Some truth to this tale: everything I write about running, and how I felt about running is at least next door to being true. I was pretty good... but not good enough. I could have won half the state championships in the half-mile but there were four guys on the team that were faster than me! So I ran relays. And I kept running until my knees gave out a few years ago.
Don't ask me where I get these ideas — I don't have a clue! But be aware, this is a story I wrote for myself... I know - that's self-indulgent! This is not a story for everyone. If you have ever read Alan Sillitoe's "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner" I think you might like this story (for the lazy amongst you, it was also made into a movie.)
Thanks to Techsan for his editing assistance. He is the best!
I was a runner. From about the time I could walk I ran everywhere and all the time. We lived out in the country, kinda north of Wichita along the Little Arkansas River, a nice area called Pleasant Valley. It was about five miles across wheat fields and under barbed wire fences to get to school for the first and second grade. (Years later I measured it with a car and it was one and a half miles.) Well, I would run it most days.
During grade school none of the kids would run with me. In the seventh grade, Douglas, somewhat of a bully, started at the school. He heard what a great runner I was supposed to be and challenged me to a race. We set it up at recess one day. We would run to the little airport next to the school and back. He never made it to the fence.
Schools then were grades one through six, seven through nine, and ten through twelve for high school. The school I was at for the ninth grade wasn't big enough to have any sports teams, but we put together a half-dozen guys to go into town and run against the real schools — coaches and all. I'd never run anything competitively before that. I ran in the 440 and I'm here to tell you that was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life! I 'bout died.
We moved into town during the summer before high school and I wound up at the largest school in the state! I turned out to be a pretty good half-miler, down around 1:58, which was good for that time. But, hell, we had a world class and a couple of national class runners ahead of me! I wound up with three scholarship offers: KU, University of Wichita, and Ark City Juco. Well, I stupidly picked the Wheat Shockers (later to thankfully become the Shockers — imagine a sports team that uses a shock of wheat as it logo). Either of the other schools would have been better; things weren't great at home.
I wound up in the army after the first semester: at wonderful Ft. Leonard Wood, commonly known as "Little Korea." One day while doing bayonet practice in the snow during basic training, they asked that everyone interested in Airborne should fall out front and center to go to the post theater for a movie. I didn't give a shit about becoming a paratrooper but getting out of the Korea-like cold sounded great.
To this day I don't know what happened but they insisted that I had signed up to go to Ft. Bragg. When the army insists, you learn to go along with them. I wound up with the 82nd Airborne in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Don't tell anyone but I thought the physical training was a joke. Think about it: I weighed about 130 pounds and was coming off a season of college level cross-country competition. I had a perfect score on every PT test and ran a mile in 4:50 in jump boots! Jumping out of a plane was much less scary than being at the starting line for the state championship race.
Later I was stationed in Germany making jumps in France, Denmark and all over Germany. I got out early to return to school though I didn't go out for track again.
I didn't run for a few years, maybe six or seven, but then I got married and put on twenty pounds really fast. I started running again — five and ten Ks mostly and did pretty good. We moved to Denver and I fell in with some evil guys at work that tricked me into running a marathon. Well, hell, I liked it! I started doing a marathon about every three or four months and gaining weight was not a problem.
About this time I turned forty and started running on the Corporate Relays. I was on Honeywell's national track team as an "over forty" runner. I did damn good. I ran a quarter mile in 55 seconds and a 220 in 25 seconds, which I was really proud of. If it weren't for the 40-year-old psycho that broke 50" in the quarter, our team would have won first place. My weight was down to around 145 from 175.
So I was pretty happy, right? Wrong! My wife was from Chile and went to visit her mom who was somewhat sickly. She never came back. She met a guy while she was down there and... hell, I don't know what happened. The damn guy was probably a communist! Life goes on.
A couple of years later I got tired of the corporate BS and went out on my own as a freelance technical editor. I'd go all over the US and frequently to Europe, mostly to London. I'd write the manuals for new products: anything from a C Compiler to user manuals for bank tellers for their online application. I didn't really get tired of the travel because the assignments were usually around four to six months... sometimes a little longer.
