Back On the Rock

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Miami Miles: Week 3

RM and I are on again. The break lasted less than a day. So Tuesday, 5:45 am, we’re at UWI. I’ve spent yet another sleepless night coughing and I have a long work day ahead. My legs are fried from two days of lifting at Gymkhana. And I have a 5 mile hill run and a 14 miler ahead of me this week. As we leave Assembly Hall, I decide this is not the day to be competitive. But RM takes the pace out hard. A half mile in I wave the white flag and ask him to slow down. I find my favourite spot just off his left elbow, and settle in for a little mobile napping.

But RM isn’t letting me off that easily. He is in surprising form this morning, pushing me relentlessly. Maybe I’ve been shooting my mouth off too much about running him into the ground. Up the incline past the Students Union, my quads and hamstrings shoot darts into the back of his legs. He slows as we make the brief left back unto Ring Road and I recover slightly, but we’re off again across a field on a short cut to the Hospital Gate. Pride gets me round the first loop of the Hospital, past the greasy cab driver who slows down to get a better look. Sheer competitiveness drives me through the second loop. I move up beside him and each of us takes brief surges ahead. Back down Ring Road to our 3.5 mile water break at Assembly Hall, we stay side by side, in sync again.

I secretly hope that he’ll call it a day but as I fiddle with my shoelaces he looks at me impatiently. “How much more?” I ask, trying to sound casual. “Just 1.5,” he says. It occurs to me that if I’m going to run 14 miles on Saturday, I shouldn’t bristle at the word “just” when it precedes such a small number. So I fall in behind him. Round the corner to the Union, RM and I spot a target. Simultaneously, instinctively, we both speed up to take him down. We run the incline much harder than our first time at it, and pass our grey sweat-shirted prey with ease.

The surge takes a little out of me and as we turn unto Ring Road, RM slows to a gentlemanly pace to let me rest. This is the difference between us. I, the bully, would have left him behind and mocked him for days. But he instead stays with me all the way around Ring Road. About 200 metres from Assembly Hall, the pace quickens. Later we will argue whose call it was. But somehow, we end up in a flat out sprint to the finish. All my pain, fatigue, disclaimers and random bullshit vanish. I’m running as hard as I can, faster than I have in months and it feels fantastic. The bully in me is mad I can’t shake RM. The rest of me likes him just where he is - right beside me.

Thursday: RM decides to join me on a hill run with my new running group. It’s 12:30 before I get to bed. When my wake up call comes at 4:45, I’m exhausted. I slept fitfully, waking every half an hour or so. Last night’s bruschetta is still in my stomach and the two large glasses of wine are still in my bloodstream.

Somehow, we make it to UWI by 5:30. I’m half asleep on the drive over, and the last thing I want to do is run. We start, again, with a prayer. “Bless this group, bless this day, bless this run.” Amen! As we set off down Mona Road, I feel great. This is the first run in ages where nothing hurts. Knees, hips, quads, hamstrings – everything’s fine. As soon as we make the right out of the Post Office Gate unto Mona Road, Jen Laden and the Flame head to the front of the pack. My instinct is to join them, but RM is off to an unusually slow start. He is my guest on this run, and I feel it would be poor form to leave him. Besides, I feel some kind of primal urge to stay close to him; to put my scent on him I guess, like a dog peeing on a tree. So I swallow my pride and let them open up a 50 metre gap. But just before we make the turn unto Karachi, I can’t bear being so far behind. I put some distance between RM and me and shorten the gap between me and the pack leaders. I have them in striking distance half way down Karachi, but I slow down. RM is great at hills and I know he will push me harder than they will and I want to run the hill with him. So I wait for him. Plus my legs are well rested from the slow start so I’m looking forward to a little blood sport on the hill.

