A sampling of running ghosts of Christmases past

It's easy to associate various Thanksgivings and Fourths of July with running memories. Not so much with Christmas and the competitive ebb it typically brings

On dates of relative personal or cultural importance, I have a habit of looking back at where my own running and the whole jogging environment stood on any number of anniversaries or holidays. I can’t count the number of random Turkey trots and Independence Day races I’ve been in, but the winter holidays, or “The Holidays,” are the only time almost every optional thing in the U.S. really does shut down for a short spell, even in normal years.

Since Christmas stopped having much stand-alone meaning for me early in my adult life, reviewing long-ago late Decembers is a fun way to see how well my brain thinks it still works. I also have a lot of free time, and one way to stuff the deepening void in my soul with the therapeutic equivalent of balled-up newspapers and wads of used toilet paper is to litter the Internet with another round of thoughts that manage to be nihilistic and solipsistic at the same time.

En route to a 17:18 despite a brief donut stop at mile three.

I started running as a high-school freshman at 14, in the fall of 1984. At the time, my chief passions were typical of a tweenlike primate: Computers, reading, masturbating, rooting for the Celtics, and exploring the outdoors with maps, often in combination and displaying a certain roguish, tow-headed innocence at all times, at least until I discovered rotgut vodka. I was okay at middle-school soccer, but went after sports tepidly at best, instead pulling all-nighters reading Stephen King. School itself had been a mostly entertaining series of jokes from the beginning, but as a teenage boy I couldn’t help but want to be good at a sport, even a goofy one.

I was tempted to quit in the middle of the cross-country season after my fourth or fifth race, one that was somehow unusually disappointing despite my not having any real concept yet of what “good” in my nascent, rapidly expanding and chaotic racing universe even looked like. I probably got beat by someone I “shouldn’t” have on my own team. Whatever, the case, mainly because of my mom’s finger-waggling bullshit, I didn’t quit — and really, I sometimes wonder about that decision now — and was in spite of myself hooked on competitive running from the start. The main reason was simple: It offered metrics by which I could measure my own inevitable (for a while) improvement, no matter how objectively good I became. However, I also quickly decided that this would not be a fun sport to be in for four years if I bobbed along in the middle of the pack, despite everyone there looking exactly the same as the people ahead of them and getting just as much adulation.

During that freshman fall, I took my time from 21:06 in my first race to 19:31 in my last one, both on our home course, the last one going through the mile in 5:38 with a shoelace flopping. Even given that the first mile was the easy one on that layout, no one incapable of running under 18:00 had any business going out that hard. All fall, I ran similarly foolhardy races, mainly because so many others were guilty of the same thing but also because starts that were ambitious for me weren’t ambitious enough overall to have anyone notice. In any case, at the end of the year I knew I would be doing track in the spring, so I got it in my head somewhere to work up to 35 miles a week or so over the winter. I assume my cross-country coach gave me that idea, as he would be my coach in the spring if I chose to run for the junior-high track team as a ninth-grader instead of the varsity at the “senior high” a kilometer yonder.

Now, with much wandering still ahead, I get somewhat to the point. That Christmas, now fifteen and a week and a day old, I received running-related stuff for the first time. (Throughout this account, I interchange “birthday” with “Christmas” not because I can’t remember which happens when, but because these holidays were combined in my household from the time I could insist my parents spend lots of money on Legos. In fact, this predilection for thrift of probably why I was intentionally conceived on or near St. Patrick’s Day, and given an Irish name despite by all appearances being a direct descendant of at least one person photographed in uniform with Heinrich Himmler.)

In 1984, my mom went high-tech to feed my new hobby. I got a Nike nylon running suit, grey with maroon trim on both the pants and the jacket. It was suitable over plain cotton for a dumbass kid roaming the icy, dirty hills of Canterbury, New Hampshire in the first winter running of his life. I also got something that seemed wicked awesome until I figured out it was a basic but crafty exploitation of the equation rate × time = distance, a process that consumed about ten minutes: A “pacer watch.” Others here will remember these awful devices, which allowed users program in a desired pace and stride length to return the necessary cadence to maintain that pace; alternatively, users could tinker with the stride length and go up or down with cadence to home in on the pace target. The watch would then helpfully chirp away at the selected tempo as you, in theory, executed a thousand or more steps per mile within, on average, an inch of the chosen stride length, uphills and downhills and other obstacles to monotony be damned.

