The track team went to natties, then they all went batty.
More batty than fratty, their brains were all ratty,
10 hours away, and the stress starts to fray
the bonds of civility, the mind’s ability
to race, or to pray, I can’t say.
Officer Janice Jephthah Jenkins did not expect to find a group of cross-country runners huddled alongside I-76 at 2 a.m. in the morning. She was driving home, actually, and planning to make a quick snack for herself before turning in for the night. She was only notified to the rather gruesome scene by the appearance of a large makeshift flag made of purple jerseys.
Janice Jephthah Jenkins was hungry, and after spotting the flag with uncanny peripheral version, she elected to make a quick precautionary stop alongside the road before heading off into the night. Trucks occasionally whizzed past the stopped cop car. The stars, invisible on most nights in Evanston, drooped over the trees like failing Christmas lights. The snows had not fallen, but the air remained crisp. Janice Jenkins examined the flag and took it out of the ground. The jerseys were virtually unseeable in the darkness, taped together onto a branch with medical tape and some bandaids. If this was an attempt at alerting passers-by, it was a complete failure.
The moon was in one of its antisocial moods, leaving the flag fearly invisible unless you were a cop looking for trouble. The darkness hid her concerned expression, but it also hid the remains of the Northwestern Track Club.
Long before the accident, the ghosts, the shattered remnants of sanity, and the recklessness of mankind doomed the Northwestern Track Club, there were dreams of race around a chocolate factory. NIRCA Nationals was scheduled for the humble town of Hershey, PA, which also happens to be a hotbed for the American running scene. Hershey, of course, was best-known for hosting USATF Youth Nationals every year, but the cross-country course next to the amusement park/resort/chocolate factory known as Hersheypark (with no space) would play host for the 2016 iteration of NIRCA Nationals, the most prestigious college club running cross-country race in the United States, depending on your point of view.
The Northwestern Track Club prepared to embark on an epic, 10-hour journey through the heart of Pennsylvania to compete in this meet. There were eight runners on the trip.
- Justin Deffenbacher – “The Tall One”
- Tristan Jung – “The One with the Sentences”
- Tucker Johnson – “The Portlander, and by the way he’s from Portland”
- Renzo Downey – “The Unlikely Hero, in the style of the SF Giants”
- Emma Kumer – “The Unknown Quantity”
- Matt Stadnicki – “The Not the Bad Vicki”
- Emily Harriott – “Reigning Northwestern Fan of the Week”
- Andrew Sinegra – “The Grad Student”
Only one runner would survive to meet Officer Jenkins.
“UPTOWN FUNK YOU UP, UPTOWN FUNK YOU UP! SAY WHAT?!”
It was hour No. 7. Emily Harriott was driving the van and blaring pop music at a pleasant cruising speed of 82.3 miles per hour. Bruno Mars’ peppy voice emanated from the speakers of the Dodge Grand Caravan.
“Can we please stop listening to this song? I like this song, but you’ve played it seven times in the last two hours.”
“Tristan, I’m only playing this song to annoy you, so no.”
“I don’t even know how you set this playlist up while you’re driving.”
“I just have a playlist in which four-sevenths of the songs are ‘Uptown Funk’.”
Driving to the East Coast from Chicago is a perpetually agonizing experience. The drive exists to test the most devoted roadtrippers. It first travels through the nothingness of Indiana. Then you pass the industrial decay and boringness of Ohio. Finally, you arrive at Pennsylvania, the behemoth, a state which takes about six hours to pass through completely (if you’re heading north to New York City afterwards). And yet, that was far from the worst thing that would happen to the Track Club. The drive to Hershey was far from over.
With 45 minutes to go, Tucker Johnson had taken command of the lead van and was speeding through central Pennsylvania. Two members of his van had dozed off, but Andrew Sinegra, the grad student, spotted a van pulled over to the side of the road. The van had a large logo from The University of Indiana.
“Hey Tucker, do those guys need help? They must be headed to the meet.”
“Andrew, we’ve been driving for almost 11 hours. I’m not stopping.”
The second van, now driven by Tristan Jung had a protracted argument between Tristan and Emily on whether to stop for the stricken Hoosiers. Tristan, who was driving, decided to pass by, against Emily’s complaints.
The race itself was a mess. The Northwestern Track Club was completely unprepared for the hills behind Hersheypark. At least Northwestern had made it to the meet, however, unlike Indiana.
*first-person expository side-note*
I have actually run around Hersheypark before. The factory itself is on top of a fairly large hill, as in, it takes 3-5 minutes to drive up the entire thing. But we’re not running there. The course is down the street on the side of the park, which is good because the park itself is on flatter ground. Unfortunately, the course is not. There’s some decent elevation changes on the loop itself, which are not conducive to great times. I’m not really sure the hills are that much worse than Iowa though, mostly because 2012 Griffin Kelly ran faster at Hershey than he did at Regionals in Ames a few weeks earlier. So yes, there are hills, but they aren’t as bad as the hills on the other side of the street.
