It's all right. I've overcooked it before. I cross the first of the two east-west arteries on the route in front of a trucker whose eyes get big when he sees I'm not going to stop, but I don't even have to sprint to beat him. Down along the quiet streets by the old boys' school, past the tennis courts and the manicured lawns, drifting down toward the college.
Now I'm really cooking, but this part doesn't count as overcooking it because the hill helps you. After I skip through the weird traffic on Three Chopt it's dead downhill to the lake so you just lean forward and spin your shoes like a pinwheel. "Free speed," my fitness coach used to call it. "Ain't nothing free," I'd always remind him, which he didn't like. He thought it was "negative" to think that way. I never did see eye to eye with too many a fitness coach.
There's no one on the road as I hit the campus; sundress weather is over so it's no great loss. There aren't even any geese to dodge as I round the lake, but I realize I'm starting to get tired. As I always do when I'm overcooking it, I had started to believe at the end of the downhill "maybe I am in this good a shape; maybe I can run like this forever" but that shit ain't the truth as we've discussed before.
I lose myself as I cross onto the bridge to the gazebo and for a while I am nowhere, nothing, a pair of legs skittering along the edge of a tiny lake in a tiny city, getting smaller and smaller as I ascend to the sky, not in any kind of esctatic way, this is no "runnner's high" just a feeling of being far away, unconcerned.
Snap back to reality as I run by some poor girl on her way to class and I see alarm in her face because she's glimpsed the man I don't show anyone, the sweaty-toothed madman red-faced and grinning and relentless and she begins to fuss with her phone, her generation's version of clutching one's books to one's chest, and quickens her pace.
I continue on but I can't help imagining how tired I'm going to be at the bottom of the hill, before I've even begun my ascent out of this hole in which I find myself, the price of Instructor Gundlach's "free speed."
By the time I hit the bottom it's as bad as I feared, and worse - there is a pain starting in my side. The price of too much coffee, too much breakfast, and not enough water the day before. "Hydration," I hear Gundlach say in his charming Aussie accent, "is not drinking a bottle of water in the car park on the way to your workout. Sipping on water," and here he would pause for dramatic effect, "throughout the day."
Which is what I did not do yesterday, it seems. And now I have a cramp. I realize now, in this moment, what I'm doing when I'm overcooking that first mile. I'm leaving myself an out, an excuse if it gets too tough. Now I've got a cramp, it's cold, and I'm out of gas. It's excuse enough to quit, so I do. Most days.
But not today. Ratatat's "Loud Pipes" is on and it's inspiring enough that I at least give it a go. I start up the hill, which really is a very steep hill, and try to think about soccer. I try to think about how running hard up this hill will make me a better soccer player by waking up my fast twitch muscles and all that crap, but it's not working. My thoughts devolve into imagery, much of it crudely, painfully Freudian. I am a giant pillar of rock being forced up out of the earth. The world is a woman lying on her back and I am standing astride her, sweating.
At long last I make it to the top of the hill and again cross Three Chopt. Now even the drivers are scared of me. I can see them trying to decide whether to ask if I need help or speed away as fast as their giant champagne-colored cars will carry them.
I'm on the bell lap now, and I look up at Karen for the first time. Karen is what I call the sun when I'm running. She is bright today but not hot, and I smile openly at her. In the fall we are good friends. I see now, just as I always do, why it is that I am so prone to overcook the first mile on this course - it starts out on a long, slow downhill, thus finishing on a long, slow uphill.
It doesn't feel uphill, and though there's a breeze in my face it doesn't feel into the wind. It's just one of those days. My smile broadens and I try to pick up the pace, to go into my kick, but suddenly the cramp is back and it's bad now, I'm doubled over, I'm done. I check the GPS to make sure I haven't perhaps already finished four miles somehow, but no, of course not, I have over a quarter mile to go. Well, three and three quarter miles is just as good as four.
I check the pace. HOLY SHIT. I can't believe it so I check the clock, but it's right. I put my phone back into my pocket and my earpiece back in. I start to run. The earpiece falls out and I leave it out. I say "I've switched off my targeting computer!" Then I realize that's a stupid cliche' from a kids' movie and I put my earpiece back in. It's "Clubbed to Death" from the Matrix. Of course it is.
I pound the pavement and it pounds me right back. My legs are done. My lungs are raw with the chill. The cramp in my side has found its voice and it is screaming, so I begin to scream too. My neighbors poke their heads out and make the "should I call the police?" face? The screaming starts to screw up my breathing so I have to stop. With every step I grunt like Butch going out to beat Marsellus Wallace's house fighter to death in Pulp Fiction.
The cramp has come to life now and is pounding on my liver with constant Mickey Ward left hooks. I can't go another step. I check the phone. 4.03 miles. 31:27. My goal of four eight-minute miles, back-to-back-to-back-to-back. Done. Done. Done. Done.