**Trigger Warning: Please be aware that some scenes reference abusive relationships and sexual assault.**
Five am. The alarm on my flip phone buzzes, sending vibrations through my pillow. My twelve-year-old body scrambles out of bed, sneaks down the hallway, and into my parent’s bedroom to wake up my father.
We put on our running shoes, already caked in mud, and head out the door as the first rays of sun begin to break through the overcast sky. We run the trails, meandering our way uphill, through the trees, over logs and a creek. About a mile and a half in, we pause at a crest. Dad stands still as I head back in the direction we came. After creating a roughly fifty-foot gap between the two of us, I pause and look over my shoulder.
“Ready?” He calls.
I kick the ground beneath me, scuffing the dirt.
I clench my small fists into a ball and release them.
We start racing downhill. I weave around tight corners, grasping at tree trunks, using them to maintain stability as rocks and leaves become unearthed underfoot. I use the technical aspects of the trail to my advantage, leaping and bounding with little regard for safety; knowing my opponent, currently in hot pursuit, would approach the treacherous portions of the trail with more caution than I. My lungs burn and my shoulders ache. I shake out my hands again. Faster. The tree line breaks and I’m met with a busy four way intersection. Turning on my heel, I come to a sudden halt, and see my father only moments behind. I laugh, I hadn’t been caught today. What a happy feeling.
My friend giggles as she pushes me onto the track. I am immediately caught in a jostling throng of other children. It’s a beautiful day, white clouds whispering their way across a baby blue sky.
The starting gun sounds with a bang. I wasn’t supposed to be in this race, but I’m swept along with the others. Two laps is too far. Anxious energy begins to well up inside me as I run, trying to break free from the current. Get out of here. I ease off of the pace, allowing the runners to flow around me. As I fall off the pack, I lean to the right, making my way around the others in the outside lanes. My lungs burn and my shoulders ache. I shake out my hands. Faster. I win. My friend is bent over, choking on her laughter.
Up until that point, I had never raced further than a lap, nor had I won anything. But then again, I had never taken running seriously.
“Hey, where have you been?”
I look up from my locker, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, you haven’t been to cross-country practice yet. I thought we were going to join the team together.” She had a quizzical expression on her face. I stared at her blankly.
“Yeah… but what do you mean though? Has practice started already?”
“Dude, like 3 weeks ago.” She groaned, “The first race is this week.”
“Shit.” I muttered. “Do you think I could still join?”
“I don’t know man, but you should go ask today. Come with me and talk to Coach.”
“Alright, alright.” I responded and threw my backpack on.
How did I mess this one up? Three weeks? C’mon, I’m bad but not that bad. I rub my eyes, frustrated with the massive oversight. We walk out to the track where a stocky, intimidating man stands. His black sunglasses and baseball cap make his expression impossible to read. As we approach he looks up and exasperatedly sighs, “Well, well, well. Where have you been?”
“I’m sorry.” I plead, cursing my ignorance, “I didn’t realize practice had started. Is it still possible to join?”
Tipping his sunglasses down, he briefly makes eye contact before nudging them back into place. “The first race is tomorrow. You won’t be able to compete for at least two weeks while you catch up to the rest of the girls. Get your paperwork to me by tomorrow. Today you can just watch.” He says, turning away.
He was curt, but that’s okay. It didn’t matter if I had to sit out a few races; the important thing is that he is going to let me on the team. After all, running was just for fun.
I’m sitting on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. My face hot and wet with tears, my throat sore, and my head pounding. I stare at the phone screen, re-reading the words over and over again: ‘If I go, you go with me. This is your fault.’ A man I love, fallen victim to drug abuse and mental illness, blaming me for his unhappiness. Treating me with vile hatred, yet refusing to let me go. I believe him. It is my fault. I ruined him. I didn’t stop him. My fault. I am a bad person. I should’ve done something. I don’t deserve to be here. Not if this is what I do. How do you make this stop? How do you fix it. My leg is bleeding. I touch it. You can’t. I can’t. Didn’t stop. It’s my fault.
I don’t sleep. 5am. My phone buzzes under the pillow and I move slowly. It’s my fault. Crawling out of bed and down the stairs. It’s my fault. I had worn my running clothes as pajamas to avoid having to change in the morning. I lace up my shoes and head outside for a trot around the neighborhood. Two easy miles.
I go to class, eat a chocolate chip muffin and drink a cup of coffee with too much sugar. It’s my fault.
After classes, I run another 5 miles. We have a race this weekend.
I go home and eat a banana. It’s my fault. I ask my Mum to save me some dinner and go to the gym. I run another 7 miles on the treadmill.
At home, I take my textbooks into bed with me, falsely convincing myself of potential productivity. It’s my fault. Just one more race. I am asleep moments later. It’s my fault.
