It's time to go. My mind kicks into gear with no hesitation, but my body must be coaxed. I stretch, slowly, letting each muscle tense and lengthen. Muscles too tense, I've forgotten to breathe. As the air wooshes from my lungs, the stretch becomes easier. I can reach farther, curl in a few degrees more. Slowly, my muscles begin to revel in it, to cooperate and move as I want them to. Endorphines are flowing as my blood pumps. Another stretch, focusing on the muscles that always seem to seize up on me - my hamstrings, my sides. I check my laces once more and reach for my water bottle. Another drink, checking that at least eight ounces worth are in my system, and I'm outside.
Nature greets me in one form or another. The sun beats down; I put my shades over my glasses - no need to squint and tense up my facial muscles. The breeze runs past with all the care of a laughing child. I start walking at my normal pace until I reach the spot I've chosen. The cell phone comes out, the timer set for two minutes. I take a moment to survey my domain. Even if I'm in unfamiliar territoy, as I am now, this is something I know. Even if my feet have never before disturbed this ground, I feel it instinctively. This is where I will run. I push a button, my feet moving a second before the countdown starts.
My breathing comes easy, moving with the rhythm of my feet. Four count inhale, four count exhale. Before the two minutes are up, of course, this is completely shot. All I can do is keep my feet moving in time, my arms moving, eyes on the road. No need to look at the timer. When it beeps, I turn it off, drinking in air through burning lungs. My thumb taps a button, re-starting the countdown, as my brain forces my feet to move. This is a walk, a two minute cool down. Through most of it, I pant and gasp, trying to get my breathing back, slow in and out, through my nose. Yeah, right. Too soon, the beep sounds again. Inwardly, I groan. Just a little more walking. Thirty seconds or another minute, just until my breathing evens out.
My discipline won't let me. I tap the button again, feet moving in the same rhythm, seeming stilted and awkward. My run seems, to me, more like a hybrid of a jog and the desperate last minute sprint of the dead tired. Minute three of running passes a little easier than minute one. I hardly notice minute four, determined as ever not to look at the timer. The times I do cheat, I am proud of myself. The mantras for these cheats are one of two. "Only a minute left. You've done one, so do another." "Thirty seconds. If you reach that landmark, that sign, that tree, before the alarm, you can stop." It's all a mind game, of course. The landmark I've picked is too far ahead or so close I know I'll breeze past it and keep going.
More walking. I check my heart rate as I walk, eyes now glued to the timer as I count beats in my head. My pulse seems to be everywhere, my blood humming. I hear the echoing dull thud in my ears. I feel the beat in my shoulders, my legs tingling, aching in a positive way. Even my scalp seems to pulse with the beat of my heart. I count. One, two, three, four. My heart rate is up, where it needs to be. Another minute of walking, four total now excluding the journey to my running space. The next, I know, will be the worst. As always, I hear the beep.
Why did I ever decide to do this? I push the button, my legs sluggish, objecting as I push forward. Minute five is the best part of my run - for about the first thirty seconds. I feel great, I'm getting fit, I'm doing something I love. All these thoughts are derailed as my focus rapidly shifts to oxygen. My whole world is the breath moving in and out of my lungs, moving too fast, giving no nourishment I can detect. There is very little feeling of relief tied to any inhale right now. It is an automatic thing, something I have to do in the same way my feet have to keep eating up the pavement.
This is the halfway point, my personal mile 20, my wall. Rhythm is gone now. There is no form to the run in my head, no feeling of my muscles working together, my body a well-oiled machine. I gasp and pant and will my feel to keep going. If I reach a hill, I feel the weight pulling at my feet, my legs. I want to slow down, to walk up the cursed incline. I want to lean forward to ease the gentle pull that feels like I'm moving through water. As always, I don't let myself. I count each foot strike, working on the most basic of the human body's actions. Breathe in. Breathe out. Keep moving your feet. One, two, three, four. Minute six seems as if it will never end, but it does. The beep sounds. This time, I come to a dead stop.
I lean over, still gasping, wondering how the hell I must look standing here, hands on knees, breathing too hard to talk. I can't swallow the saliva that has gathered in my mouth, as if my throat no longer works. I spit, just trying to get the collected moisture out of my mouth. Sweat has started. Another breeze comes by, just when I need it most. I start to walk.
My feet are sluggish and feel clumsy. Though there is no muscle ache in my legs, I don't want to move another step. One foot in front of the other. I plod now, breathing in harsh pants, pulling the air in with all the speed I can muster. I breathe through the stitch in my side, knowing that is the only way to work it out. Again, the beep. Again, the running. Minute seven is nearly as bad as minutes five and six. Minute eight is a completely different story. I've passed the wall. I find my rhythm again, or some shadow of it. Air is what it was when I started almost fifteen minutes ago, something that comes easily, in more generous amounts. I've passed the wall and run eight minutes. I walk, wishing, as I did in my walking minute four, that I could just keep running. That feeling, in minute eight, is why I run. In minute eight, minute nine, minute ten, I am invincible. In this time, I truly feel like a runner.
I toy with the idea of running another two minutes. No. Not yet. I know I need to quit while I'm riding the high; quitting a workout while I feel miserable could make me quit altogether. I head home, walking, taking my time, still pulling hard breaths, but I don't care. At home, I'm careful. I stretch, loving the way sweat covers me like a thin second skin. These stretches are slower, cool down stretches. I mentally tabulate the way each muscle feels, the way it moves. Is anything too tight? Did anything pull or hyper extend? Is there any pain?
I find water, careful not to drink it too fast, careful not to stand too close to the fan. Cooling down too quickly seems like a bad idea; my mind rebels against the idea of hopping in the tub immediately after a run or even of sitting down right after. Rather than read or research, I trust my body. My body says cooling down too fast is dangerous as wearing sandals in long grass when you know a snake is there. I take my time, walking, not settling anywhere. My pacing makes others edgy at times, but right now, I don't care. I listen to my body.
I'm home a good ten minutes before I dare to look in the mirror. The sweat is still a sheen on my arms and legs as I move to the mirror. Secretly, I dread the day I come in from a run and find my face bone pale instead of red. That would mean a drop in sugar levels. I can't afford that. Of course, my face is pink, as always. Pink, I can live with. It means I've exherted myself, but in a good way. I've taken care of my body's needs without putting any kind of a toll on myself. My hair is wild, sweaty, my eyes glowing with pride. In the mirror, I smile.
No matter my pace, no matter my rythym, my pink face and the sweat on my skin are a confirmation I find myself needing. Rhythym will come later. Breathing easily will come later. Speed and endurance will come later. I've taken the first steps. I feel great and am ready to face the rest of my day. I am a runner.