There’s a scene in “Once a Runner” when Quentin Cassidy slingshots around the curve and flicks on the afterburners to put an exclamation point on his 200m repeat workout. His coach looks down at the stopwatch and shakes his head at the 0:25 on the clock face. While he wants to chastise Cassidy, he can’t help but remember what it feels like to be able to conjure that type of speed, when you’re so finely tuned that a few sips of wine can send your head whirring.
Yesterday, my running partner Rohan dropped by for an afternoon run. The schedule called for 12 miles with eight at marathon pace. It’s our last workout of the week before the weekend long run, so we both had three workouts on our legs, not to mention four full days at work. The Thursday speed session, in other words, often requires a dip into the “dark place” to wring everything out of the workout. After all, when the race is going to hurt, why not practice hurting.
We set out from my neighborhood at an easy pace. The sun had already begun to set bringing on a welcome chill to the air and heightening the crisp fall smells. I told Rohan about the route while we ignored the heckling from the middle school kids making no effort to hide their disgust at our “gay wedgy shorts.” Even at 31, I just can’t get away from being made fun of by middle school kids.
For two miles, the conversation, like the pace, was light, though as we neared the second beep on our watches, I noticed the pace gradually beginning to increase. When we crossed the last intersection of our warmup, the words suddenly ceased. And the work began.
In recent weeks, Rohan and I – with the help of our friend Ebo as Sherpa – have taken on the mandatory 20 milers that make up every marathon program. Over a full table of breakfast after each run, we dissect the workout. During a particularly flat effort, Rohan carried me on that first 20, while on the second, we reversed roles. At that breakfast, a weighty silence fell over the table as we let the idea of both of us being “on” on the same day linger….
When I heard the beep that ticked off mile 3, I stole a quick glance at my watch: 6:12. At mile 4: 5:56.
We wove seamlessly around obstacles in the road, dog walkers, and oncoming cars. We floated up and over hills and shot down the backside like a rollercoaster toppling over the apex. The synergy was there and we just flowed.
Neither of us had to be pulled along today. Instead, we pushed each other, fed off of one another’s footfalls, and set the road on fire.
After what would be our slowest mile (6:24), one consisting entirely of crushed gravel and tree roots, we emerged from the woods. “Long. And steep. Ahead,” I breathed as our stride unwound on the smooth pavement once again. There, we arrived at that one perfect moment where our strides fell in unison. Our shoes pounded the pavement in rapid succession, turning over like well-oiled pistons on arguably the most challenging portion of the route. A steady calm set in around us, a cocoon that rendered us numb to any outside forces, except the task at hand.
When we came to a stop at the light, a crime to break our rhythm, I lifted my sunglasses and raised my eyebrows at Rohan. The traffic whooshed by and swallowed our shallow breaths while our chests heaved to keep up. He looked back at me, wearing a smirk that said, "What the fuck?" and shrugged his shoulders.
When the light turned green, we shot across the street to cover the final 1.75 mile "marathon pace" segment. Descending into the woods once again, we sent evening strollers diving for the side of the trail as we thundered past. A thin blanket of yellow leaves already covered the trail, and the crunching under foot announced our arrival to startled deer that surely wondered if we were predators. We weaved in and around one another to stay in the worn groove along the path. At last, we made the final turn to climb out of the trail. I pulled alongside Rohan and we drove one another forward, arms pumping, legs churning, to the top….
We clicked our watches and I let out a “Yeeeeoooowww!” I turned and walked back toward him and shoved him. “Come on!” I yelled while we waited for the green light. He started laughing and we stood there for a moment with the orange sky glowing through the black spires of tree limbs.
A soft white glow seeped in around my eyes and we started our two mile cool down. The words came back to us as we pulled back on the reigns to make it a true cool down.
“I’m not sure what just happened,” I remember saying.
We returned to the house and did a quick walk around the parking island. It was all over and time to get on with our evenings. But for those 49:24, we had a glimpse.