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A Runner
By
redwriter

A Runner

Young runner finds that there is more to ability than just winning or losing

“One day, you’re going to thank God you’ve got that speed, lad.”

Those were the words of old Jack Linley to eighteen-year-old Danny Friar after the young man had run a solo one hundred metres trial on grass. While Danny, in his running gear, and spiked trainers, looked on anxiously, from a distance. the old man showed the time on his stopwatch to his two back-up trainers Vic Tanner, and Sid Dawson.

Danny saw some approval on their faces and thought he heard, “Wow, a good one.”

Jack, frail, slightly stooped, came to Danny and asked, in a strange croaking voice, if he’d like to start training on the coming Sunday. “We’ll find out much more about each other then.” And he added the words about his thanking God he had that speed. A reminder he would repeat many times.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For as long as he could remember, Danny had run. In his infancy, it was just jubilance. When he was about seven and his mother sent him on errands to the local shops, he would run all the way there. And, even under the encumbrance of a full shopping bag, he would run home.

Thoughts of actual timing would come much later, all that mattered was seeing the broad smile on his mother’s round face, when she’d say, “ Twelve minutes exactly. That’s your fastest, yet.” Danny would get very frustrated if Mr Tunnock, the shopkeeper, got stuck with a slow customer.

He ran to school. Not fast, too far for a sprint, but at a steady jog. Yet in late primary years, he loved that buzz of power he got when running ‘flat-out.’

Then, he entered High School, and his whole perspective changed. He was no longer just a kid that ran, he was faster than most other boys his age. He began to regard his speed as something special and he could give start to any other boy in his age group

So, it became expected that on the school’s sports day, each year for four years, the winner of the 100 and 200 metres was Danny Friar. His father, obviously delighted at his success came up with the warning, “Don’t let it go to your head, son. Just stick in at school. That’s the main thing.”

Strangely at no time did Danny have any sense of superiority because of his running. Somehow it was just a natural part of his life. But he did run more frequently. Deliberately he went to a local field and ran alongside a hedgerow, enjoying the sheer exuberance of going as fast as he could. It was an entirely internal sensation, different from running past other competitors.

Then came a different experience for Danny. During his final year at school, he had discussed with his mother and father, whether he should stay on at school and go on to university, and although he had no clear ambition at the time the idea did appeal to him.

Yet he knew that financially his parents were hard pressed. His father had been made redundant the previous year and now had a lowly labouring job in a local factory, while his mother did part-time cleaning work. Danny knew of the guilt he would feel if he did not add a third wage, however meagre, to the collection. He knew his mother was relieved when he announced his decision to leave.

His father was less enthused, “I wish I’d had your chance, son.”

That meant that the final sports day would be Danny’s last. But there was no talk of him being a certainty for this 100 metres. The reason was that, traditionally, because of low numbers, members of the higher education group 17-18-year olds, could enter certain events. All the talk was of Gordon Baker, a highly rated 18-year old running the 100 metres.

The prospect thrilled Danny. Gordon Baker’s reputation was massive. There was talk of him being a contender in the next Olympic Games in two–year’s time. Phew! And he, Danny Friar, was going to give him a race.

Danny had seen him out on the school track a few times, tall, arrogant, Danny thought, full of himself. A bit of a poseur. But always looking very agile when he strode out.

The special day was pleasantly fine with no gusting winds that could distort a sprint race. The long cinder track was gifted by a previous pupil of the school, grateful no doubt for some academic success. School pupils were seated or standing well back from the left of the track. And buzzed with excitement as Mr Shand, the aging gym teacher, called loudly, “All runners to start.”

Gordon Baker with two companions, came dressed in the same immaculate blue track suits. Clearly, they were also taking part, as they began stripping off alongside him, as Danny stood in vest and shorts.

Baker shocked  Danny when he began hammering starting blocks into the track. And Danny noticed that the three eighteen-year-olds were all wearing the red diagonal striped vest of the local sporting club. He sighed. Some challenge this.