I was forty-five then and working on a data base user guide for a software company I'd done a lot of work for. I really enjoyed the life style: no wife and no kids. I made pretty good money — not enough to lead a life of leisure but if I wanted a first rate dinner at a nice place I didn't have to think about it. I had a variety of relationships; some short, some longer, some occasionally recurring. Don't get me wrong; I was actually very careful with whom I spent my time. There were times I'd go a few months counting flowers on the walls, but I did have my standards.
The place I was working at was really interesting. I'd been there a couple times before and it was great. The company was based in Dublin, but had a sales and support office in London. They only had about twenty people based there so they didn't want a huge amount of space. They had found an old hotel that had been part of a chain. When the chain was bought out the new owners didn't want this property so it wasn't too pricey.
It was a beautiful old building. If you have ever visited the Abbey House B&B (look it up on the internet if you are curious), you have a pretty good idea what it's like. It was four stories and they converted the lower two to offices. The top two floors they kept as mini-suites, figuring that when they had people in from out of town they could save money by putting them up right at the office and the space was always available for future expansion. It was close to Hyde Park and the underground station. People from the home office could fly in to Heathrow and take the tube right to the office. They had a contract with a cleaning company to do the offices and, when a suite was occupied, that also.
It was fantastic for me. I could work any hours I wanted to except for meetings I had to attend. Sometimes I would work in the quiet of the night, maybe opening the dormer windows to get the sounds of the London night so I wouldn't feel too lonely. I could take off anytime for one of my daily runs. Across the street was Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Running in London anywhere but in parks is problematical... and very dangerous! So it was sweet to have this across the street.
In a weird way coming to London was like coming home. Wichita was founded in 1861 — Hyde Park was created in 1536 on some land the famous Henry VIII had taken away from the church. The sense of history was everywhere you walked, but I think it takes a Yank to really appreciate the long, living history.
Running around the two parks was a little over four miles. I could stretch it to seven miles by including the adjacent St. James and Green parks. It was just after the first of the year and I was training for the London Marathon in April. I needed to do a long competitive race in February and was looking at The Stamford Striders' St. Valentine 30K race. (Isn't it odd that we Yanks have lost the Saint in Saint Valentine's Day?) So I really needed to do around fifty miles a week. Of course these parks were honeycombed with trails so I put together whatever distance I needed.
I particularly liked to run in the early morning, even in the winter cold and wet. It was always peaceful, with very few people out, not too much traffic on the street. There would frequently be some ground fog casting a mysterious darkness on the parks. Every day my run would almost be like a tourist's wet dream: running by Albert Hall and (my view) the gaudy Albert memorial, always slowing down by the speakers corner (a favorite place of mine on a sunny afternoon), by Marble Arch and the Princess Di Memorial Garden, on past Kensington palace.
On the longer runs, I would also pass by Buckingham Palace, Big Ben and 10 Downing Street (how many hours have I spent reading John Le Carre books where the agent would visit the Prime Minister, always late at night).
In the mornings, early, the squirrels hiding in the tall grass would scatter as I slogged by. As I ran by Long Water I would slow a little, always fascinated by the geese and ducks, and the beautiful swans. On the misty, rainy mornings (like, every day) the swans would be almost ethereal, white shadows in the white mist floating as a mirage on the cold water.
There's a bit of a masochist in me and sometimes I would run on the weekend afternoons, dodging the rollerbladers, smiling sadly at tourists looking lost, their kids looking like they wished they were back home in Des Moines or Disneyland It was like a circus really, a panoply of life, a splendid array of peoples from the world at large providing visual distraction to the ache in my legs, to the panting bellows of my no longer young lungs struggling, gasping for air as I would kick it up a notch or two, closing in on the home stretch.
There was a girl in the office with flaming red hair — think of Hazel Court against Jack Nicholson in the 1950 movie, "The Cry Baby Killer". She looked nice without being overstated. She handled all the bookings made by the sales crew, kept track of all their expenses and all the sales planning reports. She was adept, efficient, and attractive in a nice friendly, outgoing package. She went with a former goalie for Tottenham; now he was in charge of scouting for new talent. He worked with all the coaches, and went to matches all over the continent.
