The basement of this suburban Chicago high school is hot and muggy even in the middle of January. On a regulation outdoor track, the 400-meter dash is a single revolution around a blacktopped oval. But here, the indoor track is so small runners must loop it several times for a race that shouldn’t take more than two minutes.
It is 1984. I have just turned 14. I have just begun running. I have never run a race before, probably not even a playground race as a child, preferring, as I did, to play hopscotch and jump rope. This is my first year of high school. (My first year as a member of any kind of team, unless you count Girl Scouts, which I did for only a couple of years, my unconventional, guitar-playing father our troop leader, as eager to take us fishing as he was to teach Pete Seeger songs around the campfire.) I am tall for my age, already my adult height of 5′ 9″, and thin. I have long legs that nevertheless take only short, clipped strides and long arms that seem constantly poised to suffocate or concuss me, so wildly do they flail about my torso and head. I am wearing maroon running shorts and a matching T-shirt, with SICP (Saint Ignatius College Prep) stitched in gold above my heart. The uniform is scratchy and smells not only of this musty basement and my nervous, teenage body but also of the aged musk of other teenage bodies that once sweated in it.
The track loops around the basement’s perimeter, encircling the school’s giant boilers, a forest of belching, hissing, fat metal cylinders. Steam fills the low-ceilinged space above my head. I have a wind stitch in my left side; it feels like a track spike is lodged beneath my lowest rib, a sharp, pointy blockage preventing me from getting enough oxygen. Despite my eleven years of ballet training, I am horribly uncoordinated at the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other. The track spikes digging into the balls of my feet hurt more than dancing in pointe shoes ever did, jarring my sacrum, that bony spot at the base of my spine, each time a foot strikes the track. The constant turning to the left makes me dizzy. I wish the officials would stop us at the halfway mark and let us turn around in the other direction, for I have been listing left for so long I fear I might never again find center.
A few moments ago, when the gun went off, I immediately slipped behind the front pack of runners. My coach had told me to pace myself. “Moroney,” he said. “Don’t go out too fast. That’s the worst mistake you can make in a 400.” I had nodded.
My new teammates and I have been practicing on our school’s outdoor track, the one that affords me a stunning view of Chicago’s skyline, provided I occasionally manage to look up from the earth long enough to see it. I almost always finish in last place, whether we run an easy mile warmup, the 100-yard sprints we do on speed days, or the timed 800s we run every Thursday. Surely “going out too fast” will not be my downfall.
On the track, not even 100 meters in, I already feel as though I have been running for hours. My breath is hot in my mouth, and my hair where it has slipped out of my ponytail rubs uncomfortably along my damp neck. The leaders have already pulled ahead, so I fall into position behind two girls from Regina, a Catholic high school at the south end of the city. One of the girls has red hair that hangs in a thick braid down her back. The other wears her dark blond hair in a sagging ponytail much like my own. I try to match my footfalls to theirs—left, right, left, right—in a desperate attempt to hypnotize myself into forgetting my wind stitch, forgetting the hot blasts of furnace air, forgetting my nostrils that are clogged with wet dust, forgetting my desire to lie down among the radiators. It works for a while: I run a yard or so behind them so that we make a triangle, a holy trinity of sorts, the two of them shoulder to shoulder with me fitting myself into the notch between and behind them. If they notice me breathing, they don’t turn to look. They don’t talk to each other, either, but I sense a connection between them, an unspoken thread of “I’m still right here, I’m still running with you” vibrating in the air around us. It’s a feeling I haven’t yet found with any of my own teammates, not even during practice.
With a little less than 100 meters to go, though, the Regina runners thrust their chins and chests into the air a little higher and begin picking their knees up higher, moving their feet more rapidly. In running terminology, the act of increasing your speed even when you feel your insides climbing up your throat is called “finding another gear,” as though runners are some obscure foreign car being driven around an unfamiliar countryside, the driver exclaiming, “Oh, look! Here’s a gear I didn’t even know about!” I watch the girls’ feet as they lengthen the distance between us, and then they curve left and out of my sight. I try to control my breathing, command my legs to stop shaking, my pulse from racing so rapidly. I fight the urge to touch my chest and tamp my heart into stillness. I listen to see if anyone is still behind me, but all I hear is the blood rushing in my ears and the clanking and humming of these giant radiators.
