The Time in the Front is the Time in the Back
By Devin Kelly
Ilustrations by Simon Scarsbrook
The public track at Van Cortlandt Park needs to be resurfaced. When you stand on the homestretch, you can barely make out the lines of the lanes. They are these faded things, barely there. What white is left feels almost like dust – like if you reached down to touch it, you’d wipe it away.
But when I arrived there as a coach not long ago for my high school’s first track meet, most of my athletes didn’t care. There were about fifteen of them, and they marveled, first, at the size. Together, along with my co-coach, we were my high school’s first serious iteration of a track team. We had spent the past months practicing on a field behind our school, and, when we could, at a small park in the Bronx that had an equally small track – a little less than 200 meters in length. I tried to take it all in through their eyes. They were right to marvel. A quarter-mile, stretched and curved into an oval – it’s a big thing, especially in New York, where any little bit of intentional space – a track, a park carved into a city block – feels expansive, pushing up against the city that walls itself around it.
It was just over two years ago when I was told that I would be my high school’s track coach. A couple weeks later, the city locked down and school went remote. We had yet to hold a single practice. Later that year, after almost two decades of competitive running, countless marathons and ultramarathons, a ceaseless ache in my knee earned a name: an osteochondral lesion. And almost exactly one year after being asked to coach, I underwent surgery to transplant someone else’s cartilage into the hole where mine used to be. A past life spent running became more of a burden I was reckoning with than a joy I had once experienced.
When school resumed in-person learning and when sports leagues returned to competition, I didn’t know what to expect as a coach. For our first practice, kids showed up in all sorts of apparel, some wearing basketball shoes, others wearing Converse high-tops, still others wearing our uniform polos. We were not a group of experienced runners; we were, instead, a group of people who wanted to do something fun and valuable with our time. We held practice just a few times a week because our students balanced so much else. On Wednesday mornings, I’d get there early and put out milk crates and form a makeshift track for our intervals. I learned, soon enough, to abandon the stopwatch my athletic director had given me, to instead run with my students, trying to teach them how to run a little bit longer through pain, or how to run a little bit slower than an all-out sprint. I wanted them to learn that they could both move and recover at the same time. I wanted them to learn how to love – or just simply breathe – while being out there, rather than learning how to judge themselves by how fast they ran.
I had no idea how to coach. I still don’t really know. But I learned so much from my students, who would sometimes badger me and my co-coach when we canceled practice because of the weather. Sometimes it wouldn’t rain as hard as it was forecasted to, and our students would find us at school and make fun of us for canceling practice. They just wanted to run. Who could blame them? I felt, at once, guilty for depriving them of joy, and proud that they had so much capacity for wanting and finding joy.
The last time I’d run at Van Cortlandt’s track was almost a decade ago, arriving on a morning of little fanfare, in a van with a bunch of teammates on my college’s track team. We shuffled out of the van – as we always did – and meandered from the parking lot to the track to hear the day’s workout from our distance coach. My favorite workout was a simple one: a hard mile on the track, followed by a short jog to Van Cortlandt’s fields, where we ran four miles at a strong, uptempo pace, followed by another jog to the track for a final hard mile.
Back then, I remember the track having lanes. Maybe they weren’t too bright or freshly painted, but they were there. It’s funny, what you remember and what you don’t. I remember a little divot in the track’s surface as you rounded the first curve. I remember the way our coach would start the workout without a coffee in hand but then somehow, after the first interval, there it would be – a fresh cup, bought from the diner underneath the 1 Train. I remember how he would say the time in the front is the time in the back as we were halfway through an interval, and how good it would feel to hear, to know I could just hang on, and just by hanging on be a part of something bigger.
I remember, too, the harder stuff. I remember how difficult it was to hang on, how badly I wanted to. I remember the year I got cut from the team, and how ashamed I felt not to be fast enough. I remember the scale I bought, the nights and mornings I’d weigh myself. I remember the relentless clockwork of measurements, the times I felt I had to run, and all the races where I didn’t run those times. I’ve realized, as I’ve gotten older, that most of life is uncertainty. It’s the certainty that – contrary to popular belief – kills. It’s the certainty – the hard number of your weight, your time, your place – that translates to something positive or negative. It feels impossible to forgive yourself that certainty, to lean instead into the wobbly, complex mess that is your body and say that you love it as it is.