Feeling more tense than he had ever felt before a race. He was further surprised when Baker came directly towards him, a not unfriendly smile on his face. He offered his hand in greeting and Danny shook it.

“I’ve heard you’ve built quite a big reputation in the lower school. Good luck.” Then he was gone to line up as Mr Shand barked, “On your marks!”

On either side of him, Baker’s companions crouched down, the way Danny had seen it done on TV. Danny had tried it once, but had decided since you ran standing up, a standing start was wisest.

“Set!”

The two red vests came up out of crouched position. Ready. Danny, as was his habit, kept his right leg relaxed, ready to lead off on that one.

Bang! And that, as ever, set him into fast action. But the two flanking him were equally quick. For about ten metres he was level with them, but then he sensed that he was edging ahead of them. Just keep those legs moving as fast as he could. Halfway, and there was no one in front of him. His legs felt good, his breathing was controlled.

There were no red vests, and the white tape was so close. All felt so good. His chest filled with pride. Some of the crowd were chanting, “ Friar! Friar!” He had done it. Just ten metres and he’d have beaten a---What? There were added cries, “Baker! Baker!”

From the corner of his right eye, a red shape strode easily into view. Moving ahead of him, breaking the tape before striding on, taking over twenty metres to ease up.

Beaten! The pain and disappointment were almost tangible. No matter that the opponent had been special. Losing hurt. He was stopped five metres past the tape and stood watching as Gordon Baker turned and jogged slowly back.

As he came nearer, Danny could see his chest was heaving, “By heaven!” he panted, “I really thought I wasn’t going to catch you.” He held out a hand which Danny shook. “Get yourself a good club, or at least a good trainer.”

His two companions had joined him, and as they began to move away, Baker turned back and pointed at the finishing line, before moving his finger to where Danny was still standing. “You couldn’t stop in that short distance if your finishing was strong.”

Then he moved away, and Danny never saw or heard of him again. But he would be reminded of those final words many times over the coming years. And he left school, that defeat on his mind, but with good grades, which might have taken him to University. However, he dropped into a mind-freezing clerical job.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

For years in the Summer months, when the sun showed real promise, relatives, mostly from his mother's side circled deckchairs. So many cousins that games were inevitable. Since the age of twelve, Danny had won the sprint race. Each passing year they had tried to handicap him out of it. They always failed.

The summer he left school was no different from other years, as he sprinted easily past them all. But reaching the littlest three-year-old, like other years, he snatched him up into his arms as he ran, held him out in front of him as he crossed the finishing line drawn in the sand, he yelled, “Little Bobby wins!”

The three-year-old chuckled gleefully and hugged Danny around the neck, before his father, Danny’s Uncle Ken, his mother’s younger brother, took him from Danny.

“You going to be a runner like Danny?”

“Faster,” Bobby declared. They laughed, but that brief exchange was to have unseen consequences for Danny.

Danny hated life in the dreary office. His decent grades from school were wasted in the boring and limiting tasks he was given. Most of the staff were middle-aged or beyond and all the menial stuff fell to him. Opening mail, answering departmental phones, filing. He just hated it.

His Uncle Ken worked as an electrician in the main city railway station, and he made a rare Sunday visit to tell Danny about a young apprentice who on the quieter night shifts challenged other apprentices to races along the empty platforms which he always won. “His name is Billy Railton. He’s nineteen and I’ve watched him race. He’s good, but Danny, he’s not a patch on you”

His uncle Ken went on. “Runs with a small group, on the Civil Service fields. They go for the cash money circuit.”

Danny wasn’t sure what that was, but Uncle Ken turned to his sister, to ask, “How’d you like to have a hundred quid dropped into your lap, Mary?”

“That’ll be the day,” was his mother’s perfunctory reply.

Uncle Ken shrugged and turned back to Danny, “Anyway, he says his trainer, a Jack Linley will always consider good prospects. Fancy a try?”

Danny had not run seriously since leaving school, although had kept up his less than regular running along the hedgerows. The idea of having an organised schedule so appealed to him that he had no hesitation in agreeing to that initial trial.

