December 30, 2017

Long Steady Distance: an excerpt

This is a scene from chapter two of Long Steady Distance. Feel free to peruse!

I’m at the northeast trailhead of Emerson Nature Preserve, my absolute favorite trail and ideal for a long run: varied inclinations, smooth pathway, cute chipmunks running across the path every so often to distract you when you’re exhausted. The best part is the overlook at the top of the hill, though. I want to see what Sophie will think of it.

She’s late. It’s 3:07 by my watch, and I’m shifting from foot to foot with nerves. Also, with cold. That’s lake effect for you. It’s fifty degrees, a sharp and unpredictable downturn from the summer weather of the beginning of the week. It’ll be ideal once we start running, but in my shorts and my dad’s threadbare cotton long sleeve from the Columbus marathon, I’m getting goosebumps up and down my legs.

“Hey,” says Sophie, jogging toward me. “Sorry, sorry I’m late. Parked in the lot and couldn’t figure out what to do with my keys. I’m always like, paranoid that they’ll get stolen if I leave them under the mat or something.”

“Where’d you leave them?”

She pats her breasts, and there’s a faint jingling sound. “This is why Einstein invented sports bras.”

I laugh too loudly, and stop too abruptly. “Um. You ready?”

She doesn’t seem to notice how much of a spaz I am. “Lead on, manager.”

We don’t speak for the first few minutes. The beginning of a long run is always strange. My body rebels against the effort it knows is coming, and my breathing and footsteps and heartbeat are ragged and out of sync. But I know that the inner freakout will subside as I ease into my pace. By the time the trail flattens out after the initial ascent, I’m in rhythm, feeling loose and happy, enjoying the sound of the trees rustling in the chilly wind.

Sophie’s struggling a little, though. She keeps pulling ahead, checking herself, and slowing down. “Sorry,” she says. “I know I’m supposed to be pacing myself off you.”

It’s the first time I’ve seen her look doubtful. For some reason, that makes it a little easier for me to talk to her. “It’s okay. You’re a lot faster than me. But Harris really wanted you to get some slow reps at some long distances so you could start to learn to pace yourself.”

She nods, slowing down once again. And I’m definitely going a little faster than is totally comfortable, but it’s such a perfect day that I feel like I can do it.  We’ll meet in the middle. “Wanna know my trick for pacing?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says.

“Match my breathing,” I tell her. “Just focus on that. Let me set the pace. Your rhythm will come.” Even if my short legs can’t match Sophie’s loose, loping stride, if she’s focusing on the rhythm of her breathing, slowing it to match mine, her body’s going to slow down, too.

The storm yesterday blew a lot of leaves around. The fallen ones make a damp carpet beneath our feet on the path, releasing earthy smells as we run over them. One breath. Another. Another. It’s easy. We start a long descent, one that’ll take us alongside the brook.

“How long is this trail anyway?” Sophie asks once we’re in stride.

I smile. “Don’t worry about it.”

She misses a step. “You saying that kinda makes me worry about it.”

“Harris has a theory that there are two mental skills a runner needs to build up,” I tell her. I don’t know when I got so didactic about running. Maybe it’s nice to have someone that all this accumulated knowledge will benefit.

“Okay,” says Sophie. On the downhill, her breathing has eased, but she’s taking very small steps so she doesn’t lose me on the hill. I make a mental note to tell her to open up her legs on the downhills in competition. She’ll be able to blow past other runners.

“The first one is the easier one for most people to understand. It’s sort of like, the competitive edge, whether that’s with yourself or against another person. And developing that kind of… fire will help you a lot in races. Like if you can tell yourself to go harder and actually get your legs to work harder, your heart to pump faster, your lungs to get more oxygen, that’s a skill.” I’m breathing hard from the talking and the running. This is why I usually run alone. “The other skill is kind of… Zen. It’s the feeling of being able to run forever without any kind of worry about when you’ll stop. And that’s what we’re working on here.”

“Hence not telling me how much more we have to do?” Sophie says.

I glance at my watch. We’ve been out here for around nine minutes. We’re going to pass my first mile marker, the pointy rock at the first bend in the brook, very soon. This is faster than my usual pace, but essentially a crawl for Sophie. “Yes. Hence.”

She laughs, which makes me feel good. I don’t think of myself as particularly humorous. “This is some deep shit,” she says.

“If it makes you feel better, I have a good stopping point about three quarters of the way through.”

“It does, actually,” she says.

