What should Al do?
The men behind him had stuck together for years, and Al was their glue. He exchanged gifts and shared holiday meals with them, played hoops in Mexico and gasped for oxygen with them during altitude training in the Andes. He was the mediator, the one who needed most to be liked...and yet the one who'd turn grim and silent a few weeks before a big race, torch the pace that coach Enrique Peña set for them in training, take off and turn practices into wars.
The contradiction of his two needs—for love and conquest—contorted him, confounded him, churned again and again in his training log entries: Focus on yourself! In how many other athletic disciplines would America's highest-ranked rivals find themselves together on a five-hour hike at the bottom of a gorge, as they did a few days after last Thanksgiving in the mountains west of San Diego, marveling as they stared 450 feet up at the Pine Valley Bridge, the highest in the U.S. interstate system? Chortling together after Al reached into a thatch of poison oak and then made matters worse, much worse, when he took a pee?
Now Al faced the second critical juncture in the race of his life, a decision that cried out for the least of his skills: calculation. He could slow his pace and rejoin the others, as the cognoscenti hoped. Or he could roll the dice, maintain his pace and his lead, begin to sow doubt in his competitors' hearts. After all, he'd left the pack and walked a sub-four-hour 50K once before, a 3:58:45 second-place finish to the late-charging Curt in the 1999 U.S. nationals. He was in better shape now, the best condition of his life, and better form too, having surprised even himself by winning the award for best technique in a race just a few weeks before. Damn it all, he'd been beating every one of them, even Curt, in their daily training sessions over the past few weeks. Why should Al shadow Curt and settle for a second-or third-place ride to Athens when he could win and go in style?
Curt popped out of the John and fell in with the others. Al made up his mind. No, he wouldn't slow down and rejoin the men behind him. No, he wouldn't maintain his lead and his pace. He accelerated and began to pull farther away.
The numbers flashed on the website monitoring the race. The walking fraternity across the country joined the ones along the course murmuring those three words. No, Al, no....
His lead swelled to 30 seconds...45...a full minute! He heard his mother's squeaky voice imploring him onward. He glimpsed his father cheering him on too, no matter how perplexed the old man was. Seventy-one-year-old Max Heppner cared nothing for sports, couldn't fathom how a footrace had become life and death to his flesh and blood. As a child in the Netherlands he'd had to run for his life, hiding from the Nazis for three years in an attic, a barn, a windmill, a bathhouse, a chicken house.
Max lost his grandfather to the gas chambers, his father to disease and his companion in hiding—a boy eight years older than he—to a hammer blow from one of the people Max's father was paying to hide them from the Nazis. When the horror ended, he and his grief-ravaged mother washed ashore in America, where he eventually married and for 15 years tried to live as if the Holocaust hadn't happened to him, tried to muster the only response a man could make to six million deaths: creating one new life. Finally, when Max and his wife, Evelyn, had almost given up hope, came the miracle: Albert.