The high school has no track team, no track coach, no running track.
But Jeremiah James—JJ—is driven to run, impelled by a recurring dream of a Cherokee runner a century before. When the loneliness bears down on him, he draws on the memory of an energy that comes to him in rare moments, unsuspectingly.
This steady, moving surge didn’t feel like the caffeine charge I got from Mother’s morning coffee. It didn’t feel like the adrenaline that trembled my hands when I gave a speech in school assembly. It didn’t race the heart. It had no fear; it came on full and sure and ready. It didn’t want to eat or sleep or study. It wouldn’t even be satisfied to dance a fast beat all around, as glorious as that would be. In me this power had to run.
When he's not running, he's a regular kid, the grandson of a long-since-killed gunslinger in the coal-mining town of Harlan, Kentucky. He befriends a loner who likes to think he is Zorro and struggles with his attraction to a precocious girl as young as his little sister Sarah. As he tells his story, Sarah records hers in her diary.
Sarah's Diary—December 26, 1955
JJ has this little dilemma. He likes Jenny, who is smarter than most seniors but is my age. Boys think they have a hard time, but they don’t know what girls go through. I liked James Dean as soon as I saw him in “Rebel Without a Cause,” but by the time the movie came out he was DEAD. That’s what we go through. I love my brother, bless his heart.
Mischievous, curious about the past and the life beyond, he is at heart a distance runner, a miler who longs for the showdown.
By the end of the second curve… Lynch breathes hard and throws a heavier thud into his leaps, so on the straightaway I get around him and pass the group, push ahead of Bobby Dodd, and edge up to the front-runner from Fleming-Neon High. Fleming-Neon doesn’t want me to pass as we go side by side across the halfway mark. Approaching the turn, I don’t have room to fold in behind him, where Dodd follows close, so I run at Fleming-Neon’s shoulder and resolve it’s time to let loose whatever I have stored up from all those drills.
I gun into the curve. Fleming-Neon shrinks back enough to give me space in front. I take it, round out the bend and wait for Dodd to exact his revenge.
Halfway down the backstretch, Dodd arrives. The race is on.
This guy is good, I give him that. This guy is good.
But a year into his running, JJ is drained by a harder crisis.
Finally, full force, I was in a race to a finish line I couldn't see, and I didn't know how to win it.
An unlikely coach finds him alone on the field and offers to coach him and, he would discover, take on the unfolding mystery of his life.
"Tomorrow I will have another question for you: In running, what do you want?”
“I can tell you now. I want to win.”
“Is that all?”
“That’s kind of basic, isn’t it?”
“Kind of. Think about it.”
That's when he finds out how far he can run.