Cheering On Empty

Wilma didn't know who he was but she noticed him running through the neighborhood several times a week. She was new to the area, brought to live at her maternal grandmother's small non-descript house in an unfamiliar town. Wilma was sad, miserable, depressed, angry, unhappy and acting out but it was the frequent sight of the kid running through the neighborhood that made her feel strangely hopeful and free.

One day, totally on a whim, Wilma put on some running shorts, a tee shirt and a pair of sneakers and she caught up to the kid as he ran along the side streets. He glanced at her but he didn't say anything and that's how Wilma Whiteman got involved in long distance and marathon running.

"Can I run with you again?" She asked the guy when they returned to the neighborhood at the end of that first jaunt together.

He eyed her with interest. "Sure," he decided.

Running with whoever-it-was was the only time Wilma felt untroubled and unburdened. She didn't fit in socially with the other kids when school started that fall. She was new and weird and moody, shunned and picked on and she didn't help her own cause by lipping off and getting into confrontations because of the huge chip on her shoulder but the guy she ran with didn't talk much and she liked that.

She eventually learned that his name was Paul Coyne and he was a serious runner. He told her he was surprised by her endurance and her speed and he admitted that she was a better runner than he was, the best compliment Wilma ever received.

"You're dedicated, committed, disciplined, serious and determined when it comes to running," Paul said with amazement during one of their runs together.

"I'm a survivor," Wilma replied knowingly.

"You run angry," he noted.

"That's because I am angry," she replied.

"You make me a better runner," he told her. "I have to pace myself and stretch out the distances because you can run forever."

"I wish I could run forever, keep going without ever stopping."

"Like Forest Gump," Paul joked. "Or Bullseye, the horse in Toy Story because you run like the wind!"

Wilma was petite and light although she seemed weighed down by the world She and Paul got along because she wasn't much of a talker either and that made them good running companions. They looked forward to their joint jaunts, usually four or five times a week, fifty-two weeks a year. They ran in rain, snow, sleet, and even heat waves because they both liked the challenge of their running mission.

It was Paul who convinced Wilma to go out for the girl's high school cross country team in the fall and the track team in the spring.

"It's the only part of high school that I like," Wilma told Paul once she made the teams. "That and the final bell of the day."

One of the unwritten rules between them was that Paul wasn't to ask her about her troubled life. He knew she wasn't a happy person and that their jogs were her escape from the sadness of her life. He saw that she was a loner with few friends so he tried to be a quiet and trustworthy running mate because running through the streets of Hillsboro and beyond was her freedom from her pains.

Wilma appreciated Paul's respect and understanding. He often witnessed the emotional problems she exhibited in various manifestations - she swore like a drunken Sailor, she was bitter and resentful, and she could be a mean bitch when provoked. She knew Paul felt sorry for her and that maybe he also liked her in an odd way. He was much more popular around school than she was so she was flattered that he paid her some attention and didn't treat her like a mental case the way most of the kids at school did. Sometimes they'd talk about homework assignments or books when they ran but Wilma made it clear that all she wanted out of high school was her diploma so she could "get the hell out of town" as she put it.

Paul tried to be a friend, offering Wilma periodic and meaningful advice, support and mentorship when it felt right. Sometimes she'd snap at him and tell him to mind his own business but secretly she appreciated his concern and interest. She got in trouble at school for fighting and arguing, suspended a few times, and Paul would warn her about getting kicked off the teams if she continued her challenging behaviors.

"Why are you so pissed off?" Paul asked one day while they ran after she served her 37th detention in 40 school days.

"Look, I don't come from a fucking happy perfect home like yours, okay?" Wilma growled.

"It's not that perfect," Paul said defensively although he had to admit that his parents were happily married and there were few issues for him growing up.

"I got dumped off at my grandmother's because nobody fucking wanted me," Wilma told him.

"Where's your mom?" Paul dared to ask.

"Who the hell knows?" Wilma sighed. "She's a druggie and a drunk."

"Your Dad?"

"He was abusive before he disappeared," Wilma revealed. "He and my mother fought all the time. I got hit a lot."

"By who?" Paul asked with surprise.

"Both of them," she muttered, running faster now.

As far as Wilma was concerned, when it came to running it was her versus him on their various running routes.

"You're very competitive," Paul said when she went out of her way to beat him by at least a step whenever they came to the end of their run.

"I don't like getting beat," she answered and Paul knew the double-meaning of that remark.

Paul liked to run in 5Ks and half-marathons and other events and he helped train Wilma for the same challenges, although it turned out that she was the one who paced him. The first time they ran a 10K race together, Wilma beat his time by nearly two minutes which completely shocked Paul.

"Jesus," he said when they met at the finish line to compare times. "I'm 5'9″ and 180 pounds and you're 5'2″ and…whatever. It's basic science that I'm stronger and faster, right?"

"I have to pump my legs much faster to get a good time but when it comes to pacing you don't got nothing on me!" Wilma gave him a quizzical look. "Are you jealous? Mad?"

"No, just all the more motivated," he grinned.

They both were determined in their joint running, neither willing to give up or slack off to allow the other to do better, one inspiring the other to be strong both mentally and physically.

Wilma realized that the only time she felt good about herself was when she ran – especially competitively. She took great pleasure in finishing first in the cross country races and posting impressive times in the 5 and 10Ks. Running was the one thing she was good at or even recognized for.

"It's the only time I feel unimpeded from my life," Wilma told Paul.

She liked talking to him about running, reminiscing about particular courses or races and waxing poetic about the pleasures of being one with nature and all that happy horseshit. Her method was always the same: gain the lead as quickly as she could and try to hold it.

"I run really fucking fast - as if I'm running to find a bathroom to take a wicked piss," Wilma explained one time.

Paul wasn't sure if that was the best philosophy. "If you burn yourself out too quickly you'll have nothing at the end," he warned.

"I run mostly on emotion anyway," she said. "I always feel inspired," she continued. "I convince myself that I can win any damn race if I run well. I also like the sense of solitude that running brings. The only time I feel a sense of peace is when I'm running. Me against the fucking world, me against myself."

"Running is the most elegantly simple of all sports and if it's your way of forgetting about your problems than it's a good deal for you," Paul decided.

"It's mostly just out of habit now," Wilma shrugged. "A bizarre compulsion to push myself – punish myself even. The sensation to fly."

It was Paul who suggested they start running off-street courses and routes too, through woods and up mountains to increase their stamina. That made for more interesting views along trails and over hills, along streams and rivers, through thick trees and rough terrain. Wilma welcomed the challenge and it brought a new dimension to their efforts.

If she could, Wilma would run 24/7 just to be able to escape.