daily preciousness

Saturday, October 28, 2006

backyard burn



There it is, like an old nemesis. I get a stitch in my side. And I keep running, alone in the wilderness. I keep running through the turning, twisting, undulating trail. It tosses me across a stream, over a rickety bridge and onto a muddy, leaf-strewn morass. I ignore the stitch in my side and picture the shape of things to come. I see a flash of bright red in the brush a few dozen yards ahead. It’s another runner.

I’m burning up the backyard in a national forest just outside of the beltway. It’s a five-mile run that feels like a fifteen-miler. The hills are not agreeing with me. And the hilly, bumpy, muddy course is playing havoc on my sense of balance. But that flash of red pops up again – and I realize that I’m gaining on the runner ahead of me. He’s short with hair Kramer (from Seinfeld) hair. And I can see the outline of his calf muscles at 15 paces away. Impressive. But I’m gaining on him. And he can’t escape me. I am a primal and atavistic force. I cannot be stopped. Breathing into each step, gliding through the rough and tumble course, I smile quietly. A week from today, my friend Stephanie will be screaming “Hooah” and taking the Marine Corps Marathon on. Wish I could tackle that race. But I’m just barely making it through the first half of this five-miler today. The stitch has left me, but I’m embarrassed about feeling it.

I catch up to the red flash. He’s young. About 20. And I leave him in my dust. Well, by that I mean I beat him by about a minute. But that’s a satisfying minute. Half an hour later, I am panting and walking up a laughably steep hill just .5 miles away from the finish line. I can hear the thump thump thump of an ABBA bassline and Madonna’s voice. “It’s a sign!” I think to myself. There’s got to be a gay DJ at this event, I think, even though most of the other runners have the shaved heads and trapezoid-thick upper back and neck of Marines. I’m not the only one representing my people here today. That fills me with joy and boosts my metabolism just enough to let me pump my arms more. I lean into a ¾ time sprint and take the last half-mile on with almost all of my verve. And for the photo finish, with the big digital clock ticking away, I arrive at 59:22:00, just below my usual hour time for a fiver. Not bad, considering all of these hateful hills and kick-me-in-the-morass mud holes. I came in #75 out of 147 overall. As Borat would say, Niiiiiiiice!

After I turn in my number (for the official count), I head straight for the pizza tent. Loading up on cheese pizza and Gatorade, I drop into casual post-race convo with a pert little health nut from Arizona. He’s run the ultramarathon there, through Death Valley and beyond. So today’s a walk in the park for him. He just got surgery on his knee, so this is his first race in 4 months. And he finishes his 10-miler just a few minutes after I get back from my 5-miler. Pretty impressive. Hope his knee is okay, I tell him. He smiles and boasts that he’s now an official bionic athlete. With his better, faster knee, he imagines a Steve Austin sound whenever he storms past the finish line. I playback that audio cue in my head and imagine that it would be quite the motivator. (Note to self: try that next time. Or maybe play it back a few minutes *before* the finish line!)

I say my goodbyes and wish everybody well until November 2, when we will meet again and race a different wild and wooly trail course through the hills of Annandale. Should be cool.

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