Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Keep your friends close, your enemies closer.

When I want to do 'hill work' (aka running up hills to make your legs stronger), I usually go to Lafayette Reservoir. It has a very hilly trail that winds around a ridge, but my preferred route is the 2 3/4 mile paved loop hugging the water-line.

Distraction helps me run which has resulted me in naming most of the hills around the loop. For example, the first hill leads to a children's play area with a castle-like structure, so I call it "The Drawbridge".

Increasing my total distance is my main goal for the day so I plan on four laps around the pond (a new personal record.) I pop on my headphones, take a deep breath and start trotting.

On the third lap the exertion catches up with me. My mind starts to go into that state of,  "Why am I doing this, again? Isn't there a computer game you would rather be playing right now?" I mentally slap myself a couple of times and concentrate on keeping pace - then I see it.

Dead ahead is the hill I call "The Beast", the steepest one of the loop. I let up my pace  and promise myself that if I can just keep moving it will be all over shortly. An elderly couple at the top see me panting upwards and move to the side allowing me to pass. I catch movement on my left in my peripheral vision and realize I am being passed.

She is Asian, in her early twenties, about six feet tall and is running like she means business. I assume this is her first lap since she isn't really sweating and doesn't seem tired at all. While training to run I have learned to discard my ego, so I could care less that she is passing me. That is, until I get to the top of the hill.

The couple at the top of the hill is still waiting for me to pass. The husband, who reminds me of Mr Miyagi, is looking at me with disgust. My iPod volume is cranked up so I can't hear what he is saying to me, but I catch the last few words which are " A GIRL!". He scowls, points his finger at me and then at the girl. The message is clear : don't let a girl beat you. (Side note: this song starts playing and is the theme song for what happens next.)

Exhaustion does strange things to your brain- something inside me snaps. Suddenly, my entire focus is inside a mental box. There is no pain inside the box. There is no fatigue inside the box. There is only one thing with me inside the box : "catch the girl."

I pick up my pace and she comes back into view as I turn the corner. The old man laughing behind me, I concentrate on her feet and match her rhythm (tap, tap, tap, tap.) I copy her stride and assessments of the situation bounce around my head : she's younger than I am, she's a more experienced runner, she's just started her run today, she's got a longer stride. My brain processes all this information and spits out the response.

She is history.

I increase my pace a 1/8 count to her rhythm (tap, tap-tap, tap, tap) and slowly gain on her. She turns over her shoulder, sees me and speeds up. I recalibrate the beat and compensate. We approach the series of long winding hills I call "The Dragon's Spine" and I hear a sound that could be me gasping for air or could be the wind.

About a mile later, we approach a flat picnic area I call "The Meadow" and the walls of the box crash around me. Clutching my stomach, I yell, "You win!", and grind to a halt. In response, she turns and gives me a thumbs up and sprints away even faster.

That's when it sinks in: she was never worried about me passing her, she was worried about me giving up without pushing myself to the limit.

I finished all four laps and went home thinking about the lessons I learned: there isn't dishonor in losing to a girl, a perceived opponent could actually be your ally, and if you spend all your energy on the monsters you won't be able to even walk through the meadow.