Once the Regina runners have disappeared, I hear another runner approaching my right shoulder. There is a moment of relief—“Oh, I am not the last one after all!”—until I realize that I am being lapped, that the runner passing me is the lead runner. Hot tears fill my eye sockets and they mix with my sweat and the humidity, making it even harder for me to see as the leader, too, swerves left and then out of sight. Two more runners overtake me. I do some quick calculations; there were more than a dozen of us at the starting line, so maybe if I can just sustain this pace a little longer, I won’t be lapped by all of them. Eventually, I will come to understand that this is typical running strategy—the constant calculation and recalculation of goal pace versus actual pace, of thinking about where you want to be versus where you actually are, all the while continuing to run, continuing to feel the stitch in your side, filling your mind with a hodgepodge of excuses and practicalities on one hand and self-doubt and -flagellation on the other.
I am lapped by another runner, and then another. And then I stop counting. It is too much. My embarrassment wants to send me running off this track, out of this school, running toward the city down the Edens to the Kennedy or straight east to the lake, running away from my friends who will otherwise look at me with pity when I finally cross the finish line, away from my coach who will not even be disappointed because he never expected anything from me in the first place, away from these other runners, my competitors—the ones who weren’t lapped, whose legs moved more gracefully, purposefully, easefully.
But I don’t. I keep moving around the track, still listing to my left, still tight and constricted through my chest and shoulders, stuck somewhere between determination and surrender. Across the stretch of boilers I hear quick, sharp bouts of applause for the finishers as well as an occasional “Woot! woot!” or “Way to go, Erin,” “Way to go, Mary Jo!”
When I reach the place where everyone else has already crossed the finish line, I still have one more lap to run. I don’t know if anyone is looking at me, or intentionally not looking, because I am looking at the tops of my running shoes, red with black laces, the pinky toe of my left foot bulging toward the radiators I keep circling. I feel a hot blister there, a mountain of liquid trapped under my callused skin. If anyone says anything to me I don’t hear it. I am on autopilot, stuck in a Sisyphean undertaking with no room for free will, feeling trapped by my constricted body, the low ceilings, the windows made opaque with steam.
I am beginning the last lap, with my back, finally, to the finish line, when I hear my coach call out, “C’mon, Moroney. Finish strong.” Whether his words are a command or a plea, I can’t tell. He jogs alongside me, briefly, holding a clipboard in one hand with a whistle hanging around his neck. His lips are small and thin when he says, “Hang in there.” He stops running as I enter the next curve. I see him in my peripheral vision, making notations on his clipboard before recapping his pen and turning away from me.
As I come out of the second-to-last curve of this race, suddenly my father appears on the side of the track, as though materializing through one of the hopper windows ringing the room or conjured from the mist hovering everywhere, since I hadn’t seen him come through the main doors, had not, in fact, known that he would be here at all. Where there was only empty track before, now my father stands. Even more remarkable than seeing him materialize at this late point in the race is the fact that I am looking up at all, and it is a relief to see something other than the tops of my shoes, other than the painted lane lines. His face is even ruddier than usual. His bald head shines under the fluorescent light and his pale blue eyes are almost invisible behind his foggy, wire-rimmed glasses. In his hand he holds his cap, a felted wool fedora. He wears his janitor’s work clothes—navy trousers and brown leather shoes, a once-shiny but now faded and dull winter jacket. He sees me and instantly tucks his cap beneath his arm to use both hands for clapping. His wedding band twinkles. His face glows. “Way to go, Francesca,” he cheers. “Way to go.”
Writing this now, more than thirty years since my dad first showed up behind those boilers, I wish I could say I recognized my love for my father in that moment, my gratitude for his presence, for his willingness to stand alongside a musty basement track and clap for the sole remaining runner. I wish I could say his presence inspired me, or energized me, that I caught the energy he was throwing out and used it to hurl myself across the finish line, surprising the handful of timekeepers waiting for me to finish, waiting to line up the next race, but I didn’t. I was a teenager, after all, and teenagers are not predisposed to feel love toward their parents. In addition to teenage angst I had a lot of unresolved anger toward my dad, for all the ordinary ways an imperfect human unknowingly harms his family as well as for the few extraordinary ways this particular man had harmed us. Despite it all, I’ve come to see that moment as the first time I recognized something of myself in my father—a shared willingness to push our physical bodies to the extreme, even without recognition or material reward, even when the pushing itself created more problems we were ill-equipped to address.
