So there we were the other evening standing in the middle of the street. It had been an overcast day and the kids’ hair was still stringy from a dip in the cold pool. We’d just finished eating hamburgers and hotdogs as part of a Memorial Day family celebration. But now it was time to get serious and stand in the middle of the street.
The players were my two nephews Eric and Reece, my niece Kennedy, my stepdaughter Gabrielle and myself. Eric’s girlfriend Emily was there too, but didn’t want to do it.
“How far?” said Kennedy, the coolest 8-year-old in the world. She squinted into the distance, putting her hand on her forehead.
“To the turn off?” Gabrielle said, placing a hand on one bent knee.
“Looks good to me,” I said.
“Wait, how far again?” Reece asked, the braces on his 12-year-old mouth clunky and gleaming.
“To the turn off, to the green sign,” Gabrielle answered.
“Kennedy, you want a bit of a head start?”
She considered, rubbing her chin gently.
She took three steps forward, the skort over her tights turquoise blue.
We leaned into the starting line, invisible, perhaps, but real and definitive to us.
“On your mark. Get set. Go!” Emily screamed.
We took off, the road now a track, our lazy day now a competition, the evening wind cool and refreshing. I watched 19-year-old Eric soar past me, each step like a horse’s gallop compared to my pace. Gabrielle squealed and bemoaned her fate — “Noooooo!” — as Reece edged past her. Kennedy’s little legs motored along.
We got to the finish line breathless, our hearts thumping in our chests. I felt that rich, excited feeling that comes from running as hard and fast as you can. Then it was that moment when you wonder if you’re going to throw up or not, so you bend over and put your hands on your knees, your breath slowly slowing. Then you look back at the distance you just ran and want to do it, immediately, again, convinced you can do it faster.
Running races brings me way back to elementary school track and field days. Man, I loved those days. First off, they were almost always warm because they were in June. Second, our only assignment for the day was to run or jump or throw. No thinking required, no homework that night, just sunscreen and spraying each other with water. Third, for the most part, the competition wasn’t that fierce. I mean, yes, I wanted to win, but who, after all, is going to get too upset if they suck at shot put or long jump? Not me, that’s for sure.
My mom would pack my lunch and usually it would have something special in it, like a cold can of Coke wrapped in a paper towel so its condensation wouldn’t get my brown bag soggy. We’d eat in a circle on the grass and then it would be off to our next event. Yes, event. I loved that they called it that, making it sound like a big to-do.
My race was the 200-metre run, a sprint that took us halfway around the track. Christina Betto owned the 100-metre and I’d try mightily to beat her in that race, but felt like I was just getting into my groove when it was already over. So the 200-metre? That was the distance for me.
I’d set my feet on my starting line, the runners lining up in increments ahead of each other. The sound of my shoe digging into the track was beautiful, crunchy and satisfying, and I’d bend over, a desire to win spilling over me like paint.
I’m pretty sure I never had a great start since the sound of the gun firing would always make me jump instead of bolt forward, but I’d recover and there we’d go, feeling like we were flying.
Of course, passing someone was the ultimate high, especially when you felt like you were gliding effortlessly past them. Having someone do the same to you, not so good, but something you could accept because you knew you were trying your very best.
Then we’d round the corner to the finish line and fatigue would kick in. But I’d fight it, fight it, noticing that sometimes that finish line would play tricks, creep farther away so it felt like my leaden legs wouldn’t get me there before everyone else passed me.
A couple of times, I made it to regionals and my dad would show up at the beginning of the race with a teaspoon and a bottle of corn syrup to give me an extra boost. I never got higher than third in those competitions, but didn’t really mind. It was the thrill of the run, not the win, that interested me most.
Apparently, my two nephews, niece and stepdaughter felt the same on Sunday, as we lined up for every configuration of race: me against Eric, Reece against Gabrielle, Kennedy against Reece.
“Again!” Kennedy would yell as we’d finish and we’d trot back to our starting line, which by now Gabrielle had outlined in blue chalk. And so the summer evening gave way to the summer night, the fire flies dipped and glowed, and our footsteps made memories in the middle of the street.