I went to a number of matches with them, sometimes with a date, sometimes without. He was a big bastard, with long arms and huge hands. Yeah, I flirted with Kayleigh — everyone called her Kay — but not too much. When I got to the London office for this trip Kay had parted ways with Owen (yeah, even Owen was caught in the arms of the mid-fielder from Ghana's wife), so we flirted with each other... all in good fun. I mentioned the St. Valentine's race 'cause I knew she was a serious runner too. She lived in High Wycombe and took the train in every day.
It turned out, and I hadn't known this, that she had run in this race with Owen's younger brother, Ben, for the last four years. They had a special part of the race for couples. They would take the total time of the two runners in the pairing to determine the winner. Kay had never won it but always finished in the top ten. She didn't feel comfortable running with Ben since the team had to be involved in a romantic relationship — hell, it was for St. Valentine's Day.
She laughed when she told me about this, "See, the thing was, the three of us would take this room in Stamford; we always stayed at "The George of Stamford". You wouldn't believe it, but they take this "romantic relationship" seriously! There are always two or three couples kicked out each year. Last year it was the third place team... turns out they were brother and sister. Maybe they really did have a "romantic" relationship but it was easier for everyone to just disqualify them — I think no one wanted to know the truth."
I laughed with her, picturing the brother and sister, running in sin!
Kay continued, "Why don't you run with me? I think we could certainly be in the top ten, maybe the top five!"
For some reason I thought this was funny as hell. "Kay, but I'm not your brother!"
She cracked up at that — I thought she was going to choke.
"No, Jackie, I really don't want to be your sister," she laughed.
Well, how could we do it then, we don't have a romantic relationship, do we?"
She blushed at that — she was pretty when she blushed, her face as red as her hair — and agreed, "No, we don't, do we?"
"Kay, what are you saying, do you want to, I don't know, what the hell, do something?"
Blushing again, she answered, "No, of course not! I just want to run in this race. All we have to do is get a room together — with two beds," she added.
We talked about our times a bit. 30K was a tad over eighteen and a half miles. I wanted to run at the pace I would run for the London race, and that was right at six-and-a-half minutes per mile. That would make my time for the St. Valentine course around a minute over two hours. If she could match her best time of 2'15" we really could finish in the top three.
"Would you be okay with us sleeping in the same room? I mean, I'm not exactly looking for a new relationship; I just want to run in this damn race! It ended very messy with Owen and I just can't handle that now. Can you live with that?"
I thought about it for a minute, and said, "Sure, Kay. I think it would be fun. But we would have to act in public like we cared about each other. Okay?"
She laughed and said, "Sure, Jackie. We can just act like an old married couple: you get no sex and I walk around bitching all the time!"
"Damn," I thought to myself, "she's really cynical."
We finally agreed. She was going to take care of the hotel reservations and the race registration. I would meet her Saturday at her apartment in High Wycombe near the Asda supermarket. There was a nice trail along the Thames, 10K up the river and then back. Very flat, not a hill in sight. We ran together out the out leg and I picked it up on the way back. It was one of the better runs I'd had and I felt great. I was definitely ready for a pint of England's best.
We had decided that I would stay with her overnight to "practice" having a loving relationship for the race. I was totally thirsty and ready to inhale a pint of bitters. Kay suggested a place a little west of where we were... "If it wasn't too far for me." I laughed at that and told her that we would drive a hundred miles for a good meal in Kansas. (Of course I didn't tell her that after the hundred miles we found crap.)
She suggested a famous place in West Wycombe, a few miles away. It was called the "George and Dragon Hotel" and she said it had an interesting history.
She told me that Mark Anthony warned in "Julius Caesar" that, "the evil that men do lives after them." In the picturesque village of West Wycombe, in an area of rolling pastures and ancient woodland, some of the most sinister and debauched events in eighteenth century England took place. The notorious Hellfire Club, founded by Sir Francis Dashwood, would gather at the George and Dragon Hotel before moving their activities later in the night to the nearby West Wycombe caves.
