With the great herd of college students having long since migrated – and the remainder of native Boston either down on the Cape, or up hugging some warm New Hampshire shore line – it was on weekends that the city sank deepest into its long summer torpor. Out in Cleveland Circle only the MBTA Green Line cut through the sludge of the afternoon hours, its trains pulling vacantly into their yard with the screech of forged wheels over curved rails, there to await their next run east down Beacon into town.
Across the way at the small running shop on Chestnut Hill Avenue the end of another weary week of retail neared as the clock over the cash register tugged toward five o’clock. Odd thing about time, we view it in the regularity of second hand sweeps and liquid-crystal progressions, yet it moves with anything but a steady measure. At times like this it seems caught in molasses aging us in almost double time.
Folded on the stairs between the store’s two levels sat the assistant manager, Jason Kehoe, his elbows propped on his knees, his hands cupping his long, bearded face which was framed by a mane of lank, sandy hair. All that was before him was a scant customer or two still meandering the sales floor picking through oddly placed cardboard boxes and cluttered display racks.
“It’s brutal being polite to people all day,” Jason sighed sardonically as a friend headed to the locker room in back to change for their weekly Saturday run. “In fact,” he concluded, “it’s not healthy. You’re not being honest.”
Though Jason carried his alienation like a badge of honor in any regard, with each turn of the clock his psyche continued to sag, until like descent into Dante’s imagination he had transformed from a public servant into a private avenger in need of a cleansing purge. This was the price of retail, the slow captured grind.
At long last the closing hour came and went, the final customers ushered out. With heads low, but spirits rising, the crew filed out back behind the stockroom into their small, two-stall shower room. There they changed into their running gear before meeting out front to stretch anxious muscles in preparation for their weekly run to oblivion and back.
Sitting just west of Cleveland Circle the Chestnut Hill Reservoir lay in placid repose beneath the late afternoon sun. There it formed a natural break between the city’s hard surface and the leafy Boston College campus. And situated as it was, it had long been one of the area’s most popular running destinations. Along the rim of its southern shore it featured two grand waterworks’ buildings posing as art museums in their stately elegance.
Many of the Saturday afternoon regulars would loop that one and three-quarter miles as part of their daily routine. But on these late Saturday afternoons it was no more than a link in a much longer span, as this was more than just another training run. For most it took on the importance once reserved for religious observation, a service-at-speed to reawaken a deeply felt connection to a more visceral set of truths than could be found between the covers of any hymnal or hard upon the pew fronting any altar.
Their first few miles out Beacon were for bringing systems to speed, monitoring past stresses, and initiating a rhythm. Minor key exchanges accompanied those minutes, nothing serious or threatening, certainly nothing to point to the coming savagery. That it would come was enough. To speak of it was to corrupt it, like ballplayers discussing an impending no-hitter. And so in the beginning, in the pregnancy of effort, with many heated miles before them shimmering in the distance, the pack remained little more than a moving meritocracy, poignant potentials of past strengths and weaknesses, each a willing celebrant to the ritual’s paced liturgy ahead.
Cresting Hammond Street past Boston College nearly two miles lay behind. Though they remained in loose formation, warning systems had powered up and transmissions adjusted, as well. A serious move could arrive at any moment, and each now existed on an edge that could answer, yet not instigate, its searing call.
Soon, as so often was the case, the minister’s son initiated the game, moving out to a two-stride lead as the road swept right essing down into Newton, the first of Boston’s tony western suburbs. The most responsible of the group with a wife, two children, and mortgage he couldn’t afford, the minister’s son was also the most in need of release. He’d been tortured by conformity since before the ontology of Clapton, and most truly came alive set free in the escapist miasma of pure effort. He couldn’t wait, and everybody knew it. In fact, he’d already done a six miler earlier that morning just to burn off his fill.
