The weather was cooler now. He looked down the wide, tree-covered path as it disappeared into the forest and took a deep breath. He stretched his arms across his chest, ran his hand through his hair, and started running. He was back on the trail and free from the issues surrounding his life, though within the first quarter-mile he quickly discovered he was less prepared for the run than he realized. He must be delusional, he thought, or a fool to want to take this trail again.
As he made his way down the path thousands of images and sounds of previous runs merged together and combined to form a collage of thighs thrusting forward, arms swinging ahead, sounds of breathing becoming steady. This time, the musky smell of autumn filled his lungs as he watched pine needles twirling in the breeze and leaves of yellow and amber falling from the understory. It wasn’t long before he crossed an old wooden footbridge and followed the path as it led him deeper into the forest.
His old boss, about twenty years his senior and not much of a runner, introduced him to this trail three decades earlier. His boss maintained a crinkly slow pace, and as a result, he couldn’t stand running with him and frequently would run on ahead. His boss saying, “Remember, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight but…” yadda, yadda, yadda. He had heard it all before.
He was in his mid-thirties at the time and, unlike his boss, he could glide through the woods like a deer – no, like a magnificent buck.
Yet his boss never failed to say, “Keep your head up and your legs churning.”
Now, thirty years later, he lumbered more like an old bear in that same creaky style as his boss, legs sore, worrying over the ache in his joints as he warmed to the run.
It’s the fight in the dog, he reminded himself.
Earlier in the afternoon a friend suggested he take the trail. He had parked his jeep at the gym and was walking to the building, bent over, head down, thinking of everything he had to get done and how much he didn’t want to be there when she spotted him.
“When’s your next marathon?” Carol asked as she hurried to join him.
He looked up and frowned. “February, if I go,” he said.
He grimaced at the situation. Tokyo was in sixteen weeks.
“It’s getting late,” he added.
“You should do it,” she responded, trying to be encouraging.
He shrugged. “I’m not exactly in the best of shape.”
That too weighed him down.
Tokyo would be the fourth marathon in a row in his attempt to run the Big Six; he had run Chicago, New York, and Boston and now had to decide on whether to sign up for Tokyo. He probably should have made that decision months earlier and likely would not get in at this late date. But, then again, did he even want to try?
Besides, Berlin and London would be waiting.
“So many decisions,” he said, looking over at Carol with a thin smile.
Carol was a short woman with graying hair, like him, and a quick smile; they often joked together, but meeting her on his way into the gym this time was disconcerting. He was glad to see her and get his mind off of work, but Tokyo wasn’t exactly what he wanted to talk about at the end of a long and fruitless day.
He walked silently beside her. Maybe she would walk faster and leave him alone. No, he realized, she was keeping step with him.
“Running the trail?” she asked, looking over at him as if his slowing down was to run the lane in front of them, a run that would take him down the hill to the trailhead.
“Certainly is a beautiful day for it.”
He hadn’t thought about it, but, he realized, she was right, the weather was perfect; besides it was a great excuse to stop, to separate, and, in truth, get started, especially if he was to run Tokyo in February.
“I’m thinking about it,” he lied, looking at the sky cast in brilliant shades of blue, the bright sun descending toward the dark tree-lined horizon, leaves falling on the lane and parked cars, the top of the pines swaying in the breeze.
“Certainly is a beautiful way to end the day.”
Now he was coming up on the first set of hills, thinking about how much slower he was than what he expected, given he had run Boston six months earlier and exercised on a treadmill all summer; the trail, too, was much harder than he remembered. His mind already questioning how long he could go before walking, how far before the reality of the situation betrayed him to other runners.
The path through the pine forest was a beautiful three-mile loop, especially in the fall, but at the same time, it was a tough run any time of the year; it started easy, but quickly became a difficult route of steep hills and swampy flats; that was why he continued to run it over the years – the challenge was formidable.
