The Definition of Running by Paul Kimm

Two boys with a love of nature see something that inspires them to run, and keep running.

Image generated with OpenAI
I'm a runner. I've been a runner since was a kid. My friend Joel is the same. We became runners together, simultaneously, at the same age and time, and have kept on running. We've done marathons together, we do the Great North Run every year, our first one was in the late Eighties. We've gone together on an annual ultra-marathon, trying to choose a different race each year, even travelled as far as Japan for one. We've been running since we were nine years old, both of us, me and Joel. We both know the exact point, the precise moment we became runners.

As young kids we were walkers. At weekends we walked, making a decision each time whether to stroll down to the beach or to head to the dyke a few miles from our town. If the beach, we'd venture north, past the sands, and pebble stretches, until we reached the rock pools that revealed themselves at low tide. We'd hunt for any stranded sea life; small crabs scurrying between stone cracks, occasional dormant octopi lazing in the shallow remains of the tide, small fish - perhaps permanently stuck - too small and quick to catch with our orange nets stuck on the end of canes as tall as we were. On calmer days, when the North Sea was a ripple-free, glass sheet of grey water, we'd search the millions of stones for flat, chalk discs to flick over the water's surface, counting the bounces out to sea of each one, in competition with one another, often arguing over the official tally and never really agreeing who'd won.

If we chose the dyke, we'd walk along the cliff tops. First over the trimmed lawns with guesthouses lined up with their obvious names; Seaview Lodge, Cliff House, Beachcomber, and then across the seldom played cricket field with its immaculate white lines and proud wooden pavilion. Beyond this we reached the outskirts, and onto the rough-hewn path made by centuries of walkers, whose feet had carved a limestone route some forty-feet back from the edge. This path, and the interruption of a couple of wooden stiles to clamber over, being the only mark humans had made to the view; a stretch of coarse grass, an occasional stunted tree, and the sudden cliff line, a vertiginous promise, where land ends and sea begins. On these walks to the dyke there were rarely any distractions, but the day we became runners was different.

It was a cloudless, windless, hot summer day, so a walk to the dyke was our decision. Taking a slow pace, a collected a stray stick each, we began our journey there swiping at the grass and any dandelions we spotted, spraying their spores to float over the field, landing like miniscule lunar modules, and starting their own attempts at becoming a flower. We didn't talk much, until nature presented something to talk about; a bird fluttering nearby, a rare rabbit, a manky flat toadstool, a tuft of thistles, a dried white dog turd, a plucked stem of sticky goosegrass to throw on to each other's backs. No one else was around, the heat having driven them into shade or the water a hundred feet below us, giving the cliff top solely to us. As we drew closer to the dyke, the number of trees pockmarking the fields increased, reminding us, despite our lazy amble to reach it, that the start of the descent from the clifftop to the dyke was near.

One tree, a few yards from the path, as short as any other tree, but managing to sprawl out longer boughs than others, giving it the look of a ragged mushroom drawn large, was unusual enough to draw our attention. Its shadow, under the belting sun, carved a wide, black silhouette onto the grass. Drawing closer, we saw thin lines hanging from some of the branches, thin tassels, one of them with a dark clump tied at the bottom, plumb downwards in the breezeless shade. We moved towards it, the sun's brightness making it impossible to see anything other than the pristine outline of boughs, branches, leaves, knots, bark, twigs, and the strange hanging threads.

Once under its canopy, we blinked out the ultraviolet blocks hovering over our vision, and our eyes adjusted away from the flat, dark profile of the tree which took on texture, colour, and form. The line we'd seen, with the clump tied at the end, came into view. It was a dead crow, hanged by a thin white cord strangling the usually invisible neck into an egg timer pinch. We took two synchronous steps backwards, staring at the executed crow, rendered into silence. Joel was the first to start emitting sounds, which were about to lead to words, but before he could reach language a figure emerged from behind the tree. A squat man, in trousers, shirt, and a tweed jacket, seemingly impervious to the heat, looked back at us. In his left hand was a bunch of white twine, in his right another dead crow. As we moved backwards another step his lips opened to one side, showing a glimpse of yellowed teeth beneath the smirk his face wore.

'What is it you lads want? Cat's got your tongues, has it? Well then, speak up lads.'

'We. We. Don't. We don't.'

'We what? We don't what? Speak lads!'

'We don't want anything, Mister.'

'Well, I'll tell you what you want lads. You want to get your necks in this twine, is what. Have you up next to the crows, shall we?'

