It's not who's the best - it's who can take the most pain. -Steve Prefontaine
Mile 18 They say this is the hardest mile. ‘Hitting the wall’, is what it’s termed. Sometimes I wish it isn’t true. Sometimes it happens on the 17th or 19th mile. Far enough away from the finish line that it’s hidden behind the horizon. But close enough that I can hear the sounds of cheers and horns. I can feel my shins splintering into a thousand pieces. I don’t want to continue. Running isn’t worth it anymore. But he is. And it is possible he will be waving his smile at the end. Back and forth. Cheering me on. And so, I push on.
Mile 7 His name. So beautiful it would blend into the surrounding scenery as if Van Gogh had known it needed its own brush stroke. Curving into the starry night. Lighting up Café Terrace. Sweeping across wheat fields. A brilliant blue to the tongue. Calming. Exciting. Electric. Born out of a tempered past. Half deaf. Struggling to understand the coexistence of his life and everyone else’s. The coexistence of his and mine. The way I want them to.
Mile 6 My steps fall to the same rhythm of my heart. I am running headlong into the rain and the wind and the unknown. The cold has started to wiggle itself into my limbs, sneaky and unnoticed. My breath intensifies, like the huff of a strained racehorse. But as much as my limbs want to send me forward, I hold back, siphoning my energy into something manageable. My body is eager to explode like an uncontrolled fission bomb. And yet, I must suppress it. Forcing my natural tendencies into submission. This is how to run. Patience. Tact. And only when my competitors tire and stumble, do I reveal such energy. A strategic game of release and suppression. This is the secret of running.
Mile 19 I run in my dreams. Maybe the Boston Marathon. The Barkley Marathon. Or the Los Angeles Marathon. I run as if I had skipped learning how to walk altogether. As if running is all I know. As if I can’t stop running. To forever wheeze and ache and sweat. To run as hard as possible, but never go anywhere. Taking the Snake Way on human limbs. The cruel pavement below me, slowly melting my bones and muscles and tendons until only skin remains. No other sound except for my inhales and rough exhales. No one else. A highway whose only purpose is to keep me in purgatory. Only to exist to be punished.
Mile 4 On cross country trips, we gravitate towards each other. We spend hours—days sometimes—on compact ferries, where chairs are saddled together and the only thing to do is waste time. The constant hum of steady motors chopping Alaskan waters allows for the time to ebb forward. The destination always an isolated town. Sitka. Haines. Ketchikan. Skagway. Hoonah. Places, whose familiarity equates to a name in a travel brochure. Stopping by for a quick hello, a laborious race, and then a passive goodbye. Something to the effect of, we’ll be back, and you’ll be sure of it, too. An ellipse, ready to pick up where we last paused. The local pharmacy and milkshake store always open. The abandoned college still standing as a landmark to a different time. If, however, we come back to a closed down store, one where the economy gobbled up the Mom-and-Pop shop, we are held in momentary horror. How could this have happened? Why now? And lost in thought, we will turn to each other. Me to him. Him to me. That’s how the world works, I wish for him to say, but it doesn’t have to be like that.
Mile 5 I note the opportune locations of each town if friendship transitions into something more hopeful. The rarely used skate ramps in Skagway. The overlook featuring outwardly pointing cannons in Sitka. The coastline of Ketchikan. The open muskegs of Haines. The forgotten trails of Hoonah. There are plenty of benches, dark corners, bathrooms, and showers. Plenty of down time and pent up hormones. And enough bodies to make desires come to fruition.
