As the blue cold settles over Seattle, and the challenges of staying hydrated and loose mount, the sport is beginning to take hold over my mind. Every decision large and small seems to relate back to running.
The toll running takes on our minds and bodies seems too much to fess up to most of the time, but I’ve finally found someone who will do it–Quenton Cassidy, from the runner’s cult book “Once a Runner.” By John. L. Parker Junior–a 4:06 miler from the University of Florida–the thing has lost not an ounce of relevance since it was published in 1978. It captures the lows runners go to for their infamous highs. Quenton Cassidy, the main character, shamelessly admits that racing feels like hell, yet his girlfriend notes that he packs for races with child-like giddiness. To him, running is all goals and work, but it’s also the realest thing he knows, and a thing that makes him free. It’s hard not to love him for his dedication to the sport’s main objective: getting faster. He says he does not understand all the hype runners give to the idea of the euphoric “runner’s high,” but as he watches some less serious runners “turn their ninety second quarters,” it dawns on him that to them, running is an entirely different sport. To them, it is merely a ticket to jock-dom–a way to sport fun outfits and be known as an athlete. They were “playing track.” To Cassidy, running is “The Task.” He gets frail, irritable, lives in an exhausted haze, chasing down that sub-four minute mile and the chance to join ranks with the legendary runners of his time.
I wish I knew Cassidy. The book has come to inhabit the background noise of my mind. Images of Cassidy, droopy eyed and slumping as he walks to class, come into view as I head out onto the dark, rainy streets these mornings. “He did not like these morning rituals, but he never considered not going,” Parker writes.
That’s the sort of dedication it takes to try to break 4 minutes for the mile. I suppose it takes a serious level of maturity as an athlete. At the same time, it’s dangerous to fall too deeply in love with that no-holds-barred attitude. I’m watching some old injuries–an unruly I-T band, an irritable achilles–like a hawk. I just wish those calf raises and, icing, baths, and stretches didn’t take so much God damn time.
These days, I crave the flying feeling. I think of the sound of one step after another, each hitting the pavement squarely on the ball of my foot. I think of my foot kicking out the dirt behind me, the heel flying out behind me and as my knee raises, then dropping down to strike the ground and spring me forward again. I think of the silhouette of the perfect runner, body leaning slightly forward, arms driving in tight efficient swings, feet making perfect circles in their path up and down, forward and back, those wheels of legs building momentum like a machine, unperturbed by fatigue, rather freed by the feeling of moving along the ground faster than ever remember until the pain increases and the shadow of self doubt moves in like a cloud. Then suddenly, strangely, the second wind hits, energy stores revive, a new gear discovered, and you’re gone.