last several weeks at sea level. Up here where we live, they'd probably last even longer."

"Yeah, I'd love to do that. Probably not now, but maybe in the summer? But I wouldn't want to do it by myself. Would you like to come, too? Maybe we could stay there even longer then. And then next year, we'd both be able to finish races together again. I do like running with you, even while it's pissing me off."

He nodded and his smile broadened. "I can do that. I'd love to do it. And it should make a big difference. I read that running coaches like to have their elite runners spend at least two weeks steady at high altitude. We could do that. The Forest Service has some cabins up there that are usually uninhabited, and we could get one, I'm sure. My dad could arrange it. We could spend as much time there as we wanted. I'll bet you could drop your 5K time maybe as much as three minutes, maybe even more, by training up there for a month. If we stayed up there that long and ran every day, no one could beat us next year."

I didn't hesitate. "Talk to your dad. Sign us up. I'm in!" And I wasn't only thinking of running. I knew it would be a great disappointment if I'd learned by then that he was straight, but I still liked him a lot, loved his effervescent personality, and spending a month with him, getting to be a better runner, just the two of us, we'd have a great time no matter what.

We won our next meet, an away meet, without either Scott or me breaking a sweat. Scott still finished a step behind me. I'd find a way to learn why he was doing that eventually. Maybe next summer.

Our next meet would be away again and against a team I didn't like at all. It was an exclusive all-boys school, and the students were a stuck-up bunch of jerks. I talked to our team about them before our training sessions that week, telling them not to pay any attention to their jibes or aloof attitudes before the race, to do just what they'd been doing all season. Our training went well during the week. I figured this was our year to smoke them.

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