Mile 21 To run, one must understand the intricate workings of one’s own body. One must know the terrain. The weather. Their diet. The competition. Will it begin on sand? Or end on pavement? Fifty other runners? Seventy? Could one expect forceful headwinds? Or the proverbial tail winds? Will it rain? How much? A storm’s worth? Or simply enough to wet the parched palette? Will the starting gun sound off at high noon? Or over midmorning yawns? Has one stretched? Or even warmed-up? How many banking left turns? Which straightaways must one conserve energy? Which ones to expend? Can one expect towering hills? Or lightly elevated bumps? Which puddles are avoidable? And which mud spots must one run through? One must parse together all this vital information into a single unifying question. Am I ready? A runner cannot be afraid. They cannot instill even the slightest doubt in themselves. Because once a runner does, they have already lost the race. I am trying not to.
Mile 3 We run past a rusted stop sign that holds the placards of long-forgotten streets. The corner of Linden and Buckskin. Where gravel and dirt give way to sprouting greenery until the sign can only be seen if looked for. And only keen eyes and graceful legs can get us there. Only standing as a checkpoint. A mile marker. One where we note the time lost. Adjust our pace and continue without anything more than a side glance. This is a race, after all.
Mile 9 As we run, dirt blends into street into trail until we find ourselves packed on a floating walkway skirting the edges of a black lake. And in the summer heat and sweaty torsos, we remove shirts, and socks, and shoes. Letting the sun bake our bodies. Giving each other side glances and quick scans. And when I reach for him, he jumps. Into the dark chilly waters, splashing into the black unknown. The leap is just as graceful as the way he runs. Intentional. Solid. He sinks under the surface, letting the water settle. And only then, once I wonder if he is ever coming back up, he emerges. Breaking water. And making Venus look shameful.
Mile 10 I muster up the courage to jump in after him. Allowing the cold to numb legs, and arms, and heart. All while treading water. All while pretending the heart doesn’t exist. Pushing it below the surface. And only when the sun yawns, do we pull our drenched bodies away from the lake. The natural shiver of our bodies allows the water to careen down skin. The lake baptizes us. Provides a way for us to forget sin. A way for our bodies to remember each other. And if not, to let the icy waters shock it back into memory.
Mile 11 He slips on socks and shoes and wads his shirt into his palm. Grasping the tightly woven fabric. Playing with it between pruned fingers. Shorts clinging to skin, soaked and taut. Slowly dripping its contents while we run. A trail I follow. Eating away at the dribble of breadcrumbs. Tracking his speed and direction. Watching the dark matted hair, the twisting shoulders, and the rocking elbows in the glare of the afternoon atmosphere. An easy run back. Where he doesn’t say anything. And I don’t either. Where he is already ahead of me as we step off the walkway. Summiting the first hill before I get to its base. Where he is already gone when we get back to where we started. Before Linden and Buckskin. Before the porcupine carcass that only makes it a quarter of the way across the pavement, until some vehicle smashed it to oblivion. Before the curved bridge we cross on every run. Before I can talk to him when we got back to the turf track. His car is gone. The only trace left of him is the slowly evaporating trail his shorts leave. One that will be gone in a matter of hours. The memory of him dissipating into the ether.
Mile 2 I begin to wonder how many steps it took Prefontaine to achieve such grandeur. I wonder this, because I cannot let my mind wander elsewhere. Can it have been one million, I ask myself? Ten million? One hundred million? Or are these steps just a fraction of the talent he was willing to display. And if he were alive today, how many steps would he have completed already? How many steps until fat and sinew are boiled away leaving only callouses and muscle? How many steps will I have to take to catch up to him?
Mile 22 I set a date in my head. If only a soft one. Where I can procrastinate the truth. Hold the secret in my hands for just a little longer. August 12th. September 9th. December 16th. It takes a year to articulate the twisted ropes in my stomach. It’s the Wednesday after Halloween. Fake cobwebs still stretch across doorways. The day, like almost every other, is overcast. Tense. The clouds waiting for something to happen. Anything. Like a runner at the start line, poised to spring away from the competition. And when the gun is released, the only instinctual thought is to run. To run. To plant toes to ground and let shoes catch dirt. But the start of the race can’t get any worse. A trip on my own laces can amount to lost time, lost words, lost futures. I trip over my words when I invite him over. But I am determined to tell him. If only a kernel—half a seed, and I will let him grow the rest. Let it naturally plant itself within an invitation to meet up after school. I plan it well, think through every situation. The house is ready to welcome us both.
