Author’s Note: The inspiration for this piece was a conversation my friends and I had the other day which included discussing our current (lack of) running habits. This is an embellishment of a race I did in 2016: the 15k Jack O’ Smash in Poway, CA. Throughout the race, I was neck and neck with a young man. To avoid “spoilers,” I’ll just say that the way the young man decided to run the race is as written below. You can’t make up life.
Running has few barriers to entry. Shoes. Check. Shorts. Check. An old T-shirt. Check. An aspiring runner is set. Is it a little cold outside? Don’t fret, you’ll warm up on the run. Are the mainstream shoe brands too expensive? Don’t buy them. Running shoes on sale at a local sporting goods store are enough to get started. Take it slow at the start. Warm up to it. You’ve probably being sitting hunched over for eight or more hours a day for years, so it’s prudent to ease the body into running. Stretch it out. Warm it up. Start with a long walk interspersed with a little running. Then a moderate walk interspersed with a moderate amount of running. A short run. A moderate run. A long run. We’re talking months for this progression, not days. We’re talking a slow gentle pace. You never have to go fast, mouth-breathing, lungs aching, legs burning fast.
That is, you don’t have to go fast until you have to go fast.
Having to looks different for different people. Sometimes an emergency beckons a person’s legs to turn over quicker. A crying child. An oncoming car. Something is tottering off the countertop and you jolt forward to try and catch it. Other times, the inspiration can be less dangerous. The unique benefits of an elevated heart rate might appeal to the health conscious. It could be that the time for a workout is short. But sometimes, it’s because you have to know. You have to know if you can do it. The increase speed arrow on the treadmill whispers to you. The returning force of the ground beneath your feet goads you on. You decide to reach for that intangible temptation. Arms start pumping harder. The stride quickens. Does the pace or miles matter in that transition? Maybe. Probably not. You just wanted to go fast. It was a simple, untainted desire.
Running slow and running fast are worlds apart. The distance between the two doesn’t suggest some objective, condescending standard decreed by running elites. Fast is subjective and intimate. A 15-minute mile can be just as fast as a 4-minute mile. A person feels fast in their muscles, their chest, and the blood pounding through their veins. One theologically inclined individual might venture that a person feels it on an even deeper level: you can feel fast in your soul. Once you get a taste, it can be hard to turn away. The rush of dopamine and endorphins. The calming of the mind as the world narrows to your breathing and the path ahead. The taste of competition, either with oneself or others. The anxious anticipation of the gunshot to signal the start of an organized race. It can be intoxicating.
He was one of the ones who had gotten a sip and became hopelessly addicted.
It was the early Sunday morning of October 30th, and he was minutes away from starting the 15-kilometer Jack O’ Smash race. He shifted towards the front of the crowd and positioned himself a few rows of runners behind the starting line. His preference was to be a little way from the front where the overeager competitors migrated towards. Experience taught him that starting at the front might shave off a second or two because he didn’t have to navigate through a crowd of slower runners that burned out shortly after starting, but he found the atmosphere towards the middle more to his liking. One was less likely to get nudged or hit proportionate to how far back they were from the front. Running could be a contact sport here in the corrals. The digging of elbows, the stepping on toes, the “I’m sorry” from the person in front of you that throws a “warm-up” butt kicker that blasts your shin like a bronking donkey. It happened at the intermittent water stations too. People jostled and clamored for a paper cup half-filled with water that they haplessly splashed over themselves as they attempted to drink without breaking their race pace.
Disembodied voices of strangers crowded around him repeated familiar phrases.
“I want to set a PR today.”
“I want to place in my age group.”
“This will be the farthest I have ever run.”
He was one of the voices. Standing among throngs of people from disparate backgrounds and ethnicities, he was unique and different and shockingly so alike. The same anxious check of the watch. The same reassuring touch of his pocket to make sure the gel packet was there as if he might have left it in his car even though he had already checked at least ten times already. The same nervous bobbing from one foot to another.
6:59. It was almost time. Conversation simmered out, but the air buzzed with anticipation. He leaned slightly at the hips, coming up on the balls of his feet, arms poised, eyes cast down at the pavement.
The gun retort echoed in the air. Those at the front sprinted off the start line. Those at the back shuffled their feet patiently. Those in the middle maneuvered for an open space. A chorus of GPS watches being started rung through the air.