And so, he entered a whole new phase of his running life.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

That first Sunday after his trial run, Jack greeted him enthusiastically, introduced him formerly to Vic Jameson, who was a butcher by day, and Sid Turner, who managed a DIY store. Both in their early forties, Danny estimated, and both showed keen enthusiasm for athletics having plenty of advisory skills of their own. But it was definitely the elderly Jack who kept them all together,

Despite looking and sounding quite feeble, Jack was full of energy and excitement when it came to encouraging and guiding a runner. On that first afternoon, he introduced Danny to the other eight runners. All greeted him enthusiastically shaking his hand, making comments that showed that Jack had made positive comments about him.

Tall, black-haired Billy Railton, twenty years old told him, “Ken spoke very highly of you, Danny. And I think we’re about to find out why.”

Jack said something to Vic, who called out, “Usual hundred metre spots. One extra stride.”

The others looked a little surprised, but did as they were told, seeming to know exactly where to line up.

Jack came up to Danny, a wide grin creasing his already wrinkled face, “This is partially serious, but mainly a little fun in which even the two longer distance runners take part. I keep adjusting their handicaps and have a dream that I’ll get them to cross the line together one day.” He chuckled, “Hasn’t happened yet. Life’s not that straight forward.”

A young man in a blue football shirt was the runner set furthest back, Jack turned to him, “If you’ll sit up half a metre today, Mike. We’ll get to know what Danny is capable of.”

He then pointed Danny to the starting point he’d had for his trial. “Ignore everybody else. Come down top speed. Sid’ll start you all with just a loud shout.” He grinned, as he turned to head for the finish. “No starting pistols on a Sunday.”

Sid Turner came up with a friendly nod and smile. Danny could see all the runners in their various designated spots as Sid called, “Right, lads. On your marks..”

Danny noticed that the others all went into a crouch position and knew that he would soon be trained into these ways. But not this first time. He took his usual starting stance.

“Set!”

Sid’s yelled “Go!” had them up and running. Danny, when there was sight of no one in front of him, broke the tape and eased to a stop. Jack approached as the others ran on past them.

Jack glanced at his stopwatch “Good enough, for now, but---” And now, he made a gesture that reminded Danny of other times. He pointed at the finish line and traced to where Danny had stopped. “You eased off. Always aim for some point beyond your target. That could catch you out one day.”

It was better to say nothing about the last race at school when Gordon Blake had given the same advice.

“One other thing we’ll need to put right over time,” Jack went on, and he held out his hands with the finger wide apart. “This is how you run?”

It was, and Danny was aware of it. He nodded, and Jack shook his head, “Too much tension. Lightly clenched fist will be what we aim for.”

Danny left that first training session amazed and delighted that he had already started learning fresh techniques, and as the weeks and months went by as well as improving his style and consequently, his speed, he learned more about the local and border villages that held annual festivals at which there were always races.

Jack had taken Danny along to meetings when any of the other runners were taking part.

He witnessed Billy Railton’s delight when he sprinted home in the Rushfield Sprint, winning the £100 prize. Vic and Sid won a fair amount from the bookies that day. “Like their bets, Sid and Vic, and why not?” Jack commented huskily. “They work hard enough for the runners. Betting’s not my game.”

By the end of his second year with the group, the one positive thing he had done was to get out of that drab office work to gain a post with the grandiose title of Assistant Manager in a local supermarket. Much friendlier with a larger workforce of around his own age. And there was a pretty dark-haired girl who worked in the bakery department, who took his eye. He was much happier.

But Danny had not yet run in any competitive race. “When am I going to get this hundred pounds dropped in my lap?” His mother asked cynically. That was just after Billy Railton’s success, and Danny had been wondering how best to approach Jack about his own future. He told him what his mother had said.

Jack looked at Danny for a moment, his head nodding, as he cleared his throat of the phlegm that seemed to be choking him off more often. “She’s right.” He waved Danny to a bench

They sat in the late sun, facing each other, and Jack croaked, “Do you remember what I said to you the first time you ran that trial?”