RM and I take the turn unto Long Mountain together, head for the first incline and then…nothing. Zero, zip, nada. Suddenly I’ve become a fucking floating torso. My legs are back in bed. What the backside? I am not in pain. I do not feel tired. My legs just simply will not go. “Come on,” I yell at myself. “Wake up.” But nothing happens. So I do the unthinkable: I walk.

This is a first. In seven years of running, I have never ever walked, unless instructed by a trainer. I’m a lazy-ass and a whiner, but not a quitter. I am baffled. Mortified. Furious. RM surges ahead. Even worse, the Flame is up ahead, sprightly skipping up the hill like a toffee coloured mountain goat.

It’s just the first incline. Did we walk this one last week? I’ll get the next one. My brain churns out words of encouragement, but nothing works. RM spells his surges with gentlemanly trots to give me a chance to catch up, but eventually he gives up and runs ahead. I walk the whole way up the hill, sweating shame with every step. When I get to the top, RM is on his way back down to look for me. Fuck the search party. Fuck the group. Fuck the view. I’m so mad at myself I can barely make eye contact. To add insult to injury, the Flame notes my late arrival with a concerned, “You ok?”

“Nope,” I say flatly. “I have nothing today.”

“You’re just having an off day,” RM says, unhelpfully. “It happens.”

The group assembles at the top, slowly. Impatient with the dillydallying, RM decides we’re running the descent. This is my chance at redemption. I’ll chalk this one up as a 2.5 miler. Forget hillwork. I’ll make today a speedwork day. All I have to do is get off the hill reasonably fast, go all out back down Mona Road, rest between the Aqueduct and the Main Gate and sprint through the Main Gate to Assembly Hall. The plan starts well. RM and I share the lead down the hill and I open up some distance on Karachi. But down Mona Road my legs disappear again and he catches me. We make the turn unto campus together and he says, “Come on. Let’s run it in.” Oh the shame, the shame. “I can’t,” I reply. “I have nothing.” So he leaves me and his gentlemanly ways behind and sprints ahead to the finish. Spanked, twice in one day.

I spend the rest of the day in a protracted brain fart. What the fuck happened? I must be overtraining. I have to get more rest. No more drinking. At 5:00 I’m tempted to go back to Long Mountain for a do-over. I’m dissuaded only by the prospect of donning sweaty clothes that have spent eight hours in the trunk of my car. Oh yeah, and the small matter of having to run 14 miles on Saturday. I can pick a fight with the hill some other day. Right now I need to focus on my rematch: me vs Jen Laden and the Flame. Round 3. Maybe I need to be nicer to my legs. []

Saturday: In a rare show of discipline I stay home Friday night. I pick up a bottle of wine on the way home, but instead I pour myself into the new Joan Didion book and make it to bed by eleven. RM wakes me at 12:30 for a long phone chat, so when my wake up call comes at 4:30 I barely know my name. Before I can even swing my legs off the bed, I feel the pain: a pair of darts on each side of each knee. Not today, please not today. I take 3 Advil Liquigels on the way to the airport and hope for the best. In the car, the Flame and I trade disclaimers.

“My knees are killing me.”

“My stomach is doing somersaults.”

After the prayer, the group heads off, but I decide for once to listen to my body. My lower back is in knots from yesterday’s lifting and my hamstrings are sore. It kills me to let Jen-Laden and the Flame get ahead, but I stay behind and stretch and stretch and stretch.

A half mile in I’ve had enough of the group’s walking start and I begin to trot, all the while giving myself a stern lecture: Do not take it out hard. No heroics today. Take it easy till Morgan’s Harbour. Down the airport road, around the roundabout and back up to the Air Jamaica wing, it irritates me that I’m so far behind I can’t even see the pack leaders. Through the second airport loop, I spy the back of the running pack. I want to stay slow, I really do, but suddenly I have a Prep School flashback:

A dozen children standing around my grandmother’s desk. She, the teacher, calling out words for us to spell in turn. We start from the child closest to her on the left, all the way around the desk. When one child spells a word wrong, the word goes ‘round the desk until someone spells it correctly. The child who gets it right, moves up in place, closer to my grandmother’s left side, passing those who faltered. I can hear my grandmother’s voice telling the victor:

“Take them down.”