We’re at the brook. I spot the mile marker. One mile down, five to go. I hit my dad’s watch for the split. Nine minutes flat. I already know I’m not going to be able to make it the whole distance at this pace, but might as well keep it going for now, at least meet her in the middle.

Mile two is almost entirely along the brook. “This is a really nice trail,” says Sophie.

“Yeah, I come out here a lot.”

She looks at me intently for one moment. It’s a wide, easy part of the trail—she definitely won’t be able to do that once we hit the rocks in mile five. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“Okay, sorry if this is nosy, but like… you seem like a pretty reasonable runner… why don’t you run for the team?”

It takes me a long time to figure out what to say. I push my sleeves up. It’s starting to feel warmer.

“I mean, no worries if that’s like a sore subject or something,” says Sophie.

“No, I just…I’m slow. I like running but I don’t really like competing very much.” It’s hard to explain. She doesn’t know me, doesn’t know that it’s the only way I get to feel close to my dad. If I’m focusing on other people, I can’t hear his voice, can’t calm my brain down to nothing. When I’m competing, it makes it about other people.

“Oh, that’s chill,” she says. “I get that.”

“Really?” I think of her final mile repeat from the first practice, gunning for Kari.

“Yeah. I mean, I get pretty competitive with running stuff, but not really in my day to day life.” She laughs. “Not good enough at anything else.”

“Did you run at your old school?”

“I ran track for a couple seasons. We didn’t even have a cross country team though.” She laughs again. It’s a nice laugh. Very self-effacing. “My dad likes running, though, so I used to run with him before his knees got too bad. We’d only ever go a couple miles, though.”

That gives me a little pang. But it’s nice to have something in common with her. “My dad liked running too.”

“Oh yeah? His knees go bad too?”

“He died five years ago,” I tell her.

“Oh, shit. That sucks. I’m sorry,” she says.

“It’s okay.”

The rest of mile two, we run in silence. It’s nice—some people feel the need to talk all the time when running. Like Meg on JV. Who, to her credit, is very kind. But she talks absolutely incessantly whenever we run together way behind everyone else at practice. I end up spacing out half the time. But Sophie and I—we’re doing okay. I feel focused, and I’m definitely getting tired, but I feel like I can push through. We pass the mile three marker, right after the trail starts back up the hill.

So it’s a little surprising to me that I’m the next person to speak. But I’m genuinely curious. “Um, do you like Pineridge so far?”

“Uh… kind of.” Her form on the hill is not great. She’s a little hunched over. She’ll need to learn to lean into it while keeping her shoulders back. Little flyaways from her ponytail flop up and down in rhythm with her steps. “It’s very different. I mean, it’s good for my brother, so I like it a lot. I just miss my friends. But people have mostly been really nice. Especially the cross country team. It’s just… yeah. Different.”

“I used to live over in Rhizenstein,” I tell her. “Before high school, though.”

“Oh yeah? Whereabouts?”

“South side,” I tell her. That was when Mom and I lived with Nana after Dad died.

“I have a lot of friends over there,” Sophie says. “I like it. Little rough though.”

Nana had kept her place locked and deadbolted. Mom always laughed that it was like Fort Knox in there. “Yeah.”

“Why’d you move?” she asks.

“My, uh, mom got remarried.”

“Cool,” she says. “Cool, cool.”

She’s breathing a little hard. We’ve been going uphill for a couple minutes now. I haven’t been on this trail in a couple months. I forgot that the middle of this run is pretty brutal. We fall silent for a few minutes, but she slows down as I do, pacing herself off my footsteps. “How we doing on mileage?” Sophie asks, in between breaths.

We’re just getting to mile four. The rocky part. “Just focus on where you’re putting your feet,” I tell her, as I take the lead, over roots, around rocks. I know it well. “This next part, the terrain is tough.”

“Dude, they don’t teach you this in track,” she tells me.

“Trail running is great for ankle stability.” I hop a fallen tree, slippery with moss. “And it’s great for developing mental toughness, like I was talking about. You really have to focus, it should be a mental workout too…”

And of course, I’m so busy telling her this that I catch a rock on the toe of my sneaker and fall. The heels of my hands hit the ground first, catching my weight in a painful scrape against the ground. A sharp rock gets me right in the shin.

Sophie, who’s just behind, leaps aside to dodge me. “Holy shit, Em,” she says. “You okay?”

My embarrassment is way more intense than the pain in my hands. I push myself to a kneeling position. “I swear, I’ve never fallen here before.”

“Well, that in itself is impressive.” She offers me her hands. Normally, I’m not so much with the physical contact, but there’s something very natural, very easy about the way that she grasps my wrists, avoiding my hurt palms, and pulls me lightly to my feet.