“If you’re going to run 5:30 for a mile, then you shouldn’t be running at this level.” My coach growled at me. He was right, my running had fallen apart, My high school self would kick my ass in a race right now. I don’t know why I’m still trying. I haven’t PR’d in ages. I’m tired all the time, I can’t keep up with the mileage. I’m sick every other week. This was pathetic.
A few hours later, I’m on the phone with my father. “I just can’t keep up, I’m so tired.” My voice quivered, “I’m sorry. I just don’t know.”
“Then quit, it will be okay, we will find a way to pay for you to stay. You can quit running Corey.” His voice was calm and soft. He wasn’t angry. The relief was overwhelming.
Later that evening I received a message. My eyes glazed over as they read the words in front of me. “…Thank you for everything. I’m sorry I couldn’t be better for you…goodbye…” He was going to do it. This was real. It’s my fault. I call his friends. Only one can help. They drive to his parent’s house that night, informing them of the emergency. His parents find him. He survived. He is furious with me. I don’t say anything. It’s my fault. I decide to keep running.
I bounce my leg, barely able to contain my excitement. My immediate family was gathered in my parent’s living room for Christmas morning. The chaos is joyful; the house smells of coffee, pine trees, and a wood fire. My Mum walks over to my Dad, who is sitting across from me, wiping her hands with a dishtowel.
“What’s this?” She asks.
“Your guys’ Christmas present” I responded, grinning.
Dad looked up from the envelope in his hand, eyebrow raised. Mum taps him on the shoulder, “Oh I love presents, open it!”
He tears it open, retrieving the letter inside, a grin spreading across his face. He pauses for a moment before reading it aloud, “I am writing to inform you that, due to her contributions to the cross country program this past season, I will be awarding Corey with the following scholarship-”
“You got a scholarship?!”
“When did this happen?”
As my family erupted with questions, I chuckle, “Coach told me last month.”
“Well, this is awesome. Congratulations honey!” My dad says, still smiling.
My stomach churns and my shoulders ache as I haul ass down the Brooklyn Bridge. This is insane, where is everyone. It’s raining, it’s dark, I’m not sure where I’m going. All I know for certain is that I need to make it back over this fucking bridge and take a right. My phone’s gone black, most likely the result of it’s surprise flight and subsequent crash into the middle of an intersection back in Red Hook. Make it to the bottom of the bridge and take a right. My watch beeps, I glance down, 6:08 no wonder my stomach hurts. I reach the stairs and scramble down to the road. I immediately forsake the sidewalk and run into the streets. Timing my movements carefully as to not disrupt the traffic, I lean into the run. It’s got to be close, please be close. I approach an intersection, and quickly glance to the left. Fuck not here. I keep running. I hear it before I see it. People yelling, cheering, happy to be in the rain, excited to see the athletes emerge from the dark streets, crossing the finish line. Thank god. I close my eyes for a moment, reveling in the understanding that relief is only moments away. I cross the finish line and slump to the ground. I have no idea how fast I ran, or how far. I don’t know where I placed, and I don’t care.
As we drove home that night, I became increasingly emotional. I had just run one of the most difficult races of my career and had an unexpected amount of joy doing it. I flashed back to running through the trails as a kid with my dad. It had felt like that. I emailed J: “…This was incredible. It gave me just the kick in my ass I needed. I look forward to coming back. Thank you.” He didn’t respond, I didn’t expect him to. I was just happy.
I took some time off of running to nurse a bum hip.
One evening, someone whom I had once considered a friend said, “I would love to hold you down and fuck you. Consensually.” I thought it was strange he had made that distinction. He almost got what he wanted. It’s my fault.
I started running again.
“17:52! So close!” My coach was ecstatic. I was laying on my back on the track panting, having just finished running a 5k time trial. I covered my ears with my hands, willing my heart rate to slow down. “Come on, stand up and walk it off.” His voice was muffled but clear enough. I was mere seconds off of my personal best time. That meant there was room for growth, that I could be faster than I had previously thought possible. I uncovered my ears and stood shakily. I was excited. Running was fun again, I was good at it and there was a chance I could get better. The addiction to potential growth was becoming insatiable.
We decided I should take a week off and start a new training block the following Monday. That evening I celebrated my new found confidence with a boisterous evening of swing dancing and whiskey.
The following Monday I shoved my feet into a pair of running shoes and headed out the door. I moved slowly, coaxing my muscles awake. As my shoulders loosened, so did my back, and then my quads, but as I extended my legs went to wake my hamstrings, they were less eager. And as the run continued the right hamstring began to protest. Pulling itself into a tighter and tighter ball. Whining with discomfort and eventually barking in pain. I stopped and walked. Why does this hurt so much. It was fine last week. I tried to break out into a jog, only to be rewarded with a sharp twang down the back of my thigh. Fuck.
J and I were messaging one another about an upcoming race and my injury. Due to my consistent appearance at events, we had become casual acquaintances and occasionally exchanged a few words. The conversation turned to our professional lives.
