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It Should be Mathematical: One Couple, Two Dreams, .04 Seconds by Michael Heald, photos by Vallejos

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hen he opens the door to the bar, Ian Dobson’s gray OTC shirt—the same gray shirt that he was wearing before the race the other night—is so wet it looks almost blue. Behind him, rain is blowing sideways through the parking lot. Unbelievable. The poor guy cannot catch a break. I blast off a text to my latest crush, shove my phone back in my pocket, and sort of half stand while we shake hands across the table. “Picked the wrong day to bike,” he says. As he sits down, he pulls his own phone out of his pocket and shakes his head, looking strangely at something somebody’s written to him. I wonder if all the well-wishing is wearing him out.

We order a pitcher of IPA. “Look at that,” he says when he pours off two perfect pints.

“You want a job?” I say.

“I guess I am like six months away from being unemployed.”

“Well, if you find yourself back in Portland—”

Look,” he says. “It’s okay. You can ask me about it. That’s what I’m here for.”

I turn on the recorder. He’s just sitting there, waiting for me to say it. “I don’t know how you started that race,” I say.

“I had made the decision already,” he says, and takes a drink. “Kind of like when you go out to drink, you make the decision about certain things that you will and will not do. You’ll cheat on someone or not cheat on someone. Doesn’t matter how drunk you get. You’ve already made that decision and it’s there. I know myself well enough. I was like, ‘I need to make a hundred percent commitment to make it through. I’m going to finish.’ One of those stupid, sappy things. ‘I’m going to finish my last race.’ Just for the principle of it. But when she finished, absolutely the last thing I wanted to do, the last thing I was capable of doing, was to put out a race effort. There were so many thoughts, like tick tick tick tick tick tick tick going through my mind, and you step up, and you hear ‘Runners to your mark,’ and I’m just like, Ahh, get me out of here.”

We’re in a booth in the back corner of the 19th Street McMenamin’s, next to the darts. Given that it’s just two blocks from Hayward and it’s a rainy Saturday afternoon and the Trials aren’t really underway yet today, the place is surprisingly empty. I’d expected a certain amount of rubbernecking in the bar, but so far there has been no indication from our waitress or anyone else that they have any idea who Dobson is. A relief for him, and a reminder for me that not everyone in Eugene has been obsessing over what happened on Thursday night.

I confess that at one point I thought he’d left the track.

“I didn’t really go through the thought process of ‘What will I do if Julia doesn’t make the team?’” he admits. “I just wanted to get through it and be done. It sounds so cynical, and I wish it wasn’t. I do really appreciate whatever small achievement that is, making the final. I appreciate the opportunity to be there. You kind of want in some way to honor that. Not like I’m old and gray and looking back on a lifetime. But I am looking back on a career.”

I try to establish what was going on for him when he saw it happen. I ask if any of his competitors said anything to him before his race.

Runners lines up to begin the finals of the 5000 meters at the 2012 Olympic Trials

“They were watching it, too,” he says. “You jog around in the graveyard first, and then in all the warm-up areas after that there are tv’s showing the race. So I’m watching the race the whole time, sort of keeping an eye on it while I’m trying to warm up. The last area is directly below the main stands—there’s a little 50-meter track where you’re doing some strides—and everybody was keeping an eye on it. When she took this big lead, nobody was really saying anything, but you could just feel that people were positive about it. I was getting this congratulations-sort-of-vibe. I don’t know if I made that up or not. I’ve talked to some of the other runners since then and there’s been a lot of sympathy, like, ‘I don’t know how you started that race.’”

Did he talk to any of the other runners out on the track? Or was the questioning about whether or not to run just something he kept within himself?

“At that point,” he says, “it would be really unusual to talk to anyone. Maybe you do a ‘Good luck’ here or there and shake hands, but at that point, not only is it really loud, but everybody’s really tense. They’ve got their own thing. I don’t want to unload my anxiety on somebody else who’s trying to run.”

What about people in the East Grandstand? Fans, friends, family? Did anyone say anything?

