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Tuesday, Aug. 3, 2010 05:17 pm

Inside a runner's mind

Perhaps it was the heat. By 9:30 in the evening, one would normally expect the sweltering fever and thick humidity of the day to dissipate, but the sultry blanket of summer seemed to defiantly drape itself over the park even as the waning crescent of moon slowly climbed into the night sky.

Full of root beer caffeine and a week’s rest, I bounded down the stairs of my apartment building, eager to take the abandoned streets as my own and make up for my recent inconsistency in the realm of physical exertion. I was wearing my space-age light-weight running shirt, a blinking light clipped on the back collar, and my black, silicone-covered music player pumping into my ears a growling, angry tune with grinding guitars and piercing drums – the best music to run to. I do my best work when the music strokes that hidden epic-sensitive spot in my ego, the one that secretly and fallaciously tells me I can run faster than anyone else on the planet. Sometimes it whispers to me in the first-person plural voice: “We never slow down. We never stop. We are invincible.”

I jogged quickly down MacArthur Boulevard toward Washington Park, leaping emphatically over each uneven sidewalk joint and mud slick, then turned east onto Williams Boulevard. I long ago reasoned that I should run the half-mile boulevard loop first because that first forces me to actually do it – saving it for the end would make it easier to skip. I’ve now begun to wonder if the final hill in the park leading back to MacArthur would be easier if I saved the boulevard loop for the end. No matter now.

The heat began to seep into my muscles and lungs as I pattered past the main South Grand entrance to the park. My short, quick steps gradually began to feel heavier, as though I was dragging a pair of dumbbells tied to my ankles and someone kept adding a few ounces of weight with every passing minute. As I pushed up the hill by the playground pavilion, my breathing began to change from shallow puffs through my nose to deep and forceful gales through my mouth, requiring concentration to keep them under control. I’ve found that metering my breath gives me focus and keeps me from feeling winded.

The downhill slope between the pavilion and the lagoon is a welcome respite from the toilsome fight that even flat land presents. I practically fell down the hill in quick, light steps that barely touched the ground and seemed to place my body ahead of my feet. But just as what goes up must come down, every downhill has an uphill, and the carillon hill awaited me next. I crossed the southern lagoon bridge, where a row of sleeping mallards had docked for the night, and began to push deliberately up the incline, every heavy footfall seeming to chip into the hillside like a stair case. I passed a young couple walking up the hill and thought smugly to myself, “Look at those lazy suckers walking. I’ll show them how a runner climbs a hill.” By the time I reached the top, the smothering heat had injected every cell of my body with a dull fire that made me second-guess my doubt in spontaneous combustion.

Going downhill again, I saw another runner headed the same direction and immediately shifted focus from, “Good God, I’m dying,” to “I have to pass that guy!” Competition is a powerful motivator, especially when a person’s physical faculties begin to groan for rest. The other runner turned onto a side road and began to walk. The smugness immediately returned, and a self-satisfied grin sprouted across my face like a cartoon lion who sees his prey fall into the dust.

The next few minutes are a blur – the combination of heat, exhaustion and hyper focus have wiped any distinguishing details from my memory. I only remember hitting the final hill leading back to MacArthur Boulevard with a cautious optimism – I was nearly finished, but the hardest work remained to be done. For me, the final leg of every run is always a sprint, no matter how tired or out of breath I may be. With two light poles to go and my legs and shoulders burning in protest, I increased my pace by about half – a full run at about 80 percent of my capacity. The last light pole loomed ever closer…a few more steps…now GO! I break into a sprint like I’m trying to catch the last train ever. The guttural tone of a favorite vocalist whispered indignantly in my ear, driving me forward. “We once drew, some lines in black. Right now, it’s about time, we took them back.” I pump, push and shed the weight of exhaustion for one last charge. My feet move faster than I thought possible, screaming and fighting every step of the way. Fifty more feet. My chest heaves in gasping breaths that only leave me wanting. Twenty feet. Tunnel vision sets in…I see only the blurred lights of a passing car ahead and the solid stripe on the road leading me forward. As I reach the finish, the heat hits me again, as if I had left it behind by sprinting. Though I’ve finished running, my legs don’t want to stop; the keep moving, forcing me to speed walk down the sidewalk with my hands on my head like a prisoner of war.

It was only 2.5 miles. That’s hardly anything. Perhaps it’s the heat that sapped my strength so early. Maybe it was from not running with a partner or my lack of a concrete running goal. Any one of those factors could be the culprit, or it could have been all of the above. At any rate, I have a lot of work to do if I’m going to run the Abe’s Amble 10k race at the State Fair on Aug. 22. That’s more than double the length that winded me last night, but I know I can do it. As my subconscious says, “We are invincible.”

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