He was off.
The key to a race was pacing. Start too fast and a runner burns out before the end, their pace dropping precipitously as their legs cramp and energy depletes. Start too slow and runner leaves too much left on the table, crossing the finish line with gas in the tank. The first two or three miles of any long-distance race was often telling who the serious competition would be. Without fail, a mass of runners would barrel out the start with an impressive pace only to wither and fall away like shriveled leaves in the breeze. Today was no different. Even after starting further back, his (admittedly ambitious for his skill level) 6:30 pace had already put him in the lead after two miles.
The thought of victory, not previously entertained, crossed his mind, a beckoning temptress to step on the gas and cement the lead. But there was still seven miles to go, so he reigned himself in and stuck to the pace. A lot can happen in seven miles.
The racecourse was a simple loop along a series of sectioned off streets in Poway. Only a few spectators had shown up early with encouraging signs and cheers. Despite being on the threshold of winter, the weather in southern California was bliss, cool with no humidity.
Left foot. Right foot. Left foot. Right foot.
Two short breaths in. One long breath out. Two short breaths in. One long breath out.
Nearly halfway there. While maintaining pace, he withdrew the gel pack from his pocket, its top already slightly torn in preparation for easy consumption. Few things were worse than feebly trying to open a gel pack with sweaty, bouncing hands. He squeezed the contents, a thick goopy mixture of caffeine and simple sugar carbohydrates, into his mouth. The taste, allegedly strawberry, left something to be desired, but the tangible boost in energy more than compensated for the chalky flavor.
He grabbed a paper cup from the outstretched hand of a race worker manning a water station and downed the contents.
“Keep going!” they yelled encouragingly. And then, in a fading voice as he continued running, “They’re right behind you!”
Right behind me?
A prickle of dread and excitement. He resisted the temptation to turn. It would throw off his stride. It was a waste of time to look back. Maybe a quick peak though . . .
6:42. His slowest mile yet. He could hear them now. The slap of footfalls behind him like an approaching predator, a cheetah sprinting across the savannah towards a floundering gazelle.
Keep it together. Don’t think about it. Focus on your form. Pump your arms. Breathe.
Two sharp breaths in and then one sighing breath that wasn’t his own. They were right behind him. Their breaths were deep, sighing, and relaxed unlike his own ragged sputtering.
6:50. Slower still. Second place moved to pass him on his right. He felt their presence with the same vivacity he felt the sickening dread of defeat welling in his stomach and the growing sluggishness in his limbs. Shifting his gaze to the right, he almost stopped running as he finally came to face his adversary.
Short black running shorts revealed sinewy legs that bulged with striated muscle on every step. Lean, tanned arms pumped casually at a trim waist. A runner’s body. Unsurprising. It was everything else that defied expectations. Where he expected colorful, thickly cushioned running shoes, instead he found bare feet. Tanned, well-groomed feet with splayed toes tread the pavement as if it were grass. Odd, but not unheard of. He could rationalize that with the growing natural gait movement taking the world by storm. What he couldn’t rationalize was the man’s head. Lightly clasped fists connected to wrists, wrists connected to arms, arms connected to capped shoulders, traps inclined towards a neck. Everything checked out below the neck. It was the man’s head that was amiss.
The man’s head, if he even was a man, was that of a bright orange demon with streaming green hair trailing behind him. The demon’s face was deeply creased, valleys of wrinkles carved out by malice, and its bared mouth revealed yellow jagged teeth. Black and bulging eyes stared unblinking ahead.
It was a mask of course; it had to be. They were in a race on the eve of Halloween after all. The occasional costume was to be expected, but this . . . to be wearing a full mask while racing at this pace was unfathomable and simultaneously spirit crushing. He was going to be beat at the final legs of the race by a barefoot man wearing a mask.
The other runner turned its demonic face to him, and though the mask covered all hints of emotion from the person underneath, he knew with certainty they were looking at him with a leering, condescending smile.
“Just a few miles to go,” the demon hissed, unbelievably calm and without a jumping inflection despite the run.
He couldn’t muster a response between gasping breaths.
“Are you going to quit?” the demon asked, and, without waiting for a reply, pulled a few steps ahead of him.
Are you going to quit?
He willed himself after the demon, scrounging up his reserves for the push towards the end.
