On a lovely spring day in Southern California, 2009, a young man with blue-black hair and dark skin arrived late and winded at the starting area of a much-anticipated track race. A small breeze blew down from the north and a whisper of lilac laced the currents. The young man was of Navajo stock. He had run here from a motel some two miles away. He kept his sunglasses on as he walked now toward the infield. The sunglasses were small rectangular mirrors. Already there were runners gathering at the starting line. He appeared deeply distracted, but in fact he was not so distracted that he didn’t notice the lilac-scented breeze.
He was lean and somewhat wild-looking, and his name was Kristy Reed. He had ropy arms. He carried with him a small gray duffel bag, which he unshouldered now. He genuflected on the infield grass and retied both his running shoes. The shoes were white and over-worn. He retied each shoe in turn, methodically, rapidly, switching the knee he knelt upon, but when he was finished, the left shoe still didn’t feel quite right. He undid it and retied it again, making the knot looser, so that it didn’t pinch along the top of his foot. Then he tied this knot into a double-knot. There was a fluidity about his movements — movements devoid of anything extraneous — and across the infield, over the stubble grass, a long-legged high-jumper flopped seven feet over a pink bar which flickered in the sunlight.
When he was finished tying his shoes, he remained kneeling and paused to look up at the sky. A solitary hawk rode the thermals high above. He watched it for a long moment. He did not know why the sight of it relaxed him. He did not know either that the hawk was duplicated minutely in each lens of his sunglasses. Finally, he stood and removed his t-shirt. In the mere act of standing, he came up straight without any hitch or hesitation whatsoever — just one moment kneeling and the next perfectly upright. He wore thin black running shorts and a purple tank-top made of light nylon. He wrapped his sunglasses in his t-shirt and then stuffed everything in his duffel bag and set this on a pile on the infield. There were a great many people pressed around him. He knifed his way through and stood at the starting line with the elite runners, among whom he alone was the only unknown.
The evening of the day before, at approximately 6:30 PM, he’d gotten off a Greyhound bus and checked into the nearest motel he could find. This motel was a slightly rundown affair, all stucco and concrete, situated just off the interstate, across which the desert stretched away into the wooly horizon.
In his motel room he’d splashed water onto his face and changed clothes. He went back outside. It was warm but not hot. It was early May. The sky spread its flawless blue canopy from horizon-to-horizon. He crossed the interstate and went for an hour-long run in the desert. For weeks now he’d been operating on raw nerves and pure adrenaline, his nervous system stretched membrane-thin. It was coming to an end at last. Far away to the west, he saw the explosive flash of a super-sonic jet.
They were into the main event of the meet now, this race about to begin. He felt a pool of nervy blood slosh in his stomach. He turned his head one way and then the other. His neck popped mutely, like an accordion straw. He breathed through his nose, exhaled. His blue-black hair hung damp, and he raked through it with his thin fingers. The old sensation came back upon him. When had it started, this feeling? He could not remember. It seemed now an indivisible part of him, like his eyes or ears, something he’d been born with: the sense that his will would always be enough to power him through.
A sinewy, middle-aged man in khaki shorts and a white windbreaker emerged on the track. He held a starting pistol in one hand and a small microphone in the other. He gazed about him for a moment, philosophically. Then he raised the microphone to his mouth. His amplified voice came galvanized and crackling through the speakers:
“Folks, it is a picture-perfect day for this race” he said, “and if I were a betting man — which I am not — I’d bet you a hundred dollars that we are going to witness here today a true miracle mile.”
He paused. You could hear the breeze blow through the microphone.
“In 1964, when he was a junior in high school, Mr. Jim Ryun, of Wichita, Kansas, became the first high school athlete to run the mile in under four minutes. That day he clocked in at three-fifty-nine flat. One year later, at Balboa stadium in San Diego, California, when he was still running for Wichita East high school, this same Jim Ryun ran 3:55.3, a high school record that stood for thirty-six years.”
