Sunday, October 5, 2014

Idle Feet Do the Devil's Work by Ray Charbonneau

A group of runners are in for a strange season when one of them makes a deal with a shoe company and starts winning every single race; by Ray Charbonneau.

I was hanging on the rear of the lead pack in fifth place and thinking about when to make my move as we passed the 9-mile mark of the Jones 10-Miler. It was the first race in this year's Grand Prix, and I wanted to get off to a good start, but I knew that if I waited, I'd be out-kicked at the line. My only hope of picking off a runner or two before the finish was to start to push first, and count on my strength to grind down their speed.

Just then, a runner in an unfamiliar red singlet zoomed by. My head snapped up in surprise, throwing me off stride for a step. The singlet belonged to Mark Refner, who I knew from Division 3 cross-country. What was he doing putting on a charge? I never had to worry about Mark when we raced in college.

At the head of the pack, Al Frentist and Burt Bunker felt Mark coming and picked up their pace. Soon the three of them broke away, leaving the rest of us to fight over fourth place. I managed to catch one person before we reached the school parking lot, finishing in fifth place.

After I crossed the line, I jogged over to where Al and Burt were standing. They were looking at Mark, who was talking with some fat guy wearing a red nylon tracksuit and smoking a cigar.

"What happened there?" I asked. "I figured one of you guys was going to win."

"I was trying to catch Al after we got out of the downhills," said Burt. "He was holding on, but I thought I could break him. Then in the last half mile Mark cruised right by us. He looked good, smooth, like he could run faster if he had to. Damned if I know where that came from."

"You weren't catching me without a scooter," said Al. "My time was 13 seconds faster than when I won last year. But Mark, man, that was something else. Nobody around here has outkicked me like that since that one time Ryan Hall was here for the race in Stowe."

The fat guy patted Mark on the back and wandered off. The crowd of runners standing around in the parking lot made way to avoid breathing in his smoke, then filled in behind him and soon he was lost in the distance.

Mark strolled over to where we were standing. "Hi guys," he said. "Good race."

"Yeah, you too," said Al. "Where the hell did that come from?"

"Clean living and a clean mind. Actually, it's pretty cool. I got this sweet shoe deal from Demon Shoes over the winter," said Mark. "I get to quit standing on my feet all day at the restaurant, and I've been able to spend more time working out. It's paying off."

"Well it's working for you, dude," I said. "You were looking good when you went by me. I wasn't catching that."

"Never heard of Demon Shoes," said Burt. "How do you like them?"

"Not bad," said Mark. "They're new prototypes, maybe out next year. Nice and roomy in the toe box." Mark lifted one foot, and we all looked down to check out the design. They didn't look like anything special, just a red lightweight racing flat with a black pitchfork on the side.

Al asked, "How did you get the deal? From what I've heard, most companies are cutting back on the local guys."

"They came to me." Mark shrugged. "I don't know why, but free shoes and money too? I'm on that. All I have to do is visit a few stores a week along with the real salesguy. The rest of my time is mine for training."

"Hey, maybe you can set us up with a couple pairs?" said Burt.

"I can introduce you to Sam if you want. He's the guy I was just talking to, Demon's New England rep. But other than that you guys are on your own." Mark grinned. "Turns out I like winning. It wouldn't bother me if I kept doing it for a while. Who knows? If I keep this up, maybe win the Grand Prix, a new shoe company might want to send a runner around the country, maybe even overseas, to help spread the word."

A blonde woman with a small boy walked up to where we were standing. "Have you guys met my wife, Edith?" said Mark. We all introduced ourselves, then Mark said, "C'mon, Freddie, let's fly!" He grabbed the boy, swung him up on his shoulders, and holding Freddie's arms stretched like wings, ran off to their car, swerving from side to side as he ran. Edith laughed and followed them to the car, and the three of them left for home. The rest of us hung around for a couple of post-race beers before we went our separate ways.