As Beacon Street angled down, and thus elevated their hips, the minister’s son baited the pace out before them, his straw-blond hair dancing atop a stubble-bearded face slack with the grace of concentration conserved. But always two strides in front, his stride slung low for long insertions of pace, always trying to pull the group into a higher rate, always tempting, always luring, always pushing. Always. Always! Even his protestations to the contrary were appreciated as artifice of a radical beauty. Unleashed intensity was his truest calling and fondest wish. Running alongside him was like throwing gasoline on an open flame. So his friends mocked him with a flammable disregard.
In spite of the minister’s sons urgings, their initial delvings into pace weren’t moves so much as foretellings of one: an increase in tempo to find a more sympathetic gear down a freeing grade, perhaps a quick spurt to beat a traffic light’s change. But even these small accelerations would cause the group’s antenna to twitch as all possibilities passed through analysis. Strides adjusted and breathing deepened as nothing meant nothing any longer.
Inevitably, as the minutes vanished into miles, someone would relieve the minister’s son aching need by drawing up alongside, affixing himself to that stride which was the clean, natural gait of a lifelong runner. In the instant of engagement the others, like drop shadows, would fall into place, the sound of their breathing and footfalls, once a dissonance of unmatched rhythms and rhymes, now suddenly synced up into a felicitous chorus of reasoned intent. To lag behind now would be to miss out, for the moment was at hand, the anticipation and the dread that lurked beneath the feigned indifference now finally at an end.
Stripped to the waist, their skin glistened beneath thin slicks of sweat as wet, tangled hair flopped in silent counterpoint to the slap of footfalls along the tree-lined sidewalks. Within their tacit rules moves were never planned, yet neither were they ever ignored, purposefully diluted, nor certainly denied. So when one would arise, chaste like a child’s guileless query, each member of the group would align himself to the effort wholeheartedly, bodies and minds becoming one as they opened their strides and untethered their hearts, thought and action in eloquent consonance, one inseparably carried by the regenerating pull of the other.
Like an unharnessed string of horses, they galloped through Newton Center past windows of commerce reflecting their passing in flashes of reverse-angled symmetry. Talking evaporated as they gave themselves over, blood sluicing through their veins at in increasingly even measure.
Like unspoken truth, propensity, temperament, character, and surprise now sounded against a rough and surly world, carried at such a pitch that to try and describe it would be to diminish it. No longer a device with which to communicate, in these throes language would only serve to adulterate the passing of information. Instead, like cabalists from a time long ago, they proclaimed along a common telepathy, senses replacing words, height, weight, gender, age, all supremely irrelevant. If you could do this, this is what you were, no more, no less.
No longer husbands and brothers, nor lovers and mates, together in their beckoning they transformed into elementary beings wresting Darwinian epochs out of minutes, new galaxies out of miles, deluded by their flight into believing that death was for others, the wind whispering the same illusion to one as to them all, theirs’ would be the endless road, even as the simple task of wiping one’s brow was now beyond the doing. Forgotten in their fever were the keening reminders of potential ruin, coherent respect for sanity’s counter, their’s but a unwinding sonnet to freedom’s sweet mercy.
…Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase,
without this, folly, age, and cold decay…
The whole purpose of life was reduced to forward motion – Thrust! Counter thrust! Move and cover! – until the world beyond simply dimmed, shielded by the hammering of hearts and the bellow of lungs.
“You guys are crazy,” came the assessment of more than one newcomer shocked by the brutality of their exchange. But disbelievers never shared the true rapture, no matter what the speed they may have achieved elsewhere. And to those who would occasionally join in, but not find it within themselves to get lost within the abandon, the less free the others knew them to be. For in clinging to the sanctuary of self, all one did was hinder its full explication. Those unable to dissociate from the appearances seemed trapped in the compromising duality of thought separate from act. Even if they could run faster still, they missed the point of training as fun, of synergy in search of release, of bonding at the point of breaking, the road as vehicle, as well as the way.
