Shirtless Days

Running Times, February 2010

He is across the street, coming toward me. In a sideways glance, I see him. In a moment, I know him.

His legs are unshaved, and the muscles and tendons ripple. He has scrawny, sculpted arms, a bony, hairless chest and flat stomach. His belly button barely makes an indentation. His ribs are too prominent. You could count them; he doesn’t wear a shirt. Not in the summer. He wears running shorts–one color, usually dark, split up the side.

He sweats but doesn’t drip. He never stinks.

His hair is long and floppy, his skin weathered but not tattooed. He does well in school, less well with girls. He is good at math. He reads. He pays attention. He can seem nervous, ill at ease. Often, he is.

He eats like a linebacker. He is mindful of his weight, notices a couple of extra ounces, but is unaware of how his body looks, only how it performs. His body is an instrument. He knows how to drive past pain, to hold in what is difficult. He tells himself things that he will never say aloud. In his mind he sometimes beats his breast, but more often he thinks he deserves to suffer. When he has an orgasm, he doesn’t make a sound.

In groups he is reticent, offering an occasional gentle joke, a clever aside. When he has a girlfriend, he will talk to her about his races only if pressed. When she asks how he did, he will say, “It was good.” He waits for her to ask the question. Yes, he responds. Yes, I won.

Running will be for him something special, something sacred. He will not talk about it with civilians. He will not, in fact, admit how much of his time training takes up, afraid he will be seen as less serious about the other things he takes seriously.

As he ages, his body will retain that look of the teenage boy, all slim hips and underdeveloped upper body. He will crop his hair, now speckled with gray. His face will become longer, and lines will etch themselves around his eyes, but not from smiling. Cheek bones will jut. (Note: On men this manifests as rugged, athletic and outdoorsy; women do not fare as well in the modifier department.)

He will continue running, even as his times slow. He will continue competing, but will not linger after races to collect age-group awards. Instead he will head off to warm down, maybe running the course again, maybe running home. He will not talk about how fast he used to be, or, when he does, it will seem as if he’s talking about someone else.

He will remember, though, what it was like to run fast. He will remember, though it becomes hazy, what itwas like not only to be at home in his body, but to have a home in the world.

Things will never be that plain again. The simple formula, the ticks of the clock, the purity of measurement, the pleasure of having a rival, the clarity of a finish line, this is what he will miss. He will not be able to say that this is what he is missing, but he will feel it. He will feel it every day.

He will excel at some career. His work ethic has been set from early days at cross country practices where he beat himself up to stay with others, where he labored to surpass his teammates.

He will garner professional successes the way he collected trophies; caring and not caring about the material markers.

His wife will become fleshier and more interesting. His coworkers will marvel that he manages to stay so fit. He knows that he is not fit, not really. Not compared to who he used to be.

He fears—but will not admit—that at some point he may no longer be able to run. He knows that he will continue to slow, to be felled by injuries from a lifetime of doing his body little good. He knows that time is not on his side.

He knows a lot.

What he doesn’t know is this: he is beautiful.

When he runs he becomes that floppy-haired loose-limbed boy again. When he is in motion, he celebrates himself in all the ways that words fail, especially on hot days when he glides shirtless through summer streets, unselfconscious, unaware, wearing nothing but side-split shorts and the pride and pain of making himself run as hard and as far and as fast as he can.


RACHEL TOOR teaches writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Her latest book, Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running, was published in 2008.