Young Men & Tupac:
By Tom Church
My Best Day Ever
We were sophomores then, and free. We had seen remarkable things, but we knew little of the world. The year before we had cheered along with the rest as we watched our friend drink three gallons of water in a single hour. We hadn't yet guessed the destructive force his successor would unleash on 95 chicken nuggets the following fall. Such was our naiveté. It was 2001, the dawn of a new millennium, and it was springtime. We were young and brash and full of life, ready to Make the World Our Own!
But instead we decided to cram eight dudes in a van and race 80 miles in northern Wisconsin.
There's no question about who is to blame. That's Graham. He grew up in Ashland, Wisconsin and used to climb the town's ore dock to watch the runners finishing the Chequamegon Woods-to-Water 80-Mile Relay. As a child, Graham dreamed about anchoring his very own eight-man team. He scribbled clever team names in his high school notebooks, analyzed the difficulty of each runner's three relay legs for his senior science project, and even took a summer job as a landscape-surveyor to become more familiar with the course. His devotion left little time for actual training, and so Graham was left to run in Division III for Carleton College.
That's where he found us. We were his perfect band of easily-excitable students, swept away by his fast-talking description of a glorious town on the shining shores of a lake so large you might never find her true horizon; a town where you might stuff yourself with bratwurst and beers and cream-of-mushroom soup and fall asleep with their residual scents lingering sweetly in your nostrils; a town where you could dip your toes in the freshest water on earth and still see a moving picture for $3.50. All we had to do was run there from Cable, Wisconsin. If we managed to do that faster than anyone else, the good people of Ashland would give us handcrafted ceramic mugs.
It was the running part that concerned us. None of us were terrible runners, but our experience with winning was, well, limited. Of the eight of us, only Bryan had won any significant races in high school. Brody had once won a raffle, but he didn't hear his name called. Our sixth man, Senner, was a starting pitcher for Carleton's woebegone baseball team. He was from Alaska. Running 80 miles, let alone running it fast, would be a problem.
We told Graham our concern and he just laughed. “Wait until you guys meet Ghidewon,” he told us. “He's from Eritrea." Needless to say, we were amazed. We'd known that Eritrea is an east African country that was colonized by the Italians in 1890, turned over to the UN after World War II, federated to and later annexed by Ethiopia before fighting a long war for independence and earning international recognition in 1993, but we had not known that the country had runners. "Also, he's a DJ," Graham added.
That’s all it took. On race day we were up by 4:45 am wondering if an 80-mile relay was actually a good idea, and if so whether venison stew had been an appropriate pre-race meal. The gun went off at 7 am and Lande took the baton first. He handed off to Graham in fourth place. Graham and Schrades passed one rival team and one bear over the second and third legs to move us into third place behind the Cliff Bar team from Chicago. Team Riverbrook held a confident two-minute lead after 24 miles, and we were still neck-and-neck with Cliff Bar as Bryan gave the baton back to Lande to begin the second circuit.
When Lande finished his second leg he confirmed our greatest fear: this was going to be hard. We’d lost ground on the Cliff Bar squad and we were hurting far more than we’d expected. There was no room in the van to stretch, the drizzle was chilly and uncomfortable, the baton was awkward to carry, and we were still over 50 miles from the finish. The Cliff Bar team drove away from the next exchange as we were pulling in, leaving us alone in the Wisconsin wilderness with our aching bodies, our growing deficit, and our solemn despair.
And then, Ghidewon took control of the music. For some reason we’d spent the first 30 miles running on miscellaneous Pearl Jam, country, and bubblegum pop. None of us had been focused enough to realize the mistake. But now we huddled together underneath the tall maples and began to exorcise our despair with help from Tupac Shakur. We threw open the van doors and let California Love echo through the trees. Two minutes later, Graham came grindin’ through the exchange; Schrades just nodded his head as he took the baton.
Schrades made up half of our deficit on Cliff Bar. I made up the rest and handed off to Ghidewon. He left strict instructions so we would not ruin the play list while he was out of the van and we dutifully obeyed, with the exception of one ill-considered Wyclef track. It worked. Brody, Senner, and Bryan left Cliff Bar with the Ghetto Boys ringing in their ears. As we finished the second circuit, Team Riverbrook still held a substantial lead, but we were closing hard. Before my final leg I asked Outkast what to do about the pain still shooting through my body. The answer was simple: Hush that fuss. I made up two and a half minutes over four miles and put us five seconds out of first with under 20 miles to go. But then I got cocky.
Back in the van, beaming from my effort and thrilled to be done with my running, I demanded to hear some Rod Stewart. “I don’t know, Church, that’s not on Ghidewon’s list,” Bryan warned. Schrades thought it might be OK since the song was from Stewart’s time with The Faces, but Bryan was unflinching. So was I. We began to take other requests: Bob Dylan; Bon Jovi; Nirvana. In just under four minutes, all was lost. The sun began to warm us while Team Riverbrook telescoped away, and we thought only briefly about what might have been. Instead we sang together as we settled in second place: I wish that I knew what I know now/When I was younger.