He desperately needed this run to be like it once was. Just once more, he pleaded, as he came to the first hill. He needed a sign to apply for Tokyo, but in truth, he knew he was too heavy and too out-of-shape…
Soon, in fact, he would be punished for not going into the gym that afternoon, for not running on the treadmill as he had all summer. He had convinced himself he was the monster of the treadmill, but, even there, even then, his times were disheartening, a constant reminder of his deterioration since Boston and, even, New York a year earlier.
His weight was the issue. His daughter said his eating habits were the worst.
“Dad, this is pathetic,” she said when she was back in town and looking through the pantry and refrigerator at home. “All this cheese everywhere and processed sandwich meat and chips and cookies – have I taught you nothing?”
At the time, he had to laugh. “Oh, that’s just lunch.” he said. “Ignore that.”
Helen was such a constant nutritionist and, in her endless pursuit of dietary perfection, she pointed to his breakfast and dinner choices too.
“No wonder,” she said, shaking her head.
Now the reality of what he was doing to himself hit home. He calculated he was at least twenty pounds overweight and climbing; which, he realized, was way too much for a personal-best type run on this trail, let alone train for a marathon half way around the world.
So why keep up the facade when he had so many pounds to lose?
Why did he do this to himself all the time?
“Oh God, let’s not go there,” he mumbled, climbing the first hill, hating the thought of needing to get his weight down so he could run a marathon. The whole thing didn’t seem right, like it should be turned on its head.
The first hill he knew wasn’t significant, yet it left him reeling and gasping for air.
Not a good sign.
As he headed down the backside, he could hear someone approaching from behind, someone with a panting dog. When he ran, he never looked back and if anyone ever passed him, he learned long ago to breathe deep and accept it. Now he was running like he had morphed into a old gopher, and this trail, he knew, was built for the young, the prepared, and the lean.
Climbing the second hill, a brown Labrador Retriever on an extended leash worked his way up beside him; the dog sniffed him, barked, and continued pushing forward, lowering his head and smelling the ground; the runner, his stride long and strong, was only a few steps behind.
The runner paused next to him. “Hey, heard there’s a Copperhead in the swamp up ahead,” he said.
He looked over at the runner and tried to catch his breath. He wanted to say, “I’ll keep an eye open.” Instead, he nodded; it was too hard to speak.
He was surprised to see the runner’s weathered face and wavy white hair. He expected to see some cock-sure, college student with his young pup of a snotty dog, not an old man and his bloodhound hunting wild Copperheads.
He couldn’t help but wonder if the runner was like him, also in his sixties. No, he looked younger. Didn’t he, himself, run like that a decade earlier? Not like the young runners who knew no hardship, who never had to handle age as an element of their running, but like that, like that guy moving ahead with his hunting dog, putting distance between them as they crested the second hill.
“We’ll keep a look out,” the guy said, leaving him behind.
“Thanks,” he mumbled to no one in particular, the trees swaying in the breeze.
Age had its detrimental effects, he realized, as he descended the second hill, feeling those effects overwhelm him. He remembered, then, several older runners he used to see with their dogs on the trail, others besides his old boss when he ran with his aging terrier – what happened to them? It had been years since he thought of them, whizzed by them as they ran together down the trail. Where were they now and why had so much time passed?
Time for a reality check, he thought. Was this the day? Soon his age would end his ability to run this trail at all, preventing him from handling the hills and the incredible stress on his legs, chest, and heart.
Wouldn’t he be sorry tomorrow if the trail nearly killed him, if he had to go to the hospital for a pacemaker, or ended up on a respirator, or worse?
What would he say to his wife? He could hear her already: “Why were you running that horrible trail? What were you thinking?”
He suddenly realized he hadn’t told Karen he was running the trail. His note on the counter said he was going to the gym one more time. Ha! Wouldn’t she be surprised when she came home and called his cell phone!
“I thought you had given up on Tokyo,” she would say.