Only my grandmother could make spelling bloodsport.

Do not take it out hard, I tell myself. Just pick up the pace slightly. Be patient You will pass them. “Be patient. Take a breath,” my grandmother would say. Think it through one letter at a time.” The word of the day: A.S.S.A.S.S.I.N.A.T.E. I take them down in 30 metres. Patiently. One step at a time.

By mile 3, down the Port Royal road, I start gaining on the leaders. By the lighthouse they’re in striking distance. Jen-Laden, the Flame, and two people I hadn’t noticed before: Blue Bandana and 2nd Bandana. No heroics. Just stay close. But somehow the gap narrows and I find myself passing the Bandanas, then the Flame. This is a pretty great spot. I have the pull of Jen Laden from the front and the threat of footsteps from behind. I don’t plan to make any big surges, but Blue Bandana comes flying down on my right, passes me and then slows to sit in front of me. This irritates me profoundly, but I let it slide. At the next water stop, I get in and out efficiently and leave them behind.

And then I notice her. Wait a minute, there was another leader all along? A woman with runner’s legs that seem to grow out of her armpits, wearing an oversize white t-shirt. She gains my respect by skipping the water spot, chugging from a water bottle in her right hand. No heroics. Wait till Morgan’s Harbour. But courtesy requires that I introduce myself. I lengthen my stride. Death to Big Shirt. Grandma would be proud.

At mile 6 I have my view just the way I like it – unobstructed. The pinching in my right knee causes me to slow down and Jen Laden and the pack gain on me. By Morgan’s Harbour, one of the guy runners has caught me. “I’m going in to the bathroom,” he tells me. Nope, not falling for that twice. “I’m good,” I shout, making the fastest U-turn possible.

As I pass Jen Laden and the Flame I report that the guy runner has gone to the bathroom. “We are too,” says Jen Laden. I’m tempted to wait, to run back in with them and beat them fair and square. But the pinching in my knee says keep your lead. Let them chase you.

At the 10 mile mark I feel great. The wretchedness and the haphazard stride of last week’s miles 9 and 10 are nowhere to be seen. I try to accelerate, but the pain in my knees holds me back, so I settle for maintaining a moderate stride and concentrate on quick turnovers. There’s no one near to me so it’s a little lonely. I’m digging for motivation to run faster, so I’m grateful for an old man sitting by the side of the road, filling a bucket from a hose that, incongruously, snakes back into the bushes. “Come on, Baby G. Pick it up, pick it up, pick it up.” I oblige.

I spend the next two miles silently screaming. “Where the backside is the lighthouse?” All I want to do is make it to the little white lighthouse, my marker that I’m almost home. Then suddenly, blessedly, it appears. I put the hammer down as much as my aching knees will bear, and run it in. Jen-Laden comes in a good six minutes later. The Flame walks it in, having given up at mile 10. The rematch goes to me.

My victory is soured only by Big Shirt who commits a flagrant foul. As the runners who finished the full 13.5 miles compare times, she announces, “I did it in under two hours.” Really, Big Shirt? I forgot to clock my start time, but one of the guys who started before I did pegged his at 5:56 am. My 8:00 am return puts me under 2:04. Big Shirt started ahead of me and returned after me so, ah, come again? Come to think of it, where the hell was Big Shirt on the way back? I can’t remember seeing her after the mile 6 water stop. Did she turn back early? Is she claiming under 2 hours for a shorter distance? I realize that my level of irritation is unquestionably irrational. But mentally, I draw a big red bullseye on the back of her shirt. I hear my grandmother’s voice whispering in my ear.

“Take her down.”

Next time, Grandma. Next time. (13.5 miles. 2:04).


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