The next race was the New Bedford Half-marathon. This time Burt did manage to catch Al, passing him on the big hill just before the finish. But neither of them were able to hold off another last-minute charge by Mark.

My teaching job kept me from having the time I needed to train for longer races, so I finished New Bedford five minutes behind the three of them. By the time I cooled down and headed to the YMCA for the post race food, Mark was already sitting at the Demon Shoes booth, smiling and laughing with spectators as they came up to congratulate him. Sam the sales rep sat next to him, wearing the same red tracksuit as before. Since they were indoors, he could only chew on his cigar as he looked over the scene.

I figured it was as good a time as any to see if Demon Shoes was interested in spreading any of their advertising budget my way. I liked my job, but teaching third-grade only paid so much. Even a few extra pairs of shoes would go a long way.

I nodded at Mark as I walked past him, then stopped in front of Sam and stuck out my hand. "Hi, I'm Charlie." Sam looked into my eyes for a beat, then looked down at my hand, pausing just long enough to make me uncomfortable before taking it in his own to shake it.

I already regretted coming up to him, but I plowed ahead anyhow. "Congrats on the attention you're getting for your new shoe company. Helping out Mark must be paying off."

"Thanks," said Sam idly, his attention drifting back to the people surrounding us. "He's been a good investment so far. Mark's the sort of guy we want on the team."

"Team? Are you looking to pick up any other runners?"

"We're always looking for the right sort of people." Sam's eyes returned to mine and locked in. "People who are dedicated, willing to give things up and put in the extra effort to be a success."

"If you're looking to build, I think I can be that kind of guy. Is that something we can maybe talk about sometime?"

Sam's lip curled a tiny bit, or maybe I just imagined it. "Sure. How about 9:30 Monday morning?"

"Oh, I can't do that," I said. "I'll be in front of my class then."

He smiled dismissively. "Like I said, we're looking for people who are willing to give things up." His attention went back to the crowd. "We're ready to make you a priority, but you have to be ready to do the same for us."

Embarrassed, I muttered my thanks, stepped back, and let the flow of hungry mid-packers carry me away into the cafeteria.

I met Al and Burt inside, waiting in line for clam chowder. They were complaining about Mark.

"If I didn't have to work, I'd probably pick up five minutes on my half marathon time," said Al.

"It would be nice to be able to focus on my training," said Burt. "Of course, then you'd need more than five minutes to catch me."

"I keep after him, but that fat bastard Sam won't even talk to me. How the hell did a guy like Mark get his attention?"

"You talked to him too?" I asked. "I just stopped by the booth. For someone whose job it is to sell running shoes, he doesn't seem to like runners. Whatever he's looking for, it's like he made up his mind I didn't have it before we'd even met."

"He must have a lot of guys coming up to him asking for stuff," said Burt. "I suppose after a while it could get tiresome."

"Well, he doesn't have to be such a dick about it," said Al as he morosely stirred his chowder. "I wouldn't buy a pair of his shoes now unless I could peel the little fork off one and stick it up his ass."

"Whatever. That fat guy isn't the problem, it's Mark we've got to beat," said Burt. "He's been catching us at the end of long races, but I'm going to get him next time. Hollis is only a 5K. He doesn't have the speed to beat me there."

Burt was sort of right. When the Hollis 5K came around in June, Mark didn't come from behind to win. Instead, he took off right from the start and led the whole way.

Al skipped the race, running the Vermont City Marathon on Memorial Day weekend instead. I made the trip with my girlfriend, Denise, and we made a weekend of it.

For once, I managed to beat Burt, maybe because Denise was there to cheer me on, or maybe because Burt was getting a little discouraged by his inability to compete with Mark, though he'd never admit it.

When I found Denise after the race, she was standing with Edith, watching Freddie play with some of the other kids.

"I don't know," said Edith. "This job with Demon was supposed to give us more time to spend together. It started out that way that way, but now it seems like Mark is always out there training, or he's off to another race. When he's not running, he's resting to get ready for his next run. There never seems to be time for us."