Here the man paused again and lowered the microphone to his side. Once more he stared philosophically across the crowd. It was twenty seconds before he resumed:
“Since that day,” he said, “we’ve seen exactly three other high school runners break the four-minute mile: in 1966, one year after Jim Ryun set the record, a high-schooler named Tim Danielson of Chula Vista, California, ran 3:59.4. One year after that, in 1967, the great Marty Liquori, of Essex Catholic High in Newark, New Jersey, ran 3:59.8. In the ensuing thirty-five years, there were several near misses, and yet it was a full thirty-six years before another American high schooler ran a sub 4:00 minute mile, and that young man was Alan Webb, who in 2001 did it twice. As a matter of fact, Alan Webb is the first American high schooler to do it indoors, which was in New York City, in January of 2001. Four months later, on May 27th, at the Prefontaine Classic, Alan Webb shattered Jim Ryun’s high school mile record, clocking in at 3:53.43. That record holds to this day.”
The announcer paused again, though this time he did not lower the microphone but held it fixed against his chin.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he said, “ladies and gentleman. Listen closely to me now, and make no mistake: it is by any standard a big deal to run a sub-four minute mile. And this track meet right here is the Moby Dick of high school track meets. It is the Meet of the Champions — the one that brings together the best of the best — and so it is no surprise that we have among us today not one but two high school runners who, in the last five months, have both come this close to breaking the four-minute mile. And yet I say to you in all sincerity that any one of these twelve athletes among us today has the leg-speed and the power to break the four-minute barrier. Will we see it? We are mere moments from finding out.”
He stopped speaking and moved off to the side of the track.
A buzzing anticipation spread like plague across the stadium.
“Runners, take your marks!”
The runners assembled at the starting line. The Navajo no one knew, who had gotten into this race illegally, was two lanes from the outside — a poor lane, the poorest.
At last the runners situated and at last they grew still.
The crowd fell dead silent.
Thirty seconds passed. The tension mounted.
Finally the sinewy man raised the starting pistol straight into the air. No one breathed.
There was a loud pop and a cottony puff of gun smoke, and the runners burst forward.
He was a silent child — strange and silent.
Born on the rez, raised on the rez, dead mother, drunk father, youngest of five children — three girls, two boys — Kristy Reed, neglected and physically abused, was and always had been unsettlingly untrue to type.
There was simply no pegging him, no holding him back, no keeping him in. He broke away from the pack early on, developed a taste for wandering, exploring. He came and went as he pleased, was left largely unsupervised. He did not like school, but he liked to read, and he was thoughtful and quick with numbers. By age thirteen, he’d built up a quirky erudition that was entirely self-made.
Often he went out alone into the mountains of northwestern New Mexico. He never took anything with him except whatever clothes he happened to be wearing that day. Invariably when he returned, one, two, three days later, he returned dusty and parched but otherwise exactly the same as when he departed. Nobody knew where he went or what he did — striving for greater heights, perhaps, or deeper depths, narrower caves or more rarified summits, exploring the things others wouldn’t.
One afternoon in the autumn of his tenth year, while he was skipping rocks across the river that ran next to the school bus-stop, a wrestler with a lumpy nose and cauliflower ears — a boy named Benji — came shuffling by, leading a group of eleven high school wrestlers to the area where they would start their daily run.
“Do you want to run with us, Kristy?” he said.
He was not asking seriously, but he was a friendly person, facetious, distantly related.
Benji did not reply, and neither did any of the other wresters. They watched Kristy come up from the riverbank.
He fell in with the big boys — thinner and shorter and younger by far. He’d never run with them before, and the wrestling coach, a stocky white man from southern Utah, eyed him up and down but said nothing. Kristy was dressed in brown corduroy pants and broken hightop sneakers, a gray T-shirt, which he removed now. He had scars on his back from his father whipping him with a leather strap.
They gathered along the bridge that crossed the river. This of course was just another practice run, not a race, but they were always competitive, these runs, the wrestlers all in excellent shape. Lemon-lime leaves lay thickly upon the dirt road. A replica of the silver sky was reflected diagonally across the river. The wrestling coach told them they were only running four miles today, the river-road loop, down to the highway and back, and, goddammit, horse it up those hills, he said.
The wrestlers knew the route well, and so did Kristy, who had once lived in a shotgun shack down that way.
“Give em hell,” the coach said. “Ready?” He paused. “Set! Go.”
They bolted forward, all twelve of them, Benji and another boy named Clovis leading the pack. Right on their heels, however, was Kristy Reed, aged ten. He wasn’t ostensibly pushing himself very hard. He was just running. By eight hundred meters, however, he, along with Benji and Clovis, had distanced themselves from the pack.
