Ever since 1970, when I was an immensely skinny 8th-grader competing in track and field for the first time, April has been a vexation on my body and my soul.
I too-well recall stripping off sweatpants to stand shivering in the cold on a cinder track exposed to the northwest winds tearing across Illinois. When the gun went off, my body raced into action, almost without me. We ran two crunching laps with bare limbs flying. There was jostling and swearing on the turns, as young runners barely able to hold themselves steady in the wind tried to stay as close to the curb as possible.
When it was all done, I’d placed second to some angrily pale white kid from Simmons Junior High in Aurora. I was angry to have lost, but eager to get warm again. So I pulled my sweats back on and went for a stiff-legged jog around the track. April, I thought to myself. This sucks.
There would be many more April track meets to come. All through high school we’d train in February and March, run a few indoor meets in stale air and then show up for outdoor track just as the last snow melted off the football field to leave cold, dark puddles on the cinders.
Sometimes during school hours it would snow during the day. We’d stare out the classroom windows at thick sheets of fat April snowflakes coming down and worry about that afternoon’s workout or meet, which surely would freeze our legs.
But it was the wind that always made April the worst month to compete in track and field. Most April track meets were spent hiding from the wind inside thick nylon sweatsuits that fit no body in the universe.
We’d huddle behind gym bags out on an open field while our teammates competed. Even the voice of the stadium announcer would flagellate in the April breeze. Finally the last call for the mile run would be announced toward the end of the meet. A few of us that had already run the two-mile hours before would get up and run around a little, then toe the line with less-than-enthusiastic looks on our faces. The pistol would crack in the gathering gloom. Then we’d find some withered strain of determination within ourselves to actually start caring about what we were in the act of doing. That’s what distance runners do: suffer for reasons unknown even to their own minds.
These April memories are piled on top of one another. I still remember lying on the football field of some godforsaken high school track looking up at a sky washed clean by a 30 mph gale. At that moment I wished I could be anywhere but at a track meet. A jet plane then appeared with a stream of vapors tracing its path. All I could think was “I want to be on that plane.”
Of course that didn’t happen. An hour or so later I stripped down yet again to a pair of nylon shorts and baggy singlet. We lined up for the mile like a band of refugees waiting to cross the border and took off when the gun shot. And for once, it wasn’t that bad out there. My daydreaming about the jet had relaxed me. As the race proceeded and my body warmed to the task, it occurred to me that the leader was just a few yards ahead. I waited until the last lap and pulled even. He looked haggard and sick of it all. So I left him behind. What an unlikely outcome, I thought to myself. I just won the stupid thing.
April’s wet retort
I ran steeplechase in college, an event that added yet another cold element of misery and mystery to the April experience. For seven laps we’d circle the track to leap off the barrier and try to catch as little water as possible in the water pit. But sometimes a splash would shoot up your shorts and hit you square in the testicles. But it was even colder when they had to chip the ice off the pit in early April.
Yet April could just as easily turn into a cruel, hot beast as well. I well recall a college 5000 meter race that began in temps soaring into the mid-80s. One by one my teammates dropped out to gather on the near turn. They stood and cheered as a few of us continued racing. I laughed out loud at the rogue’s gallery of grinning quitters wishing us well. They stood with arms crossed and gave little finger waves as we trundled past.
Today is April 14. As iI look out the window of my home office there is snow coming down from the sky. Ten minutes ago it was sunny. Ten minutes before that it was snowing again. Just now it turned sunny again. The landscaping crew from next door is rubbing their hands together to keep warm.
This morning as I walked the dog, I glanced down at a clump of fresh new grass covered by frost on one side of the clump. “Well that about says it all,” I laughed to myself. “It’s April for sure.”