A Christmas Carol

by Chuck Dickens

Editor’s Note: We published Eben’s story over 15 years ago in RG. It’s as timely now as it was then. Please read and enjoy Eben’s running journey. With thanks to Chuck Dickens for sending it again. All of us at RG wish you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and a joyful 2020 as we run into the new year and a new decade. Thank  you for being part of RG’s family. We are blessed.

Chapter I—Introduction

The runner arrived at the check-in area for the Jingle Bell 10K when signups were well underway. He pressed forward single-mindedly to the pre-registered table, deftly sidestepping others who waited in line, and quickly put himself in front of a harried woman. The woman looked up with as warm a smile as time permitted her.

“Cruz,” he said, “with a ‘C.’” The woman rifled through her stack of forms, paused, then flipped through it once more.

“I can’t find it. Would you mind stepping aside so I can deal with these others, and then we’ll get you straightened out, please?”

“Yes, I would mind,” he snapped. “I need to warm up.”

Reluctantly, the woman went through the stack again, looked up, and said, “OK. Let me call for some help.” With that, she signaled to another woman circulating behind the tables.

The second woman (wife of the Race Director) was quickly apprised of the situation. She asked the runner, “Did you mail your entry and a check?”

“Yes, I did. Did you lose it?”

“Apparently we don’t have it, but this happens. If you’ll register now, we’ll return your first check when it shows up.”

“What the hell!” he exploded. “I don’t have any money with me. Just issue me a number. The check will come.”

“Do you have a copy, any evidence that you mailed it?”

“Who are you, the IRS? I don’t have time for this, I need to warm up!”

“All right. If you’ll at least fill out the entry, I’ll accept it and just wait for your check.”

Grudgingly, the runner filled out the form, giving a post-office box for his address. As he stomped away from the table, he allowed himself a wry smile. “I won that one,” he said to himself, “a jogger will never beat a racer.”

Eben Cruz was hardcore. Not just as a runner, but as a way of life. He would take advantage of any situation he could. Why pay? It’s just a race. So what if the entry fees were going to Toys For Tots?  A few Marines were standing by a large toy box, accepting donations. “Big green sons of Grinches, aren’t they? What’ll they do, shoot me?”

Cruz was the kind of runner who would park in a restricted area, without regard for posted traffic control or the considerations of others. Porta-potty lines never bothered him, as long as a neighbor’s shrubs were available. If a woman happened to indicate shock or dismay, he had one hand free to flash another digit. He would grab as many T-shirts as he could, and use them as car-polishing cloths.

Although many of the local Race Directors had had bad experiences with him, his larceny was mostly a pain in the ass to them, and each had little means of recourse. Cruz was a good runner, but not likely to win a trophy that might be legitimately withheld. In any event large enough to have a rigid entry process, he’d simply crash the start and run as a bandit. 

Today was no different. The preliminary skirmishes over with, he went about the serious business of psyching himself for the race. This was just a local 10K, no particular significance to it, but he always ran hard. He lined up just behind the first row, not looking at any of the runners he shouldered past, giving the impression he was taking his assigned place.

Eben ran well, just behind the lead pack, ready to make a move if someone faltered. He was good enough to place high in the results on his own merits, and he worked at it. He wouldn’t give an inch to a competitor.

Just after the halfway point, he became aware of a man on his shoulder. “The bastard’s trying to draft on me,” he said to himself. He cut sharply to the curb going into a turn, forcing the other runner to drop back, or risk a stumble. However, the man appeared on his other shoulder. Eben glanced at him briefly and took an instant dislike to what he saw. The man did not seem to be running particularly hard; his breathing was even and his face serene.

Eben forced himself to pick it up; the two of them tore through Mile Four and entered Mile Five, where 10Ks are made or lost. Still the man stayed on his shoulder. If he could pass Eben, he chose not to. If he couldn’t pass, he sure seemed to stay with him with less effort than Eben was expending.

It stayed just this way, right down to the wire. At the entrance to the chute, the stranger made a quick burst that put him in front. He immediately stopped and put one hand on the rope on each side of the chute as Eben hit him harder than necessary from behind. This maneuver, if done immediately at the finish, would usually result in displacing at least one runner in the finish order. Not this time.

As they proceeded to the end of the chute, the stranger walked easily, while Eben gasped for breath. Eben knew it had been a hard run; he couldn’t understand how the guy seemed to have done it so easily. “Who is this bastard?” Eben asked himself.

