It’s Thursday afternoon, and Jim is waiting for me. Today is our tempo run, a 10-mile loop that is supposed to leave us breathless and exhilarated. Last week Jim ran strong, and opened a half-block lead over me with two miles left. I forced my leaden legs to give just a little bit more, and Jim slowed just a bit to let me pull even. Afterwards, I was exhausted. And now Jim is waiting for me again.
We start out easy, weaving through crowds and traffic. In D.C., parks weave though and around the city like vines on a tree. Our loop takes us from the downtown business district to Georgetown, and from there onto a 3-mile wooded trail. We emerge at the northern edge of the city, and run down Connecticut Avenue, back to our starting point. It’s a beautiful route, but it’s also our proving ground. Jim and I have ambitious goals for our fall marathons. I am aiming for a sub-3 hour race, and this weekly run will help get me there. If I can keep up with Jim.
We’ve worked our way through Georgetown, and have entered the woods. We’re running well, but shorter on breath than either of us would like. Our conversation dwindles down to a few short words, and then just the sound of our heavy breathing. As we jump logs and hop over streambeds, I imagine that I’m an early settler, chasing game for the family dinner. Or perhaps an escaped convict, with the howl of bloodhounds getting ever louder behind me. Leaves brush past my face, and I feel a surge of energy. I pick up the pace.
We leave the woods, and I glance down at my watch. We’re ahead of our usual pace, but the toughest part lies ahead. The downhill must be run hard if it is to be run honestly. It’s a 4-mile stretch that should leave my lungs burning and my thoughts muddled. Less effort than that makes it just another easy run, and puts Jim a half block ahead of me.
We sweep down the avenue and overtake a bus picking up passengers. I consider the traffic lights ahead, and the scheduled stops the bus has to make. We’ll run along the bus’s route for the next three miles. If we run hard, I think to myself, we can beat it. I keep my thoughts on the bus, and I pick up the pace.
Now we’re flying, our bodies moving smoothly, feet barely touching the ground. We’ve raced the bus a full mile, and still it has not gotten the better of us. It pulls close, flirts with us, but then brakes to pick up passengers, or is halted by a red light. I become accustomed to the ebb and flow of its loud, droning engine. And then the National Zoo appears, its entrance gate enveloped by a swarm of tourists. We step out towards the street, and collect the open-mouthed stares of children. I pick up the pace.
Ahead is the bridge over Rock Creek Park. This is where I watched Jim surge ahead last week, unable to match his strength. Today, my lungs are burning, but I feel strong. Jim falls a few strides behind, surges to make up lost ground, then falls back and surges again. He will not gain a half-block on me today. The bus is behind us now for good, vanquished. We have less than two miles to go. I pick up the pace.
Now we turn onto Massachusetts Avenue for the last few blocks of our run. We are running without thinking, like machines, just trying to hold on. “Almost there, just a little bit more,” I intone, as much for me as for Jim. And then we are just one block away. I am tired, but I am in love with the effort, and I tell Jim I will sprint the last block. He joins me, and we tear down the street, mad for speed and adrenaline.
And then the workout is over. We shuffle, letting our heartbeats slow and our breathing return to normal. I look at my watch. Six minutes faster than last week. “Great run,” Jim says breathlessly. “Great run. My best 10-miler ever.” I smile and nod, happy and alive.
We take turns, Jim and I, pulling and pushing each other through our training runs, tearing through the woods and racing buses, chasing after our marathon dreams. We are athletes in the greatest, craziest, most competitive, most supportive, most elegant, most brutal sport in the world. And next week, with any luck, Jim will be waiting for me again, ready to hit the trails once more.