free run

leaving behind the dust

The gun goes off, initiating the 5K race, and you face the trail under your feet, a path of packed earth and gravel that cuts through the throng of onlookers like the aisle does the crowd at a church wedding. You approach the trail as if it were your track at home, patting the earth lightly with your feet, maintaining your tall, loose, relaxed form.

In the beginning, you run slowly, paying close attention to each breath, moving in slow, steady rhythms like drops from a bathtub faucet hitting a pool of water on Saturday night, each step ringing out the lonesome hollowness of an ice bath, a smear of tiger balm, an early bedtime, when all the others are out crawling in the night-time air, drinking pungent liquids from plastic Nalgene bottles and flicking cigarette ash out of car windows. Because running on a team is a full-time occupation, because each cigarette adds 30 seconds to your time.

Thoughts of sacrifice and unrequited youth urge your legs to pick up speed and you emerge to the front of the pack, towards an unnamed, red-faced girl. She is right in front of you until she falls behind, yes, the dark-haired overeager girl sinks until she is out of sight and you surge with adrenaline and power.

So you go on running and retelling the story to yourself in a cool voice about how you spent Friday nights preparing for Saturday races and Saturday nights recovering alone and that is why you beat that girl, why you got to watch her fade into the sea of competitors until she was a speck of a human running meters behind you. You speak to yourself in the most reassuring voice and try to regulate your breaths and movements so that you only push forward, towards the finish, towards your future.

The spray-painted line in the earth alerts you that you have passed Mile 2. The race is not yet over. Runners pick up speed as they pass through a tunnel of spectators, on-lookers who cheer and hold handmade signs. As the concentration of spectators increases, the aesthetics of the run sharpens—racers grow taller, move stronger, plaster pleasant looks on their flushed faces. The energy expended during these portions of the race is excessive; whoever smiles the brightest usually gets last. The red-faced girl who has slowed to a walk behind you starts to sprint when she sees the observers, shaky knees but a fine-tuned look of determined confidence on her face. For her, the race is already over.

You grimace at the crowd, form your hands into fists—first place.

It’s the final stretch, and you are flying now, soaring with pain and oblivion and desperation, and as you push forward at top speed you are also travelling backward, back to the beginning of your running career. You sat alone on the school soccer field, so skinny that your P.E. uniform ballooned out from its drawstring waist, waiting amidst a crowd of rich preteen prep school kids who wouldn’t talk to you even though you groaned along with them when the teacher announced, “Three laps of the track, no shortcuts!” The girls standing next to you at the start line giggled and jostled each other; they didn’t even know your name. Their neglect was pointed and malicious.

When the sound of the whistle vibrated through the crunchy autumn air, you took off, your feet slapping the polyurethane track and your hair tossing in the wind. As you left your classmates far behind, you found a serenity in your moving body, a peace beneath your wind-whipped skin, because you were pushing forward and that made you certain that you could make it on your own because you were already free.