I thought of all of this on that spring Friday. We were there to run our first meet, a developmental thing with an all-comer’s vibe, everything hand-timed by any available person on deck. We were the first team there, and after my co-coach and I told our students to go through their warm-up routine, I walked a lap of the track, trying to remember. I found the track’s divot easily enough, and stood in it, hopping a bit up and down. There was a workout once where I – trying everything I could to get a little bit faster – had worn a pair of super lightweight shoes meant only to last a few dozen miles. They ripped apart at the seam on the first rep, and I flopped my way through the rest of the workout. I had taken life so seriously, only to be met with absurdity.
How do you talk to your past self? I want to know. How do you reach back in time and shake the shoulder of your younger version and say don’t worry, it’s not as important as it seems or don’t worry, you won’t believe what happens next? I want to know. I’m trying. Standing on the track, I thought of my past self, still on the same track with its slightly brighter lanes, trying his best to hang on so that he could be a part of something. My present self was a decade older, slightly cynical, trying hard not to be jaded. My kids ran by on their warm up, some of them laughing, some of them sprinting and stopping and sprinting again. It’s a beautiful thing, I think, to be figuring it out as you go along. So much of life teaches us to make something consistent and practical out of ourselves, but I wonder why we can’t hold onto the excitement of being wide-eyed, not knowing what will come next.
After their warm-up, our athletes stretched while we told them what events they would be running. Some parents arrived and sat in Van Cortlandt’s amphitheater-like stands. The kids were a bundle of nerves, some confident, some scared, some full of so many questions. Sometimes I have moments when I remember that life is a complication of first things. I was standing amongst a group of kids who were about to do something for the first time. What a beautiful, joyful thing – I wished I could bottle that and tap into it in my own life, to remind myself that there is something wildly generous about being free from the expectation that comes with experience.
There are good things that come with such expectations, but there are also difficult ones. For a long time, I carried the expectation that life would almost certainly progress in some unbroken line, a line that ascended steadily upward as long as I hung on. What I didn’t see then is what I know now. All the mornings spent on the scale or evenings sneaking a few extra miles in – those actions that I thought came from love or discipline – actually stemmed from something closer to guilt or shame. Guilt that I had failed somehow. Shame that I wasn’t someone I thought I should be. It’s funny – by that I mean terrifying, really – how our culture leans into this idea of the self. In this burgeoning era of analytics, there is always a new data point to track some metric of who you are, to determine all the ways in which you are improving, and all the ways in which you are not. Amitav Ghosh, the novelist and critic, calls this our obsession with “individual moral adventure.” Because of this societal obsession, we spin stories and manufacture little sayings to make ourselves okay with failure, rather than performing the more necessary and complex work of collectively reflecting about why we are each so obsessed with our own individual progress. It’s hard enough to be alive. It’s harder still to have a measurement for every variable of what it means to be alive, and to have a variable, too, for what it means to be good at being alive.
In Olga Tokarczuk’s novel Flights, she writes that obsession is “an irreproducible language through the attentive use of which we will be able to uncover the truth. We must follow this premonition into regions that to others might seem absurd and mad.” She continues: “I don’t know why this language of truth sounds angelic to some, while to others it changes into mathematical signs or notations.” Running has always been a form of obsession for me, though I didn’t always have the language or insight to see it that way. But now, over a year after surgery, with a new perception of what is possible and what is – more importantly – limited, I understand that there is a distinction between, as Tokarczuk writes, the “angelic” aspects of obsession and the more analytical aspects of it. Maybe they are one and the same, but for me, the numbers of running – the times, the splits, the pounds that I weighed and the seconds that I shaved off personal bests – were inescapable and terrifying. It was an act of profound judgment to line up for a race, and the numbers made it easier for my worst critic – myself – to be wholly negative.
The older I get, the more I see – in the wider culture of running – an emphasis placed on competition as opposed to anything else. Namely: generosity and joy. In 2015, when I first qualified for the Boston Marathon, 1,947 people hit the qualifying mark but had to be turned away. This year, that number was 9,215. More and more people are trying to be faster. Part of me feels like this is something to celebrate. But part of me also feels like this only adds to the competitive stress our culture cultivates for us. Apps like Strava make every available metric known to a runner’s followers. When I would use it, I worried that people would judge me for my pace, my heart rate. When no one did, I worried still that I was too sensitive. My last posted run on Strava was from over a year ago, when I thought I was coming back from an injury that soon after that run required surgery. I haven’t posted since.
