Sunday, December 31, 2006

Runner's World Column, June 2006

Here's a piece I wrote for Runner's World's Personal Record column, published June 2006.

Back on Track
A high school "reunion" shows a runner how far he's come
by Bill Braine

Every high school has a fat kid. In mine, he was me. Sure, there was one other guy who tipped the scales above 200 pounds, but he was tougher, more Irish, less nerdy. You might have considered him fat, but he was on-the-football-team fat, whereas I was editor-of-the-literary-magazine fat.

This was Long Island in the 1980s. My high school sat on six acres on the north side of town near the dog shelter and the beer distributor. Recently I went there to do something that would've been unthinkable back then: run three miles.

If you went to my school, you played sports and you rooted for the Mets or the Yankees. Not me. I was 247 pounds, played Dungeons & Dragons, and rooted for Tolkien and Blade Runner. I hung out with the science whizzes, the Star Wars fans, and the artists. Our tribal enemies were the "dirtbags"--the kids who liked to drink, fight, and break things. These kids would maraud around in beater cars they'd learned to fix in shop class and hurl objects--eggs, bottles, whatever--at anything not motorized. My friends and I rode bikes.

Still, there's no reason I should hate my high school. I got through without major injury. I was voted class artist. I lost a lot of weight (which I later put back on) leading up to my senior year. I managed to get dates to dances, although these girls would explain that we were "friends."

Yet I haven't been to a reunion. I haven't stopped in to see if my favorite teachers are still around, donated to the scholarship fund, or logged onto to check up on the old gang. For me, high school was a time of shame and fear.

Four years ago, when my wife became pregnant, I took up running and joined Weight Watchers. The combination pushed my weight from 244 pounds down to 180. I've kept it off, and in the meantime, become devoted to running. In 2003, I ran the New York City Marathon, and in 2005, I ran it again.

While I was in training last summer, my wife, our son, and I visited my parents in the house where I grew up, about a half-mile from the high school. I had to put in three miles, and the school track seemed a logical venue. As I stepped onto the red-clay surface, I thought about how I hadn't run here since that time in 11th grade when our phys-ed teacher made us stagger out a mile. Suddenly I felt the weight of the school on me. Those bleachers, that track, this place. It took me back to when I was lumbering along at the back of the pack, red-faced, puffing, sweating.

But this time, I was running easily. In my mind, I elbowed through an imaginary crowd, shouting, "Look at me now!" And what if they could see me now? Thirty-six, in reasonable shape, with a good job, a wife, a son--I'd done okay.

I ran a dozen laps. I passed the bleachers, hearing the cheers of a dimly remembered football game (one of the two or three I went to). I remembered the dismissals and brush-offs and being the fat kid. But now I was running. And running through it.

In the third mile--maybe it was the exertion, could have been the rhythm of my footfalls--the field became just a field, the track just a ribbon of red clay, and the bleachers began to empty of ghosts. My run took me back to that place and I watched them go--the dirtbags, the self-assured jocks, the girls I'd yearned for, and, finally, me, the fat kid, who was now, of all things, a runner.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Pleased to meet you

This afternoon we strolled down our quaint town's main street (it has a proper name, but everyone calls it Main Street). I wore the baby on my chest, pointed out. The boy and his mom and my sister and her husband all cavalcaded along, when we came upon the quaint police station, which I had in summer placed carefully upon my to-do list as a destination so that we could integrate. We stopped in. I explained to the policeman on duty that I had read in a guide to homeownership that we were supposed to stop in and introduce ourselves to the police.

"You read that in a book?" he asked.

"I guess it's common sense, but yeah."

He made a short speech about how glad he was that we had decided to stop in. He asked where we lived. He wrote it down. He asked if we'd ever had any trouble with the law. He asked if we had ever been convicted of a felony and whether we had ever been denied a home loan or a job on the basis of publicly-available information. He googled us, first me, then my wife, then the boy, then the baby. Fingerprints, strip search, cavity check, blood sample, retina scan, breathalyzer, and we were on our way.

It's good to be here.