Halfway to Lafayette, where the highway cuts through the Atchafalaya Basin, a vast swamp of cypress trees draped with Spanish moss, my younger brother, Jonathan, finally breaks the long silence in the car.
"The worst thing you can do is think about what's coming. That only leads to one place—chickening out." He pauses. "I can't help wishing every car would veer into us."
"I remember sitting on our roof one time before a meet praying for a hurricane," I say.
"What brave men I've sired," Papa says with a smile that is more good-natured than sardonic. Driving us to a cross-country meet, he looks happy, recollecting, perhaps, his own competitive running career when he was in the seminary at the University of the South in Suwanee, Tenn.
Every ex-high school jock dreams of going back for one more game, one more race. Seven years have passed since I last awaited the gun with a gang of revved-up adolescents. At the end of my senior season I had been a 132-pound running machine. Three months into college I had put on 45 pounds of beer. But since college, studying mountain bicycle racing out west, I've dropped back down to 150. I'm home now for a month in the Louisiana delta, and Coach Claney Duplechin has obtained permission for me to run in this meet with his Episcopal High team. Coach Duplechin is Jonathan's coach and he had been mine, but it's too bad he just missed our older brother, Jamie, who won the state championship in 1976. I figure that after a couple of weeks' training with the Knights, I'll have an outside chance of breaking my personal best. It's probably the last chance I'll ever have.
"I hate to whup you this morning," I tell Jonathan.
"I'd have killed you last year," he replies.
Jonathan has been deep in a running slump, otherwise I wouldn't have a prayer. When I left Baton Rouge for college, Jonathan was a tiny hellion who had just broken the nose of a bigger nine-year-old. Now he's 16 and taller than both Jamie and myself. Computer literate, he seems to belong to a more scientific generation. He has even applied science to cross-country. Caffeine and ginseng helped fuel his personal best the year before—16:20 for three miles, a solid 10 seconds faster than my own PB. Only a sophomore, he was No. 2 for the Knights until he tore a hamstring. The injury kept him from running the next spring and seemed eventually to have extinguished his will to win.
Jonathan had missed five of eight meets when I began my training sessions with the Knights. And his best race of the cross-country season was three minutes slower than his PB. But now, suddenly, he started putting out. "Where's that been, Jon?" Coach Duplechin yelled over to him during my first workout with the team.
In practice, the Knights alternated between distance and speed work. One day we would jog 10 miles on the levees, watching the sun set behind freighters on the Mississippi. The next, we would run intervals on Episcopal's Reslite track—in my time an oval of mud. Toward the end of the first week, I felt I had rediscovered my gliding stride of seven years earlier.
HOME OF THE RAGIN' CAJUNS. Jonathan reads the big red letters on the side of the Southwestern Louisiana stadium as we roll into Lafayette. The course for today's race follows the perimeter of some practice fields and ends on the track. While I am jogging and stretching just before the 11 a.m. start, my heart pounds as though it has become claustrophobic at finding itself trapped in my chest. Coach Duplechin asks Papa to say a prayer. I listen, a worried agnostic.
"Everyone's invited over to the tent for red beans and rice after the race," the starter says as 80 runners arrange themselves behind the line. Moments later, the instant he fires the gun, my legs seem to lose all power-a common reaction, Jonathan and I have hypothesized, caused by the initial refusal of the legs to participate in the next few minutes of planned masochism.
"Hang with me," I mutter, passing Jonathan, but he is already oblivious, his eyes glazed. The burning in my legs grows slowly hotter. An official shouts my first-mile split-5:28-the precise pace I need to break my old PB. Cramps seize my neck and shoulders.
Glancing behind me I can no longer see Jonathan. I remember the state meet on the LSU golf course 11 years ago, the one Jamie won. With Jamie in the race, I knew there would be at least one runner in front of me at the finish, but I had my own triumph that day. I had beaten Mark Newman, my main rival. After the championship I'd composed a poem:
I know now lean boast,
For I just said goodbye.
To the runner I hate the most,
Mark Newman of U High.
Unfortunately, Newman went on to whip me 30 consecutive times.
Someone shouts out what my second-mile split is: 10:53. I am seven seconds ahead of schedule. On the third mile you always ask yourself, Why am I here? " 'Cause I'm good at it," I might have replied 10 years ago. But now racing for me is a form of excess, an escape into the world of speed and blurred time where my main concern is my own force of will. But during high school I had feared and loathed the regimented torture. All day long I would dread the two-hour training ordeal that I knew was in store for me in the afternoon. My Friday nights would be ruined by my anxiety over the following morning's race-and the terrible pain of driving myself flat out. I devoutly believed that cross-country was good training for life. "It teaches pure willpower," I had once advised Jonathan. "That's why you shouldn't quit."
Gasping and dizzy now in the final half mile, I feel myself slowing. "Glycogen depletion," Jonathan would probably call it. My finishing kick is a mockery of a sprint. I place 30th, in 17:03, 33 seconds slower than my PB but that's seven places better than my little brother, even though Jonathan runs two minutes faster than he did last Saturday.
A Knight wins in 15:15, Episcopal takes second in the team race and Coach Duplechin is beaming. Spitting statistics, he addresses each runner separately. "Jon, you've risen from the dead," he says, and turning to me, continues, "He jumps in the middle of the season, in the toughest week, gets blisters all over his feet and would have placed fifth on the team or second in the first meet."
Driving back home, Jonathan says, "I'm just tired of not getting respect. Last year I got awesome respect."
"Heck, boy, you never got in shape this year," Papa says. He has a good idea of what being fit means. For the past 30 years he has said his morning prayers at dawn while jogging five miles. Gazing at the swamp, I recall running with him on cold mornings before grammar school when we still lived in Tennessee.
"You ran well, Jon. Next week you can beat your big brother," Papa says.
"No chance," I tell Jonathan. 'I'll never beat Jamie. And you'll never beat me."
Carter Coleman is writing "Rad Lands," a book about high-endurance sports.