“Let me get you a soda,” the stranger said to Eben, with a smile.

“Shit, you owe me a beer, at least. I pushed you to a damn good time, buddy,” Eben replied, with no affection at all. “What’s your secret, steroids?”

“Come for a cooldown, Eben, and I’ll tell you my secret,” said the stranger.

“How the hell do you know my name?”

“I know more about you than you suspect. I also know you couldn’t beat me.

“Let me introduce myself. I am you, Eben Cruz. The man you could be, if you would let yourself.”

At this, Eben turned and looked him full in the face. The resemblance was startling. It had been no idle boast. It was his twin, a double, a clone; it was himself looking back at him, wearing the same race number. It was enough to make others turn and gape at the man who had just raced his own double. Except that no one did. Couldn’t they see? Or was he losing his mind?

“Relax, Eben. No one is aware of anything unusual about us; we’re just two guys cooling down.”

“Who are you? What the hell do you want with me?”

“I’m the Spirit of Running, Eben, that lives inside you. You’ve kept me pretty well repressed, but at this special time of year, I have come to help you see yourself, and improve yourself.”

“Improve myself? Will you help me run faster?”

“No, I’ll help you run like a champion. Winning isn’t everything, Eben. This is just a sport, but it can be a metaphor for life. I will send three Coaches to help you, Eben. Each will impart to you a special wisdom. Heed them, Eben. Hear what they have to say, and profit from it. Expect the first when you run tomorrow.”

With that, the stranger seemed to accelerate without any extra motion and was shortly lost in the milling crowd.        

Eben was shook. He couldn’t understand what had just happened. His pulse still pounded and he was sweating from more than the effort of the run. “This guy, who the hell was he? How he looked, how he ran, it was impossible. And yet, didn’t I touch him, talk to him? Bah! I’m getting spacey from the race. So some guy about the same size as me gave me a run for it. I’ll get his ass, next time.”

Chapter II—The First Coach

Next day, it being Sunday, and mid-winter, Eben went for a run about noon. He headed for the park, intending a loop around the reservoir. There were usually other runners, there. Eben had not given much more thought to the words of the stranger he had met yesterday. It had made so little sense that he had dismissed it all as an error in perception on his part.

As Eben entered the path used by runners and walkers at the reservoir, he came up on an older man, who looked, at first, like one of the pathetic joggers making a slow circuit of the lake. The man was dressed in gray cotton sweats. He was wearing funny shoes that had no heels, only a thin, flat layer of gum rubber that was uniform over the entire shoe bottom. Didn’t look like they could provide much cushioning. As Eben picked up his pace, the man did so, too, and said, without looking, “Morning, Eben. Out for a run?”

“Do I know you, Dad?”

“Ask, did I know you?”

“All right. Did I know you?”

“No, we’ve never met. I’m the Coach of Runners, Past, Eben. The Coach you were told to expect.”

“Long past?” he asked.

“No, your past.”

“How did you know I’d be here? What do you want with me?”

“I want to help you become a better runner, Eben. Listen to what I have to say, and observe the things I have to show you, and you’ll understand the history of our sport.”

“Yeah, sure. What can you show me, old man?”

With that rebuke still ringing in the air, Eben and the Coach turned a corner in the path and came upon a road race just getting underway.

The scene was rather low key, a far cry from yesterday’s well orchestrated event. There were about three-dozen young men jogging about, all dressed in gray or blue cotton. There were none of the familiar logos evident. Some shirts bore what looked like school names.

Some guy standing next to a car, was writing names on a clip board. When this was done, he chalked a line on the path and described to the runners how to recognize the turn- around point. There would be a medal for the winner, ribbons for second and third. He said the car would remain here, unlocked; sweats could be thrown in the trunk. 

The start would consist of two commands. Good Luck! and Go!

“What the hell was that?” Eben asked, as the path turned, again, and the race was left behind.

“Just a local race put on by the high school coach for some runners who had graduated school and were looking for a structured run. It’s not a big deal, just the best thing around.”

The two runners soon came across another race just assembling. The Race Director was speaking to the crowd of about 50 young men.

“I have to advise you that we were unable to obtain AAU sanction for this event without charging you an additional $3 each and recording your AAU numbers. I just wouldn’t accept that. Consequently, we are unable to hold the race.”

Groans erupt, and a general feeling of disappointment is evident.