A mile in and Kristy was still going strong — stronger, even, than when he’d started out. He was young and small, and yet he ran in a curiously effortless way. The three of them pounded up the first hill, which was short but steep and which leveled out and then dipped and went back up, and here the road was sandy. The river that ran below and beside them flashed in the white autumnal light. The road curved left and simultaneously went up a steeper hill. This hill plateaued for twenty meters and then rose up again, steeper still. A warm breeze poured down into the narrow throat of the canyon.
At the top of this hill, just before the halfway point, where the road sharply descended and they came back around toward the high school, Benji and Clovis, too exhausted to be astonished, watched Kristy push past them. They saw his inky-black hair drip with sweat. They saw the wormy white scars on his back, the odd ease of his gait, but they did not know how exhausted he too had become. Neither did they know that it was the sheer strength of his will driving him forward.
Crossing another bridge where the river road looped back to the highway, back to the starting point, Kristy was far enough ahead now that he was directly across from the other runners — across and on their right — at which point, when they saw how he widened the gap with each stride, the wrestlers, all of them, knew that he had not gone out too fast, as they had initially thought. They knew furthermore, by the look of concentration in his eyes, which was fierce enough to argue insanity, that he wouldn’t fade or let go now, and that the only question left was who would finish second. So that when, twelve minutes later, he pounded across the bridge that was the start-and-finish line, wobbly from exhaustion, he was more than sixty seconds ahead of Benji, who was twenty seconds ahead of Clovis, and for quite some time it was just he and the wrestling coach standing there alone. Kristy dripped with sweat. Gradually his breath normalized. He didn’t say anything. He was staring into the molecular black water, spotted leaves falling upon the surface. The coach scrutinized him more closely.
“You could be a track superstar one day, if you wanted,” he said.
Jonas Hayat loved to run.
He loved it with his whole body and soul, and he was beautiful to watch. He ran like a panther: sleek and lean and muscular.
His father was Ethiopian, his mother New Mexican. He had four siblings, one brother and three sisters, two of whom were younger, and all of whom, especially Jonas, were inordinately polite and well-mannered and good-looking: blue-eyed and tall, with toffee-colored skin and black hair.
Jonas was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico, but raised in Albuquerque. His father, through a combination of shrewd investments and hard work, had over the years grown quite wealthy, so that his children never knew the privations he himself had known. He’d worked his way through UTEP, ran track (two-time All-American), and earned a PhD in nuclear physics. A month after receiving his degree, he took a job in a Los Alamos laboratory.
Jonas discovered running when he was seven-years-old — at which time his father began entering him in local races, a thing Jonas very much enjoyed. This was the summer before he went into third grade. The more Jonas ran, the more he grew to love running. So that within a year, he developed the habit of running all the time. He ran everywhere, no matter his clothes, no matter his shoes. He pushed himself without any prompting or provocation and sought to become faster and faster. And succeeded.
Thus, in sixth grade, his first year of junior high, he exploded into a track superstar — the fastest junior high miler in the city of Albuquerque. In fact, through all of junior high and high school, he won every race he ever ran … with one exception.
During the spring of his thirteenth year, when he was in eighth grade and already semi-famous in track circles across the southwest, his school travelled to a track meet up north, near the Four Corners, in the town of Farmington, New Mexico. It was a small track meet, and neither Jonas’s teammates nor his coach expected that he would have any difficulty winning. Jonas alone never took his victories for granted, nor did he ever underestimate any of his opponents.
The mile began late in the day, when the air turned cool. Large shark-shaped clouds swam down from the north, and the horizon looked slate-blue. It was a cinder track. The infield grass was not green but brown. As Jonas situated himself at the starting line, he did not notice the black-haired boy two lanes to his right, whose name was Kristy Reed, and who was the only competitor at this meet representing his school. But it wouldn’t have mattered either way if Jonas had noticed him, for he’d never in his life seen him, or heard his name. Neither did Jonas know that, like him, this same boy had also never lost a race — though his running career, if it could even be called that, was far more haphazard, his competition far less intense.
That afternoon, then, when the starting gun went off, Jonas leapt into the lead, as he always did, and came out of the first turn already ten meters ahead of the second group of runners. He ran alone. He always ran alone. His long legs churned softly. They ate up the backstretch. From the infield grass his teammates cheered him on.
At the end of lap one, Jonas had pushed himself even farther in the lead. The runners behind him were dispersing, with a cluster of three battling for second place. Jonas, meanwhile, continued to widen the gap.