If you love someone, went the lyric, set them free. And in this case the love was of one of utter surrender. This was speed work for the soul, blues running: the gut-knifing pain, the bittersweet joy, the reckless abdication. And to accomplish that meant to let “what matters” fall away. It was to this Emersonian canon that they pledged their undying allegiance.
Like so many of their generation who had been bequeathed the tools for success by parents molded by Depression and steeled in war, this small congregation felt conflicted about striving for it as defined by their parents’ age. That resistance to conformity became the focal point for the rebellion they carried forward into and through their running. From their carefree heads of hair, to their care-less choice of clothing, it all bore an adult inflection of their coming of age in the Sixties.
Even their name for this exercise in excess, Hate Runs, bore an ironist’s flare. Christened in a moment of sardonic humor a few years earlier after one particularly strenuous Saturday outing, the significance of Hate Runs had immediately been recognized and embraced as the essence of their discipline’s pursuit. Through Hate Runs they had discovered an antidote to the enervating venom of daily routine. For this assembly of alienists the regimens and rewards of running had filled many a personal vacuum, and when conducted with a passion amongst kindred souls, held the capacity of lifting them into realms well beyond the prosaic. So, too, did hate running’s free-form expression transcend the stilted regimentation of an organized race, with its controlling numbers, fixed route, and forgotten rewards. Here the prize was in the doing alone, and in that doing lie the wild, unpredictable forces of the spirit set free.
They may have poked fun at ministers’ son, but they also thought enormously of his willingness to explore the dark corridors within. By their charge, failure to push hard on the day was as reviled as not taking up the challenge in the first place. If you were in best form, it was a solemn duty to actualize it. Saving oneself, especially for some following day’s race, was considered the ultimate in self-indulgence. So it was that arbiters of a shared disregard held the reigns of authenticity in this shrunken world. And the minister’s son held as precious the tenets they each proscribed as canonical.
The initial leg of the hate run loop measured six plus miles out Beacon Street through Newton before turning right onto Washington Street where it joined the Boston Marathon course at its 17-mile mark. A break for water at the fire station on the corner of Commonwealth Avenue three-quarters of a mile down the way cut their run into two segments. The five-mile return to Cleveland Circle would traverse the most famous stretch of road in the sport, the hills along Commonwealth Avenue on the Boston Marathon route including the rise over celebrated Heartbreak Hill.
It was after a number of purifying surges that a shaggy brown dog about knee-high and thirty pounds picked up on their recovery pace near the end of Beacon Street. At first they gave it no heed. But as they continued past the quiet spread of sun-dappled lawns, the dog continued to match their two-legged stroke with its four.
A fringe-muzzled mutt with a textured brown coat and an easy, loose-footed shuffle, its tongue flopped out the side of its mouth in imitation of a smile. Minutes went by, well outside a territorial imperative, yet the dog remained comfortably affixed to their perimeter, and in so doing entered their realm.
Turning right off Beacon, the pavement angled down along Washington Street with the Newton-Wellesley Hospital passing to their right. Each April patients would line the curtained windows as the Boston marathoners streamed out before them in the fullness of health. Emulating the world’s best on their home course each weekend added an element of fantasy achieved for the Hate Runners, and drove them yet harder again.
They could all but hear the full-throated roar which created rolling waves of encouragement along this stretch each Patriot’s Day for generations past. Mounting swells of sound which, when mingled with the drumbeat of your own heart, could carry you on a good day. Conversely, a din that could overwhelm you on the bad days.
The dog’s tongue had already dipped low as the distance piled on, and his stride length had tapered as well. Even so, in full recognition of their intent he kicked up his own tempo, not without effort, and lengthened his left lead. Sensing that the game was on, the men in front shifted into a higher gear as the suggestion sped through the pack like on the charge of an electric current: Let’s try and drop the dog!