Looking at my dad as he waited for me to shuffle across the finish line I saw understanding in his eyes, as though we were finally sharing something other than genetics, a bathroom sink, or our love of Nutter Butter cookies. He understood the blisters on my feet, the ones that pushed my toenails up and out toward the fabric of my shoes. He understood the exertion I exuded—ordinary perspiration, yes, but also something indefinable yet recognizable to anyone who has been engaged in a similar physical struggle, shared the desire to know what a body is capable of, equal parts admiration and awe, and it isn’t about how fast, or about winning, it’s merely about how long you can keep going—how many miles, how many days, how many months, or, in my dad’s case, years. Equal parts pride and punishment. I wanted that for myself. I wanted what my father had.
My dad was a high school track and football star who went to college on a track scholarship, and by the time I joined the track team at Ignatius, his alma mater, I had watched him move his body—on his feet, atop a bicycle, through water, and in and out of various yoga poses—as much as I had watched him do anything else. That was my dad. Perpetually in motion.
The vision of my father stepping out from behind the thicket of boilers comes back to me in memory as a moment of surrender, or revealing himself to me. And seeing him in that moment caused a realization for me: perhaps it was when I first identified myself as “runner.”
My other identities were, by and large, ones that I had been born into: daughter, granddaughter, sister, niece, cousin. I suppose I had chosen a few for myself—babysitter, friend, ballet dancer—but even those felt like little more than a logical outcome of my suburban working-class environment. At the time, I probably wouldn’t have recognized this new identity as a choice. Running felt preordained, as though I participated not out of love for it but because of a need to do something, to commit myself to some exhausting endeavor, a distraction from the treacherous landscape of my mind, with all its worries, second-guesses, and predilection for the extreme. With time, of course, I can see how the identity of “runner” I chose for myself as a gangly, insecure 14-year-old has defined me at each step of my life since, perhaps even as much as my later-claimed identity of “mother.”
The rest of my first track season passed in much the same way as my first race. We slogged through a cold and slushy March and April. Our track was often covered in piles of dirty snow and a slick of ice anywhere the salt didn’t land.
1985 was well before the advent of technical performance clothing for runners. Running in those days was always a wet affair; even in dry conditions, there was always sweat beneath our cotton socks and sweatsuits. I wore two pairs of white cotton socks under my heavy Saucony trainers, the same brand my dad wore. My lips and cheeks were perpetually chapped despite the Vaseline and Carmex we all smeared across our faces both before and during practice, pausing to reapply it as we circled the outdoor track, the lakefront architecture filling the sky to the east. Beyond Mario’s Italian Ice and Al’s Italian Beef on Taylor Street, the Sears Tower loomed at the southern edge of downtown. It pointed straight and tall to the heavens, an engineering marvel of black glass, its twin white antennae reaching even higher into the clouds.
Down on the ground we stretched, did a mountain of high knees and jumping jacks, and ran drills. For one drill, we lined up single file around a curve of track. The leader began running at a comfortable, easy pace and soon we were all jogging, often singing The Outfield or Duran Duran: “I just ran. I ran all night and day.” Once the tail-end runner had settled comfortably into the formation for a few strides, she stepped to her right and began to sprint, or, at least, to stride, passing the rest of us on her left, high-fiving as she went, until she drew even with then slightly ahead of the leader. Once she was in position at the front of the line, she could slow down a bit, steadying her breath and shaking out her arms, signaling sprint! to the new runner at the end, who would then gain speed as she passed her teammates, arms pumping, hair whipping behind her. And in this way, we ran miles around our quarter-mile track, all of us taking turns being last, all of us taking turns being the leader, an unbroken chain of teenage bodies moving around a large oval, like amber beads on a rosary, constantly recalibrating our speed, adjusting for leg-length discrepancies, footfall differences.
The problem for runners like me, the ones whose lungs obstinately complained and whose feet shuffled while their teammates’ feet sprang, was that if I ran a full sprint when it was my turn to move to the front, I would be spent: at the very moment that I needed to lead, I would instead want to collapse to the grassy infield, roll to my back and watch the planes swooping or the starlings circling. But if, instead of sprinting, I paced myself, picking up my speed only as much as necessary to begin passing my teammates, I felt self-conscious, aware of how long it took to cover the same ground that my friends flew over effortlessly. Here was that recalibration again, shaping how I saw the world, and myself in it: a constant negotiation of how hard I could push myself against how desperately I needed to rest.
