A review of the novel Chasing Ghosts by Philip J. Reilly, Forbidden Drive Press, 2011. 360 pp. Paper. $14.51. BY DIANE MCMANUS reprinted with permission from Runner's Gazette, October, 2011, Freddi Carlip, Editor.
George Sheehan writes, “Heroism is ever available to each of us. Through ordinary experiences, the ordinary person can become extraordinary. Life boils down to finding the best means of expressing heroism; each of us needs to find our own personal arena, our true talent, our gift, our vocation. We all must be heroic, but in our own way.”i For runners, the road, the cross-country course, or the track, are stages where our inner hero finds expression. And this stage is set by our imaginations.
As runners, we probably all have a rich fantasy life, a Walter Mitty streak. Even those of us who run nine or 10 minute pace in races may sometimes dare to imagine what it might be like to break the tape at an Olympic final. For most of us, these images remain daydreams, although even so, they still spur us to greater effort in that 5K when the 8-year-old passes us with similar dreams of glory. But some runners have a realistic hope of reaching the big time, running in, maybe even winning, high prestige races such as the Millrose Games, the Olympic Trials, or even the Olympics themselves.
And so we devour the stories of these runners--thus, the popularity of favorites such as Hugh Hudson’s film Chariots of Fire or John Parker’s novel Once a Runner. These focus on runners who have a dream and reach for it.
But until Phil Reilly’s Chasing Ghosts emerged on the scene, Philadelphia area athletes had to content themselves with Rocky, and while I must admit I bookmarked the YouTube montage of Rocky running through the streets of Philadelphia with the theme playing, I welcomed the arrival of Reilly’s fictional Philadelphia area running hero, Joey McNeal. I know where he has run. I have been to Kelly Drive, seen the Penn Relays, run Broad Street. Pennypack Park isn’t some faraway place in Niketown but the site of the old version of the Northeast Road Runners 25K Marathon Tune-up, and I’ve run those hills.
So when Joey McNeal ditches the neighborhood football games (which I have also passed by in various parks), I root for him. And the fact that he is closing in on his 30th birthday only heightens the sense we have of a scrappy underdog taking on the “Apollo Creeds” of the running world. Unlike Rocky, but like many runners, Joey is not a solitary trainer. Instead, he joins forces with his friends Len O’Donnell and Ryan Cooper (his roommate), along with his cousin Mitch Maloney, to return to their old running form.
Initially, they train without a coach, but recognizing their need for feedback, they try, at first unsuccessfully, to recruit Joey’s former high school coach, Seamus O’Toole, who, in his prime qualified for the 1980 Olympic team but was unable to compete due to the American boycott of the Olympics in Moscow that year. Son of a Jamaican sprinter and an Irish miler, Seamus is a no-nonsense, unorthodox coach with no qualms about dragging his charges to the track at 10 p.m. for their first workout with him, which he describes as “chasing ghosts.” The workout requires the four to run quarter-miles relay style. They must together produce a sub-four minute mile, which, Seamus tells them, an imaginary runner--the ghost--has run. If any relay exceeds four minutes, the runners must repeat it. Maintaining the pace becomes increasingly difficult. Only when it starts to rain does the coach show any mercy--and the runners return home after midnight. On another occasion, Seamus shows up late at night during a blizzard to upbraid the runners for not doing an outdoor workout.
Yet his methods succeed. As the training schedule intensifies, it produces results. A December indoor meet in New York’s Armory has Joey and Mitch turning out personal bests--Joey running the mile in 4:11 in the seeded heat, while Mitch turns out a 4:31 in the open heat.
Unfortunately, the celebration is short-lived: the day after the meet, Joey loses his job at the alternative school where he is teaching and later the same day, his girlfriend breaks off their relationship. In a funk, he bypasses a run with the others, joining them the next day for five mile repeats with Seamus. After a half-hearted mile, Seamus questions Joey’s commitment, taunts him for lacking focus--spurring him to a 4:26 final mile.
A New Year’s Eve party which his former co-worker Maria attends lifts Joey’s spirits--it becomes clear that Maria is interested in dating, and as the relationship grows, Joey also busies himself with his new job at the “Grilled Donut Café,” which he and Ryan co-own, while also continuing to coach the girls’ team at a local Catholic high school, Bishop O’Connell.
An invitation to run the Wanamaker Mile at Madison Square Garden becomes a new focal point for Joey, while creating a new dilemma: Should he race on the same day as the girls he coaches run a championship meet. In a spectacularly successful race, he surges to the front, leading the legends Bernard Lagat and Craig Mottram, before fading, yet still running another personal best. His success sharpens his focus. He had not previously dared imagine that making the Olympic team could be his goal, but his performance at the Millrose Games--and Seamus’ challenge--reminds him that he must make a choice. En route home from Millrose, a confrontation with a drug dealer puts the group in mortal danger. Joey suffers a concussion while Mitch, his leg broken in the melee, is unable to train with the foursome and reminds Joey that “you’re running for the two of us now.”
After recovering from his concussion, Joey trains with renewed intensity, while Ryan and Len pursue their goal, Broad Street, and Mitch sets about his rehabilitation with the same dedication he earlier gave to his running. The pursuit of the runners’ individual and collective goals heats up, imbuing the closing chapters with the excitement of watching a close race.
The characters, naming themselves at one point, “Team Misfit,” emerge as “everyman runners.” They go out for beer and wings, except for Joey, who prefers soda, a choice Seamus sees as no better than the beer his comrades drink. They rib one another, exchange bad jokes, and argue--Ryan expresses envy at Seamus’ attention to Joey’s goals. But these so-called misfits recognize their bond to one another, and unite when it counts. Even Seamus, who resists any show of sentiment, shows a compassionate side. Along with rescuing the runners from the drug dealer, he also shepherds into his van the 13-year-old boy, Joey’s former student whom the drug dealer had tried to recruit for errands. While gruff, he manages to encourage the runners, recognizing their best efforts even as he raises the bar.
I also enjoy Reilly’s wit. The lines he gives his characters evoke chuckles: Len’s proclaiming New York the “greatest city in the world,” provokes Seamus’ crusty, “Last time I checked, the George Washington Bridge led to New York stinkin’ City, not Dublin.” And Ryan’s assurance that Joey is “no longer an unemployed bum” is qualified: “You might still be a bum, however.” The planning of the New Year’s Eve party includes the unlikely success in obtaining a kiddie pool and sand for a beach theme.
This is a playful book in many ways.
The book has the kind of charm that we find in this band of “misfits” with aspirations that transcend their high jinks and remind us all that we could have untapped potential, yet to be tested dreams, and while these aren’t achieved easily, the journey is well worth the sacrifices.
In sum, Chasing Ghosts is a story well worth telling--and reading--and a reminder to chase our own ghosts while we can.