I used this tricked-up chronometer as an ordinary stopwatch, but in my first 5K road race, in June of 1985, I heard others in my slower-than-6:00-per-mile midst using the fuckers. One of them had the additional, obviously habitual traits of, one: Expelling an exasperated horse-breath every minute or so (just imagine an flapping-gums parody of Richard Nixon HARRUMPH!-ing while trying to hang with the age-groupers) and, two: Saying “Oh God” at least as often as that, as if it was someone else’s fuckin’ fault his scamtastic Casio watch was failing him. I think that guy beat me in that 5K in Concord (which I ran the first four runnings of, setting new all-venue lifetime PRs each year: 19:27, 17:05, 16:18* and 15:57), and at least part of my incentive for improving in the sport was the idea of the front of the pack offering not so much glory as the assurance of being free of prayerful, horse-whinnying, beep-along old people in road races who kept me behind them despite their radical manifest deficiencies. And the “old” guy I’m pissing on here, who I swear is real, may still be alive, as “old” to me at 15 meant 40 — that is, plus or minus my parents’ age.

The next Christmas, as a sophomore, my foot was in a walking cast, but Santa or the Birth Canal Monster brought me new gear anyway: A Moss Brown Gore-Tex running suit, bright fucking red. I looked like a buzz-cut-fitted, mostly titless version of Christina Aguilera — then born but thankfully unknown — in that get-up, visible roaming the redneck roads of Canterbury from the entire township once my foot was healed. The suit was intravaginally warm even on subzero days, and smelly too; despite having a separate top and bottom, somehow functioned as a roving Dutch often. The suit was stolen two years later from an unlocked Concord High locker. Per witnesses and gossip, I later learned who the perp was, but by then I’d gone sledding face-first and ass-akimbo in my What-a-Girl-Wants outfit so many times that the farted-up jacket and pants were both in tatters and I didn’t care. The thief would eventually die of a drug overdose one town over, though it was some years after the fact.

I can’t remember much about my junior-year Christmas, although around that time I ran fast enough to qualify for the fast heat of the 3,000 meters in the Indoor State Championships. They only put seven of us in there, as the University of New Hampshire was, for the final winter, offering a concrete 160-meter venue with a dirt infield for the meet. I would place a decisive seventh in that heat, if nothing else the last time I would run a truly shitty race in a state-championship-level high-school track meet (I’d get five more shots to fail with flying colors, coming agonizingly close in one of them).

When I was a senior, a friend who had moved to Atlanta the year before with his dad’s AT&T job came up to stay with us for part of Christmas break. Chris had joined the track team as a sophomore mainly because I was on it, chosen to run distance primarily because I did, then wisely switched to the 300-meter hurdles, falling in each of his first three races (finishing all three, I think) before opting out of the whole citius-altius-fortius environment altogether. But he was happy to come watch me run a Holiday-break race, this time at Dartmouth College’s flat 220-year oval, which seemed like heaven compared to the U.N.H. eyesore-lungsore that was then being renovated.

For the first and only time in high school, I competed in the 1,000 meters. It was a novelty and remains so, unique for the fact that if you run it right, the last 600 feels exactly like the last 600 of an all-out 1,500/mile. It’s not a place to be comfortable. On this day, though, I knew my rivals from cross-country and didn’t see any of them as threats. I remember following a couple kids through splits of 31 and a 64, and then passing the Salem kid with stage IV backne (and that’s not even funny, man, I can feel my own shoulder blades burn every time I see someone so unfairly stricken by nature) and sitting there on the big friendly Nashua galoot for two carefree laps (we were 2:13-ish at 800) until deciding with 150 meters to go that I should probably stop sitting on a galoot who was only trying to win a league-meet race and getting no help from the person who was clearly going to deny him this achievement in what was fast becoming a non-sporting way. I only bring this up in a moderately boastful manner because it has the be the only time I have closed the last 200 meters of a race in 29-something, and again, the first 50 of that was pretty slow. I even have video evidence, which I thought was uploaded but isn’t. I do have a photo. People talked about that kick throughout Leverone Field House until at least the start of the girls’ 600 meters, where all the hotties hid.

