The wind howled that night through the city streets like a JV cross country runner left alone at a house party. I’ll never forget when I first laid eyes on him. Fedora pulled low across the eyes, sunglass on in the dead of night, and smacking on RunGum like it was Nicorette. He was standing on the corner of Out o’ Luck Boulevard and Hard Times Avenue, and wasn’t looking to change location anytime soon. As I passed by him, he sniffed and obviously got a hint of my day-old running shorts.
“Hey Kid,” he asked as I walked by, “You ever heard of the Gray Zone?”
I did a doubletake to make sure he was talking to me. Of course he was talking to me, though. It could have only been me and Trouble out at that time of night.
“Gray Zone… “ I murmured to myself, attempting to conjure up some sort of cool reference. “Yeah, that’s when you’re cross-faded off Mountain Dew and Slim Jims.”
The Man stared back at me and slipped his sunglasses down his nose. “No, you moron. The Gray Zone…” he struggled to find words. “The Gray Zone is so important.”
Seconds passed. Hell, it could have been minutes for all I know. Time ceases to matter when you’re trapped in a training block that won’t budge an inch.
The Man told me about the Gray Zone. He told me about it’s creator, Johnny Gray, and how he still holds the American Record for the 800 meters. His time of 1:42.60 was set in 1985 and no one has been brave enough to eclipse it since.
“It’s about toughness, you see,” the Man told me.
“Toughness?” I asked.
“Yes, god dammit, toughness. With a capital T,” he replied.
“The Gray Zone was when Johnny would take out races from the gun. He didn’t sit and kick like you boys do these days,” the Man explained between puffs of his e-cigarette. “No. Johnny was one of a kind.”
“Why would he go out so hard?” I asked. “Wasn’t he afraid?”
“Afraid?” the Man asked. “Of what? We’re already buried, but we ain’t dead.”
I wasn’t sure what exactly that meant but I liked it. Still, it bothered me the Man was looking backwards in American mid-distance running.
The Man tried to cheekily walk away after his quip about mortality. I didn’t intend to let him off so easily.
“Hey. Old Timer,” I shouted. “What’s next? Is there any hope for this record to go down?”
“Hope?” he grinned. “Hope left the station, took your girl and is pulling into Mar-a-Lago right about now.”
The Man turned, flashed his all-black Hoka One One Cliftons and started to walk away. I waited a beat, and then decided I’d made that dame I was supposed to meet for some suds wait too long anyways.
“Hey Kid,” he yelled at me. “If you look up ‘hope’ in the dictionary, you may find a picture of a guy named Clayton Murphy.”
And like that, the Man slipped into the night.
After some drinks with that femme fatale I mentioned, we decided we were better off as friends, and I looked up this Murphy character. Turns out he’s fast… Real fast.
Murphy clocked his personal-best time of 1:42.93 at the 2016 Olympic Games and scored a bronze medal. He’s now the fifth-fastest American over 800-meters. Oh, he’s just 22 and didn’t break the 2:00 barrier until last year? Hell. One of those is a lie, but if this kid doesn’t grab the record this summer, the fix is seriously in.
I still think of the Man. I think about the reverence he used to speak about the Gray Zone. Not many guys or gals push themselves to those limits anymore, but this Murphy fella’ is a different breed. He ain’t scared of dying, because he’s seen death and wasn’t too interested in it.
So this summer, when Murphy slips under 1:42.60, you can find me on the corner of I Told You So Street and Cold One City Lane. I’ll be there with my shades on, hat pulled low and with a story for anyone who will listen.