*end sidenote, return to horror flick*
The Northwestern Track Club was in a huge rush to get home. Joyce Oakes decreed that the vans must be back by 11 p.m., and thus it had to happen.
“DON’T BELIEVE IT JUST WATCH!”
Emily was playing “Uptown Funk” again. Everyone had grabbed a quick lunch at Subway and the vans were heading back to Evanston.
The right rear tires of both vans blew out simultaneously. Ultimately, the day was saved by quick driving from both drivers. Both vans were now stuck on the side of I-76.
One by one the whole team went,
In circles til’ their minds were spent
Tristan walked along the highway and into the woods behind I-76 to assess the situation. The dark and deserted forests of Westmoreland County surrounded the van. The highway, unforgiving, unassuming, was the only sign of civilization. The mile markers, accurately labeled to within 0.1 miles, extended into either direction. Both vans were temporarily stranded.
“I’m calling AAA,” Justin shouted. “Don’t worry.”
But the voices on the road were faint. In the crowded maze of trees, silence reigned supreme. Tristan was, of course, underprepared for the brisk weather. His thin jacket recoiled at the wind.
Then he heard the song again, faintly at first, but then louder and louder in the distance.
“Uptown, funk you up, uptown funk you up…uptown funk you up,
UPTOWN FUNK YOU UP!
Tristan couldn’t flee in time.
Meanwhile, the remaining seven members of the trip had already been reduced to six. Grad Student Andrew had hitched a ride back to Hershey to rendezvous with the UVA team. The others did not want to hitchhike.
Andrew had hitched a ride with a faceless stranger. Surely there was no problem with that. The faceless stranger actually turned out to be a fairly pleasant middle-aged man named Jairo, who discussed the finer points of Plato’s Republic with the grad student. Then Jairo turned on the radio. Bruno Mars came through the speakers. The truck disappeared.
“Hey, what happened to Tristan?” Tucker wondered. “Justin’s AAA people are never going to come. I’m fixing the tire and gonna go find him.”
As he decided to take matters into his own hands and get the spare from the trunk, he heard Bruno Mars. He figured the others were just starting to play the radio. He exited the passenger door and walked outside.
He never came back.
It had now been two hours and AAA had never arrived. Typical. There were now just five members of the trip remaining. Panic was setting in. Tucker had never returned. Tristan had never returned. Pennsylvania felt like a prison. The expanses of nothingness removed all thought and replaced reason with fear.
There was a world outside, but it could not be felt.
Justin received a call from AAA that told him to walk a mile down the road to receive assistance.
“What can I do?” he reasoned. “We need to get out of here!”
Justin started running down the highway in the darkness.
Meanwhile, Emma and Matt were still in the van. Both aimlessly checked their phones, as though there was nothing better to do.
“Uptown Funk” started playing on the radio.
“Did you start playing that, Emma?” Matt asked.
The car began to shake violently. Emma vainly attempted to call 911 but failed. The car began to fold in on itself. Trip logs and registrations fell into disarray. Then it disintegrated into millions of particles as the gasoline suddenly exploded.
Justin observed the mile markers litigously. He was going to go exactly one mile and then turn around. He couldn’t see any tow truck or AAA vehicle, but he started to hear the plaintive strains of Bruno Mars in the background. Justin started running, but despite hundreds of laps around Gilson Park, he would never be quick enough to avoid the monster.
He saw its face and body as he turned around. He was horrified.
“JULIO GET THE STRETCH!”
Emily and Renzo were also horrified. They had just watched a black Kia Sedona disappear into thin air. They saw the monster. It had constructed a flag made of Northwestern Track Club jerseys and stuck it next to the road. It was a humanoid cornucopia of mystery, a dodecahedron of terror. Its face was just covered in television static. The intro to “Uptown Funk” was all anyone could hear. Its arms, legs and torso were all covered in pieces of paper.
Renzo and Emily decided it was better to fight outside the car then become a runner sandwich.
“I’m too hot (hot damn), called a police and a fireman!”
Then Emily saw what the pieces of paper were. They were trip logs, acres of trip logs, strewn across the monster like an ill-fitting dress.
“I have to fill them out,” Renzo said. “It’s my destiny.”
Renzo pulled out a pen. The monster stopped playing the music. And then they disappeared, leaving Emily with the van.
Officer Janice Jephthah Jenkins saw nothing in the woods. She heard a few bars of “Uptown Funk”. In the silence, the cobbled pop music was vaguely comforting. She assumed it came from a car stereo and left.
The purple flag waved in the wind.
Joyce sat in her office and read what she had commissioned. This was good. Very good. Surely this story would scare all clubs into filling out their trip logs. Surely it would terrify any club from driving outside the Chicago metro area.
All was well.
As Joyce started walking out of the room, she heard some Bruno Mars song. Was it “The Lazy Song”? No, that wasn’t it…Never trust anyone…