This is the story of how I ran ten kilometers again.
As the summer comes to a close I decide to get one last big run in, one last big rage against the dying of the light, a last effort in the sunshine and the warmth before the fall and the winter settle in, before I pull sweaters and blankets around me, before I cradle warm drinks like loved ones close to the parts of me that feel the most. It's not much by the standards of some and more than is possible by the standards of others, but I fall evenly down the middle, and ten kilometers presents the sort of challenge just beyond the boundaries of my capability, somewhere so close I can stand right on the edge and just hop/skip/jump to it with a little effort.
And so here I am Sunday morning with Oliver and Emma and Mark, all vaguely nervous, all a little blue with the cool morning air. We assemble for the start as the sun edges through the gray overhead, the light looking as if it's coming through a plastic bag. Mark says, "I think we have about 3 minutes left," as a loud gunned snap explodes by the start line. We move.
The first kilometer is easy. I breathe slowly and deliberately, I shuffle among the other runners. Shuffle is a good word for it -- somehow our bouncing pace amongst each other feels like cards in a deck. Emma ahead of me is setting a quick pace, but I'm confident that I can keep up; and indeed I almost want to put my long legs to use and peel off ahead, but I don't.
The second kilometer lies somewhere unsure. I'm more or less persuaded that I'm running about one kilometer for every song on Coheed & Cambria's The Afterman: Descension, but when I mistake a non-marathon-related sign for a marathon-related one at about kilometer 1.5, and find that after running what seems to be an eternity I've only traveled 1.5 kilometers, and in fact I've only actually been running for eight minutes but, God, I thought I was at least at kilometer 3 or 4 by now, & we've left the town and everything -- here is where I begin to get confused, temporally & geographically.
On the third kilometer a particularly briskly paced song comes on, but I'm ready for it. In training I had been able to increase my pace with the song and maintain an adequate air supply, but as the bridge winds up and the song heads into its final chorus, I'm finding myself a little more out of breath, in a little more pain that I feel I should be. Still, I'm not worried.
By the fourth kilometer I'm almost certainly misinterpreting how far I've run. I've had to slow my pace to recoup after my briskness with the previous song. Emma is pulling far ahead and I decide to stick instead to a tall Japanese guy in a shirt that reads, "HARA." The non-marathon-related road signs by the side of the road indicate now 3 km but I'm not even sure that I'm on the original road (the one with the 1.5 km marker) in the first place, nor am I sure what I'm 3 km's distance from in the first place, so I keep moving.
I reach the fifth kilometer but there isn't any sign of turning around and heading back just yet. I've slowed pretty obviously by this point but everyone else appears to have as well. With the physical fatigue setting in a strange dilation of sensory experience begins happening, a disconnect of my body with the parts of my brain that keep track of my body. I begin to experience my own stride not neurally but through the lens of maybe something like a Discovery-Channel-type diagrammic breakdown: something computer-generated with sweeping angles and color coordination indicating for example the compression of my spine with each step, vertebrae gelling up against spinal meniscus and bouncing back again. I don't even really feel it, this motion of my body through itself -- not consciously, but I know it's there. It's the first real sign that something is wrong.
Somewhere during the sixth kilometer, the race bends back on itself to head back to the starting line. I watch Emma turn around up ahead of me. She's beyond catching, at this point. I know this because she looks like a machine, like a car or a train for example, with purpose and physics more powerful than my own. A guy behind me with a pattern shaved into his head cheers me on as I wend back upon my own footsteps. I've resolved to finish before that guy, and I'm probably some 300 meters ahead of him, so I'm feeling alright about things. But as kilometer six comes to a close, he races by me. He's not even sweating.
On the seventh kilometer we break off the main road and work our way across a wide field. The sky is electrically blue, painful to look at. The wind is coming at us from a very very slightly offset angle, like maybe 4 or 5 degrees right of straight ahead, for me. I'm still running through computer-generated simulations of the workings of almost all of my joints; it's entirely unintentional, like it's the base hum of my brain, the video playing on the waiting room television, something to watch while I'm not focusing on something else, which focusing is taking a tremendous amount of effort and it's easier at this point just to let the television play.
At the beginning of the eighth kilometer I'm counting telephone poles, at the end of my rope. I'm probably not moving that much faster than a brisk walk, if faster at all. All of a sudden I find myself walking. This is not a decision that I have made. I feel very powerless. I will myself to start running again but my body refuses. I am outside of my body, looking down, screaming to get it back on track, as if I don't feel the pain. For a brief moment I remember that episode of Spongebob Squarepants where you know Spongebob is training Gary the Snail for some sort of race, and he's yelling at the poor thing, and wearing a mustache for some reason? The remembrance is brief, anyway, because why would a person in any frame of right mind think of something like that at a time like this? After a hundred meters of walking a man in a car by the side of the road looks at me in the eye. I read disappointment on his face. I start running again.
By the ninth kilometer we're back in town. People are watching now so I can't stop; my body is beginning to fail so I can't continue. Two girls by the side of the road gesture to each other like 'Oh hey it's that guy, the tall foreign guy' and cheer me on. I try to smile back but I must have failed because they both made the same face of half-horror, half-embarrassment and cheered for the guy behind me, who promptly passed me.
Within the last three hundred meters my music stops. I have reached the end of the album. It's weirdly fitting, everything else peeling back. At the end there's only my footsteps pounding on the ground. I see the finish line. I accelerate. People are beginning to notice me, the high-speed foreigner. I hear murmurs of amazement. It might be terror. I'm moving pretty fast by this point. I pass a man finishing off the 20-km race. I feel a really sick pride at passing him, as if I'm better than the man who's run twice as far as me. Cries of support echo up from the crowds on either side but they're all falling behind me -- maybe for the man finishing the 20-km. I'm intimately aware of gravity. My feet are not longer holding me up so much as pushing me forward. I feel a bunch of meat around my obliques shuddering dangerously with every step. My stride must look robotic to everyone watching. I don't know if I'm running faster now than I would sprint fresh, but it sure feels like it. I'm not breathing, but I feel as though I could run another 500 meters like this. I might hear English; I'm not sure. The world around me is distorting a little bit. I try to hear if the voices from the sidelines sound Doppler-shifted. Purple lights swim around the corners of my eyes. I feel a salty wetness there. I cross the finish line -- smeared chalk on the asphalt -- and come to a hockey stop, for some reason. It feels like my whole body is grinding against the surface of the road. I come to a stop amid people moving in every direction. I am a molecule within the social convection of a finish line. A high schooler in a track suit hands me a juicebox.