I became a long-distance, cross-country runner when I was 15.
Back then my life was filled with turmoil and running presented me with a sense of freedom that allowed me to breathe.
My adoptive home, non-native and ill prepared for an abused native boy, was difficult.
Running allowed me to expel the anger, hurt, confusion and doubt I struggled with, and every heaved breath felt like an answer somehow.
When the notice went up on the school bulletin board, I turned up for the try-outs.
We ran three miles and I finished in the top five. I’d never been on a school team before and the day I was handed my singlet, shorts and spikes was a small glory.
My family was a hockey family and didn’t understand the fascination with running, that it was a sport. But I felt like a winner.
We ran every night after school.
Our coach, Mr. Waite, was a competitive runner and the drills we did were hard, running in sand, up and down the steepest hills in the area and half a dozen half-mile wind sprints.
He believed in training the body to its peak then resting a day before each race. Every practice was a test. But I loved the feel of running and it never seemed like work.
There was a local runner named Ken Werezak who ran for our rivals the Lakeport Lakers.
Werezak was a legend.
He’d never been beaten and he was big and strong and set a pace that crushed anyone who tried to stick with him.
Beating Werezak and the Lakers was everyone’s dream and all the team could talk about in the locker room.
When I ran I imagined myself running after Werezak, chasing him on a long climb up a hill, passing him and coasting on to victory to the hard cheers of my teammates.
Every practice session I imagined running after Werezak and beating him.
I trained hard. I ran faster and longer than anyone else. I ran extra sessions alone in the dark at night and first thing every morning. I ran home from school and I ran in the hallways.
I ran and chanted his name under my breath: “Werezak, Werezak, Werezak.”
I was filled with a burning desire to pass him, to see him at my shoulder struggling to maintain the pace that I set.
At the first race a teammate pointed him out and I lined up beside him.
He was taller than me, heavier, blonde and very intense looking. I eyed him carefully, gritted my teeth and prepared for the running.
When the gun went off I stayed right on his shoulder for the first mile. It was a horrendous pace. The next closest runners were 100 yards behind us.
He looked at me, maybe a little surprised to find someone so close and when he sped up after that first mile I stuck to him.
We ran up hill and down, faster than I’d ever run before and the runners who lined the course to watch were excited to see someone actually challenging the champion.
Well, his strength overcame my grit in the end.
He just outran me.
It was like he had an extra gear and when he pulled away from me eventually there was nothing I could do but watch his broad back and the heavy, hard pump of his legs as he stretched out his lead.
I finished third that day and never came close again.
Oh, I chased him, ran with him race after race, stuck on his shoulder like a bug, but he was always bigger and stronger and faster.
But there was a moment sometime during those races when there’d just be him and me, ahead of everyone, our pace matched, shoulder to shoulder, sweating, heaving deep breaths as we ran.
He’d give me a little look then. Just a flick of his eyes, a squint and then a firm nod before turning to the running again.
That look was everything to me.
It meant I was an equal, that my effort qualified me and that I pushed him, made it harder, made it a race.
Even though I never ever won, Ken Werezak’s glance was my trophy ribbon. I’d shopped all my life for a validation like that.
My life at 15 had all the usual teenage angst and impulses and because I was the only Indian kid around, it made feeling odd and different and clumsy even more intense, more visceral, more real.
So I ran to expunge all that. I ran because the feeling of being alone on a stretch of road held no judgment, no differences and because there was a power in that aloneness.
I never knew then about my people’s legacy of distance running, of messengers running in moccasins across the plains or through the forest bringing news of game or heralding a gathering.
I never knew about the spirituality of running, that detached Zen-like state the elders advised the young men to chase, attain and hold.
I never knew about the glory of running after a herd for days and days and returning with meat for the band.
All I knew of running was that it made me feel alive and powerful — that if it didn’t exactly erase the heaviness of my life, it at least smoothed its edges.
All I knew was that it released me and that running after Werezak was the pinnacle.
I was never a champion, but I won every race I ever ran. Running after Werezak taught me that.
See, there are always things in life that seem bigger, stronger, unbeatable. But lining up for the gun makes you an equal every time, allows you the opportunity to try, to stretch yourself and makes you more.
Being the first across the line isn’t the biggest thing — letting them know you’re in the race is.
That’s true for everyone, Indian or not.