We started at a jog, chatting a bit more uneasily than during our usual coffee shop talk. A bit more forced. A bit more hurried.
Warming up to the crisp late morning took a few moments. Sun beamed down through tree branches, gleaming on standing water running off the mountain above.
This is not my strength. But it is hers.
If she only knew and trusted herself, I thought. Deep down inside she is everything she wants to be. Eventually, she will see.
We stopped briefly before the first mile.
“How far do you want to go?” I asked.
“Whatever you need to do, it’s up to you, it’s your tempo. I’m just tagging along” she allowed tentatively.
But I knew she had a preference.
“I have to do three to four, so let’s plan on four, and if we get three I’ll be stoked.” I started to run.
She agreed and followed.
We continued to chat, in short sentences, as our breaths came faster and faster then steadied at a regular rhythm. The pace was easy, but I knew it was exactly where she had run her last tempo. I also knew it was slower than what she wanted to run.
“I don’t know if I can make it to three,” she soon let out.
I slowed and talked to her. Really, I let myself vent to her. She relaxed and ran.
Everything that had happened that week shed off my shoulders as we felt out a steady pace. I set up the entire battlefield and replayed all the offenses from every side. Recounting the history behind why it all mattered so much in my mind, I vented. She listened patiently. I felt my breath start to well up in my chest and catch in my throat. My voice broke. I slowed. I was sure she had noticed.
“What are we at?” she asked refreshing the conversation with a welcome distraction; redirecting me to focus on something I can control. She was running easily now.
We had slowed by 8 seconds per mile.
“How fast do you want to go?” I asked, “This fast?” This slower pace was faster than my last tempo.
“Or faster.” She said, now with steely determination.
I shut up and we ran faster. Now, nearly twenty-seconds faster than the first mile, we were engrossed in the rhythm of foot falls and steady breathing.
Our strides matched. I pushed ahead, purposefully two-stepping her. She sped up.
“There it is,” she said, referring to the sharp, piercing stomach pain she would get when running a faster pace.
I slowed down. Her breathing steadied; the pain vanished. We were less than a half mile from finishing the third mile. Moments later she was matching pace easily. She started to pull ahead.
“Don’t let me slow you down,” I told her.
“Less than a half mile to three,” she encouraged me this time, with a tone of resolution.
We strode it out together easily, our effort synched. We stopped, both smiling broadly, at 3 miles. Our average pace was much faster than either of us had run recently in similar efforts.
“Four?” she asked gleefully, with excitement like a puppy with boundless energy.
We started up again, faster this time, pumping our legs hard, until our smiles faded. Silence except for rhythmic exhalation and feet bouncing off gravel.
Again, I was pushing ahead of her, purposefully. Her breathing became labored, heavy, irregular.
“I don’t think I can make it,” she said quietly. Again, pain was stabbing her in the gut.
“Slow down a bit, try to get your breathing under control,” I encouraged, listening, my eyes straight ahead. We both slowed.
Her breath normalized. We were getting closer to the finish. I could see the water sparkling where we began.
Another runner was headed toward us. We both perked up, steadying ourselves, quickening the pace: all business. Our character identical in this sense: neither of us willing to relay self-doubt to any audience, except perhaps each other.
“What are we at?” she asked again.
Our pace was over forty-five seconds faster than our first mile. She ran faster.
“That’s it, there,” I told her, indicating our finish line.
“The sign?” she implored, we were thrashing now, slamming each foot down, beating that pace down, second by second.
“No. Further. The lady,” I forced out in a staccato. We kept pushing. My legs were burning, my chest tightening and throat clamping down on what little oxygen I could process.
She was pulling ahead and I was holding on.
“A bit further!” I gasped, “I was wrong!” She dropped behind, slightly losing the pace.
She indicated the pain was back. I felt terrible. Less than five hundredths of a mile, but I wanted the honest effort. I had to see the number zero.
“Stay there this time! Push through it!”
Now was the time to embrace the pain. Get stabbed in the gut. Run through the offenses. Stand up to the fire.
“Come on! We got this!”
She pushed again definitively, pulling slightly ahead, snapping the imaginary tape. And it was done.
We leaned over, hands on knees.
“If you can run that pace for one mile—the last mile—of a tempo,” I told her breathlessly, “you can run that pace for three miles—in a race.”
And she did. The next time, she ran even faster.