Broken, but still inexorably obsessed, he'll find a way.
| Finally, judgment day. I glance to my right at the row of puppets sent to toil for my sake. “On your marks.” My legs bend, elastic coils ready to spring. “Get set.” 1609 meters of torture await me with arms wide open. “Go!” My first step rips through the tartan track. Four minutes until I get the word.|
With basketball behind, each day nibbled at me like ants atop a carcass. Boredom, that’s why I took up running.
Third day of practice I slugged out 400-meter repeats in ninety-degree heat. Five years of basketball practice and that’s the rebirth I gave myself. Unpleasant, yes, but the atmosphere was looser there on the track--looser than on the court with that maniac. I could hang.
On my last repetition, I pushed air out through pursed lips and blew past my teammates as they jogged the infield. After barreling through the finish and settling into a jog, I heard my teammates exulting over the discovery of a new nickname. Henceforth I was to be called ‘Choo-Choo’. Such camaraderie was crucial for me to stick around.
I settle into a steady rhythm and try to disconnect from my legs. Just roll with this train of runners. The first lap is the easy part. Don’t think about the second or the third, and definitely not the fourth lap. Stay present.
We teeter over the white line on the back-curve and come across the 300m mark in unison, a pack of tight flesh, all quads and calves. A foot from behind strikes my achilles. I’m tempted to send a spiked claw into his groin. No, not now, not today. He’s just testing me, that’s all.
We come through the first 400m in mass, too early for fate to devour the weak.
At the first track meet I learned about the real test of endurance. I’d been there for seven hours and thus far ran only a two-minute race--piss-poor half-mile that I’d no idea how to pace. Night settled, reeling in a cold front with it. I recalled two reasons for playing basketball; something to do with no short-shorts and no perverse winds to take advantage of said short-shorts.
Out of the intercom boomed a message that jarred the stadium of high-school athletes. “Final call for the four by four-hundred meter relay.” That was us. My teammates raved about that race as if it was prophetic. The relay, the 4X4 relay, was the main event, primetime, the big show, and the stage that could make you a track star. They were baffled by my nonchalance. It’s not that I didn’t care about the race; I just cared more about sinking back into my couch with a plate of orange chicken and reruns of “The Office”. It was after all, just a race.
I zipped through the warm up routine with my teammates, and soon the race was underway. After about two and a half minutes, I found myself on the starting line, eyes locked onto the growing silhouette of the third leg. As the anchor, it was my responsibility to hammer us home. Pacing was a foreign language to me at this point so when I received the baton I exploded forth like a horse out to the gate. Pulled forth by the power of ignorance, I smashed into the ominous wall of fatigue that Coach warned me about, way earlier than projected. An invisible wall it is, but certainly not intangible. I traveled the final 100m, feeling like I was shuffling through Jell-O, and swore I’d never do it again.
I crossed the finish line inhaling air like it was in short supply. Through blurry eyes I saw my teammates jumping up and down, whooping and hollering. When Coach jogged up to congratulate me, little high school track medals reflected from his eyes. Right there on that beaten up cinder track, amid the whistling winds, the seed took root.
On the dark bus ride back to school, everybody kept to their realm of I-phones and ear buds. This girl I sort of knew, high-fived me for my efforts and then said something whimsical. I liked whimsy, and in the following months there would be a lot of back and forth whimsy.
Lap two, where you begin to feel it, a preview of the torture to come. The distress level gradually ratchets up, but no worries, I’ve got a boon--providence. I sense the pack shedding dead weight. A couple of losers meet their destiny.
I bounce along the string of competitors, not thinking about time all that much, keeping faith in the field that I’ve selected. I sit in fourth place behind Jack Fayn, Ronald Brown, and James Cortez. They’re the ones who’ll bring me to Sub-4.
She was singular. We talked so long that I worried we’d cover the extents of my knowledge. Not her though. She abounded with ideas, often sharing with me her studies of psychology, biology, and philosophy. Most of them went in one ear and out the other, but on occasion something would become lodged in between, like lucid dreaming. The idea seduced me; in a lucid dream I could control what I loved.
We talked and talked. It felt as if time itself had moved out of our way, appeasing us out of some odd reverence for love. Time remained distorted until I ran out of things to say. The clock kept running.
The 600m mark flashes by beneath, but I hardly notice. Concentration. Controlled breathing. Steady pace. The task consumes me.
Every step stokes the fire in my legs. I imagine a trail of ashes left in our stead. A large bird swoops by from behind and I wonder if it’d just been reborn. Snap out of it.
Feyn, Brown, Cortez, and I cross the 800m line in tandem and embrace the start of the real race. I catch a glimpse of the clock: two flat. Two more minutes until I receive my due, whether it be salvation, or damnation.
She snapped my wings. I felt weak. She still laughed like she always did, still effervesced with a zest for all. I just sat back and seethed.
We were traveling back from a cross-country meet in the same decrepit bus where I let her in. It’d only been several hours since my race, but a fuel welled up inside me, desiring to be purged. Hatred, no doubt. I gag to think that she inveigled me into such softness.
I only knew of one way to bounce back from castration: run until callouses coat my soul. Become an aerobic monster; show her what she’s missing.
