I had heard about Froshing; the first Friday of high school year where freshmen were hazed as part of an unofficially (but truly officially) school sanctioned initiation. Dread had been seeded as the stories filtered down to middle school and fear had bloomed over the summer. On that day no chance meeting, planned activity, hang out happened without raising the prospect of humiliation, embarrassment and maybe even injury.
Pushing pennies down a 300-foot hallway with your nose, wearing a diaper all day in class, following seniors on hands and knees like a dog seemed like mild expressions of Freshie Day by the time we allowed our imaginations to run wild. “ I heard that one boy was forced to run naked through the girl’s locker room”. “ A friend of a friend’s sister carried her books on her head all day and if she let them fall, they publicly spanked her”. “ Whatever you do – don’t cry. They made this kid stand sobbing at the front of the lunchroom for an hour.” “ You can’t go to teachers for help because they are in on it”.
From Monday to Thursday that first week, the tension mounted. Innuendos, suggestions, and statements of sworn intent swirled every time you passed a senior. “ I have been waiting 4 years for this day. You are going to get everything that I did times four” was scary in its lack of detail. I was spitless and shit less by Friday morning and considered faking sickness ( I could have vomited on cue by pushing my toothbrush down my throat until it triggered a gag reflex). It was the story, epic saga, of the boy who hid at home on Friday and then had his own private Frosh Hell for a week that tipped the scales in favour of getting it over with. “How bad can it really be?” Harvey asked me. I don’t know if he took my silence as an agreement but it was meant as apprehension. “ There is a dance at 7 tonight.” Was the only words I could find and those took ten minutes to discover.
Friday morning came and we trudged our way to school. Two became three and by the front entrance, there were six of us who hadn’t been allies until we faced a common foe.The trip had taken less than fifteen minutes the first four times and this one was more than double that. Five minutes before nine, five minutes before the start bell. I could feel eyes boring into me, glaring ravenously at me scrawny frame. I hope my demeanor was saying “ Not much to eat here.’ The safety of the first period was like a sanctuary where hunting wasn’t allowed but it became obvious that the seniors didn’t need to attend their scheduled classes as they prowled the halls looking for stragglers. They were positioning themselves outside classrooms for a five-minute blitz attack at class change. Should I let it happen to me ( and get it over with)? Will they get braver in their punishment as the day goes on or tire of the hunt?” Can I just stay here for the next class?” “ Can I run?”
The teachers wasted their time doling out their lessons but all attention was focused on the noise in the hallway and our imagination. The drone at the front of the room only served to emphasize the chaos awaiting us once the door opened. I chose a ‘be first’ strategy and had my hand on the door knob as the bell rang. I thrust myself into the abyss startling two grade 12 boys and a girl. “ You, freshie get over here”. I willingly and maybe excitedly obeyed. “ On your hands and knees”. I complied again “ Put your nose on this penny and push it down the hall. Don’t stop until I tell you”. I was quick to react and moved the coin faster than they expected, five feet, ten feet, I was way ahead of them. At fifteen feet there was a shout behind me “ Okay, stop’. They seemed relieved and disappointed. “ Here wear this ribbon to let others know that someone already got you”. A yellow piece of cloth was thrust at me and they were gone looking for another victim. It wasn’t a star or a badge of honor but that tiny piece of cloth saved me from more imaginative and vindictive seniors. Before the next class started I had the ribbon on the front of my shirt without considering similarity to other persecute groups, and felt all the tension evaporate from my stomach and shoulders. The impending headache was gone and decisions seemed clearer. The whole ordeal hadn’t lasted five minutes. I observed the hunt for the rest of the day, no one was hurt and I didn’t see anything that came close to all the hype.
That was the next three years with rare exception; big promises and expectations and small outcomes. Until my senior year it all blurs together; wake, shower; walk, droning teachers, walk, sleep and repeat. Uneventful was the norm. The rare exceptions; first drink, first smoke, first kiss weren’t monumental but just broke the monotony. In the fall of my junior year, I discovered the cross-country team; a group of misfits that couldn’t make the football team mostly because, like me, they still hadn’t had a growth spurt. I found comfort in accepting the misfit moniker and joined the team.
This time I was running towards something; the finish line and a reputation. Racing over a 3-mile course, I was also escaping the sameness of early teens. The distance ate up the aches of loneliness and winning won acceptance from the oddballs and eventually minor notoriety with the general population. Chicken and egg.
Uneven ground, twists and turns and elevation changes made cross country more interesting than circling a cinder track counter clockwise. For the meager spectators, there was surprise rather than anticipation because their view was limited to their vantage point. At the start/finish line, they saw the rush of arms and legs hurtling away in a clump and then the thrill of one or two competitors loping towards the end, nothing in between. The real race was meant to be a secret to the competitors. The strategy of leading out, building a lead and holding on was challenged by a steady pace and final burst. On any given day regardless of your tactics, you weren’t sure of how the others were playing. Three to four miles is a long enough distance to come from out of sight and overtake any leader. It is also far enough that a leader can get confidence by adding yards between himself and the competition at each checkpoint. I often charged ahead not considering the consequences of walls or wobbly legs. Most races came down to me or a lanky kid, 6 inches taller than me, from a south end school, in fancy cleats. In the first year I competed we split the 6 events finishing first and second. The City Championships would settle the score.
In late October that year, we had had snow once and temperatures were consistently in the 40,s F. Frozen ground was treacherous but the nip in the air made pounding out the 4.2-mile course seem less strenuous. I had actually trained for the past two weeks, following a regimen outlined by the track coach/math teacher. Sprints, intervals, over distance, and practicing running form. I had been running all my life and didn’t know anything about technique, I had never needed to think about it.