Pain. He didn’t look at his watch as it notified him of another completed mile. The time was irrelevant. Whatever the pace, the demon seemed to be content with maintaining a few steps lead. The muscles in the demon’s back and the unremitting cadence of the black, dirty soles of his feet flashing into view mocked him with their closeness. He knew with crushing certainty he couldn’t win, and yet he clung desperately to the demon’s shadow, the flowing green hair nearly tickling his face.
Every inch of his body burned and begged him to stop, and yet . . .
The notification from his watch was the tolling bell of the executioner’s hour.
Less than a third of a mile to go. An impossibly long distance to the end. Only two to three minutes left.
1440 minutes in a day.
Only two to three minutes left.
It was now or never.
He surged forward like a locomotive, smoke billowing from the stack. The train bell gonged and gonged. The whistle bellowed, heralding its approach. The demon quickened his pace, refusing to be caught.
Chuff. Chuff. Chuff.
More coal. More coal. Shovel all the remaining coal, protocol be damned. The fireman’s head glistened, and his clothes clung damply to his body as he worked the shovel, tossing coal hazardously into the firebox. Faster still the demon ran.
Chuff Chuff. Chuff Chuff. Chuff Chuff.
The pistons connected to the driving wheels turned into a metallic blur as they pumped recklessly forward. Pulling closer, pulling closer. Shifting to the left. Side by side.
The demon let out a hiss, of satisfaction or frustration it was impossible to say.
Side by side. Side by side.
Chuff Chuff Chuff. Chuff Chuff Chuff.
They turned a corner in unison. Screaming spectators. A looming blow-up arch with a “Finish” sign strung across it was tantalizingly close. A large red digital clock read 59:44.
The engineer thrust the throttle in the cab forward allowing the maximum possible steam to the pistons.
The whistle screeched, high pitched and frantic. A wild, pleading cry.
The train was headed off the tracks, but the conductor didn’t bother letting up. It was too late. Side by side. Side by side.
Metal screeching. Tons upon tons of steel barreling towards destruction. Side by side.
The demon took an inhumanly long stride, leg stretched forward like a rubber band, and crossed the finish line ahead of him.
He took a few wobbly steps off to the side of the road, the world spinning around him, heart and lungs laboring like frantic bellows, and crumpled to his hands and knees on a patch of grass. He had lost. What could he have done? Could he have pushed harder? Impossible. It would have been impossible. He had given everything, and it hadn’t been enough.
He lay there for a long time. A concerned worker approached him inquiring if he was okay. He assured them he was fine in a shaky voice. He just needed to rest for a moment. The worker backed away, but kept glancing over at him with a wary eye.
As other runners began to cross the finish line, a trickle of self-loathing began to drip atop him like a leaky faucet.
I should have trained harder.
I should not have gone out last weekend.
No more sweets after long runs.
Maybe I’ll never be fast enough.
He sighed. His chest began to rise and fall in a shallow, more controlled manner. His burning legs began to feel less like burning molten blocks and more like flesh and bone, albeit tired flesh and bone. He struggled to his feet and walked to the finisher’s area with stilted steps.
In typical fashion, there was a large foldout table near the finish line that was staffed with a couple race workers who were busy cataloging race times and making notes on laptops. Finished runners crowded around the table. The demon was nowhere to be seen. One worker, an older, heavyset gentleman, grabbed a piece of paper from a nearby printer.
“Heck of a finish,” the gentleman said as he placed the paper towards the front of the table.
He didn’t bother responding.
“Yeah, you both really turned on the burners on that final stretch.”
Salt in the wound.
“Congratulations,” the man continued, undeterred by the lack of response.
Congratulations for being the first loser.
“Good thing you started later, or you wouldn’t have won. I’ve never seen such a close race.”
Wouldn’t have won?
“Less than a second. Unreal.” The man shook his head in disbelief.
“Take a look.” The worker gestured towards the piece of paper.
He approached the table. The paper read “Jack O Smash Results Overall.” A descending list of names, bibs, and times in neat black font covered the page. At the top was his name listed as first place with a run time of 59:49.1. Second place had a time of 59:49.4.
“I don’t understand. He crossed the finish line first.”
“Right, but you crossed the start line after him, so your official chip time didn’t start until later. You must have started a second after him and then it equaled out with you ahead at the end.”
He looked around for the orange face, but it was nowhere to be seen. He had won.
“I’ll be damned.”