Anxious, heart thumping, all of us standing in the brilliant autumn sun. About 40 teenage boys lined up at the starting line, almost panting. Race day for the high school cross country team. The instant the starting gun went pop we’d scramble off across field and forest paths.
False starts were common. We high-strung 16-year-olds often heard the starting gun only in our own mind. The coaches would yell and we’d groan, retreating back to the starting line.
Underneath the jitters, we faced something we didn’t want to think about. Yup, between us and the finish line was a terrible thing.
It was coming. We’d soon feel the burn in every fiber of our zero-fat bodies.
The speed at which we started the race always seemed questionable. We practically sprinted those first 200 yards, like lemmings hurrying over the cliff into a fire pit of molten exhaustion.
Truth is, in that early scramble we largely ignored our bodies. We were taking out a high interest loan on our energy reserves. Which were enormous, but alas, not infinite. The bill would come due before that first slope upward.
At first the feeling was merely a frantic, dazzled breathlessness. As we settled into the pace, up hills, through tall grasses, the pain would flicker into real flames of hurt. At about the mile mark it would grow into the true hot punishment of exhaustion.
Our problem: being in great shape allowed us to drive ourselves into deep layers of fatigue. Someone who’s not in shape would soon buckle over in pain.
And oh, we were in shape. Daily after school we ran brutal workouts. One day, we ran 10 miles across suburbia, then back at the track we sprinted eight 440-yard dashes. For each 440, if anyone didn’t make time the entire group had to run it again. Real sadism, Soviet prison camp stuff, but we were on the team.
We were, flat out, oxygen junkies. We hungered for it, craved it, never had enough. Sucked it in desperately. Our lean bodies were adapt at hungrily mining it from the passing air as we heaved over hill and valley. Our daily grappling with this hunger prepared us for the taste of hell that was race day. Oh geez we worked like pack animals.
* * *
You might wonder: For God’s sake, why were you even doing this?
Yeah, good question. I’m not sure why the other boys were doing it. For me, it was sheer peer pressure. As freshman year approached, a tidal wave of excitement swept the boys: we can join high school teams this year.
It was an article of faith that every boy wanted to. But me? I drifted along with the crowd, not fully acknowledging (even to myself) that I had no desire to join a team.
I had played all the major sports, had spent most of my kid years outside, swimming, biking no-handed, baseball, hiking through forests. But I was indifferent to excelling at any of them. They were just an afternoon’s play.
So as freshman year approached, I picked a sport I could compete in not by skill – I didn’t have much – but by dint of sheer effort. Cross country it was.
Midway through my sophomore year, I realized I could simply skip organized athletics – Oh liberation, how sweet thou art. I switched over to an obsession with the piano and never joined a team again. I mean, wear a uniform and follow a coach? Naw, I don’t think so, but thank you very much.
* * *
If every cross country race was a journey into agony, the last few hundred yards was the Transcendence of the Teenage Boy. Or at least I labored to make it so.
Certainly we were supposed to pick up the pace as we approached the finish line, but I made it a mania. In those heart-bursting last one hundred yards, I didn’t just run faster. I took perverse pleasure in shifting into an end-of-the-world sprint.
Legs pounding, arms flailing, mouth wide open to suck in the air (like all oxygen junkies) I hurled myself toward the finish line.
I’m tempted to say I dug down and found energy I didn’t know I had. More accurately, it felt like I was somehow going beyond my limit. Really – and this was the pleasure of it – I left my body behind. In the last forty yards, I gave it everything. I was hard-floating, swift-flying, dreaming while awake. I was pure movement. Finally, transcendence.
And then – ahhhhh! – crossing the finish line! I stumbled forward, leaning over, hands on knees, lungs heaving in fiery complaint. My body was furious with me – every last burning cell screamed one hot truth: you’re beyond exhausted!
But it didn’t matter. I loved that all-out run. And hell, the tiredness would soon pass – I was sixteen. I’d go home and devour a few Ding Dongs and not notice a thing.
I’m not sure why I started doing the Big Sprint. It wasn’t to get a better time, I wasn’t passionate about that. I guess I simply wanted to. Race after race, I never gave up those fierce last runs. My overall cross country record was forgettable, hardly mediocre. But I got a chance to go beyond myself – and maybe that’s what sport is, at its best.
* * *
I’ve mostly avoided running since high school. I’ve preferred cycling and the elliptical machine at the gym. Weight lifting, yoga, walking -– anything but pounding the earth with two legs.
Yet in the last few months I’ve started running again. The elliptical machine got boring; cycling meant dodging traffic. Or…who knows? Maybe something primordial was instilled in those teenage afternoons.
These days I’m slow as hell. I tell myself it’s okay to poke along at an easy amble. That I’m “still getting used to running.” I don’t have a semi-sadistic coach urging me on, or a band of fellow oxygen junkies to keep pace with.
Turns out that even slow running is fabulous for the heart. My Fitbit reports that my two-mile jaunts provide a robust 20 minutes of peak aerobics. And what’s good for the heart is good for the brain – the brain loves oxygen flow. It prompts neurogenesis.
As I’ve started running again, memories of those hellacious last sprints came back to me. I’ve attempted – well, kind of – to recreate them. Passing a tree about 40 yards before the finish line, I boosted my pace to about, oh, medium. For the last 50 feet I breathed harder. It was a pleasant little rush, but it was only a staid imitation of my 16 -year-old gut-burn into hell.
But you know what? Forget the easy up-tempo amble. I want to run a true, hard final sprint.
I mean, c’mon, let’s do it.
* * *
Today’s the day. A crisp sunny November Saturday. A city park, people and cars all around. Me loping along at a meditative jog-amble.
Near the end of the last lap, it happens: I start to boost my pace. I shift from a jog-amble to an definite mosey-scamper, almost an energetic ramble. I’m practically really running.
And no, it’s not the same as it was. It can’t be. There’s no coach, no actual race, no smattering of fans. It’s very hard to torture myself all by myself – which I’m glad about.
But forget that excuse. I’m running now, running in fresh air with breath gasping. Passing the tree, go, come on! I’m resisting the harder run but still pushing, pushing, my chest heaving. Leaning into that running-as-hard-as-I-can mode.
And no, I don’t feel transcendent, I feel like I’m working and it’s hard and unpleasant. It’s hurts. Legs pumping, faster – across the finish line. And then sweet relief. I’m winded, gasping. Oh it feels good to be done.
As I walk around trying to catch my breath, I see my Fitbit gave me two “awards.” First, this run included my fastest lap time. Also, I just ran my fastest 400 meters. Which is to say I ran faster than a relaxed jog. Not bad. Not impressive, but not bad.
As non-ultimate as it was, it reminded me of a fundamental truth about effort and pleasure: pushing yourself feels good. Going beyond comfort feels good. The body craves it, the soul craves it. A moment of semi-wildness, a gentle shove into the joy of discomfort.
Yeah, it does a body good. I’ll be back for more.