"I know what you mean," said Denise. "When Charlie's not teaching or grading homework, he's off running. It's like I have to come to the races to see him."

I put my arm around Denise's shoulders and gave her a hug. "Hey, it's not that bad, is it? We got out for a movie just... um, well, last week?"

"Oh, I know you try," said Denise. "It's not like I don't have my own life - sorry Edith, I know you have a life...." Her voice trailed off.

"Don't worry about it," said Edith. "We'll sort it out. This is what Mark really wants, and it might be our one shot at getting it. It's just a matter of getting adjusted."

"Speaking of busy, we've got to get going," I said. "We're going to visit Denise's parents this afternoon. I didn't see Mark after the first mile, so say hi to him for us." I took Denise's hand and we walked off to the car.

When I showed up for the start of the Carver Cranberry 5 Miler, there was a little additional excitement in the crowd waiting for the start. Burt told me why. "We're all running for second place today. Jordi Banner's here."

"His wife's family has a place on the Cape and they're visiting for the week," said Al. "Mark's got his work cut out for him today. He's not going to beat an Olympic silver medalist."

Just then, Mark trotted by, finishing his warm-up. My wave turned into a limp half-shrug as he passed without showing any sign of recognition, not even a nod. His body looked relaxed, but his face was drawn. The tines of the pitchfork on his Demon singlet reached above the number pinned on to his singlet. Two side tines ran up the shoulder straps, but the center tine almost looked like the point was buried in his neck, holding his head stiffly in place as he stared straight ahead.

"Doesn't look like Mark's giving up," I said. "He's focused."

"No way," sneered Al. "Shoe contract or not, today he gets beat."

When we lined up at the start, Mark and Jordi were next to each other up front, the short runner in the bright red outfit and the tall, blonde, Olympian. The gun went off, and they stayed that way, both runners flowing smoothly along the road as they pulled ahead of the rest of the pack.

By mile three, Jordi was starting to look a little annoyed. His simple workout was turning into more of a challenge than he'd expected. Mark's face still held the same expression he'd shown during warm-ups. There was stress there, but it was distant, seemingly unlinked to anything petty, like the ongoing effort of running.

The two runners approached the finish at the end of West Street, far ahead of everyone else. Mark was still holding on, just off Jordi's left shoulder. A flash of doubt replaced the annoyance on Jordi's face, then his expression turned to resolve. Jordi leaned into the kick that had won him a medal, determined that no unknown local runner was going to beat him.

Mark's stride didn't appear to change, but with 100 yards to go he pulled up even with Jordi, and with 50 yards to go, and everyone standing by the side of the road screaming, he pulled ahead for the first time.

Seconds later, Mark crossed the finish in 21:39, a new American record. Jordi stumbled across in second, a full stride back.

Once he caught his breath, Jordi turned to congratulate Mark. Just then, Sam trotted up, the acrid smoke from his cigar trailing behind. Sam put his arm around the winner and dragged him off to the Demon Shoes booth while Mark looked back over his shoulder at Jordi and shrugged helplessly.

After that, even Al had to admit that the Grand Prix belonged to Mark.

In the next race, the Lone Gull 10K, Mark ran alone from the gun, well ahead of the pack. No one made any pretense at challenging him for the lead. The rest of us were all in a tactical battle for second place, tacitly acknowledging that we had given up.

When I caught up with Mark after the race, he was listening to Edith while holding Freddie's hand. Even though he had easily cruised to victory, Mark looked tired.

"Honey," said Edith, "you've been working too hard. Nahant is only two weeks away. Maybe you could skip it and get some extra rest. We could go visit your mother instead. You're always so busy running; we didn't get to go anywhere all summer."

"We've discussed this," said Mark. "We both know this might be my one shot to make something from my running, and we agreed to make it our priority this year."

"Y'know, Mark," I said. "You've been so good, you don't actually need Nahant to win the Grand Prix if you win the marathon. And a break might help. You're the one who's always saying, 'It's better to start a marathon a little undertrained instead of being overtrained.' Besides, the rest of us would like a chance to win just once."