C: “I currently manage a running specialty store, doing biomechanics analysis and shoe fittings. I also coach a local high school team. But I just turned in my resignation at the store, so I’ll be officially unemployed as of January 2nd.”
J: “Exciting! If I can help in any way let me know. If you could do anything what would you do?”
C: “It is exciting! Also a little nerve wracking, but it was time. And that’s the big question! Honestly, I’m not sure. I love to run, and I love working with runners but I think I’m just trying to figure out how to do that in a bigger way. And in a way that allows me to move out of my parents house. Any and all suggestions/insight is always welcome.”
J: “I mean options are limitless. I have a ton of connections in many different facets of the sport in nyc. If you want we can grab a tea and brainstorm. See if anything I can do would make sense.”
C: “That would be awesome! I would love to. Being able to pick your brain would be fantastic. I know you said you are traveling at the moment, when would work best for you?”
We settled on 6pm after I got off of work the following Monday.
We met at Franks, a little Italian spot near Noho. I’m not going to lie, I was on edge. I had fallen in love with OSR through the races, but up until this moment, J was a mystery. Our interactions were few and far between, leaving me to assume his character as an individual, and I assumed it to be intimidating.
The warmly lit restaurant was small and lively. I scanned the room, finding J sitting comfortably at the bar. I squeezed my way between laughing patrons and pulled out the stool next to him. He looked up, surprised by my sudden entrance. “Hi!” He said, “How are you?” I situated myself on the seat and was immediately put at ease by the warm and friendly expression he wore. He was already less scary than the photos.
We ordered a couple of beers and got to talking. He relayed the story of how OSR began and how he had gotten to be who he was. An architect turned race director, due to a recession, an exploration of self, and the pursuit of a pretty girl. I relayed my story. A college athlete turned retail store manager, looking for something I couldn’t yet see.
“You have to follow your gut. Always.” J said, “I’ve never regretted listening to my own intuition.”
As I jogged back to the train station that evening, I felt invigorated. My perception had changed. My previous uncertainty about next steps were rooted in the need to abide by unnecessary expectations. Now it felt as if I had a responsibility to listen to my own intuition, and it’s voice was clear: stay in New York.
12:55am alright, time to get into position. “Hey, so I need one or two of you to go one block up and direct the runners towards the left side of the street. I’m going to give you a call once the race starts so we can let you know if there are any last minute changes. Hopefully it won’t be a problem, but if it is I’ll let you know.” I spoke to the volunteers quickly as I surveyed my surroundings. Cop cars lined the street, and despite their lack of occupants, their presence was still unnerving. Six minutes is all we need. “I’ll need another person to watch out for traffic and someone to hold the finish line tape with me.” The volunteers promptly sorted themselves into their preferred tasks and headed out.
12:57am, I looked over my shoulder and saw the timing guy roll out a mat across the bike lane. He jumped back into his car and made sure everything was ready to go. If we have to move now, it would be next to impossible. My phone began to vibrate violently in my pocket. It was J, I picked it up.
“Hey!” I spoke excitedly, refusing to let the anxiety creep into my voice.
“Hey, are you guys ready down there?” J asked, speaking over jumbled noises in the background.
“Yeah, all set when you are.”
“Great, we’re going to start with the light.”
“Okay.” I said. J and I ended our call so he could coordinate the start with the timing specialist. I called the volunteers standing about a block away, while Matt, the one helping with the finish line tape, pulled up the live stream footage on his phone. “Hey! They’re about to start.” I spoke into my cell.
“Okay, awesome, thanks for letting us know.” The voice crackled through the phone.
12:59am, the finish line clock begins to tick. They must’ve started a moment early, good. Six minutes, that’s all. Matt and I secured our respective ends of the finish line tape, double checking to make sure it would be oriented properly when the runners crossed.
The minutes drew on slowly. A blanket of city noise lay over us, hushing our small group. We watched the livestream footage, runners moving at suicide path down 7th ave, weaving in and out of cars.
“I see them!” A volunteer shouts through the phone.
Matt puts his phone into his pocket and we stretch the tape over the bike path, running it parallel to the timing mat. Runners begin to come into view, sprinting down the center of the street, backlit by the lights of Times Square. They veer to the left side of the road at the direction of the volunteers, and barrel over the finish line.
The top three women’s times were 4:55.65, 4:55.85, and 4:59.51. The top three men’s times were 4:29.08, 4:29.15, and 4:31.58. It was a bloodbath. Not in the literal sense of course, but holy shit these athletes could run.
After the race was over, I walked up 7th ave and back to the Race HQ chatting with a few new friends. We all spoke well into the early hours of the morning, reliving those six minutes over and over again, enthralled by what had taken place. The accomplishment of everyone involved felt surreal. Never before had I witnessed such a gorgeous crossover of athleticism, art, and organizational finesse. I was hooked. What a happy feeling.
Image by Christopher Franzese