“Nobody knows what to say in that moment. I don’t think anybody knew how to handle it. What do you say? Oh, hey, ‘Go, Ian?’”

The worst of it so far, he explains, worse than having to run, worse than getting dropped five laps in, was sitting in the drug testing area with Julia after their races—sitting in the same room as the three women who’d made the team. For drug testing, you have to sit around and wait until you can pee, which, for obvious reasons after a championship 5000, can take a while. “I felt totally helpless,” he says.

“Best case scenario,” I say, realizing that I never really thought he would make the team, “I thought you might have been where Scott Bauhs was.” Bauhs, an unsponsored runner my brother loves, clung to the leaders till the final lap and finished ninth, about ten seconds back. Ran his heart out, never had a chance. “Best case scenario,” I tell Dobson, “that’s the race I was going to describe. And that’s not what this will end up being, ultimately. It just wouldn’t be truthful.”

“I’m really glad you’re doing it,” he says. “You’re the kind of running fan—and this will sound grandiose—but you’re the sort of fan we aspire to connect with. We try to do something that people like you—who are running fans, but not highly invested in the elite running world—we try to do something that you will understand and connect with. And do exactly what you’re doing—have some emotion.”

We talk about the message boards—the things that are being said. “I’d like to sit down and talk to one of those people,” he says. “Not in a confrontational way. I just, I don’t understand that. I can be okay with it. But I really don’t get who that is. I don’t know how you could watch that race—I don’t know how you could watch anybody at the Trials, or really in almost any race—they’re putting themselves out there. That’s the thing that Julia did more than anyone else has done at the Trials so far—put herself out there. Just a little bit too far. Absolutely all in. And how you could watch that and insult it...you could question it, you could criticize it, but it’s something that very, very few people are able to do. I’ve never done that.”

Only now, listening back, can I hear how close Dobson comes to tears at this moment. It isn’t visible, but it’s in his voice. “This is why I love the Trials,” he says. “It’s the thing that makes it valuable.”

Ian Dobson running in the final of the 5000 meters at the 2012 Olympic Trials

What happens next for Ian Dobson? Nike pays him through the end of the year. He’s applied for an internship at the Oregon Zoo. He wants to do something with animals. He knows he could coach somewhere, but he’s got a very real need to prove to himself that he can make a living outside running, that he can develop some new part of himself. I ask kind of vaguely about his finances, which is when he reveals the details of the nearly six-figure Adidas contract from back in the day. Jesus, I say, is there any of that left? He laughs. He blew it on a bad investment, a “tiny little condo” in Mammoth, California. $450,000. Foreclosure. “I got this loan pretty much based upon telling the loan officer that I could run thirteen minutes for 5k. Looking back on it, it’s incredibly naïve.” I ask him how long ago this was. “2006,” he says. And you believed it? I say. “I believed it until about a month ago,” he says.

This would sort of be like me telling a loan officer that my book is not only going to be a New York Times bestseller, it’s going to win a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. As I’m sort of laughing about it, I realize that I haven’t entirely ruled those things out from happening. And then I start thinking about what this means for him, that he’s finally given up on thirteen minutes.

My brother is calling. I press “ignore,” and as I’m playing around with my phone I realize I haven’t heard back from my crush. I check to make sure the text I sent her actually went through. About to have a very intense second interview, the text said, will tell you all about it. Ciao! Only now, an hour later, do I realize why Dobson looked so strangely at his phone as we began this very intense second interview. My crush is not the person I sent that text to. “Umm...so I think I accidentally sent a text to you. I was feeling intense,” I stammer, absolutely mortified.

“Yeah, I know,” he says. “I—actually, I was sort of feeling a different way.” He pushes his pint glass around on the coaster. “I get shit sometimes. I feel like I’m an emotional person. Maybe I don’t show it in a typical way. With all of this, I almost feel like I have to prove how much I cared about Julia’s race. Walking down the street, we ran into Steve Edwards—Shalane Flanagan’s husband—and he hugged Julia and he started crying. Just an incredibly touching thing. And…I just don’t cry. Not that I don’t ever, but…I don’t know why.” He’s still pushing the pint glass around on the coaster. “I don’t know what this has to do with anything.”

