I heard the boy before I saw him again.
We had started up the backside of Diamond Head at roughly the same time, though he had likely run more miles than me. Gleaming with sweat in the humid afternoon, he ran with his hands behind his back for reasons that still escape me (is he training for some kind of twisted “prison” inspired race? Is that a military thing?). He looked 22, like he could’ve been a former student, and wore a “don’t mess with me” look on his face.
I knew because I often wear the same look, but today it was for very different reasons. I was dripping sweat and snot, my body rebelling after too much travel and not enough sleep. After finally accepting that I had a nasty cold, I had decided that I wouldn’t run that day. Rest days are necessities for all runners, and this would be one of mine.
Still, sitting at Kapiolani park, knowing I had all my gear if I wanted, I couldn’t help it. I had spent all morning thinking and talking about my love if running, and I was too fired up. I decided I’d run Diamond Head– a few miles– just to sweat it out.
And, man, did I do that. I sweated. I sneezed and hacked up whatever is sitting in my lungs and had to execute more than one Farmer’s Blow (I know. I’m sorry). I stopped a lot on the way over, and once I had come to the other side, I tried to catch my breath and whined a little.
After a few minutes, I was faced with the thought most runners encounter at some point in a bad run. As much as you are so over this, you also know that the darn run isn’t going to finish itself, and you have to get home.
A bit more rejuvenated, I started back up the hill. That’s when I saw the boy. We paced together until he had to stop for water, but I saw him look up and give me an all-too-familiar glance. You’ll see me again.
I didn’t think much of it. It wasn’t aggressive, it was something I think a lot of us do: you build a story while you run. You, silently, let out your inner competitor and you desperately want to “win.” I’ve done it often, and certainly don’t mind when others do the same. I kept climbing and crested the hill, just happy to have found my stride.
Five minutes later, I heard his steps behind me. I moved to the left so he could pass, until something kicked in my own head. Not today, kiddo. I snatched my self-pity, my resignation to a crappy run off the mat, and threw them out the window.
I picked up my stride and began to pump my arms a little more. Push push push. My back straightened immediately, and I heard a former coach’s voice in my ear, launch yourself to the next step! I bounced and hopped my way down Diamond Head, determined not to be passed. My breath caught in my throat, but I let out a quick, sharp growl and swallowed it back down.
Then, my hips clicked. Something happens when you’re body finally snaps into gear and matches what your brain is asking it to do. The muscles that were saying What the hell brain? We can’t do this! all of a sudden let go. For me, it’s in my hips. They spread wide along my back, and my body opens up in a way that propels me forward.
You. Shall. Not. Pass. my inner Gandalf screamed as I pushed forward. I pounded the pavement harder.
Suddenly, I am all fire. My lungs burning, my feat beating the ground like a fiery drum. I am molten fire streaming down beaches towards the ocean. I am streaks of gold off Apollo’s chariot. I am rage at student walk outs. I am fury outside city hall. I am my mother’s heart beat when she brought my into the world. I am my father’s arms as he holds us both. I am what you don’t see coming next.
I am all these things, welded into the fibers of my muscles, glowing in the sparks and charges that keep my body moving.
I get back to the grassy park, slow down, and look behind me. The boy is gone. I never looked to see if he was even really there.
If anything, the breaks we are forced to take make us much more grateful for the miles themselves. I didn’t run more than those few yesterday, but I am reminded that even when everything aches, and it feels like things are breaking apart, glimmers of golden, crackling joy are still there, deep inside us.