They can take so much away from you. They cannot take this.
Gary and I have a Tuesday morning patter. Gary says he woke reaching for his cell phone hoping to find a call from me saying I was sleeping in instead of running and I sit in my car watching the clock with 15 minutes until he’s due to show up and I think, I could just leave.
Neither thing happens and we walk as much as we can before there is nothing left to do but start shuffling to the soccer fields and the stop sign we start at and the road we’re going to run. It is the best part of the run. It is all possibility.
I always imagine, heading out, that Miller’s Landing Road is all downhill. It isn’t. It runs uphill the first half mile and then slowly starts rolling downward. It’s where the novice to running this road will get themselves in trouble.
You have to work so much in the beginning until you crest that first hill that when you crest that hill you feel release and ease so that you open you stride up wide, everything lengthening with freedom and then contracting as you slide into downhill efficiency.
Your feet begin slip under you instead of breaking and you kick back more and more violently, faster and faster. You only vaguely remember this first three miles downhill was supposed to be breezy and light as you suck in air and double down on your pace.
The air is cold and burns your lungs and because you are a natural runner this feels good. Your legs burn a bit filling with acid and that feels good. I’m running down Miller’s Landing with Gary. This run is always with Gary and I am pressing him and he is one stepping me and that is good.
We are both fighting for position, both of us try to act like we’re not and both of us trying to steady our voices as we talk. The road levels out and pushing turns to dueling and we go silent. No one will admit it but we’re waiting to see who breaks first.
One swooping downhill after another. No one wants to slow down. No one. Both of us are desperate for each breath as the flat rises just enough to turn the whole thing vicious in my head, until the little hill crests.
The drop is so sudden slowing down would crack your shins and stopping is impossible. All I see is fear and excitement until it all stops as suddenly as it began and my feet are shuffling in the dirt and tiny stones sputter around me.
My brain hasn’t stopped yet and the sight of the lake, all fog and silver and who knows what is out there, seems like a dream and you understand the metaphor, seems like a dream. This is not running hard or downhill or fighting. This space is quiet and empty except for Gary and me and the fog.
The sky is still night dark blue with a stubborn moon holding out against the morning whose impatience hangs over everything. I think I tried to say this then. I doubt it was more than a sigh or a cough. We turn and head back.
The first hill is too steep to run hard and neither of us have our breath or our legs back yet anyhow. Going up this hill always unnerves me. Its only 25 meters but it reminds me how much climbing is left. The trick is to shake it loose before you crest it.
You will know you have failed when you come up over the top and what comes next does not feel easy. The sun is up now. The fog on either side of me is burning away. Gary is reminding us both that there will be more downhill. Neither of us believes it though.
You know you are in trouble when Gary commiserates with you. You’re not feeling well and neither is he. You had better be sandbagging because, whether he knows it or not, he is sandbagging and that is when I know I’m how much trouble I’m in this morning.
My legs are still sore from the previous weekend’s two long runs and my heart is lonesome and poor from the weekend drunken roaming with friends. It is too late to fix. Gary starts pulling away. I try and fight it at first, a surge then another surge, each getting more expensive than the last.
It’s as if I can see up all the way up to Forest Meadows and I just let it happen, It is like watching a movie with a great lone runner gliding into the future we never see because the movie is over except I see Gary ahead of me reminding me that I quit.
It is too much to abide. I begin surging again, eight seconds and then eight seconds more. One burst is followed by another and another until it isn’t surging. It is my pace. I know how impossible the gap is to close but I do not care. I tell myself, “Just crest the hill.” I run each downhill flailing and needy.
I lean in on the next uphill section, stay straight and tall. I wait for the magic angle and climb. I let the hill pull me up and even as I get faster so does Gary. This is his moment but it is my moment too. He just can’t see it. I see it. God sees it.
I used to know the mile markers. The church is mile one and I imagine stopping to pay my respects and how the South is filled with very old Death and then I shake the thought loose and push myself away from it.
There is one last great climb. It’s the one Gary and I would fight each other on if we’d been neck and neck. One of us always forgets the false crest and doubles down until they realize it’s too late and still have half the hill to go, too stubborn and unwilling to back off.
We are both grim faced and pale in our souls as we pass the gate sputtering to a stop. We pause just enough to catch our breath and then push on. It is just me at the gate this morning. I want to stop but I know that Gary hasn’t stopped and I don’t want him to wait on me at the finish.
The road rolls now and curves. It has the smooth prettiness of something that is important but right now it is just a road I am running home on. I am not fighting to catch Gary. I am fighting to hang on. I am preparing to die.
I understand how absurd that sounds but I decide it would be better than quitting. I quit once this morning and so, press up over the last rise. I see the dirt parking lot, the stop sign. I tell myself, “Don’t stop until someone says, Stop.”
There is Gary standing in the middle of the road hooting and cheering me on to finish, “Come on boy, come on!” I double down and double down again and passing the sign, just like that, it’s over. We jog in slow and steady without a pause.
Running partners are better than wives or husbands because they don’t care too much to correct our flaws but they will lie to us about them. Gary reminds me about my weekend and I decide to believe him.
We jog back to our cars and decide to walk a few miles before I head to work and Gary heads off to all the things he has offered to do. Neither wants the day start. There is so much to say before we go, before the day begins and all the good words burn away like the fog.