“Want to walk for a minute?” I ask. It’s not good for training, it’s not good for pacing, but we’re almost to the overlook and I still feel so humiliated that I don’t know if I can run.

“Yeah, I’m dying over here.”

The wind is back, and it's cold, but it feels good against my hot skin. "We're almost to the top of the hill," I tell her. “We can stop and see the overlook.”

My hands are really smarting by the time we reach the top, but the view is almost enough to forget them. On one side of the path, the hill is steep enough that it looks out over the whole forest. The trees spread out below us, mostly green, still, but some just beginning to redden, promising the autumn. Beyond the forest is the highway, and beyond that, the train tracks. Rhizenstein is on the other side, visible as tightly knit blocks of gray houses in the harsh, cloud-blocked sunlight.

Being able to see so far like this makes me feel safe. It makes me feel something like a promise. Sophie hasn’t said anything. Part of me is worried that she’s going to be underwhelmed, but that worry disappears as soon as I look at her. Her face is like—it’s soft, like she’s looking at something beautiful and she appreciates it. Or maybe I’m reading too much into her expression. “What do you think?” I ask.

“Is that Rhizenstein, or…”

“Yeah.”

“It looks very beautiful from here,” she says. “Lot more beautiful than in person.” She crosses her arms, hugging herself. She’s in a t-shirt, and it’s cold. We’re wind-exposed, and we’ve stopped running, giving our sweat a chance to do its job and cool us down.

“That’s… um… yeah. Stuff usually looks prettier from far away.”

“Yeah, when you can’t see any of the cracks.” She smiles, a little. This one doesn’t totally reach her eyes.

A train whistles, long and low, before I see it come around the bend on the tracks. “I like hearing the train.”

“It used to wake me up sometimes,” she says. “Now I miss it a little, though.”

I know what she means. I want to tell her that I understand, somehow. This is a weird feeling. It’s like… I care that she knows that I’m not just some spoiled rich kid from Pineridge, even though that’s the life I’m leading. I care that she knows that I think about this stuff too. But I don’t really have words for it when I look back up at her.

She turns to me. “Ready to head back?”

“I, uh… yeah. We’re almost there.”

The run back is quieter. This part of the trail is as steep downhill as it was going up, and the wind feels a little colder. My hands hurt, and my mind whirs, not nearly as calm as it normally is on the tail end of a long distance run. Also, pacing Sophie—even her slow, LSD pace, one that is probably half her race speed—makes me feel like I’m about to die.

But even though I have a stitch in my side and I’m gasping for breath, I’m excited. I’m compiling a list of things I want to tell her. Push into the uphill, then just open her long legs and relax on the downhill. She can get some rest that way. When she feels like her lungs are flagging, focus on her form. She’s tall and strong, and if she pumps her arms and stays on her toes, she’ll be moving at a good clip even if she’s not pumping her legs at top speed. And most of all, be confident, because if she can run six miles, casually, without trying, like we just did, she’ll be just fine during a race.

But when we finally reach the trailhead where we started, everything I want to say dies in my throat. I’m breathing hard, and when I look up at her after we’ve stopped, she’s tall and pretty and I don’t feel knowledgeable anymore, just like an awkward teenage girl who’s never quite been able to keep up with girls like Sophie. On the trails, or just… in life.

But she looks at me, and smiles. “Holy shit,” she says, bending over, her hands going to her knees. “How long was that?”

“Six flat,” I tell her.

“Miles?”

“Yeah. Um, you shouldn’t really bend over.” It’s so much easier to talk to her than it is to most people, to tell her this stuff that I’ve been thinking about for so long. “Gotta open up your lungs.”

She mimics me, lacing her hands behind her head and straightening up. We stand there together, getting our breath back, until I go over to a tree to stretch my calves. “Hey Emily,” she says.

“Yeah?” I resist the urge to tell her to stretch, too. There’s a thin line between helpful and bossy.

“Thanks for, uh… I don’t know. Helping me out with this stuff. I know Harris asked you to and I just like, uh… appreciate it.”

I smile. The elm leaves whisper above me in the wind. “We’re dyads. It’s my job.”

“You need a ride home?” she asks when we’re leaving.

I’m exhausted, and I really, really want one. “I’m okay,” I tell her. “I live nearby.” It’s only a partial truth, but the complete truth—that Mom won’t let me ride in cars driven by other teenagers—is a little humiliating.

“Okay. Well, thanks again.”

“Anytime,” I say, and I actually mean it.

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