"Maybe I'm just selfish, but it'd be cool to sweep the Grand Prix," said Mark. "No one's ever done that. It's worth the risk. And I can use the 30K to tune up for the marathon."

"But why?" asked Edith. "If you do win everything, that'll just mean that Sam will expect even more from you. It's like he owns you, and for what? A few shoes?"

"More than that, I hope," said Mark. "But they are good shoes. I mean, I'm having good workouts and all, but when I take off my trainers and put on my Pitchforks, it's like I'm a whole new runner."

Just then, Sam himself joined the group, resting his red track-suited arm around Mark's shoulders. "Didn't I tell you when we started, 'If you do the work, if you focus on the training, the shoes will do the rest'?" he said.

Freddie wrinkled his nose at the smell of cigar smoke and edged over to his mother's side.

Mark shrugged under Sam's arm, partly in answer and partly in a failed attempt to work free. "I'm doing my part. I just want things to keep going the way they are."

"That's right," said Sam. "And what do we do after races?" Sam tugged with the arm that was still wrapped tight around Mark's shoulders. With an apologetic look at Edith, once again Mark let himself be dragged off toward the Demon Shoes booth.

The Nahant 30K was yet another win for Mark, though this time Al managed to hang within nominal striking distance until the last half-mile before Mark pulled away.

I had to back off at about 25K when my calf tightened up. By the time I limped in, Mark was already at the shoe table with Edith, sitting as far from Sam and his cigar as possible. He still looked tired, but he was smiling.

Al was standing in front of the table, still harping on the shoe contract. "I almost had you," he said, "and I didn't get back from LA last night until after midnight. I'm still on west coast time."

"So that's why you were three hours behind me?" grinned Mark.

"Bite me," said Al. "If I had a shoe deal like yours, your streak would be over. They'd have to take one of those forks off the shoe and stick it in you."

"Admit it, Al," I said. "One more race and Mark will sweep the Grand Prix. The rest of us might as well stay home. I don't know how you did it, Mark, but you should be proud."

"Nothing to it," said Mark. "You could do it too. All you have to do is give up everything else. But it's worth it." He looked at Edith. "You're only young and fast once. You've got to take the chance when you can. Everything else, that's what the rest of life is for."

"You sound like you're trying to convince yourself," I said.

"It has to be true," said Mark. "It's what I've always wanted. Maybe I'm paying a price, but I'm getting it. No matter what."

"That's pretty dire sounding," I said.

"Well, I'm all in. But first," he said, hugging Edith, "we're finally heading off for a week. Edith and the kid have been patient, and there's more than a month until the marathon. A recovery week is in order, right honey?"

Edith smiled, but before she could say anything Sam leaned over. "Whaddaya mean, 'recovery week'?"

"We're going up to Vermont to visit my mom," said Mark. "Get in a little leaf-peeping, maybe bike around town some. Take a week for downtime, then get back to work and finish tuning up for the marathon."

Sam sat back in his folding chair, which strained under his weight. "No."

Mark, startled, looked over at Sam, who was carefully balancing his cigar on the table with the ash hanging off the edge.

"What do you mean, 'no'?" asked Mark.

"You heard me," Sam replied. He continued to stare at his cigar, appearing to find the spiraling smoke more interesting than anything Mark had to say.

"Look, I've been doing everything you requested for months now," said Mark. "I've won everything I've entered, no matter who I was racing. You couldn't ask for better results. Meanwhile, my family has put their life on hold while I've been running and pushing your shoes. I need the week to recover from the 30K anyhow. I'm just spending it in Vermont instead of slogging from running store to running store pimping shoes."

Sam didn't react. Keeping his eyes on the ash, he spoke slowly, "I haven't requested anything. I've told you what to do for these past few months, and I'm telling you now. You're not going anywhere before I'm through with you. We have a contract."

