I was on the cross country team in high school. I forget why I even joined, but I’m glad I did. My brother was the athletic and popular one. He was more social and friendly. And the gals loved him because he was strong and good-looking. I was the sharp-edged, skinny, asthmatic nerd.
I remember the practices, especially the first few practices. That was some tough sledding. I tried to make up for how weak and slow I was by using humor. But it didn’t work. Phil C., Phil my brother, Mark, Nick, Ryan, and the others were fast and serious about putting in a good practice. Me? I was desperate for it to end. And if I forgot my asthma puff that day it was hellish.
Mom and Dad showed up to some of my races, and I remember the tears on my father’s face. Here was their son who had been admitted who-knows-how-many-times to the emergency room for asthma attacks, who had been on medication his entire youth. Who was taken to the Children’s Hospital in a helicopter after the doctors learned I had pneumothorax. Here I was running a 5K, and they stared in wonder and swelled with pride.
I could have finished a race in 35 minutes and it wouldn’t have mattered. My dad was proud and it felt good. Before my Dad, I felt loved and cherished. Before the team I was embarrassed for being so slow. But they were nice about it.
It was the only school sport I ever did. My best time was around 21:30. The only other sport I did in my teens, if you count it as as sport, was roller hockey. My real game of choice was StarCraft.
Listening to Mark, a teammate, make trouble and banter during our practices and trips alone made it worth it. Once in the team’s van he mooned a car behind us. The driver of that car was so angry he drove in front of us and slammed on his breaks. Hilarious and scary at the same time. Another time he ate a huge Whopper minutes before a race, ran like a horse, and then threw it up immediately afterward, enjoying every minute of it. The coach as upset but we were rolling with laughter. Mark was beloved in the school. He had a jolly personality. I socially looked up to him. He made me feel special by giving me a good new nickname, “Shaf”. “What’s up, Shaf?” Around my fellow computer nerds and armchair philosophers I was Aaron. Around the cross country team I was Shaf. To this day it feels good to be called Shaf by a friend.
But Mark’s troublemaking crossed the line and ended his running revelry. On one trip, a few on the team (including Mark) had some wine in a hotel room (don’t worry, my brother wasn’t involved and never would have been). Someone snitched on them and they got booted. That meant two things to me: Mark was no longer going to be on the team, and I was going to make varsity.
I missed Mark, and I didn’t have a real interest in making the varsity team. But I felt proud for getting the varsity letter (for the jacket I never purchased). And I think my whole family enjoyed the irony of God’s goodness. Their asthmatic son/brother making varsity in cross country? Only when pigs flew. Well, the pigs grew wings that year.