He wolfed out a rancid laugh after his last word, dropped the string and dead bird to the ground, jolted his head towards us, and cocked his leg into a piston run. We swivelled round, our legs seemed to fly beneath us, the ground a green, whipping blur, the distant view of our town's bay not nearing, but our speed the fastest we'd ever moved. The man's cackle followed us, but grew quieter; quieter under our heaving breaths, quieter into the distance we were building from him. We didn't slow until we crossed the cricket field again, to the beginning of our town, and only then, turning to look behind us, seeing no other person on the entire width of the field, did we realise we'd outrun him, he was nowhere to be seen, we'd escaped whatever he'd wanted for us, be it to scare us, or hang us with white twine, we'd escaped.

After summer, back at school, we became the top two in the cross-country running class. Joel, faster than me, went on to run for the county a few times, and still covets his medals from back then. Moving our legs over ground, achieving a distance between a given start and end, even when the end was the same location as the start, became a need, a solace, a salve for a sharp, deep fear. We never saw the crow executioner again, we never went back to the dyke by that route anymore, or saw the tree, or even ventured past the cricket field; but that image of the man, cocking his leg, his race towards us, remains a flicker in my mind, like a single frame flashing by in a film, each time I start a race. When my own right knee is cocked forward, ready to begin, waiting for the shout of 'go', a flag to fall, or a starting pistol to go off, I see my knee of course, but I also see his knee, fixed in that moment it snapped forward. And, when the race begins, I start again a never-ending, but always improving, escape from that hot, summer afternoon we were chased, the afternoon when we became runners.

16 comments:

  1. A very well-told tale. Suspense from the start. Reminds me of some classic short stories. Reminds me of “A Year Down Yonder” by Richard Peck. Thank you!

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    1. Thank you June! I will definitely check out Richard Peck.

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  2. There is but a skin deep backstory and only a precious few lines of clipped dialogue, but Paul’s story conveys the sort of unseemly menace which affects children at night, well into adulthood. A suspicious word, a sinister diorama, and the scene is set for mind games which affect a vulnerable mind for all time. We’ve all had these experiences, sometimes in the context of a dream, and they are chilling, Very creepy, Paul; good job! You said so much in just a few words.

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    1. Thank you Bill for your kind comment - much appreciated.

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  3. Somehow the story, though starting innocently enough, created a sense of unease from the start … and then delivered. A good story. Accompanying graphic is also excellent.
    — David Henson

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    1. Thank you David - really appreciate you reading it. The graphic is superb!

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  4. The descriptions in this story are excellent throughout. I could see every image so clearly. A very well written story, Paul! Thank you!

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    1. Thank you Rozanne - very much appreciate your kind comment.

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  5. Language - I thought "dyke" was a mistake, but it seems that only means Lesbian in North America. Quite creepy in the middle, but then celebratory about the friends' racing exploits. Odd juxtaposition, but more interesting because of that. Recalls another story of which I only have a vague memory. It also had two boys or men running from some threat. Mr. MIrth

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    1. Thank you Doug - the word 'dyke' is also used in the same way in the UK, but is also a small valley from the sea. I'd completely forgotten the other meaning when writing this! Thank you for reading and your kind feedback - much appreciated.

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  6. This story weaves together the nostalgic camaraderie of two friends with a frightening childhood encounter that catalyzed their lifelong passion for running. The description of their walks, filled with imagery of the beach and the dyke, creates a serene and idyllic setting, starkly contrasted by the chilling appearance of the crow executioner. This shift from calm to horror is effective in highlighting the impact of that day, illustrating how a single event can shape one's identity and future.

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    1. Thank you Adam - I truly appreciate you reading it and your thoughts.

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  7. I love how fast this reads, the pacing reminiscent of running itself. The image of this bird hangman is the kind of thing that can haunt a child’s nightmares right into adulthood.

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    1. Thank you Donavan - really appreciate you reading it and your comment.

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  8. Kind of darkly humorous with respect to motivation. What doesn't kill you will help you run faster.. and for these two, the crow killer influenced their partnership and entire life path. The good part is that the negative incident drew the two friends together for a positive life purpose. I can relate to this story as I also had a few scary and dramatic experiences that influenced my life choices.

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    1. Thank you Harrison - the story is loosely based on a handful of similar incidents from my childhood (none of them quite as menacing, and none of them that led to me being a runner either!) Thank you for reading and your comment.

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