Deliberately, he picked up his cigar, drew in a lungful, turned and leaned over to blow a cloud of used tobacco right in Mark's face. Sam then leaned back, watching Mark with a smug look on his face.

Edith gasped. Mark stiffened, his eyes widening slightly before blinking rapidly a few times because of the smoke. Then he pushed his chair back from the table, bent over to unlace his shoes, and took them off his feet. Standing, he turned toward Sam. Mark held the shoes about a foot above the table and stared calmly back at Sam for a long second before dropping the shoes to the table. Then he peeled off his singlet and dropped it on top of the shoes.

Turning back to Edith, Mark held out his hand. "Let's go, dear," he said.

As she got up, Edith asked, "Are you sure that's what you want, honey?"

Sam snorted. "You go, and I guarantee you'll regret it. There are plenty of people just waiting for the opportunity to wear my shoes. Doesn't matter who I pick. You'll never beat the shoes."

Mark ignored him, telling Edith, "Don't worry. There was always going to be a time when winning couldn't come first. Maybe that starts now."

Mark and Edith left for the parking lot and their car. I started to follow, then I noticed that Al was lagging back.

"Coming?" I asked.

"Not just yet," said Al. "There's a diem that needs carpe-ing." He had the grace to look a little embarrassed, but he wasn't embarrassed enough to keep from staying behind.

I shrugged and followed Mark and Edith.

Mark, shoeless, stepped gingerly along the rocky path so I caught up quickly. Looking down at his feet, I noticed that splotches of red had soaked through his socks.

"You've got some pretty bad blisters there," I said.

"Yeah," said Mark. "The Pitchforks were fast, and I had to race in them because of my deal, but I was never comfortable in them. Even with socks, they sawed at my feet, almost like they wanted blood. I'll miss the money, but I won't miss those shoes."

I looked back at the Demon table, where Al was talking intently with Sam. "Looks like the blood has attracted a shark."

Mark glanced over his shoulder, just in time to see Sam stick out his hand and Al take it with both of his and shake. "Yeah, but who's the shark? If Al thinks it's him, he's dumber than I thought. Either way, I don't plan to be chum."

Five weeks later, it was time for the Manchester Marathon, the last race in the Grand Prix. I was warming up before the start of the race, when I crossed paths with Al as he wrapped up his own pre-race jog.

Al looked lean, maybe a little too lean, like he had been dancing too long on the line between 'fit' and 'wiped'. Nevertheless, when he started to talk, he sounded full of energy.

"How you feeling?" he asked. "Ready? Hope so. I'm ready. So ready. This is my day, man."

"I'm OK," I said. "My calf seems OK, anyhow. Hey, congrats on winning the BAA Half."

"That was pretty cool," Al said. "I always knew that if I got the chance, got to live and breathe running, I could run with the big boys. But wow - sign the contract, quit my job, two weeks later, I'm setting the pace against the big guns. Even I didn't think it would happen that fast."

"Must be the shoes."

"Don't tell Sam I said this," said Al, "but the shoes sort of suck. They're light and all that, but the uppers rip my feet like sandpaper. The stitching on the inside digs in to my feet more than the outsole tread digs into the road. I'm gonna have to start wearing thicker socks."

"Why wear them, then?" I asked.

"That's why I'm a winner and Mark's roadkill," said Al. "There's a price you gotta pay to be a winner, and I'm ready to pay it. The half was just the start. Today's next. Then? Who knows? See you at the finish!"

Al peeled off in time to avoid meeting Mark, who was jogging down the street toward us. Mark was wearing his old Colby College singlet and looking fresher than he had all season.

Mark waved. When we met, he turned to jog alongside me. "Good to see you, man," he said.

"Good to see you," I replied. "Sorry about the shoe deal. How've you been doing?"

"I feel great," said Mark. "I've been busy looking for work, but I've been able to get to some of Freddie's games, and Edith remembers my name now. I've had to back off on the running some, but I still think I'm up for a good day."