Mile 13 I have committed myself to my own torture. I know my legs will soon scream at me. I can already hear the tempered whimpers of my thighs. But I cannot stop. Because once I do, I will never be able to regain the lost distance. I will be too tempted to turn back. I will try to convince myself that I am not a runner, that I was never one. I might even call myself a fraud. To stop will be committing an unthinkable act to my reputation. And to continue is to knowingly pressure my body to its limits. And yet, I know that this is what every other runner is doing.
Mile 1 I don’t like beginnings. I’ve grown to hate them. Hate how romance starts with an accidental bump. How if I never looked at him. Moving between classes. This wouldn’t have happened. Wouldn’t have let the start gun begin the race. But it has. And here I am. The gun clicks, like the snap of shattering teeth. I see the telltale puff of smoke. And what was once silent hesitation, is now the quick shifting of bodies. Mine is one of them. My feet catch dirt, my arms throw punches into the air, and I am propelled forward. The cacophony of cheers and rain and pants and clashing of bodies hits my ears hard. I run to escape these sounds. I am bombarded by the splash of mud as it splatters my legs. It is crowded. And my body feels stifled. I want to scream out in frustration. I am trapped between the clammy bodies around me. Cornered. Like an animal with no other option than to run. As fast, as hard, and as far as an animal running from its deadly predator. Hoping that this will all end okay but knowing deep down it won’t.
Mile 12 It feels like I’ve been running forever, and this is because I have been. Time ticks at the twitch and release of my muscles. I am a fine-tuned clock; one whose rhythm relies solely on my heartbeat. My arms are the counterweights. But my movements are more precise than the greatest atomic clock. They have to be. To run is to come close to controlling time. And if one millisecond of a millisecond is off, then I have already given my competitor something to use against me. And they will. They are ruthless. They know me better than I know myself.
Mile 23 As the final bell rings for the day, we are on the damp sidewalk. As I step over yellow-brown Alder leaves, he slowly nudges his bike along the path. As if he knows his fate and wants time to stretch farther than the walk home. A death march. Desiring the implosion of stars to supersede this meeting. Allowing the silent fizzle of dazzling supernovas to fade before the words can scramble out of my mouth. A present day Hachikō. Something not even celestial beings will have the patience for. Will he?
Mile 8 The human body when subjected to stress, to bodily harm, to anything out of the ordinary, can respond in one of three ways. Only three options have dictated the expanse and success of the human species. The hard part is knowing which one. To fight. To stand still. Or to run. To flee. To escape danger. The chill on our skin helps us decide.
Mile 24 But today, I can’t tell if it is the whipping wind, or my instincts that make me shiver. I have no way of knowing which way, and so I step blindly forward, toward my house, with him by my side. The house is crisp inside. The floor is clean. As is the couch. And the bed, if it comes to that. And yet, he still has no idea. No clue that the movie or games are not as important as what I want to say. Alone to him.
Mile 14 The distance between us closes. I see him. I know what he has become. And maybe, it is only I who can capture him. Maybe the shoes I am wearing will propel me that much farther than him. Maybe the breakfast I ate was the exact right slurry to send my legs ablaze with hot, enriched blood. This is my race. He may not know this. He may not even be aware of me. Surely, he has heard my breaths or felt the thump of my feet through the earth. And if not now, he will soon. He will hear me, or see me, or feel me. I know he will stumble and realize his two feet aren’t as sturdy as he had always thought.