In the gathering someone coughed. Like a warning it receded on heated air. But guile was unnecessary for all but the run’s initial surge. Deep into it moves were as subtle as a scalpel entering flesh. As one they accelerated beyond reason, the static world a dopplered blur along the edge of rationality, the trees overhead bending like supplicant’s to a preachers’s fevered call. Sweat poured from their faces, gleaming beads to cleanse the sins of their previous ways, fleeing in terror from prisons of flesh engulfed in the flow of a coursing ambition.
“You are already going hard,” remembered the speedster, “then someone makes a move. You don’t want to go, but you have to. There is no two kilometers ahead. Only this! And this is for victory.”
Sweeping back and forth along a continuum of dissolution and enchantment, they carried exuberance and debility on whips of sinew and cudgels of bone. Like a tunnel squeezing in, nothing beyond the periphery, exertion amplified everything, from footfalls to heartbeats, exhalations to desires, now fully expressed in a blaze of menaced intent.
Systems at full throttle wavered beneath the strain, adjutants to misery’s lament. Yet the harsher the cry for surrender, the harder they pushed in defiance, as if from this darkened passage all sins could be expunged, iniquities erased. They pushed without relent until they strode into the very belly of pain, no longer in fear, but in full embrace, rushing with a feral ardor, agony indistinguishable from harmony, their torment unleashed like a penitent’s wail, heaven-bound like Calvary’s own anguish, sung on a note of such purity and pitch that the angels themselves succumbed to its call!
The horizon ahead beseeched their every step, there but not there, for that frontier can never be met without relinquishing its name. Yet toward it they rushed, redefining as they went, lustful in their want, want of freedom, freedom from the others. How vividly they imagined it, how purely it was sought, clarified by the light which poured in streams from the deep, banking fires within. Ahead lay the resonant, the noble, the fleeting image of what they sought to become, the sound of their names upon the lips of a love.
Overhead birds fluttered by on oblivious wings, assuaging a natural order, but below, under siege, all laws had been sundered and edicts decried. The world reeled underfoot, no longer a Cartesian plane, as through their descent they resurrected a reordering so affecting that, what were once interconnected truths revealed themselves anew as blandishments of a God’s restless humor.
In their constrictions muscles churned and blood rushed deep, dark, and catabolic to the lungs. Hard, naked truths betrayed themselves in carving strides, each heart begging for surrender while allying itself fully to the futherance of pace. Each man now yearned for the freedom, the absolution of the break, that moment of release when the others could no longer match strides, when the string broke and you could feel it unwind in the instant behind you - Gone! Free! - as if you were catapulted forward like the last man on crack-the-whip. Yet so, too, did fatigue hover over the group like a balancing sword awaiting a final push to send it slicing into corrupted tissue, to produce the half-uttered sigh, the gasping breath seething in the debt of an overdrawn borrow.
As it played out along the grid of talent and fitness, one by one they succumbed, damaged by the flush of waste through ravaged systems. The disappointment of being gapped fell hard upon Jason who at 6’5″ wasn’t born for the distances, but rather found in their hold substantiation beyond the aspects of lineage and bent. His eyes stared vacant and hollow, wet with the toil of ineffable struggle, his lungs drawing one deep shuddering breath after another to fuel the savage task.
Beyond coherence he held, his eyes becoming squinted slits, louvering reality as others pulled away as in a dream, even as ambition still pinged like radar from the bright nylon colors fixed as the target of his impassioned resolve.
Up ahead the ministers’ son slashed free, his jaw loose, his arms cleaving the air in precise arcs, released in an epiphany of form, the last man left upon high hallowed ground. In this liberation he soared, unburdened, free soloing in a willowy manifestation of benediction and grace. Within that emancipation he no longer needed to push, but rather slipped into a provocative inertia, laying out a line of want to the edge of need, plunging through air weightless and free with hope a casualty consumed in his wake.
In the lee of his advance the others broke off into deltaic streams working their way along deeply corrupted channels, some together, others all alone, but each proceeding in the humbling recognition that the relentless excavation of inner space is not without cost. And there, in that trough they would remain, galvanized into a familiar reckoning, bridging once more the connection between man and being that only through this submission could they hope to traverse.
