Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

3:33 Sports Short #8 // Tribal Bands

by Justin Brouckaert

This Christmas, my parents bought me a watch that tracks steps and monitors heart rate, syncs the data to an app. I trek around my city trying to take pride in stairs climbed, calories burned, badges earned, but usually the numbers feel empty. I feel like I’m posing in a world I don’t belong to—or worse, like I’m pretending to be someone I left behind long ago.

*     *     *

One night during my first winter running seventy miles per week, I found myself at a party in a smoky basement with one good friend and a swarm of strangers.

“This guy,” my friend introduced me, “he loves running. Running is his life.

One man asked why I wore my running watch upside down, the face on my wrist’s underside. I told him it was easier to hit the lap button, a quicker flick to check my pace.

“You’re not running right now,” the man said, drunk and inexplicably angry. “Why don’t you turn it the right way?”

I refused, and he took a step toward me, making himself big.

“Wear it like a normal person,” he spat. I said nothing and stood my ground. At some point, one of us exited the conversation. The conflict disappeared into the haze.

He was right, though. I wasn’t using the watch, but wearing it—being seen with it—was important to me.

I am a runner, the upside-down watch said. I am not like you.

*     *     *

I was a runner until I wasn’t. Injuries tore me away.

I write about this often, but it takes a toll on me to think back to that time. It wasn’t my choice to quit the lifestyle. I’ll always be unfulfilled. 

I get jealous when friends talk about their half-marathons, their beer miles, their tough mudders. I interrupt the conversation to make my history known. I’ve never liked calling myself a writer because of the romantic notions I know the label conjures, but this former life, this lost secret utility to my thinness? I burn with pride.

*     *     *

At a 2009 St. Patty’s Day 5K, the camera catches me crossing the line mid-stride, reaching for my left wrist with my right hand, freezing my personal record on a small, round screen. I look fit and fast. Afterward, I set the photo as my desktop background. There’s no other way I’d rather be seen.

Months earlier, Thanksgiving 2008, the camera catches me running a 10K Turkey Trot, looking strained as my route crosses paths with the 5K course. In front of me is Santa Claus: red tights, white beard and all. I’m in pain, but Santa is smiling, enjoying his three-mile jog. This picture haunts me. I want to zoom in and use my wrist to prove our difference. To prove, in the frozen eternity of that moment, I am not like him.

*     *     *

As a tribe, we runners take pride in our strangeness. We piss blood and pluck toenails. We run from one end of the city to the other in thigh-high nylon, shirtless though our chests cave inward. You can tell us by the bands around our wrists.

I say we as if I’m still included. As if I can claim that strangeness anymore.

*     *     *

I don’t deserve my old running watch, just as it doesn’t deserve its grave at the bottom of a drawer. I marvel instead at how my new watch tracks distance, heart rate, pace. I would have loved this when I was a runner, I think. But I love it now, as a former runner who can’t shake the habits. The obsession. A running nerd exiled from the sport.

When I see others wearing the same watch, I wonder whether the numbers give them closure. Whether they know how they’re seen—how the watch brands them, if at all. The watch is popular. Its wearers are tech-fueled and young, a loose affiliation. I don’t know what it means to them. For me it means a second life, life after running. It means life outside the tribe.

There’s an adage about steps at a time: I take them. I try to make sense of these numbers. I wear this new watch face-side up.


Justin Brouckaert's work has appeared in The Rumpus, Passages North, DIAGRAM, Catapult, NANO Fiction and Smokelong Quarterly, among other publications. He is a James Dickey Fellow at the University of South Carolina, where teaches creative writing, edits Yemassee and is working on a novel about runners.

Categories: