Russ Clayton, a young man haunted by loss and abandonment, finds solace in running through his small Kansas town. Faced with the disappearance of significant people in his life, he sets an ambitious goal in running, seeking help from Brad Coy, a former elite marathoner who also suffered losses due to a cheating competitor, Yuri Grimlov.

Coy and Russ, finding common ground in their struggles, isolate themselves in the desert seeking a way to overcome the fear of pain. Concurrently, Grimlov, tasked with reviving Russia's doping-marred image, exploits twin boys with a regime of manipulation and doping.

The story culminates on the track where Russ confronts his demons and the twins, the twins confront Grimlov and test the bounds of their brotherly love, and Grimlov and Coy have their final face off.

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Excerpt from The Frontrunner © Copyright 2024 Brad Fawley


Russ Clayton stands, balanced on the edge of the very top of the quarry, the cold rock beneath his bare feet, long boned and white. His toes grip the sandstone. At least 60 feet below, the still water shines, a pool of obsidian. The half-moon and its penumbra of light floats in the center. A breeze rises up the quarry wall, warm and soft. Passes over his face. Ruffles his hair. A nightbird calls out but there is no response, only the murmur of the wind brushing leaves. A cloud passes. The moon’s reflection fades and then snaps back to sharp focus against the flat, dark water. Russ’s heart thuds. In his hands, with fingers spread wide, he holds a small boulder. The size of a bowling ball. He is afraid that it’s weight will tip him over the edge.

He lifts the rock up before him, chin, eyes, and chest high, as if in offering, and lets it roll off his fingertips. Holding only moonlight in his palms, he counts off the seconds as the rock falls through the black air, passing the carved face of the quarry wall in silence.


Earlier that day, below and on the gravel beach across the water, the other boys had placed their wrinkled dollar bills on the warm hood of Randy’s car and Becky had gathered them up and put them in her teal bucket hat, a stakeholder. And, despite the urging of Jimmy and Stewie and the peering looks of the other girls from beneath their bangs, Russ had declined the challenge to climb the quarry face. Giving them only a shake of his head and a small smile, despite the name calling that echoed back as the others found a place to grip the rock wall a few feet higher than the ledge from which the last boy had jumped, yelling. One by one, over and over, inching higher and higher, they had jumped, splashed down, and swam to the beach where Becky stood with the money crumpled in the bottom of her hat. Shaking off the water like dogs and sending the drops sparkling in the sun. Scrambling back up the cliff face.

Finally, Randy had climbed higher than any dared, and jumped, arms and legs splayed, spidered against the sky, falling at least 40 feet, smacking the water hard. Him and his shout disappearing under the surface. Silence as the water closed and stilled. Flat and smooth as an iron sheet. The sun glaring down, its reflection a polished mirror searing their eyes. Yet, none could look away.

As the seconds ticked by and the time they marked evaporated, Russ couldn’t help but fill his lungs with the ragged deep breath he imagined Randy craved down there. Enveloped in a swarming cloud of translucent green bubbles, the fishy taste of the water mixed with the last of his air. Gravity gone and him tumbling, clawing out, unable to find the surface hidden somewhere inside the cold dark water.

Russ had exhaled when Randy broke through, shouting, before swimming back to shore. Emerging, as always, the dripping conqueror. His skin, oily and beaded. Black hair slicked back and his crooked grin of feigned modesty. The still missing tooth from last year’s big game that the girls somehow found attractive. Amid the high fives and back slapping and whispers of the girls among each other, Becky had taken the money out of her hat and handed it to Randy. His hand still wet, he folded the damp bills, gave her a kiss, and tucked the money into the tiny front pocket of her white denim shorts.

After the others had left, with their windows rolled down, yelling and peeling out of the dusty area where they had parked, Stewie and Jimmy asked Russ why he hadn’t jumped. He said he didn’t know, and that was the truth because he hadn’t yet sorted out the answer for himself. It wasn’t fear, because, with no one watching, he had jumped higher than Randy many times before.

The rest of the day had passed, and that night back at home, as he lay in bed turning it all over in his mind, Russ finally knew. He saw that someday, Randy would take over the Ford dealership from his father and Becky would fill her bucket hat with a handful of his kids, and the others would all arrange themselves around them in the same order they did at the quarry, and as they did under the lights at the Homecoming Game last fall. He knew that is how it would be, even as the years swept by. Instead of passing their class rings around, and despite growing middles and sagging breasts, they would swap wedding bands, each one trying to climb a little bit higher. But in the end, Russ figured, despite all that effort, they would all end up living and dying here in Athens, Kansas in much the same order as he had seen them today.

So, without more thought, Russ had gotten out of bed, pulled on his shoes and, under the moonlight, ran the four miles to the quarry.


When the rock finally hits the surface, it doesn’t so much splash as it is swallowed up with a deep resonance that echoes off the quarry walls. Concentric rings spread from the point of impact, disturb the moonshape and mark the center of the target below.

Without hesitation, Russ Clayton leaps into the sky.

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