Though caught in the initial unwinding, the dog had never relented, and now somehow began to move up as feelings of misery and doubt were magically recast into lightness and lift. Alone now in his mission, his breathing aligned with motor function, and together they generated an easy speed. He wasn’t driving; he was being pulled. He wasn’t doing it, it was being done with him in tow. He needed only to create the initial momentum to become both progenitor and recipient, the transfer unknown until the matter was complete. The remaining runner between the dog and the minister’s son became no more than a marker in the road, an integer to measure progress. The dog moved by without sound, never sharing a stride nor a moment of union.
Ahead, the minister’s son was in his own rhythm, loose and easy, almost jangly about the wrists. His arms and shoulders were meatless from months of uninterrupted training, and carved the air with the frame they barely concealed. All muscle lay beneath the waist. His stride tucked low above bundled hamstrings. No way could he sprint from a base like that, but, Boy, could he ever pull through the miles, chewing off distances in big, raw chunks.
Long, deep cuts dividing the front of his legs from the rear deepened with each stride as he caught and released the ground, unwinding pavement beneath him in a ribbon of gray. Pure will atop curved lasts.
The dog arrived at his side atop a river of pace, moving with an inexorable flow. Passing each dying member of the group, he seemed to devour their spent strength like meaty bones, and convert them into a mystical fuel. Broken white traffic lines stretched out before them as they began matching effort, man and dog, the road barely grazed by their skimming strides.
They were only going as far as the firehouse before stopping for water, but this had become a mission. The dog knew that they knew that he knew that they knew. That was the game, and the information rode unimpeached upon every foot strike, carried along the unseen ganglia which flared like tendrils from heads held high imprisoned to the tone of each response. Messages clear and understood rode these pathways, even to the now-broken members behind for whom the effort in front was nothing more than an extension of their own private agonies. Yet no matter the distance that separated them, together their bond transcended the irregularity of space and time. And the dog, in dogged determination, fighting the urge to stop, maintained devotion to the cause.
The minister’s son’s cheekbones, like gun sights, fixed his eyes ahead, his entire sensory system reduced to no more than awareness. Silent drafts of air – sainted oxygen – fed fuel to his transport, even as they were instantly consumed in the ovens of muscular need. As co-leaders, man and beast were stripped to essential being, what I am and what I’m doing fused into the same thundering moment, hopeful beyond regret as the dream came to life illumined by the cast of their glow in the full light of day.
Through the sheer act of will the streets had once again become their transcendent way, footfalls and heartbeats their mantra alive within the white-noised hush of serenity’s shroud. Valiant to the end, straining against manifest limitations, their mouths peeled back into open wounds from which no utterance of deceit, abuse or malice could issue, they began to surrender, dog and man, separated and spent, losing cohesion and drifting once more into component parts.
It had become, as it always had, a blistering screed against all the inequities that led them to this fugitive state, inequities that had long ago molded their worldview. Not real inequities, mind you, the ones God had imposed on other nations, other peoples. They weren’t so blind as to believe that they were in such company. But the small injustices of any life one chooses to amplify, to fixate on in order to dredge up the requisites necessary as fuel, those they could, and did, identify as motivations.
Some of it was about the war they had never fought, the promise they had never reached, the chances they had never taken. Maybe some about the loves they had lost, and the lies they had told to rationalize why. It wasn’t even conscious, but it did exist, tucked away in the dark, narrow recesses of private, nocturnal thoughts. But in this company privacy remained an act of friendship, and thus did the details remain submerged, banished beneath their rough act of running, the very intensity of it a testament to the value it was accorded.