“Maybe if you hadn’t had to run next,” I say. “If you’re up in the stands.”

“I don’t know why I even bring it up,” he says.

“Did I say this already?” I say. “Maybe I didn’t. I feel like in that first time we were talking, I was very consciously avoiding Julia as a topic. I got this sense from you—this certainty, this real belief—that makes me nervous.”

“Probably a stupid—”

“No,” I say, “not stupid. And that’s where—again, what I was seeing—with you cheering her with a lap to go? That was that same thing. That, to me, is really powerful. I feel like that was very loaded, already. And I didn’t even want to touch that half of the article. Because the odds of making it are really hard. Three out of sixteen.”

“Good runners,” he says.

Our waitress visits us for like the sixth time, and we finally tell her we do want something else. Hummus plate for him, cheeseburger for me.

“Are you gonna go?” I ask him.

“To the meet?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the schedule? I don’t want you to miss anything.”

“The women’s 8 in the hepathlon is at 6:20. The last three events are finals.”

“I’ll probably check in with Julia.”

“Yeah,” I say, “my brother, I told him probably a quarter to six would be the latest.”

We talk about red animal protein for a little while. “Where were we?” I say. “Oh, yeah. I just wanted to say that I feel for you, that you feel this pressure.”

“I don’t feel it from you,” he says quickly, “in front of you. Again, I don’t know why I bring it up. But I mean, you’re helpless when you’re dealing with someone who you really care about who’s just really sad—in a way that she probably won’t be very many times in her life. Really a profound disappointment. I’m like—” and here he sort of laughs, bewildered, “trying to be happy, but not too happy. And sad, but not too sad. Just trying to really manage that. Crying is sort of the standard. Some people cry over it, and some people don’t. And I haven’t.”

For a moment, I feel much younger than him.

e are two thirds of our way through the pitcher, and he’s finally dried out from his bike ride. We talk about Galen Rupp. The future of American distance running. We make predictions about the final races of the weekend. Predictions about what Ian Dobson will be doing a month from now. He tells me about this trail-running trip he took eight years ago after bombing out at his first Olympic Trials. The plan was to run from the Three Sisters to Mt. Shasta. 500 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail. One week. No tent. No sleeping bag. Wrapping himself in a tarp at night. Eating nothing but chia seeds. Dobson has to explain to me what chia seeds are. “For some reason,” he says, “my dad agreed to drop me off.” Did you make it? I ask. It was awful, he says. He only lasted two days. Got rained on the first night. Made it 80 miles, to Willamette Pass, where he called his father. “I appreciate that sort of naivete,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t do that now. What am I going to be doing in a month? Honestly, I’ll probably be out doing some backpacking. I’ll just bring the dog and have some adventures.”

My phone is vibrating. It’s my brother again. “I’ll be there in fifteen,” I tell him.

Ian goes outside to call Julia.

I realize I’m holding a cheeseburger.

He comes back inside.

“I’m going to turn this off,” I say. “We must have enough. That’s a good ending—you going out and doing some camping with the dog.” I reach over and turn off the recorder. But I’ve got all this cheeseburger and we still need to settle up with our waitress, so we keep talking. Over two interviews we’ve been speaking to each other for nearly five hours, but this is the first time we’re off the record. I know in no time I’ll be picking apart everything Ian Dobson has said to me, but for now I just kind of want to hang out with him. The form this usually takes, for me—the hanging out—is to unburden myself of my latest romantic trauma. I can’t know this for sure, but after thirty ounces of beer and everything he’s given me, the odds are pretty good I’m telling Ian Dobson about the dizzying heartache of being 31 and living for what I believe in, which is to say these kinds of conversations, this kind of honesty, and when it comes to women (Ian laughs), more than ever, the kind of entanglements that can bring me to my knees. None of it’s worthwhile, I tell him, or I hope I tell him, if you’re not going to put yourself out there like Julia did.