But a lap-and-a-half into the race, something remarkable happened:
Kristy Reed, the lone representative of his school, broke away from the pack — and in a truly astonishing burst of speed, he closed in on the leader, so that by the end of lap two and going into the third, Jonas, though still leading, was a mere ten feet ahead of Kristy Reed.
Jonas became aware of footsteps getting louder behind him. The cinder crunch struck his ear with an ominous sound. He increased his speed. He still had plenty. His stride was so long and so fluid.
He came out of the first turn expecting to have partially shaken his challenger, but it was not so: Kristy surged with him. Kristy ran doggedly — fluid and graceful as well, but in an entirely different sort of way. There was an indescribable look of concentration in his eyes: a hyper-focus which everyone noticed, and which among other things clearly conveyed to all the onlookers that he believed he could win this race.
Almost unconsciously, it seemed, the crowd rose to their feet in unison.
Coming around the last turn and into the final lap, Kristy was still ten feet behind and breathing hard, his skin glistening with sweat. The next runners were over half a lap behind. The breeze blew in from the west.
They went into the final lap. The gun exploded. Jonas, still paying the price for the speed with which he’d run the last four-hundred meters, summoned everything inside him. He surged again. It was a mighty burst of energy.
He was in the best shape of his life, and it showed. He ran like a panther. He ran with so much heart. He poured it on. His legs spun into a blur. His speed was magnificent. His idea was to break his opponent quickly in this final lap and then just hang on.
The crowd went crazy — a roar the likes of which this little stadium had never heard before. Jonas’s teammates had all gathered around the inside of the track, and they were screaming in a demonic manner.
Kristy did not hear any of this.
He did not hear either the pop of cinder beneath his broken shoes. His concentration was total. He ran as one deaf. His face looked charged with suffering.
He watched Jonas surge ahead of him — had expected it — and he strove to match it, so that coming down the backstretch, Kristy called forth every ounce of speed his body contained, and sprinting he drew up shoulder-to-shoulder with Jonas, who was six inches taller.
Entering the final turn they were dead even. Kristy ran on the outside. Both were drenched in sweat. Their legs were blurred with speed. The crowd went berserk — in sheer disbelief at what they were witnessing. They all knew Jonas by reputation, but who was this black-haired Navajo boy that looked so wild and indomitable?
When they came out of the final turn and into the homestretch, Kristy was hee-hawing for breath, and though he did not increase his speed, he did not slow down either, and Jonas was not able to maintain the blistering pace. So that in the final seventy meters, Kristy Reed broke away from Jonas and crossed the finish line first, delirious with exhaustion.
At fourteen, then, he ran away. He took a Greyhound bus to Salt Lake City. After that he hitchhiked to Reno and then Sacramento and then San Francisco.
Six months later, he was brought back in a police car. No big deal.
But there was no keeping him:
Two months after that, when he was still fourteen, he slipped away from school and the reservation for good.
He walked and hitchhiked his way to Tucson, then Phoenix, then Las Vegas, Nevada, which he loved. He loved the lights and all the massive structures and the twenty-four-hour throb of the city. He liked walking among the people, the famous and the rich, the savvy and the talented. He liked walking down the wealthiest streets, and in his ragged clothing he felt no resentment among the successful, no rancor, no sense of inferiority, no anything except free — free to pursue his own life. It never occurred to him to feel another way.
He sought to know precisely what made the rich and the prosperous different from the poor and the profligate — not so much among the gamblers as among people in general. It was a question that came to occupy his mind more and more. He had spent all his life in and around dire poverty, and he wanted now to know its ultimate cause. What was the fundamental thing?
He stored the question in his mind and revisited it every day.
He meanwhile slept in stairwells, or on building rooftops, or wherever he could. He worked any job he could find: dishwashing, housekeeping, prep-cook, construction laborer. His work ethic grew Herculean, and he cultivated it.
One day, two years after he’d left the reservation, passing by a waste management company, he noticed a Help Wanted sign on its fence, and so he went in and asked for work. He was too young to drive, but they hired him to pick up trash around various properties, and this was a job he enjoyed. He enjoyed it chiefly for the fact that he was left alone. He did not notice that people stared at him in passing, often in pity, though once he overheard a man say to his children:
“Look at the reservation trash picking up the trash.” The man laughed.
It did not have any effect on Kristy but just the opposite: he adopted it, made it his own.