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As Chapter 8 of Cynthia Voigt’s novel The Runner comes to a close, Bullet has just been instrumental in defusing a potential race riot in the cafeteria, in so doing planting the seeds of a viable relationship with Tamer Shipp. As Chapter 9 begins, then, the track team is boarding the bus to travel to a meet. The racial tensions infecting the school has resulted in the number of African Americans on the team declining to three. As the bus heads for Queen Anne County, the site of the meet, which is a three-hour drive, all aboard, save Bullet, are nervous. Even the coach exudes nervousness (“He could see the nerves in the coaches body, hunched by the opposite window.”) Typical of this committed nonconformist, Bullet has already decided not to make a practice run across the course to familiarize himself with the route and its idiosyncrasies. As Voigt describes her protagonist:
“Bullet never tried to study a course. That was no way to train your reflexes, or find out your quick judgments were. That was the way if what you wanted to do was win.”
Finally, the bus arrives at the site of the track meet, a prosperous private school called the Acorn School. The meet begins, and Bullet dutifully helps record runners’ times, the opposing team faring considerably better due in no small part to the loss of team members the Crisfield team has experienced. Beyond the issue of Crisfield runners having to compete in multiple races, something else is wrong, as Acorn runners dominate the events. Bullet’s counterpart manning the stopwatches for Acorn mentions something about a new track coach, a former West Point competitor, who knows what he’s doing. The Acorn athlete’s attempt at making friendly conversation, however, falls flat with the defiant Bullet. As Voigt’s narrative notes,
“He couldn’t stand these good sports types. The team has been well-trained and they ran better – why apologize?”
Still, the other boy insists on trying to engage Bullet in friendly conversation, introducing himself as George Hurley. Bullet’s thought-process, however, remains disdainful of this attempt at rapport. Eventually, however, George picks up on Bullet’s hostility and discontinues the attempts at a conversation.
The track meet continues, with Tamer competing in the long jump but his performance marred by questionable technique. Bullet competes in the javelin throw, “which he didn’t mind.” Voigt’s narrative continues to describe the details of the track meet, noting the performances of athletes from both schools, and Tamer’s proficiency at the hurdles. Finally, the long-distance race begins, and Bullet begins to navigate the course, confronting obstacles along the way. At one point, he injures his leg attempting to hurdle over branches, although he doesn’t realize the extent of the injury until he completes the race and is approached by the coach, who congratulates him on his time before noticing the blood flowing down Bullet’s leg. After dressing his wound, Bullet overhears Acorn’s coaches commenting on his run, one of them asking another rhetorically “you didn’t expect to beat him, did you?” One of the coaches congratulates Bullet on his run and expresses the wish he had the opportunity train the young athlete, but Bullet’s demeanor, again, filters the compliment through the cynical perspective that he has adopted in his life:
“Bullet’s chin went up as he clamped down a surge of pride. A compliment was only worth what the man who paid it was worth, and he had no reason to value this guy. Who did he think he was, anyway? Thinking because he was full grown and had run himself. . .It made Bullet angry, as if he needed training, as if he’d want this guy to train him anyway.”
As Bullet watches the rest of the runners finally emerge and approach the finish line, he observes Tamer force his way to the end only to collapse on the grass after finishing his run. Bullet approaches the prostrate Tamer only to have the black athlete lash out angrily, calling him “white bastard” and suggesting that Bullet had conspired to recruit black students to the team solely to fill out the roster and allow for the competition to take place. The Crisfield team has not distinguished itself, with the notable exception of Bullet, who is in a league all his own. The team boards the bus and heads home. The tension between Tamer and Bullet remains, and the former expresses no love for the latter.
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