We settle up and go outside. There’s still plenty of day left, and the clouds are swollen but hanging onto their water for the time being. Just up Agate Street is the stadium. We can hear the announcer announcing a height or a time, and the resulting murmurs of appreciation. This is the entrance to Hayward I remember from childhood, from coming down in 1993 to marvel at an aging Carl Lewis at the National Championships, from coming down in high school and getting wasted and watching my teammates try to win state. This is the entrance to all those Prefontaine Classics and Bowerman miles, and in’04 when I flew up from San Francisco to watch, with my father, Galen Rupp’s final high school race—when my father and I shared a hotel room and I could not find the words to tell him my life is out of control—this is where he and I walked in, side-by-side. Running was my first great love, but I never came close to running at Hayward. My brother, who broke two minutes in the 800 as a junior in high school, who had it in him, never ran at Hayward. This was our dream, to run here, and we were still kids when it ended. I’ve found new dreams over the years, but that ache is still there. “I’m gonna find my brother,” I tell Ian Dobson. “I’ll send you a draft or something in a few weeks.”

“You sure you have enough to write about?” he says.

“It might be a little thin,” I say, laughing.

“What are the finals again today?” he asks.

“There’s the ladies’ high jump—”

“Oh, and the 200,” he says. “Felix and Tarmoh. That could be interesting.”

“Want to walk over there together?”

There’s no line at security, no line at the gate. Dobson’s got his athlete pass hanging around his neck, and they wave him through while they scan my ticket and stamp my wrist. The announcer tells the crowd that a high school sophomore is about to try for her best-ever height in the high jump, which would move her into the top five and possibly a spot on the Olympic team. The crowd starts clapping together, slow at first, and then faster, faster. Clap clap clap CLAP CLAP CLAP. I look up at Section U and I think I can see my brother. The crowd’s thinned out a little today, and if that’s really him, the seats directly behind ours are empty.

“Do you want to sit with us?” I ask Dobson.

His hand rises to his pass. “I don’t think they’ll let me into your section. I tried the other day, but they stopped me.”

“I think the secret is taking one of the tunnels in the middle,” I say. “They don’t check as carefully as they do on the ends.”

CLAPCLAPCLAPCLAPCLAP.

Dobson tucks his athlete pass under his gray shirt and we head for the tunnels under Section U. How bizarre that being an athlete—and not just an athlete, a former Olympian—should bar him from sitting in our bleachers. We’re kind of half-running, dodging puddles and other spectators, and I can’t help but laugh and confess that my initial idea for this piece was to go for a run together. Well, here we go.

CLAPCLAPCLAPCLAPCLAP.

We’re in the tunnel now, and I’m imagining the high-schooler leaning back on one foot, torqueing her body like she’s both bow and arrow, and above us are all these people bringing their hands together, wanting this for her so badly, and I imagine her striding up toward the bar, fifteen years old, and there’s this audible oof from the crowd as she leaves the earth and for a second, as the stadium watches her sailing through the air, her eyes aimed at the heavens, and all I can hear is my own heart leaping around inside me. God am I out of shape, but hey, I remind myself, I’m finally keeping up with Ian Dobson, and then fuck, the stadium just explodes. She’s over six-one-and-a-quarter! the announcer says. The Freshman and I shake our heads, and I can see the lines in his face, and for the first time all day it’s because he’s smiling.

Now we’re ducking out of the tunnel and into the stadium, and the lady at the bottom of the stairs isn’t asking for our tickets because, like everyone else, she’s cheering for the high-schooler. Dobson and I scoot past her up the stairs and toward row 24. We’re studying all these people who were here Thursday night and are here again today, because you just never know what’s going to happen, do you? Here we are, all of us, even those of us who have felt the need to say those nasty things about Julia online, and those of us, like me, who have forgotten about the sport for the past four years, and those of us, like Dobson, who are desperately trying to keep it all in perspective.

