OLD FRIENDS

The gun sounded, and Mike Konsen sprinted with the pack.

Mike was a year ahead of me at South Carroll High School, a senior who ran track for the first time as a junior. He quickly earned a place on our two-mile relay team, and just a quickly became my closest friend. He had an old VW Beatle, and we used it to traverse our tiny universe.

We were running the opening race of a 1978 outdoor track meet, and Mike positioned us near the lead before handing the baton to John Horton.

John was a fast sophomore, and one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. His antics were often the highlight of my day, but he was also a profound thinker.

We had deep conversations about the lives we were living and the people we were living them with. After a time of serious discussion, John would end with a joke, and we’d return to our quirky teenage selves.

John was strong, the only guy I’ve ever known who could walk around on his hands. He barreled toward me on the track, and I grabbed the baton and sprinted onto the shoulder of the guy just in front.

Our team was in third place at that point, the leader was already half way around the first turn.

Todd Ashley, another sophomore, would run our anchor leg. Todd was the most talented of our group, already one of the best runners in the state.

My motivation to perform was never higher than it was when I was on a relay team. I wasn’t running for myself; I was running for them. As I neared the end of the first lap, I could see the three of them lining the track. I passed them, hearing their encouraging shouts.

And it wasn’t just about the race. If I had collapsed on the track in front of them, they would have surrounded me, protected me, done whatever it was I needed them to do.

I managed to move into second place on the final straight, but I had made up little ground on the leader. I lunged forward as I gave Todd the baton, and then gasped to the side of the track.

Mike, John, and I, each one of us in different stages of recovery, watched as Todd began to gain ground on the leader. By the time he came by us, he had made up half the distance and showed no sign of slowing. We cheered as he whizzed by.

Coming off the final turn, Todd approached the leader and they came down the straight sprinting next to one another. Todd hit the tape just in front, and we all gathered together to celebrate what was then the fastest two-mile relay time in the school’s history.

Recently, when I heard Glenn Frey passed away, I was instantly back in high school. Something about music can return us to the days when we first listened to it.

More times than not, the Eagles played in Mike Konsen’s VW as we drove to and from the places we would go.

The songs were perfect, not as hard as heavy medal, but with a fierce and compelling lyric. We heard anger, confusion and passion, and we swore the band knew just what we were thinking.

I ran hundreds of miles with an Eagles song in my head, telling me to “Take it Easy” sometimes and “Take it to the Limit” others. There was wisdom in the messages, and the melodies became life-long companions.

I’ve only run on one relay team since high school, and it was a 3-person marathon. I ran the first leg, a half-marathon, and then tapped hands with Jim Shank who ran the second leg. Jim had become my closest running friend after high school.

Todd Ashley ran the anchor leg for us that day, and I still have the silver plate the three of us won together.

Our closest companions always stay with us, no matter whether they’re in or out of our lives at this particular moment. If any one of those guys handed me the baton today, I’d still run my heart out for them.

I needed their companionship when I was young. And when no friends were around, I’d turn on my music, and find a voice who understood what I was feeling.

I saw the Eagles in concert a few times over the years, and it makes me sad to think I’ll never see the full band again. Their songs were with me when I was nothing more than a confused kid, and they’ve been with me ever since.

I guess there’s a chance I’ll never see my old friends again either. Life has pulled us away from one another. But as long as my mind holds memory and my heart feels passion, they’ll stay with me too.