One night after closing time, Susan, the Inn's pretty, young, and obviously naive barmaid agreed to go with them. Maybe she fell in the darkness and hit her head (as was the official report), or maybe she was beaten and raped (as seems probable given the company she was with). The truth will probably never be known but she is said to have managed to drag herself back to the George and Dragon Hotel and later died. Her ghost, fondly known as "Sukie," walks the corridors to this day, and if followed will disappear into her old room, weeping. Some times ghostly footsteps have been heard... possibly those of the Hellfire Club members atoning for their sins.
I shivered when I heard this but, damn, I was hungry, and thirsty as hell. The Inn turned out to be a beautiful old place; the ceiling black from the smoke of thousands of coal fires over hundreds of years. I couldn't help but think of the ale partaken of here while Wyatt Earp was doing his thing in Wichita. I began to truly understand the gulf in our cultures while on paper they seemed quite similar.
We had a great meal, starting with a nice salad and moving on to the Pigeon and Bacon Pie for the main course. I have to say it was not what I would have ordered on my own, but it was great. For desert we had the Spotted Dick. Jeez, I know! For a while they tried calling it "Spotted Richard," but finally decided that maybe, just maybe, real adults would be the ones ordering it and could do so without becoming embarrassed. They had some nice looking wines but we stuck with the local ales. I will confess to imbibing a fantastically good tawny port.
We went back to her flat in High Wycombe after stopping at the Asda store for a nice bottle of Naveran Cava Brut Reserva sparkling wine. It was really quite good — Naveran is a small winery about twenty miles south of Barcelona that I was familiar with. Her apartment was nice, very simply furnished, bordering on sparse. I was surprised, but didn't know why, that the place was immaculate.
Kay said she was going to "slip into something comfortable" and my imagination ran amok. I had this vision of Kay coming out in the slinky, translucent, yes, even tiny garment that would exude sex! She came out with these flannel pajamas, white with randomly sized red and pink hearts overwhelming the senses and I burst out laughing. Kay was pissed, no question of that. What I understood from her sputtering was that her mom had got them for her for St. Valentine's Day. Actually they were kind of cute but by that time Kay wasn't talking to me.
I slept like a log on the pullout sofa bed... I don't think I even turned over all night. There is nothing like a bitchin' run to slow down the libido. I woke up early and didn't hear anything from Kay, so I slipped out and found some fresh scones with clotted cream and some too strong tea for breakfast. When I got back, Kay was dressed for another run, so I just shook my head and changed clothes in the bath.
We did the same run, but somewhat slower. I guess you could call it a recovery run. We got back to Kay's flat and she told me to take a bath first. After I got out, she slipped in and I started getting ready to take the train back to London. I assume it was an accident, but when she shoved the bathroom door closed it bounced back open a few inches. I didn't really mean to look... damn I'm not going to lie — there was no way I wasn't going to look.
I couldn't see her face, but I sure saw her slide her sweats down her legs, and slide the top over her head. She was wearing very conventional white cotton panties and a grey sport bra. She was bushing her teeth and then doing something with her eyebrows. I had a serious erection by this time — it had been some months since I had any relief — and then she looked in the mirror and saw me looking at her! With her back to me she pushed the door closed with her heel. By this time I was pretty much standing there slobbering like a randy teenager. As my dad used to say, she was "round, firm, and fully packed"
I collected myself and packed my running bag for the train. Kay came out in very stylish, but functional light blue sweats. She drove me down to the train station but neither of us really said anything. She did kiss me on the cheek as I started for the train and mumbled something about seeing me at the office in the morning.
Later, back at my suite above the office, I stood there looking out the dormer window, sipping on some brandy. I'd surely noticed Kay before; damn, I wasn't dead. But Owen had been a somewhat intimidating influence. Okay, he scared the shit out of me! But Owen was long gone and I was lonesome and sure as hell was blue.