The last lap

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It was Feb. 12, 2000 and spectators were standing in the Evanston Township (IL.) High School fieldhouse for a better look. Runners paced back and forth anxiously along the indoor track. Junior Kevin Richards had just taken a close second in the indoor mile to Dan Glaz, a top Illinois runner from Amos Alonzo Stagg High, and now Richards was down. Not that it was altogether novel for an exhausted runner to slink to the floor after a hard race, but Kevin had too much heart for that, his teammates figured. And that was the problem. He had 1.2 pounds of disease-enlarged heart, to be exact, nearly twice the weight of a normal heart.

Kevin had never before lay down after a race. Not during his freshman year at Evanston Township High , when I trained with him as a senior. And not during his sophomore year when he helped Evanston to its first Illinois state title in the 4x800-meter relay with one of the top 10 times in the nation. Kevin addressed his aches in silence, and always, always, standing up. "I love being sore," he once told me. "It feels like you did something."

But on that day, Kevin flopped to the dusty, green rubber track. It was the first sign of his hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a genetic disease that is the most common killer of young athletes during exertion, and which causes the wall of the heart's left ventricle to enlarge. The left-ventricle is the heart chamber that takes oxygenated blood from the lungs and squeezes shut violently, sending it careening through the body. It's the strong man of the heart, and no one could have guessed that Kevin's strong man was sick, least of all me.

From the first time I ever ran with him, I knew he was a rare talent. I was running 50-60 miles a week in the summer before my senior year, and he was an incoming freshman who had hardly begun training. And yet, I still could not shake him on our first run together as we flew along the rock-strewn shore of Lake Michigan. I remember his arms cutting smooth arcs through the air. Each of his steps was identical, as if his knees were linked by a metal bar, one like the side rod that connects the churning wheels of a locomotive. He raced me to the last step that day, as he would many other days, leaving both of us doubled-over and searching for air. Initially, it annoyed me that a freshman would dare push the pace in practice, but Kevin had a passion for racing, and it often didn't matter whether it was the state championship or just another day by the lake.

When Gwendolyn Richards got the call that paramedics were working on her son, she was serving food at the nursing home where she worked long hours --that's how she paid for the computer Kevin needed to nourish his dream of becoming a programmer, and the first in his family of Jamaican immigrants to go to college. Just two months before he collapsed, I was home from Columbia University for Christmas break, and we talked about where Kevin might take his talent. Indiana University was high on his list, and, as a state champ and honors student, he was excited to entertain scholarship offers. Kevin's parents, Rupert and Gwendolyn, were reluctant to bank on athletics, so they had been attending financial aid seminars. Kevin told them to stop. "You aren't paying a penny for me," he told his mother. But he never got to go. That bell lap on that fateful February day was the last lap of Kevin's life, his fate sealed even before the finish line.

It took Dan Glaz -- who went on to run for Ohio State, and is now an engineer in Chicago -- a couple days, and a couple of kids teasing him about "killing" another runner, before he broke down in uncontrollable tears. By that time, part of the white lane lines of the track had been covered in penned messages from Kevin's friends. "Race you on the other side," one read. Soon, though, without a way to make sense of his death, it became easier to push the tragedy from our minds than to talk about it and recover.

Kevin's father still cannot accept that the heart that pushed his son to a state championship could have been diseased from the very start. Rupert still remembers the little boy he carried on his shoulder in Jamaica, the boy who would chase his father's soccer ball around for an hour without tiring. "I don't believe it was a heart problem," Rupert says. "Something else must have happened."

Kevin's younger brother, Roshane, was a freshman at Evanston when Kevin died. He promptly quit the wrestling team and never played organized sports again. Two years after Kevin's death, Gwendolyn told the only son she had left that, "I really miss Kevin." Roshane replied curtly, "you're not the only one." And that was the last he would ever talk about it with his mother. "He'll just hold his head down and walk away if you talk about it," Gwendolyn says.

David Phillips, the distance coach who worked with Kevin and me in high school, might understand a little about how Roshane feels. When I started asking him about that day two years later, he wasn't ready to talk. "You have to remember, David, he died in my arms," he said.

Willie May, a silver medalist in the 1960 Olympics in the 110-meter hurdles, was Evanston's track coach in 2000. "I just had this guilty feeling," he says. "It was a human life under my supervision." To this day, May worries about pre-participation physical exams for high school athletes. "I have very little faith in the stethoscope now," he says.

For Gwendolyn, there are still good days, and days where all she can do is sit around and think about her boy, and his now-dark computer, and how he would read for hours in the bedroom that she has not allowed anyone to change or inhabit.

I visit the fieldhouse every year. The penned messages are gone, washed away so that the races can go on, the same way Kevin's teammates had to wipe clean our hearts so that we could go on. The messages are gone, but Kevin's sweat, his dreams, and his frightening death, are still down there, somewhere, beneath the paint.