Now I see that it really is my brother up there in his baseball cap and stubble, alone. That there really are empty seats behind him, and that the three of us really are going to sit together. We make our way down row 25 to the empty seats behind my brother. I put my hands on his shoulders. “What’s up, Mike,” he says without looking back.

“Dave,” I say to him, “this is Ian.”

My brother turns and looks at Dobson. He gets to his feet and they shake hands, and my brother says with so much feeling, “Your wife ran an amazing race.”

It’s absolutely the right thing to say. But before I know it the moment has passed, and they’ve launched into the chronology: Okay, you were a freshman when I was a senior, fuck, you beat me in that race, too, didn’t you, and you were at Steens, too, right, god, Cross Canyon, how was that fucking legal, and Oh, I pipe in, he knows Dave Davis, No kidding, says my brother, Dave fucking Davis, Franklin Quakers. The high jump competition continues. My brother explains the situation—who’s already missed, who’s got the standard. The women are using the pit right in front of us. Even after the high-schooler bows out, it’s clear that something magical is happening. The remaining jumpers are cheering each other on, setting their personal records, popping dance moves every time they sail over the bar. It’s the best day of their lives. It really is. And this part of me—the same part that thought I could help Dobson win—is starting to wonder if the whole stadium, or at least our little corner of the field, might not be conspiring to help cheer up Ian Dobson.

But then it starts to rain. And for the seventh time in a week I open my backpack and grumble and pull out my poncho. I lose the conversation for a few seconds to the bunchy rustle of plastic. I pull my hood up over my Detroit Tigers cap and cinch it down and tuck my feet underneath myself as much as I can. By the time I’m all taken care of, I realize my brother and Dobson are engaged in some kind of debate.

“Seriously,” my brother is saying.

“It’s no big deal,” Dobson says. “I’m out in it all the time.”

“I’ve already got this shell,” my brother says. “It’s totally waterproof.”

Ian Dobson chuckles and shakes his head. “Maybe I am a little cold,” he says. He’s wearing shorts. Just shorts and that gray t-shirt. I hadn’t really noticed until now. I can almost picture him eight years ago, alone on the trail, in his tarp, eating chia seeds.

That’s when these kids, these maybe college-age but probably a little older kids—and I know I’m being condescending when I call them kids, but it’s true, they really are kids to me, because they look the way I used to look, god, thirteen years ago now, it’s their builds and their outfits and their hope and the fact that they haven’t found something else yet, something beyond running, anyway—these kids who have been sitting behind us all week finally come for their seats. The seats we’re in. And as they’re coming down row 25, they catch a glimpse of Dobson’s weary face and his gray Oregon Track Club t-shirt, which is beginning to darken in the rain, and they recognize him. We stand up. Dobson’s going to have to leave. There’s this awkward moment where we all kind of look at each other and look at the seating situation and then one of them says, No problem, we can all squeeze in together. And as we bunch up into this little pack of those who run and those who used to, as the 2012 Olympic Trials are drawing to a close, my brother reaches into his bag and pulls out his poncho. And he gives it to Ian Dobson.

our years ago, when Ian Dobson came off the Bowerman curve with two guys between him and the dream, my brother was cheering for someone else. Two years ago, when I finally figured out what to do with my life, my brother stopped returning my phone calls. But now, he’s the one who calls me. He’s the one out in the rain on this Saturday night. He and I both know that shell of his is not waterproof.

My brother will always be giving up his poncho to Ian Dobson. There will always be 50 meters left for Julia Lucas. Come on, my brother will always be yelling, finish it.

Listen. Can you hear him?

Ian Dobson being announced before the finals of the 5000 meters at the 2012 Olympic Trials


Michael Heald is the publisher of Perfect Day Publishing. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming from the Los Angeles Review of Books, Silk Road Review, Swap / Concessions, and 580 Split. His debut essay collection, Goodbye to the Nervous Apprehension, will be out later this year from Perfect Day.




 

 

 
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