“ Racing is different than running but you need to practice your technique while running so it is good when you are racing” he instructed all of us one afternoon. It took some struggle to understand what he meant and then to follow his urgings about “lead with your knees”, “ keep our body over your feet”, you are striding too long”.
On the Thursday before the Saturday championships, my 4 mile run with better technique felt easy and natural. Friday at school was a blur except for the strange “attaboys” from other kids and teachers after the school announcements that included congratulations to competitors (three of us) who were representing the school on Saturday. I got to bed early and overslept leaving me just enough time to walk the five miles to the park where the race was being held but no time to really prepare physically or mentally. My nemesis was there, with an entourage from his school and family. He was sporting a new warm up suit from Adidas and a gleaming white headband. He looked like the competitors I had seen on TV from Wild World of Sports. My sweat pants and t-shirt seemed insignificant. He looked like a winner. His friends, family, and coach looked at him like a winner. My cheering section was just me. The other two kids from my school were already on the course running in their age group finals and I couldn’t find my coach anywhere.
A parent volunteer shouted, “all competitors in Senior City Final to the start line in five minutes”. Anxiety, panic, terror-linked in rapid succession in a few seconds. “What was I doing here?” “ I am feeling too sick to race.” “ His cleats look fast.” “ I am going to get clobbered in front of all these people, all twenty-five parents, and siblings of other racers.”
The twenty racers, all grade 12s except me, began moving towards the starting line. Some were striding with macho bravado, others timidly trying to find a spot away from the 40 elbows and knees. I always found a spot alone as far to the left as possible. This time Adidas boy broke tradition and sidled over to within a foot of my position. Trash talking without saying a word, he stretched one more time as to remind me that he was taller and faster. I couldn’t retreat any further left so I held my ground and ignored him out of the corner of my eye. No words were exchanged. I heard a somewhat familiar voice “ Bobby, you will be okay, just run your race and stay in form” instructed the coach, wearing a school jacket. I am now sure that he had said the same thing to me before and to the other teammates who were already racing but in the moment it was a voice of encouragement. A voice that I took to heart and a goofy smile swept across my face. Adidas boy saw the insane grin and his eyes panicked for a fleeting second. He regained his composure has he adjusted his headband. No victory for either of us but even though this course was hilly, we were starting on level ground.
Racing at a high pace is as much about your head as your legs and lungs. For me, the first mental wall was within the first 5 minutes, every time. “ I think I felt a twinge in my calf”, “ My ankle is really hurting”, “ This is too hard” scream inside me looking for an excuse to quit. I know the voice and know to expect it but it often is still unsettling. I had never obeyed the urging but there is always a temptation. At the start line, I steeled myself for the fatalist’s voice by imagining a fast break and a charge for the ¼ mile. If I could put distance between me and the others, they would hear their deserter urging them to give up.
“ Runners to the line, On your marks, Get set…” “ Bang” went the pistol that evoked the startle response in me, even though I had heard it dozens of times before.
I broke fast with Adidas boy on my right shoulder and two others further to my right. 440 yards down the course with just under 1 minute gone, there were just the two of us. I loped the next ½ mile in what I imagined was perfect form and he stayed within a yard of my shoulder. I could hear his cleats on the hard ground and occasionally his breathing matching my rhythm. The first mile was the fastest either of us had started, at just over 5:10 but I didn’t feel winded and the voice hadn’t appeared. Admiration for my competition began to develop as we moved through a treed section as if joined at the hip. I couldn’t tell if he was pacing me or just keeping up. Was this his strategy – to push the pace for as long as I could manage in an effort to spend my legs? Red flags on the left, blue on the right as the course marched forward through the hilliest portion and I remembered that over the next rise was a sharp right turn and then another which was the 2.1-mile turnaround. If I was going to dictate, I needed to make a decision. In retrospect, it was probably way to far from home to be making a second break but I did it. At the top of the second right, I surprised him with the jump and myself with the speed I had found. He definitely heard his defeatist voice in that moment and let a gasp and grunt come out as I was now 5 yards, 6 yards, 10 yards and stretching ahead. I was running toward the line like I was possessed by the wind. I knew my wild stride was terrible form but the freedom reminded me of innocence and naivete that I hadn’t felt for almost 10 years. “Red on left, blue on right” became a mantra rattling in my head. “ eeeh, eeh, eeh, eeh wooo, eeeh, eeh, eeh woo, “ was the tempo of my breathing. I didn’t feel the course beneath my feet or notice when I went through the wooded portion but suddenly heard cheering and looked ahead to see I was within 200 yards of the finish line and an organizer was frantically stringing the tape across the line. I was aware but not appreciative of the clapping hands as my chest broke the tape. I looked back up the course and there was no other competitor in sight. If you can feel elated and sad at the same time, this was it. I had won but somehow felt sorry for Adidas boy (who I learned at the presentation was really named Donald). “ 21:32, 21:32, unbelievable 21:32” as a distant cry from my coach as he raced towards me with his arms both raced in the air. It took ten seconds for it to register that he was telling me my race time – he had never done that before and had never done anything with such enthusiasm. I heard an unknown parent ask “ Is that a city record?” No one seemed to know but it didn’t seem to matter. I was being back patted and head rubbed by people I didn’t know. It felt like a hero’s welcome but by noon it was forgotten. Well not completely – the 10 am school announcements announced my win and record and gave me 15 minutes of additional fame.
To be fair, I did have a light glow around me in track and cross-country seasons for the next year when someone recalled that I had won something and my yearbook picture had a caption referring to the accomplishment. The fickle nature of high school and teenagers meant that the next shiny thing was the next shiny thing and I learned that was okay.