My time was 2:42.4, which would somehow be the third-fastest in the event in the entire state that winter. To this day, I don’t know quite how to atone for that. I guess that every distance kid, and we were scarcer then even adjusting for population growth, wanted to excel at the 1,500m or the 3000m instead. Well, I would run the 1,000 meters one more time in my short and outstanding life, as a college sophomore, also at a Christmas-break meet, this time backsliding to a 160-meter concrete track with a dirt infield, the facility U.V.M. featured at the time. In ran 2:37, probably what I could have run for the benefit of my friend Chris a couple years earlier if I’d run as aggressively as I did against my fellow sot of a Catamount teammate. The University of Vermont was excellent at the time for keeping you at, or not much under, your high-school level for however many years you were willing to tolerate the joke of a coach and program.

I’ll skip ahead to the last Holiday season of the 20th century, which coincided with my first season of coaching cross-country. I corralled a bunch of the Brady kids out for this 5K (you should click on that link today, if no others) and had a lot of challenging fun with the costume side. But “fun” represents a blurry, dissolved concept now, and one of the excuses I use for not racing anymore is that, based on my experience in the 1999 Jingle Bell 5K, I know for a fact that on my best day, at 51, I’d have a hard time keeping up for long with a mostly blind, masked-and-gowned idiot and his jingly-jangly dog — even a guy who was no good even when racing unencumbered.

Komen (1998-2013) was another special one.

There is no need to fill in many the other Yuletide blanks since 1990 or so. (A few days before December 25th, 1991, in Burlington, Vermont, I dropped windowpane acid for the first and only time in my life. It was one of the most euphoric experiences I have ever had, receiving rave reviews from all sides of the neurological aisle, and I plan to repeat it soon, but not with you people watching. ) Throughout my thirties and forties, I had Holiday seasons I either forget the details of because they were mundane or decline to recall because they were absolutely miserable. I’m unhappy most of the time, in large part because of consciously locking myself into “better safe than sorry” patterns that insulate me from meaningful psycho-emotional damage. I have narrowed my ability to enjoy life by winnowing out anything that could tip the scales toward misery as easily as it might toward joy, as I’ve had enough peaks as well as valleys for one mundane, pretty gross lifetime. But I am a far cry from miserable. On top of that, I’m tired of writing about Christmas and running — I promise I’ve already gone over the best of what there was and then some.

Other Christmas fun: I have now gone five straight December 25ths with no alcohol in between. This might literally be the first time this is true; when people speak of formal sobriety from a troublesome substance, they usually exclude the childhood years before they started dabbling in mood-altering chemicals. But I think there is a good chance that even before I turned four, I had taken an occasional sip from the 16-ounce cans of Budweiser (“Bud pounders”) I would fetch for him from the refrigerator. I could probably grant myself a waiver for those; I remember how bad beer foam tasted even then, but I wanted to do the things I saw my dad enjoying the most, and I kind of got an early start.

Also, this was the first year in which I very nearly exchanged no gifts with anyone. Nothing given, nothing received. Almost. I’m asymptotically approaching a null transactional Christmas. Last year, I made the well-meaning error of donating money to charity, a fairly substantial portion of my income in fact, and I now would achieve greater sense of purpose by literally burning an equivalent pile of cash, so jaundiced is my regard for my fellow sufferer. I don’t feel either good or bad about whatever the 2019 cash actually went to; I just feel like a dumbass for buying into the delusion that being “charitable” via a series of recumbent clicks would leave me feeling like a better person. Rather, I’m left feeling like a hater clinging pointlessly to the vestiges of wanting to belong to the human circus, a previously attractive proposition I, and a sad lot of others, have largely shed in 2020.

Finally, it’s probably obvious by now, but I gave my proofreader the long weekend off.