Mile 25 The darkness creeps on the windows, and the clock tells me it is dinner time. The supernovas are waving their last goodbyes. And I am not ready. How can I be? Sixteen. Barely able to find words to fill short essays, how can I find the right ones for him? The scenarios are numerous. Will he stay silent. Perfectly still. Like the way people are told to play dead when near a brown bear. A threat. To cover vital organs and wait it out. Will he fight? To let his own pride become the deadly weapon. Or will he run. To escape reality. To leave and never truly face me.
Mile 20 It is discouraged to run this far in training. The lactic acid buildup will cause adverse effects. I am running in unknown territory now. This is exciting at first, the future is elusive. Innumerable possibilities. Even so, I know that my training will only bring me so far. And then I am truly on my own.
Mile 16 I do not feel my arms anymore. The cold persisted and I forgot it was even there. My arms do not feel a thing, not even the relentless downpour. The cold will march its way onward, only desiring the hot blood of my chest. My body will try to retaliate, the way it was meant to. But the outcome is less certain.
Mile 26.2 He sits at the edge of the living room couch. A worn-down piece of furniture that has seen me age years. Seen me succeed. Fail. Observed every monumental milestone of my childhood, not letting this one be the exception. I sit just close enough to make him feel uneasy. To feel the diagonal stare, and then the absent gaze downward. His thighs are the closest part to me. The strength they convey. The strips of muscle flexing, and relaxing. The potential of those legs. Kilometers built into each strand. The smell of Tiger Balm purring at nostrils. I exhale, knowing the next breath had to be the one. The supernovas winking into the ether. A stutter. A break of eye contact. I…I think I like you. Silence. He stands up. I don’t know what to say, he responds. Slowly walking to his bike. Silence. He looks at me. I’ll let I think on it, I hear myself say. The garage door opens. Eyes unable to meet. Silence. He turns back. Pushing pedals until his bike leaves. Silence.
Mile 15 Years later, I am at a Los Angeles night club snatching glimpses of gay couples working their bodies into a lather. And I wonder, through the tangle of limbs and dancing men if that could have been us. Could we have grown up together, groomed each other’s beards and feel the music flow through us? And if drunkenness had been better served to me, I would’ve approached them, curiously. Asking them where I messed up. And for them to reassure me that if I only followed the steps they outline, we can be them in a decade. Can bring him to the same club and kiss in front of everyone else so that a young, drunken, gay teenager will confront us, wondering how we had come to be. And to look into that boy’s eyes and see how much pain he felt would coax the answer he so desperately needs out of me. And hope with all the alcohol in his body, that he remembers my words, follows them, so that one day he can be the confident man holding another man among all the other intoxicated souls and not give a fuck about how they feel. And to what reality do I owe this situation? One where I am more confident? One that changed his biology? Or one that changed mine? One that disregards our separate souls, and so place us in one whole body. To be a mixture of shy and confident, of beautiful and ugly, of loved and neglected, and all that was important and everything insignificant. If we are one being, can we call ourselves perfect? Can we be anything but? I want to know if the gay couple feel like life should’ve contained them in that one moment. To be intoxicated by the alcohol and the music and the sweat and the rhythm of our hearts and each other. And regret absolutely none of it.
Mile 17 After one-night fucks, emptiness claws at my stomach, reaching for my heart. Trying desperately to tell me how any dick is not enough. Not even one that is attached to a well-to-do man with an all-American job who lives on a quiet, unassuming neighborhood lined with draping greenery and familial ties. Whose shoulders reach above my head. Not even the overly bourgeois Asian boy whose painting abilities match that of the ancient greats. And yet they fall at the feet of this boy whose shyness and timid demeanor I find more attractive. Than anything else. Mile 26 From here, this minutely close vantage point, I can glimpse the staccato of goosebumps of his neck. I can tell that his body is only a vehicle for a soul that has only ever known how to run. Radiating sweat, and power, and strength. But I will keep running after him. Even if his legs carry him like Hermes. Legs palpating the ground, tipped with wings. I know the race will never end once it has begun. This is the deal I have made. Not if it’s with a god. I am running now. Forever.