When spring arrives in Chicago, if it arrives at all, it happens all at once. One day you are shivering your way through a workout of timed miles, 800s, and 400s. You finish sweaty but still cold to the touch—hands and feet numb, a bit of frost below your nose. And the next day when you set out for your warmup run, you realize you are wearing short sleeves instead of long, that you have ditched your woolen pom-pom hat for a visor, and, underneath your sweatpants, instead of long underwear, you wear a pair of cotton PE shorts. There you are, headed east toward the lake, the crabapple blossoms white and pink amid the billboards and storefronts of Roosevelt Road, dandelions sprouting through the cracks in the sidewalk, the gutters damp with melted snow, an occasional potted geranium, pigeons pecking at the base of overflowing trashcans, crows and starlings flying overhead in formation. And above all else, there you are beneath a sky as blue as a child’s drawing, the best part about springtime in Chicago, a sky wide and bright, an expanse of purity that even bus and truck exhaust cannot discolor. The sky soars above the treetops, above the streetlights, behind the buildings, above the bridges. It shows off its blueness every chance it gets—at the end of a narrow alleyway, wrapping itself around the outlines of yellow taxicabs, white U-Haul trucks, city buses. You trudge along in your own formation, two-by-two, your eyes mostly tracking the steps of the runner in front of you. You find it almost impossible to hold your head high and straight, so afraid you are of twisting your ankle by stepping in a gutter or chunk of broken sidewalk. It requires a lot of energy to jump out of the way of trucks making illegal U-turns, of pedestrians blowing cigarette smoke, of humans living in doorways. But when you stop at a red light and your teammates bend over to stretch their hamstrings, you put your hands on your hips and turn your face skyward, squinting your eyes so as to blur out the detritus of the city, narrowing your vision to a single slice of matte blue, flawlessly devoid of anything except the promise of more blue. The sky asks nothing of you. Like the horizon, it is merely flat and unending. Looking up at the sky means a respite from looking at your friends, the girls you find faster, smarter, thinner, cooler, more coordinated. Your insecurities can find no traction in that blue, and, for a moment, you can rest.
As my first track season progressed, my identity as a runner began to imprint itself on my psyche. It didn’t matter that I was still one of the slowest runners on the team, or that I continued to come in last. I was a runner, and I had the lingo to prove it: fartlek, pickups, handoff. It was that last term that I needed to understand especially well, as I had begun to run a leg of the mile relay.
I was proud of being chosen to run the relay, even though I also realized that my coach didn’t have a lot of options. I took my job seriously, including the handoff. I knew to wait in my lane with my left hand stretched behind me, turning my head and shoulders to the left as I watched my teammate approach me from behind, running in our team’s dedicated lane. She carried the baton in her right hand. When she drew within ten or fifteen feet, I began to jog slowly, still looking backward but moving away from her. The final 100 meters of a 400-meter race are always hard and painful, no matter your speed. My teammate’s face was flushed, her mouth open; sometimes I could even see her braces glinting from behind her red lips. Running away from her—lengthening the distance she would have to run before she was able to rest—pained me deeply even as I did it.
When she was close enough to stick her right arm out, the baton a shining extension of her hand, I made my left arm as long as I could, reaching it out of my shoulder socket, pulling taut the muscles across my chest, feeling the skin stretch in the soft hollow of my locked-out elbow, my palm turned to the sky, stretching my already-long fingers, as though I had magnets tucked beneath each fingernail. And then with a loud thwack! my teammate slapped the baton into my waiting hand. I turned my shoulders to the front and began to run.
Once I had organized myself to face forward, it was time to switch the baton to my right hand. Dropped batons meant a penalty for the entire team, and, since I couldn’t promise my teammates record-breaking splits or winning times, at least I could make sure I didn’t earn us a baton penalty. In spite of my sweaty palms, incessant wind stitch, and legs that began to quiver almost immediately after I started running, I never dropped it. I brought my right arm to meet my left and ran like that for a few strides longer than I should have—both hands clasped at stomach level around the baton, the way you might grab the safety bar on a roller coaster car as it comes forward over your head. But running with both hands joined in front of me did nothing for my speed or balance, and I knew I was slowing myself down. I whispered under my breath, “Let go… now! Okay… now!” and still I would be fearful. Still my left hand clutched at the baton, still in my mind’s eye I saw it slipping out of my grasp and rolling away down the track, or off into the grass. Finally, though, I found enough courage to release my left hand, looking down to supervise the fingers of my right hand, willing them never to ungrip, and then releasing both arms to my sides, feeling them swing, doing their best to encourage my legs to do the same.