"The weather's cooperating," I said. It was a perfect day for a marathon, about 50 degrees, overcast, and not a bit of wind.

"No excuses!" said Mark. "See you at the line!" He took off for a few quick striders. I followed along behind, and soon enough, it was time to gather with the rest of the field at the start.

I managed to hang on to the rear of the lead pack for about 18 miles, but then my calf went out again. The course goes by the finish line just past mile 19, so, after a short bout of pouting in frustration, I limped to the finish area in time to see the end of the race.

The course loops back again and passes within a block of the other side of the finish area around mile 25. By then, Al and Mark were alone by themselves in front.

Heading into the last mile, Al looked strong, his lank hair bobbing around a face seemingly unfazed by the previous three hours of racing.

A step back, Mark's determination overshadowed the struggle to hold the pace on his face, but the effort was starting to show in his stride. He was visibly pushing off with his toes, calling on every muscle to pitch in and help him keep up.

After the two of them flashed by, I hobbled back around the corner to catch the finish. When I pushed through the spectators to where I could see the finish chute, I noticed Sam waiting on the other side of the road. Then a roar from the crowd distracted me.

The speeding pair turned off Spring Street and into the home stretch. Mark leaned forward in a final desperate surge. Al covered it, remaining in the lead.

His stride shifted when he did. Instead of staying balanced, with his feet under him driving him forward, Al appeared to start overstriding, almost like his feet were tugging him ahead with each step toward the finish.

Then, less than 10 yards from the tape, with what nearby watchers described afterward as a wet, tearing sound, Al's right shoe ripped off his foot, yanking Al off balance as the shoe raced ahead on its own, taking the skin from Al's foot with it.

The left shoe dragged Al forward for the length of a stride before it too came free. Seconds later, the shoes, followed closely by Mark, crossed the finish line. Al remained behind, lying in the road on his back, bleeding from his feet and from cuts and scrapes on his head and back.

The crowd surged, some forward in excitement, others away in horror. Race officials ran toward Mark to support him as he dropped to the asphalt from exhaustion. Medical staff fought through the spectators to reach Al writhing in pain in the middle of the road. The rest of the field of runners streamed in, adding to the confusion.

Both Sam and the shoes disappeared in the turmoil, never to be seen again.

I struggled over to where Mark was standing, supported by race officials.

"That just happened, didn't it?" asked Mark. "I may be wiped out, but I'm not hallucinating, right?"

"Yeah," I said. "Are you OK?"

I’ll be fine," Mark said. He looked back to where the doctors were working on Al. "I guess we should have listened to Sam. He did tell me that I'd never beat the shoes."

5 comments:

  1. Nicely paced (no pun intended), the reader is on the track with the runners with their trials and challenges. Interesting comment on human motivation, aspiration and lust for success and the reckless distortions that can arise. The women are drawn sympathetically too.
    Thanks,
    Ceinwen Haydon

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  2. Is this a tongue-in-cheek retelling of the Faustian tale where a man sells his 'sole' to the devil?
    Or an illustration that winning at all cost comes at a high price?
    That some escape?
    That some don't?
    That some get hurt?
    That ignoring all else, the devil is in taking the short cut, the empty promise, the hollow victory?

    Or ultimately is it just a well-told story and reworking of the Faustian tale that in its final scene does not end in hell, but in hope.

    James Shaffer

    ReplyDelete
  3. The saying 'Be careful what you wish for' certainly plays out here! A reminder not to become fixated on the wrong things; they come at too great a cost.
    An interesting story with believable characters.
    Beryl

    ReplyDelete
  4. Clean, straightforward and insightful tale, proving that contracts with the devil leave very little opportunity for renegotiating, and generally leave you transformed into a person you might regret forever.

    Arthur Davis

    ReplyDelete
  5. good story, agree with update on Faustian pact, but nonetheless, an original take. i guess there´s always a price to pay for success or trying to get an advantage over others,

    Michael McCarthy

    ReplyDelete