Danny had to laugh, “And you’ve repeated it a few times since. About thanking God for speed?”

“’One day’ I said. Well, that day is closer now. Danny what I’ve always had in mind for you, and Sid and Vic agree, is the Willingham Whitsun One Thousand.”

“What?” Danny gasped. Hardly mentioned in terms of the other handicaps. Willingham was more of a town than a village, set in the heart of the borders. He had heard it had a compact little stadium. The thousand-pound first prize was always the major attraction.

Old Jack smiled at the surprised expression that Danny knew he must be showing, “Yes, Danny, the ‘big one’.” Jack held up a warning hand, “Caution though. First, not a mention of this from now, even though you’ve more than a year before it happens.”

“More than a year?” Danny tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice.

Jack nodded his frail head, “I wish it could be earlier, but we’ll have you well built-up by the time your twenty-one. Anyway, you have to win one handicap next year before you can qualify.”

So, life went on, and into his twentieth year, he continued improving his style. He ran with the lightly clenched fists that Jack had insisted upon, and Jack pointed out from time to time how he swung his arms too high.

“Keep the arm movement more punchy. Lifting them too high wastes energy,” Jack was full of his croaky advices as Danny developed further. Two other factors eased the frustrations of waiting. First, he bought himself a cheap little Toyota, of which he was immensely proud despite its age.

More importantly, he took the neat, dark-haired girl Linda Murphy on a first date to the cinema. He was feeling most content.

Jack, Stan, and Vic picked out a small handicap, in the tiny village of Silburn, in the north of the county. Even the hundred metres handicap was shrunken to only eight heats with winners to the final. “You run with your brain in this one, Danny. Observe, all the time. But give nothing away of what you’re capable of.”

Danny followed Instructions to the letter in both the heat and final. He ran at three quarter pace, staying in the pack, watching those around him. At the ten metre point, he burst forward, and in both cases, it worked like a dream. Jack was delighted, but added, “Now the hard part starts, a lot to get through. Your strengthening, improving and just getting through to Whitsun.”

Rather puzzled by that last statement, Danny intended to follow-up on it but didn’t. He would later regret that. But now the secrecy began.

In late January, the whole group visited the old railway line that ran down to the river. With all the sleepers removed, the ash beneath, Jack was sure, was an ideal practice for the Willington track. The other main reason for using this stretch was the high, thick hawthorn hedging which kept them out of prying eyes.

“You’d be surprised the lengths folk’ll go to for inside information,” Vic told him. “They might not have a runner, but if they can get inside information for a decent bet.”

Being a butcher, Vic, was able to provide good quality steak over the last two months’ “Enough for the whole family,” he laughed. “ Don’t want your mother complaining. But it will build you up.”

In fact, his mother had said, as they tucked into the lusciously lean meat, “Could you not just keep on training instead of competing?”

January to May had seemed an exceptionally long time at the outset, but as the weeks moved into months. Away from the track Danny’s relationship with Linda was progressing well. And even though the training was now Monday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings with Sunday afternoons. Linda was quite willing to fit in with the demands of time.

And everything Jack had taught him was coming together. The older man’s constant repetitions in that cracked voice might have been irritating, but Danny knew how important it all was.

“The arms keep them low, but fast. The faster the arms move the legs have to follow.”

“Fists, gently clenched.”

“Crouched start.” Jack had him practice that from his early runs. “Fingers of your right hand just behind the line. That’s the arm you’re throwing forward as you come up.”

But it was those last twenty metres that Jack was most concerned about. “You can’t be a brilliant starter and a brilliant finisher.” He’d drummed that, so many times into Danny, “But you can be a good starter and a brilliant finisher. Eyes always beyond the tape.”

Then the ax fell. Two Sundays before the crucial Whit Monday, Danny drove his small car into the pub car park, from where they would walk up to the track. By now, he wore a dark green track suit which avoided changing in the chill winds of winter. But this day. He knew something was wrong. Vic Jameson was standing there, alone.