Everything I now know about running dynamics I learned only well into my third decade of life. Now I know the importance of a long, straight spine, of training my eyes on the horizon, of shortening my stride—yes, even with my long legs—just enough to enable a foot strike on the ball of my foot. I know to keep my arms parallel to my body, focusing my energy forward, not allowing my arms to splay out to the sides, not allowing my energy to spill into the adjacent lanes of the track. But when I was 14 I knew none of that. I looked at my feet when I ran, inadvertently funneling my spinal energy into the earth and signaling my brain that I was coming to rest, even when I still had meters or miles to go. My long arms, still aching from a growth spurt, knew nothing about how to support me and instead swung erratically from my shoulders, repeatedly crossing over the midline and complicating the energy flow even further.
My primary goal was not to lose any ground. When our team was in third position when I took the baton, I tried desperately not to let the fourth-place team overtake me. Gaining ground during my leg seemed such an impossibility as to be absurd even to hope for, but I endeavored not to set us back a position. Sometimes I succeeded. Some days the lead was so generous, or my legs so cooperative, that I held the position easily, neither gaining nor losing ground in my single revolution around the track. Other days I faltered, lost my energy in the final stretch, and had to again endure the shame and embarrassment that came with having a runner pass me.
For me, the real struggle—and punishment—of the 400 arrived at the 200-meter mark. In the relay, I ran the first 100 meters after the handoff and around the first curve consumed by thoughts of my hands not dropping the baton, so I was too distracted to think about the rest of my body. And the second 100 meters, along the straightaway, were, in fact, straightforward. On a straightaway, there’s nothing to do but run. No slight left lean, no tilt of your body toward the infield. Running a straightaway doesn’t require any thinking; instead, your mind fills with left, right, left, right. To me, something about the end of that first straightaway felt like a finish line, as though my brain was incapable of holding the entirety of the track at the same time. Unfortunately, this led to a moment of surprise each time I began the second curve of the race: Oh! I’m not finished yet! My teammates who had already run—either ahead of me in the relay or in other events—usually gathered on the infield at that far end of the track, cheering me on with the usual runner’s encouragements that nevertheless always sounded like admonitions: “Don’t give up! You’ve got this! Catch her! She’s right there!” My wind stitch stretched its razor wire across my ribcage every time I inhaled. My jaw hurt from clenching, neck soldered to shoulders, but I would not allow myself to slow down on that curve.
If the curve was purgatory, the final straightaway was hell—anything but straightforward. Some runners approach the final 100 meters of a 400-meter race with “a little something in the tank,” as my dad would say. These runners feel buoyed by the last-minute competition, by the energy of the spectators at the finish line, by the competition-fueled adrenaline. That was not my experience. By the time I entered the final 100 meters, I was fully on empty. I no longer cared what position our team was in. I stopped listening for footfalls coming up behind me. I stopped hearing the shouts of my teammates and other runners. I heard my own breath, thick and hot through my mouth. I felt the ache in my quadriceps, absorbing the repeated impact of my flat feet falling heavily to the artificial earth below. But mostly I felt my wind stitch, its icy heat snaking a finger up each rib, gripping my lungs, gravitating downward to press on my bladder, squeezing my heart into its red-hot fist.
Just when I thought I would never reach the end of this final straightaway, just when I was convinced I had become trapped in a parallel universe that would require me to run indefinitely, my relay teammate materialized in front of me, assuming the same position I had been in just a minute or so before, knees crouched, feet facing away from me but head and torso turned to watch me approach. I imagined how I looked to her—partly bent over in pain, baton clutched to my chest, arms cramped as if trying to block an invisible assailant. She bounced on her toes a few times, anticipating her turn to run, watching me closely, gauging how much time she had before I would reach my arm to her, the responsibility for the baton momentarily shared by us both, an extension of our flesh and blood, warmed by my exertions, smooth beneath my clammy fingers. With a final thrust I found the energy to windmill my right arm higher than necessary and place the baton in her upturned left palm. She smiled at me and then she was gone, sprinting off around the curve, baton already safe in her right hand.
I stepped into the infield, doubled over, hands on knees, head lolled forward toward the ground. My coach, afraid that such a recovery posture might cause one of his runners to faint, yelled at me, “Stand up, Moroney! Put your hands on your head!” All my body knew to do was fold in on itself, open its mouth and try to swallow as much oxygen as possible. It was only when my wind stitch felt less like an ice pick and more like a lump of charcoal that I fell to my knees and then, ignoring my coach as he walked away muttering about how some people just wouldn’t listen, rolled to my back and flung my arms out to the sides in a version of what I know now to be called corpse pose in yoga. My feet ached, the back of my throat was parched, and nausea roiled my stomach and intestines. But when I opened my eyes, above me was the sky. And, on the ground, my father—his silhouette framed by the skyline of the city that raised us both, still clapping.