I didn’t know how my students would respond to our first track meet. I didn’t know how the meet would be run. I only knew what we carried into that place. After I walked that lap of Van Cortlandt’s track, I ventured under the 1 Train – feeling like my old coach – to get a coffee and a bunch of water and Gatorade for my students. When I got back, a few more teams had arrived. I joined the other coaches for a meeting and learned that this meet would have no heat sheets, no bib numbers, no automatic timing. Just the distant scream of the meet director yelling first call and last call, and the organizing of whoever showed up into however many heats were needed.
There was a part of me that wanted to apologize to my students. I wanted to tell them about the meets I had run before, where results were printed and posted within minutes of every race. But that part of me – misguided and elitist – was silenced almost immediately by my kids’ excitement. For the first race, my students ventured to the start line in mismatching uniforms, some wearing sweatpants. My co-coach and I gave them each a little pump up speech while we waited for the start. Some of our athletes were still marveling at the size of the track. I filled parents in on what was about to happen, and then I stood in the middle of the oval and waited for the race to begin.
When you are running on a track, the world – I think – narrows. Though you are turning, all of life is channeled into the tunnel that is made of your vision. But when you stand on the inside of the track – in that great oval – and watch runners race around you, the world widens. You learn to see the race for what it is: so many people trying. There is something majestic about this. It is like watching life itself. But part of this has to do with what you choose to imagine. You can imagine life as a race, or you can imagine life as so many people moving at their own pace. When the first race went off, I clicked my stopwatch on, but almost immediately forgot about it. I was too caught up sprinting to the other side of the track, trying to cheer my athletes on. They ran their hearts out. They went out too fast and faded. They went out too fast and then found another gear and went faster. They collapsed at the end of the race. They asked me when they could run again. No matter what, it was fine. No matter what, it was beautiful.
One of our athletes ran to his father – who I’ve known for a few years – immediately after his race. Normally solid and stoic, the father was all wide-mouthed and happy – proud as hell. He congratulated his son and then turned to me and asked when the next race would be. He wanted to know what he could do in the meantime, what he could work on with his son. He wanted to know everything. I just smiled. I wasn’t ready for such an outpouring of emotion, for the wild joy of a parent and the wild joy that I felt at seeing these students I’d taught for years run their hearts out. The sport would call for next steps, yes. Times would be posted and people would place first and second and third and last, but I wanted to hold onto that moment a little longer. The moment before expectation, when everything was just the pride that comes with love. Love of self, love of what you do, love of one’s body in motion.
I think our world will always devise new ways to keep ourselves apart under the guise of bringing us closer together. Watching one of my athletes greet his parent, I thought of how my old coach would say the time in the front is the time in the back. I wish I had learned what that truly meant a little sooner. Then, perhaps, I wouldn’t have bought my first scale or measured my worth simply by how fast I was. Then, maybe, I would have learned how to love what I love now: the way it feels to run and breathe at the same time, the dawn’s light on my face and a morning breeze, the life of my body moving among the life of this world.
Not long after that first meet, I told the story of it to my therapist. He asked me: How did it feel to be in the middle of the track, rather than on it? How did it feel not to be running, but to have everyone running around you? I hadn’t thought of it that way. I took a minute to reply. I thought about what it means to change one’s expectations of one’s own life, to surrender certain guiding principles in favor of others. I thought about how much has changed in me to allow myself to be encircled by the world rather than to insist that I race through it. There is a part of me that still loves competition, that obsesses over the data points of my return to running – the miles run, the pace steadily increasing. But there is a part of me that knows that running can look like joy, that it can be a place divorced from the measurements of our world, that it can be, instead, a place to imagine a new world.
I’m in my 30s now, a decade removed from being a once-cut, walk-on collegiate athlete. I will never be an Olympian. Whatever new goals I set for myself will be limited by my own fragility and the demands of a world that presses at the breaking points of my own body. This is fine. This is life. I’m more concerned with joy these days, and how I find it, and how I can share it. It’s getting late as I write this, and I know I will have to wake up early to get to school, unlock the gate to the field, and set the milk crates out upon the grass. Then the kids will show up, and we will figure it out as we go along, trying to run together the whole way.