“Hold on, now. That doesn’t mean we can’t run. As of now, you are all members of the Washington County Running Club. Be aware that the club has no insurance, and is unable to provide traffic control. In fact, up until a moment ago, the club didn’t exist! If anyone is injured and thinks it is the club’s fault, they can sue for all club assets: three water coolers and a split-timer watch. The saw horse belongs to the city Rec. Department and I have to return it.”

Cheers erupt from the runners as Eben and his mysterious coach go out of sight around another bend in the trail.

“Coach, this was all so simple. I don’t think I was running yet when things were this way, but I remember my father telling about such runs.”

“These are our roots, Eben. Racing was its own reward. Don’t forget what you’ve seen  today. Another Coach will meet you tomorrow.”

Chapter III—The Second Coach

Eben was lacing up his shoes, next day, and wondering what might happen. He still couldn’t accept the events of the last two days, and yet, even they weren’t real, they had made him think. Racing didn’t need to be so competitive, or more correctly, maybe the competitiveness should be limited to the race itself. Maybe the Race Directors and all the others weren’t just out to get him.

Would someone meet him today? He didn’t know; no way could he guess where, so he just headed out the door. Eben ran towards the community college, where the athletic fields were open to runners. As he passed the field house, a voice called him by name. Expecting the unexpected, Eben slowed and walked over.

“Do I know you?” he asked the woman standing beside the building. She wore a flashy running suit, complete with zippers and logos. She was lean and fit, looked like a runner; her face and hair showed the effects of much time spent outdoors; she could have been older or younger than she appeared. “Nice boobs,” thought Eben.

“I’m the Coach of Runners, Present. I speak for all of us who participate in running and racing today. I know you well, Eben Cruz. Unlike my brother whom you met yesterday, I know you well. So watch what you’re thinking.”

“Hey, that’s unfair! Well, if you know so much about me, you know that I’m familiar with how we race today. What can you show me?”

“I know what you know, Eben, but you don’t know everything I know. Come, run with me, and I’ll show you other aspects of the race.”

“Do you run with a club, Eben?” she asked.

“You mean the local sanctuary of old men, women, kids, and joggers? The one that puts out a newsletter each month saying that, ‘Mary ran New York in 4:45, and it was the highlight of her life, so far?’ Not likely.”

They ran off together into the college grounds and quickly came upon a scene that Eben would normally have avoided. There was a club race underway.

The race field had quickly strung out, because there was a wide diversity in talent and level of fitness, but that didn’t seem to deter anyone’s effort. Far in the lead were two guys really duking it out. The turnaround was at a traffic island; the front runner (by just a step) went around the island, whereas the second runner turned in front of the island, and did not circle it. This shortcut gave him a step advantage on the return leg, which he successfully held to the finish.

“Hey, I like that guy’s tactics!” cried Eben, spontaneously. “But no doubt the other guy will complain to the RD and get him disqualified.”

To Eben’s surprise, that never happened. The two guys seemed to joke, shove, and jog off together laughing about the whole thing.

“What just happened?” asked Eben, amazed.

“Don’t you understand? These guys race each other every month. They train together occasionally. Each got what he wanted, a good race. They’ve beaten each other so many times that no one counts score anymore. That’s what a club is all about; giving its members the running opportunity they want.

“For a $3 entry, there’s no hardware at stake. All the finishers will get the same thing: fun, exercise, and as much or as little competition as they want.”

As soon as the last straggler wandered in (was he injured, just a jogger, a walker? It didn’t seem to matter, he was given a warm welcome) the RD quickly called attention to the results.

“Given the large turnout today, we want to do something that will give recognition to those who don’t customarily win an age group; so, for today only, awards will be given alphabetically. I’ll announce the winner in each of 26 categories! Male and female! The rest of you are then free to call out your own names! The full results will be printed in the next newsletter.”

“That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” hollered a man in the back, before Eben could do it. “I could do better than that!”

“OK, Tony. You just volunteered to put on the race in three months. The club thanks you for your interest.”  Tony got cheers and raspberries from the entire field.

Running on, Eben and his Coach came upon a scene much more familiar to Eben. This was the starting area of a major city event. There were thousands of runners milling about and waiting in lines. Each had paid $100 for the privilege. Warm Up coaches were leading some groups in aerobics; vendors advertised shoes, energy aids, on-line training, and information programs; pure water proponents vied with sports-drink advocates for the runners’ cash. There were premium coffees and doughnuts for sale, guaranteed to improve one’s race. There were tents. It might have been a circus, except for the absence of a ring.