As he got out of the car, Vic came forward, Danny noticed his red-rimmed eyes, and knew that this wasn’t going to be good.

Vic placed a gentle hand on Danny’s shoulder, “I’m sorry, Danny. There’s no easy way.” He caught his breath before going on, “Jack died in his sleep Friday night. It was peaceful, apparently.”

Danny just stood there, unable to take it in, not wanting to.

Vic put his fingers to his own throat, and asked, “ Did he ever tell you about this?”

Danny shook his head.

“Cancer, he’s fought it for five years.”

“And couldn’t be granted two more weeks?” Danny’s first words, as Jack’s own words about “getting through to Whitsun,” became so relevant,

“Life can be cruel.”

No training that day, only deep mourning. But the sessions that followed were dismal. Sid and Vic tried so hard to overcome the gap left by the loss of Jack. “He had you all ready anyway,” Sid said consolingly.

Jack’s wife insisted that his running fraternity supply the pallbearers. So, Jack found himself at the front with Vic alongside him. “The box is heavier than Jack was,” Vic commented bitterly. That was just three days before the Willingham 1000 which, in Danny’s mind a day, that seemed irrelevant.

However, by the Whit Monday, he felt some pleasure in driving his mother and father, along with Linda into the borders to see the Willingham Whitsun Festival. They had never seen him run before. More pressure? They’d soon find out. He left them outside the stadium to view the many market stalls.

When the heats started he had a while to stand with Sid and Vic. He was in heat number ten of sixteen. He found his heat relatively easy, but he really had to turn it on to overcome one of the fancied runners in his semi-final. That effort. Vic informed him, made him third favourite in the final. “You feeling all right?” Sid asked anxiously.

Danny wondered if Sid recognised the tension building inside him. “I just wish Jack was here.”

Vic came in then, “Son, if there’s angels in heaven, you can bet Jack will be atop of that stand, keeping an eye on you.”

“Yes,” Sid half chuckled, “ with a stopwatch in his hand.”

Did that help? Danny wasn’t sure. He was greatly aware of the tension building inside of him, “This is for Jack,“ he declared.

“Of course, it is,” Vic agreed, “Who else?”

The four finalists were called into line. He had learned that they were all older than him. He had been given a three and a half metre handicap, behind him there was a runner off two metres, and the favourite was on scratch. The fourth runner, the so-called outsider, was one metre further on than Danny. A good target.

As they were called to their marks Danny’s tension was like a nest of bees loosed inside him. Think only of the gun, the gun, the gun.

Bang!

And he was up, and on his way, eyes only for that distant tape. He had overtaken the outsider already. A tremendous start. Already he was clear. Hold it, and the thousand was his. Then the doubts crept in.

Was that the outsider out of the corner of his eyes tracking him on the left? Had he started too well? No, it couldn’t be. Past halfway. Now another figure appeared on his right. Gaining ground. Come on, where’s that finish? Jack’s voice croaking, “You can’t be a brilliant starter and----”

Then they were over the line, and it hadn’t been him that broke the tape. As he pulled up the announcer confirmed that. “First, Johnson. Second, Parry. Third, Friar.” Not even second.

Vic was very sympathetic. “In a way it’s no surprise. Jack knew you had not physically developed enough. He knew that he had little time to wait, and you would get impatient. Honestly, Danny, he’d have been delighted by what you did.”

It took Danny several weeks to get over the events of Whit Monday. Then one mid-July Saturday he drove Linda to a part of the coast that he didn’t visit too often. He parked the car off the road, high above the coastline. A popular parking spot above a very steep incline

Linda looked over the edge after collecting the picnic basket and gasped, “We’re not clambering down there, are we?”

Danny laughed, “No, there’s a footpath. That’s where it takes us after much twisting and turning.” She looked so coolly delectable in her yellow blouse and shorts.

“That still looks steep before the cliff edge. What’s beyond?”