He was finishing the section of the trail called the Dragon’s Tail; it consisted of three undulating hills, like ripples through the woods. If he couldn’t handle the Dragon, what would happen when he came to Jacob’s Ladder, the first significant climb ahead? He had to be tough here, he told himself, as he crested the third hill, forced his breathing to be normal and his pace to remain steady, not like the runner he remembered back in New York who was drunk on his feet and suffering from dehydration as he crossed the finish line.
God, let me finish this run alive.
Now he was on a long downhill stretch through the woods and heading for the lowest point on the trail. He crossed another wooden bridge, and then a second bridge, before entering the swampy part of the path, picking his spots to plant his feet on solid ground and away from the slippery pools of water and mud.
Was the Copperhead lurking here? It was bad enough at his age, with the weight he was carrying, to be running through a swamp, but to be negotiating a venomous snake while deciding where to place his feet to keep from sliding or worse, falling, or worse, tearing a hamstring, like he had done a year-and-a-half earlier, was crazy.
Did they take old, hobbling, snake-bit runners in heaven, he wondered, closely assessing the pathway in front of him.
No, this trail looked like hell, he decided, as he surveyed the half-mile route for snakes. He knew hell. He was on the path to hell. This was hell.
Jacob’s Ladder would be worse, he realized. This was the most formidable hill on the trail, as the route quickly gained in elevation.
He needed help, he decided as he completed the swamp section of the trail. It was time for a medevac team to chopper him out of there. Was he really going to attempt Jacob’s Ladder?
He started climbing almost before he realized, forcing his thighs forward, his feet upward, his shoes turning sideways to clutch into the steep grade. He was pushing himself up the hill, his arms swinging madly, his breathing loud and hoarse.
Fuck this, he said as a mantra with each step: Fuck this. Fuck this.
“—and fuck Tokyo too,” he hissed as he turned a corner and continued climbing.
Suddenly he saw a movement on his right in the grass. The Copperhead! He had forgotten about the snake in putting all of his energy into climbing the hill.
He was just about to grip into the rocky hillside with his right foot when out of the grass slithered the snake. There was nothing he could do, he planted his foot next to the Copperhead and leaped forward as best he could, only extending inches ahead with his left foot but lifting his right foot madly over the snake as it lifted its head, poised to strike.
Oh, fuck, he muttered as he leaped past the snake. Fuck, fuck, fuck!
He couldn’t speak when he reached the top. He thought he was dead. He waited for the venom to course through his veins, but he felt no pain in his leg and, when he bent over and felt his leg, it wasn’t bleeding. He straightened up and took a deep breath. He was alive. The rolling countryside far below him, beyond the woods, was cast in amber and deepening shadow in the late afternoon light.
Fucking Copperhead, he thought. He had to go back and see if it was still there. Get it off the trail for other runners.
He picked up a rock to fling it at the snake and then decided it wasn’t big enough. He picked up a small boulder with two hands to bash it over the head, but when he cautiously worked his way back down the steep grade, the snake was no where to be found. Fuck! Now what? He tossed his boulder into the grass where the snake had been, “Take that, you fucking snake!”, then quickly ran back up the hill and away from the site. In seconds he was heading to the far side of the hill, agonizing over whether he should have done more, and grunting over the jarring impact on his knees and lower back as he escaped down the backside of the steep Ladder.
Soon enough, he was hidden in the thick of trees with their falling leaves and swirling pine needles. He was running along a rolling stretch known as the Pipeline, which would take him to the next set of hills. A large drainage pipe off in the woods on his right gave this section its name. Once he danced the entire length of the pipe back when he was in his mid-thirties. Now, as nervous as he was from the encounter with the Copperhead, he would surely fall and kill himself.
He had to calm down. His breathing had to settle, he realized, if he was to complete the course. It was his lungs that gave him away every time, that and his core, a squishy mass of fat and unrealized muscle; he hated the weight that had accumulated like an amorphous belt around his middle.
Running was exhausting.
It was time to stop and admit defeat.