“You’ve been here, Eben?”

“Yes, I have. What a business. I bet the guy behind it makes a fortune out of this event.”

“I doubt that. Runners seem to like it, though. The big events just get bigger.”

With that, the Coach took Eben back in time a few months, still within her domain of the Present.

They stood by silently and apparently invisibly while a committee of business sponsors, a city official, and the race promoters went over the plans for the race for what must have been the hundredth time, judging from how familiar the participants seemed to be with the information: budget, insurance, permit, local police and medical services, sanitary facilities, food and drink, tents, trophies for the age-group winners, T-shirts for all participants, parking, route marking on race day, finish-line management, timing devices, computerized results. It just seemed to go on and on. What could they afford for the majority of the runners, the ones who footed the bill and would not win any race category?  How to respond to business’s complaint that it disrupts the downtown area, and the churches’ attitude, “Never on Sunday.”

“Were these people runners or showmen? Anyone who could cope with all these conflicting interests and still provide a good running experience to the average entrant, was to be congratulated,” thought Eben to himself.

Chapter IV—The Last Coach

Eben saw a figure in a shadow by the side of the track. It was wearing an old, hooded sweatshirt and pants of faded black. The hood was drawn up about its face, and the sunglasses also served to mask its features.

Instinctively, Eben knew this must be the Coach of Runners, Future.

“Are you the Coach of Runners yet to come?” he asked.

The Coach did not reply directly, but by a subtle motion of its head, indicated assent.

“Coach, I fear what you have to show me more than anything I’ve seen up to this point. How will running evolve in the future? Will it all be corporate-sponsored races, with huge impersonal crowds, where only the stars for hire have a chance?

“Or will those things self-destruct and smaller races put on by runners, for runners, prevail?

“Where do I fit into all of this? Why show me these things, if there is nothing in it for me?”

With that, the silent Coach began to run a lap, and Eben instinctively followed. As they were completing a lap, they came upon a man standing by the finish line. He was talking to some high school boys, who were warming up.

“Yeah, I used to run. Tore my Achilles when I was only 24 and gave it up. Just as well. Took up all my time, and never got me anything. Now I’m into computer games.”

“Who is that sorry son of a bitch?” asked Eben.   

There was no reply. They continued into a second lap and again, when they approached the line, Eben observed another man speaking to the high school boys. He seemed to be a Coach; he was advising them on what workout to do, how hard an effort to put out on this day, what he expected them to accomplish in the next few months. He seemed to be guiding them towards some big meet coming up.

“Nice of the guy to spend so much time with the boys. Never had a coach give me any attention. I would have appreciated it.”

They ran into another lap. This time as they approached the line, the scene mysteriously shifted indoors, to a gathering of men and women in a pizza parlor. One man was speaking to the group, and discussing plans for upcoming races. “Volunteers,” he said, “We need volunteers. We need to find locations where we can run without requiring costly permits: back roads, parks, and bike trails that we’ve already purchased with our taxes.”

Again, Eben asked the Coach, “What does all this mean to me?” 

The Coach turned slightly towards Eben and pointed to him with a hand that barely showed from the long sleeve of the sweatshirt.

“Me?” Eben asked. “Is that former runner me? Are any of those people me? Which one? Is running’s future dependent on people like these? Is my running to continue or be cut short?

“These scenarios, these are only possibilities, right? Will the future of running not depend on what I and others do in the present to protect and preserve it?

“I want to continue to race. Will the only options be to pay someone to put on an event or to take a hand in doing it ourselves?

”Coach, is this what you and your family wanted me to learn? Because if it is, Coach, I get the message. No more bandit running, no more cheating on entries. I’ll find a local club and take an active part. I will, Coach. I will.”

The dark Coach seemed to fade into increasing obscurity until it was gone, and Eben went home to think about all that had happened.

Chapter V—A New Beginning

Next morning, Eben turned on the TV news to find out just what day it was, recent events having left him somewhat confused.  To his relief, it was Christmas Eve, cold but bright with sun and promise.

Eben then searched the ‘net until he found a local club run. He arrived early and with an uncertain grin said, “I’m Eben Cruz. Merry Christmas, can I help?”

Eben eventually found a club with which he was comfortable; he ran with them, taking an interest in the club’s organization and race-management activities. He went on to become known as one who put on a good event, attracting the best local racers, and yet giving all the opportunity to run their own race. 

This was his Christmas gift to Runners, every one.   

Categories: Features

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