Now the familiar suffering sets in like a recurring nightmare. I’ve prepared for this as much as I can, but preparing for this is akin to preparing for a storm in the North Atlantic. The waters are rough; they tug at my constitution, and wear away my vessel…
No. Stop. This is my creation, chaos can’t harm me here.
Lactic acid boils within my legs. I stare into the back of Cortez in front of me, deaf and blind to the outside world and their irrelevant reality. By now the group of runners has strung out, some athletes bide their time, some realize their inferiority. I just chug along and watch from afar as my lungs struggle and my legs beg for mercy. The resistance against my will is fortified.
No surrender, I’m here to complete the covenant.
On the backstretch, Cortez makes a move that disrupts the flow. He eats up Feyn and Brown, and begins to apply pressure on the field. He’s in it for the win. I calmly attach to the back of Brown. Cortez can feast on the field if he likes. God sent me for Sub-4.
I needed to be saved. At eighteen years of age I’d noticed the rearing of that ugly void again. Girls came and went. Religion couldn’t hold my interest. Academics couldn’t satiate that deeper need. “The Office” was going to end. There had to be more.
Through it all I ran like a lunatic. Schopenhauer said that pain is the basic stimulus of life. Sounded about right. The run offered an escape from life’s emotional turmoil. The run was cathartic; it was the answer. In preceding months it had been my reality--the reality. Thus, the solution stood stark in the frenzy.
I resolved to become a great runner. A race was after all, more than just a race. It was and is, unquestionably, the truth.
This epiphany electrified my spirit. Days unfolded before me with surreal clarity because every decision funneled through a simple binary filter: Does this get me closer to my goal? Or, does this get me further from my goal?
So liberated was I that I systematically eliminated anything that didn’t contribute to my destiny; these things just caused disorder and fed the void.
Happily, I dropped school, family, friends, and “The Office”.
The final lap shimmers on the horizon. Gray clouds settle over my mind as pain ascends my body. All my attention is tuned into the present moment, staying a couple of meters behind Brown whose level shoulders and rhythmic stride concede no trouble. Do I really have what it takes?
‘Boom’, the gun goes off to signify the commencement of the final lap. Now it’s merely a matter of spreading my guts around this oval as quickly as possible. A chill prickles the back of my neck. My God, this is it! Tunnel vision narrows furthermore. The covenant is all there is.
But fear isn’t far behind.
With every passing run, the fear of pain abated. That day the ritual had passed and I withdrew to my room to absorb running literature and running videos. I stopped in front of a full-length mirror situated between the bathroom and my bedroom. The emaciated figure that stared back at me was an aerobic monster. I tried to smile, but couldn’t so I reaffirmed that my purpose wasn’t to be a blissful fool. Happiness is reserved for the mediocre, the chumps.
I entered my room cluttered with running paraphernalia and took a moment to muse over a sign I’d taped to a wall. It simply said “3:59”, but I meditate over it like a Catholic would over the mystery of the annunciation. Next to it is a photograph of my high school cross-country team. The sadness isn’t lost on me--them being the last social life I had--but I know as any faithful servant of destiny knows, sacrifices are necessary. Besides, they were small people with small minds.
My head thunders on the backstretch. I want it so bad that my spikes carve through the track like a knife through ice cream. I’m too excited.
I drove back high on my own accomplishment. Having just run a 4:10 mile, a new personal record, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was singing along at the top of my lungs to some atrocious Katy Perry song when the drunken fiend gently tapped my car into the base of a billboard.
This isn’t supposed to happen. Brown makes his move to catch Cortez and Fayn, and for some godforsaken reason, my legs won’t go with. The devil’s poison had taken its toll. My legs slosh through a coarse flood of lactic acid. Keep control, damn it.
Tiny blades from the shattered mirror protruded from my fist. I huffed and puffed over a pile of distorted reflections, not even aware of the blood leaving my hand. I let loose a vulgar howl, panted for a moment, then, once more, screeched ‘Fuck’ at the limits of my lungs and lingered on it with finality.
A strange sensation caught my attention. A shard of glass jutted out of my left stump where my leg resided only days before.
Exhausted, I slumped to the floor to think about them, and Choo-Choo, and her, and her ideas. Regrets seeped into my mind, but abruptly stopped. The second door to salvation revealed itself.
My subconscious outright defies my orders on the final curve. I try to focus on pumping my arms, raising my knees, powering off my feet, and Sub-4, but the tyrant of fear has barged into my brain. The shape-shifter takes the form of my past, and they all boo me in my time of need. I’m losing lucidity.
I bolt through the 100-meter war zone as the clock ticks on. 3:54 Pump, swing, push, and fly! 3:55 Strive, lunge, die if you have to! 3:56 Explode! Explode! 3:57 Godspeed! 3:58 Godspeed! 3:59 Godspeed! 4:00. I try to fling my consciousness across the finish line, but my heaving chest, and my pounding head, and my leaden legs get in the way. My sins have found me out even here. I cross the finish line in 4:01, forsaken and damned.
The dream is peeled away and I awake like I always do, racing my stumps back and forth in the air, the weight of speed inexplicably there. My damn brain takes a minute to realize what’s wrong while my mind begs it not to.