Two runners, he realized, were approaching from the other direction. They were talking, barely paying attention to the trail, and seemed to be running slowly along the path. A black guy and a white girl, he realized, as the distance between them closed. The guy, thin and tall, was wearing warm up pants and jacket, the woman in black compression capris with a maroon running shirt.
He looked up as he ran past, saying “Snake on the hill,” but then, realized he knew them.
He stopped and turned. They too had paused.
Oh my god. “Albert,” he said. It was his instructor from his old boxing gym – along with one of the participants in his kickboxing class, a good-looking woman with whom he often interacted. What was her name? Cindy. What the hell…
He walked back to them. They too came back. He shook Albert’s hand and gave Cindy a hug.
“What,” he asked, catching his breath, “are you doing here?”
“We wondered if we would see you,” Cindy said in response, a big smile. He remembered how much he liked that smile.
Albert looked the same as when he took his class back before his hamstring tear.
Albert was a tough old marine a year or two older than him. He could be unrelenting and downright mean when it came to being in shape and ready for his class. Back then, Albert engaged in an endless struggle to teach him kickboxing.
“Where have you been?” Cindy asked.
Cindy was as pretty as he remembered. With her short brown hair, lively eyes, that smile, and a compact, athletic body, she was easy to watch in the gym – certainly, better than studying Albert. She was in her mid-forties and one heck of a kick boxer.
No wonder she and Albert were always together.
“So many tales to tell, you don’t want to ask,” he said, clutching his sides, his breathing finally calming down.
“Have you been exercising?” Albert asked, looking him over. “You look heavy.”
“Albert!” Cindy said. “You know him, never one to mince words.”
“Weren’t you running a bunch of marathons?” Albert asked. “What happened to you? You look like shit.”
Good old Albert. He frowned.
“I’m a little overweight, but I’m training for Tokyo,” he said. Albert shook his head in disapproval.
He was an idiot to mention Tokyo. He laughed nervously.
“Albert, I guess I better get back in your class,” he said.
Perhaps that’s exactly what he needed: sixteen weeks of kick-your-ass kickboxing to lower his weight and get into shape with what little time he had remaining.
“Not now, “ Cindy said, “the gym closed.”
Albert looked disgusted, but he knew Albert never liked being associated with a boxing gym in a shiny shopping center in the middle suburbia.
“That’s too bad,” he said to Albert, somewhat relieved.
Working out with Albert had been hell. Other than the opportunity to wear boxing gloves and pummel a black 250-pound punching bag, Cindy was the best thing about that class.
“Albert’s now a trainer,” Cindy added. “Albert, give him one of your cards.”
Albert gave her a look, he saw, like this was the last thing he wanted to do, train a sixty-year-old, overweight man, but he reached into his jacket pocket and handed him a beat-up card.
Without his reading glasses, he couldn’t make out a thing.
“Thanks,” he said to Albert, “I might give you a call. I just might do that.”
He shrugged and smiled at Cindy; for a second he wished he was where he was back then, back when the two of them talked after Albert’s class, sitting on the mats, unwrapping the boxing tape from their hands.
“I guess I could use the help,” he said finally.
“We all can,” she responded sympathetically.
He cautioned them about the Copperhead and, when he went on with his run, it was like Albert and Cindy were with him. Albert’s card next to his cell phone and car keys in the tiny pouch around his mid-section radiated its own positive energy. He couldn’t stop now. Three major hills remained and then he would be back at his car. The first hill was a long, tough climb and often seemed the worst, even though the second hill, known as the Claw Hammer, was the steepest, and if he was going to walk, this was the one where he had stopped on previous occasions.
“Get to the Claw.” How often had he said this when things weren’t going well?
These two hills, in particular, would be the real test: if he walked the first hill, it would be a disaster. No way could he do Tokyo. If he walked the second, he simply was out of shape and another victim of the trail. Tokyo would still be an issue. If he kept running across the long incline to the downward stretch on the other side of the hilltop, this was the sign that he was coming back and should send in the application.