Again, he laughed, “Don’t worry we’re staying near the path. Let’s go.”

Finding the footpath, they followed its twists and turns until they could spread a blanket on the lower green and look up to where the cars were parked. Linda took a tentative few steps and glanced over the edge.

“God,” she said, as she returned to where Danny was sharing glances between the contents of the basket, and her wary viewing, “that’s still some drop. Want to eat now?”

“No. I want to tell you what I’ve been doing.”

“Tell me.”

“Well, I’ve been in touch with a few colleges. I fancy teaching, Linda, PE or just athletics.”

He told her of the kids who came by on a Sunday, wanting to race. He’d found it fascinating.

“Oh, yes, I can just imagine----”

That was the moment that a loud scream, followed by a desperate, “My babies! Save my babies!”

A small car, a Mini, he reckoned, was plummeting down the deep slope, bouncing on the infirm surface. A frantic man was running desperately after it, but he stumbled and fell, rolling over and over. Others were up there, mostly immobile, hands to mouths, as the car gathered pace.

Some people strolling in their direction saw the car speeding down towards them and stepped back.

Danny never knew when he started running. In his mind, he estimated he was maybe one hundred and fifty metres from the point where the car would cross the path. Hitting the path would slow it, but at the rate, it had picked up, wouldn’t stop it. It would hit the slope, not as steep but still heading inexorably for the cliff edge and the drop beyond.

Vaguely aware of the rising shouts and screams from a distance, Danny regarded them as spectators. Come to view yet another failure?

Oh, God, he wasn’t going to make it. The runaway car was almost at the path. Running as wildly as he ever had, Danny veered off the path and raced at an angle. As he ran, he fixed his eyes on a spot that was where he needed to be level, at least, with the wayward vehicle. Miss it, and it would be gone.

A croaking voice in his head, “Always look beyond your target. That ensures top speed.”

He heard the car wheels strike the path. A quick glance told him that although there had been a lull, the car pace hardly looked slower. It was almost upon him. He wasn’t going to keep that rate. His legs felt strained. Like that Willingham final. A failure!

No! Not this time.

That croaking voice in his head, “Move those arms faster. Your legs have to follow.”

The car was level with him. His arms swung faster. As the car inched ahead, Danny saw that the door was not latched. Desperately he grabbed at it, held it open, and for an instant, it was pulling him with it. Gripping the door tightly open, he flung his body across the front seats, wriggling further, to keep his toes out of the dirt, as he groped for the handbrake.

Gratefully, his hands found it and heaved it upwards. The car skidded slightly sideways and stopped. Danny swiftly applied reverse gear as extra precaution. Cheering from outside got louder. Before looking anxiously into the rear seat of the car, Danny saw that the front of the car had stopped two metres from the edge.

When he looked into the back he saw two little boys, in blue T-shirts. The eldest, maybe four-years-old was clapping his hands excitedly, as he chanted, “More! More!”

The younger boy watched his brother as he copied, “More!”

Danny buried his face in the seat covers and his laugh mingled with his tears of relief.

Then it seemed, the whole world arrived. Many cell-phone cameras were pointed. And of course, the grateful parents claimed their boys. The mother flung her arms around Danny. It was all gratitude and admiration.

People questioned his speed, demanded selfies. Even the Press magically turned up and Danny was overwhelmed by further questions. A truck came to haul the car away.

At last, the crowds were gone, a chill was in the air, as the sun dipped to edge the tangerine and silver sea. Danny sat on the cliff-top bench, comfortable, with his arm around the girl who would become his lady for life. There were other races to be run and won. Within another three years, when he was fitter, stronger, and more mature he would take the Willingham Whitsun Thousand.

But the croaking words of his dear old trainer and friend, Jack Linley, rang forever true:

“One day, you’re going to thank God you’ve got that speed, lad.”

Today had been that day.

 

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than storiesspace.com with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

Copyright © Copyright redwriter 2019
The right of redwriter to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Design, and Patents Act 1988

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