Yet as ardent as their desire for freedom, the separation of this company was only meant to be fleeting. For once the fabric of the group had been shred, so too was the swiftness of its mending. Withdrawing their fire, bony-ribbed flanks rose and fell in sharp, quick bursts, as senses became witness once more to a world not of their choosing or control. In their recovery came notice of how closely the cars streamed by, of how lush the fragrance of the freshly mown grass, how muscled and engorged their very own legs. It was a time for systems to replenish and vanities to restore, for lives to become receptacles once again of their own presentations and shortcomings.
Those resurrecting from behind had suffered, by their own account, but a temporary death – the illusion holding strong – a practice for the ages of death when the flickering lamp would sputter beyond reclamation, and the soul would seek inheritance within another flame. But now it was for egos to burnish and images to mar in the cajoling that attended their reassembling, even as information would again begin to ride the subtle frequencies of form and denial that escorted the surface detachment.
Ahead, coming into view on the right was Newton’s firestation #2, standing imposingly on the northeast corner of Washington Street and Commonwealth Avenue, its two-story, brick Georgian design and white-trimmed windows dovetailing nicely with the tree-lined neighborhood it protected. But for the runners in the area, the firehouse was both a landmark and a watering hole, announcing the beginning of the stretch of hills along the Marathon course.
As the gradient spilled out onto the flats approaching Comm Ave, they passed a sign announcing “Massachusetts Turn Pike Entrance, One Mile.” Straightening and shifting out of overdrive into lower, less taxing gears, their breathing remained coarse, throat and lungs raked by the intensity of their last effort. Then, as the battle lines receded along their fragmented length, the pack duly reformed, unsure of what had just happened or might just happen again. Eyes remained furtive, senses on hold, sweat, like a christening oil anointed every brow.
Returning slowly to full awareness they began slapping the sides of their blood-swollen thighs, encouraging the dog to come closer. Looking up, it could sense no reason to shy, and so, tongue panting low to the ground, a fine, white froth lathering his jowls, it neared, eyes ablaze beneath its swirling brown coat. And this time there was no mistake, he was grinning, ear to folded-back ear. His stride pranced gaily, too, tail standing on high, a telltale flag announcing his new-found status, he was one of the boys.
Five miles still remained before them, hilly demanding miles, most of which would prove as provocative as those already covered. Along the way the dog would finally angle off toward home as they passed along the periphery of his territory, though it would forever remain affixed to their group in ways beyond telling.
And when it was over, and with heads bowed and arms akimbo they re-entered Cleveland Circle, the experience hung over them like the sweet smell of ozone in the passing of a storm. Their every days once again re-emerged cleansed and restructured, all potential and promise once more.
Such were their glories when each week they became defyers of gravity enthralled in their wit afoot. For it was through these shared communions that they could summon a stillness that held life’s essential truths, truths long forsaken by a world of secular yields. Together they sought emancipation in this covenant, release through this bond, compressing time into a trembling extension of the eternal where, like Eden before Adam, all darkness and sorrow were unknown, callousness and corruptions unheard, tears and perversions unseen. They ran until the wind was forever to their back, and the world was reclaimed by an unbiased God.
- This story is shared with the kind permission of Marathon & Beyond, in which it first appeared in Nov./Dec. 2008
In loving memory of our dear friend, Jim “Jason” Kehoe, assistant manager of the Bill Rodgers Running Center, who passed away at his home in Hull, Massachusetts Sunday June 3, 2012 of natural causes at age 64. Jason worked at the store since it first opened in Cleveland Circle in the fall of 1977. Before that he had grown up with Bill & Charlie Rodgers in Newington, Connecticut where Jas was the miler on the Newington High School track team when Bill was the star two miler. With a piercing wit this wry purveyor of truth was an uncompromising contrarian who lived his life his way, the whole way.
“Personally in my own life I try, in my own limited interaction with the world, to do it with integrity, and earn what I get. And don’t ask for more than I’ve earned – which seems to be an exception. But I don’t see it as exceptional. I just view average as exceptional when mediocrity is the norm.” - Jason Kehoe