The first hill took everything he had to get up it. After so much of the trail behind him, the long stiff grade nearly killed him. He was gasping when he reached the top, though his legs kept moving as if they had a life of their own. This was it. He never could do Tokyo. But his legs were tougher than he was: his legs kept churning, even when his lungs had given out and his mind had shut down.
He stumbled down the backside of the hill, still in pain from the long climb. The woods were beautiful here, and with the leaves and pine needles falling like snow, it was the gift he needed to keep going, to be baptized in the forest primeval.
He crossed a bridge and began to climb the Claw Hammer, the perfect name for the second hill: a long incline, the handle, then a short stretch on level ground, the metal brace, a dip downward, and then, an abrasively steep climb to the top, the hammer’s intensely jagged claw.
He started up the hill, but soon realized he had no energy left to handle the Handle, even Albert’s card up against his core couldn’t help him now. The trail had won. Tokyo be damned.
Still, he couldn’t allow himself to stop. It would be horrible to walk the entire hill. Better to keep running and be done with it. He kept his head down and focused only on the few feet in front of him, keeping his legs pumping, as long as they would, to make it from tree-to-tree, to reach the short flat and catch his breath before the steep climb ahead.
Now he was entering the claw of the hammer.
Suddenly, he heard his phone ring, muffled against his stomach. What the hell?
His fingers shook as he struggled to unzip his pouch and pull out the phone.
He could barely speak as he continued to negotiate the steep incline.
“Are you all right?”
His wife’s voice was miles away.
“You sound like you’re dying,” she said in alarm.
“…ah, ah,” he gasped as he struggled up the steepest stretch. “I … I… I can’t…”
“Where are you?” she asked, concern in her voice.
“Tok…yo,” he said. “I… I…”
“Come home,” she said. “You’re killing yourself. It’s time to come home.”
He couldn’t talk. It was too hard, but in the phone he thought he heard:
“We need you. Sweetheart, please…”
Yes. He had to get home. Karen would be at home. Karen was home.
He reached the top where it was okay to stop, but he kept running, lifting his head, slowly churning past the spots where he had walked on previous occasions, slowly crossing the hilltop with its gradual incline to the crest.
He couldn’t believe it possible, but now he was running down the hill and free of the torture of the Claw. He was coming out of the forest and heading toward the end of the trail. He only had to run a half-mile along the street, before turning up the lane to the gym and the third hill, one final climb to his car. This though, this downward stretch from the Hammer, would give him the respite needed to regroup, to gather his wits and prepare for the final hill where victory, water, and his life waited.
Soon he was down the hill, out of the woods, and running across the flat, leaving the trail behind. He turned up the lane to the gym and began the final climb. He passed a turn-in to the left, more trees lining the road, a turn-in to the right and the sign for the gym. He could see himself driving home, showering, and eating dinner; later he would watch the news with Karen and fall asleep beside her on the couch.
He looked at his watch when he reached his jeep. His time was horrible, one of the worst he had ever recorded in running the trail. He had nothing to be happy about and was a fool for attempting it so out of shape.
He had three marathons to go to complete the six major marathons of the world. He needed more time to prepare for Tokyo. The idea of taking on all six, one after another, was slipping away. He needed to recover, to regroup, to gather again the momentum that saw him run Chicago, New York, and Boston in only a year-and-a-half. If he was to finish, he needed to pause to get back into the fight.
He sat in his car, fingered Albert’s card and felt its frayed edges. With his glasses on he studied the cell phone number at the bottom.
Soon it would be tomorrow and he would be back at work, worrying about his weight, wondering why he continued to eat such horrible foods, why he couldn’t do anything about anything, but do the same thing over and over.
He started his car.
He had to get better; he still had so far to go.
He sighed and tossed the card into the glove compartment.
Soon enough he would have to make a decision.
He turned on his headlights.
He hadn’t realized it had gotten so dark.