Contrary to Eric, however, Jim’s day had not truly begun. The past few hours of wakefulness had been purgatory–suspended between hellish anxiety and the heavenly sensation of perfect exertion. The only part of the day that would matter, either to Jim, or to those who would later thumb the meet’s results, were the fourteen-or-so odd minutes which were to commence imminently; the hours preceding and following those minutes merely over-sized book-ends for the volume he was about to write.
He looked down the line, cursorily assessing the competition. In an instant, he saw what he needed to see: to a man, each runner had that familiar look upon his face that combined both fear and pomposity, dread and anticipation. Patterson, it seemed, was becoming increasingly animated as the moment loomed. Surrounded by his cadre of middling distance men, he jumped in place incessantly, and alternated high-knees with kick-backs, his legs constantly in motion. And for an instant, Jim reproached himself for knowing next to nothing about this strange, gifted athlete with whom he was to fight. He had a vague inkling that Patterson would again shoot for that elusive 14:00 barrier, but would he set out fast, or break with a mile to go? If Jim pushed him during the second mile, could he destroy Patterson’s kick, or would the plan backfire terribly, leaving him horribly exposed as his competitor hunted him in the closing laps?
With the final run-outs, Jim was more attentive to Patterson than to his own legs. But the answers for which he searched were nowhere to be found. As they performed their last perfunctory strides, side-by-side, Jim realized he would have to spend the first mile in the dark, navigating the race on the fly.
On your marks.
That moment with its bittersweet release, its plunging gravity, sent them careening around the turn, all elbows and adrenaline. A few stumbled; one or two Tech runners sent quick, inconspicuous jabs into the sides of their opponents, clearing the way for Patterson. The rules of this game were clear to them: get the man to the front, and keep him clear of the riff-raff in mid-pack. To do this, however, they had to go out fast. The first 200 was covered in thirty-one seconds, the first quarter: sixty-three.
Jim, for his part, allowed himself a wry smile from his comfortable position in the back. He’d gone out at sixty-six, just under target pace, and well within his means. Though years had done very little to improve his physique, they had endowed him with patience that now manifested itself in his easy, languid gait, and in his untaxed breathing. The hurt would come later, but for the moment, he could afford to watch the race unfold before him with an almost academic curiosity and aloofness. He felt himself the guardian of a great secret: that he alone knew what lay in his legs, in his lungs, in his soul. Only he knew his capabilities. He almost chuckled as he considered the rude awakening his companions were in for.
The splits were consistently quick for the first half. Sixty-sevens for the next three laps made a respectable 4:28, just under 14:00 pace. Slowly, the pack was moving aside for him, thinning out just enough to allow him to pass on the straights, then tuck in discreetly and efficiently just before the turns. With six laps remaining, he was fifth, then fourth after just one more, and soon, with five to be run, he found himself just behind Patterson and another of his Tech teammates. They had not noticed his methodical approach, but neither did they seem to mind. The pace had dropped, sixty-nine and seventy second 400s now creeping in, the lethargy and muscle fatigue beginning to descend like a plague upon the leaders. But there was no question about it, as the second Tech man began to sputter and breathe with ever-increasing force, that the victor was to be Patterson or McClary. Several in the crowd were now standing, sensing the drama of the final mile.
The light wind seemed only to propel them forward on the homestretch without taking its recompense around the back, and the purple dusk surrounded them as floodlights threw those familiar shadows across the infield. The noise hovered and buzzed, the utterances within the crowd becoming more anticipatory, that ominous cacophony of whispers rising slowly to a crescendo, neighbors asking one another “do you see?”. Jim felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and a nervous surge of energy through his chest, down his arms to the very tips of his fingers as he passed Patterson with three laps to go. The move was unorchestrated, unplanned, perhaps unwarranted, but McClary could no longer restrain himself. His instincts had cried for him to make this move, and now he had committed himself to it.
As the pace quickened, Patterson hung on. Jim was now his mule, his beast of burden, hauling him along. Had he thrown his competitor’s plan, or was he merely playing directly into it?
The doubts began to creep, and multiply, and grow in their horrible vividness.
But then, he heard it.
He heard it faintly over his own labored breaths, the mantra becoming almost discernible in his exhalations as it rose within him.
“Loose arms, loose arms. Don’t crush the chocolate.”
The voice was his father’s. The imaginary confections were poised between the tip of the index finger and thumb on each hand, and by exerting enough pressure to crush them, he would create unnecessary tension throughout his fingers, arms, shoulders, chest, and stomach. Half of his body controlled by his finger tips.
Jim loosened his arms, shortened his stride momentarily to amend his ailing form, and took off.
With two laps to go, the crowd was standing, and the whispers had become bellicose shouts. But Jim was encased, walled-in from the outside world, focused only on each footstep, on each millisecond. The second-to-last lap flew by in sixty-four seconds, and Patterson was resolutely hanging on, his stride perfectly mirroring McClary’s as the bell sounded the final lap. Before the darkness set in, Jim thought he heard Eric’s voice in the crowd stating with perfectly calm and rationality “it’s time to go now, man.”
He was running now in pure terror, his sweat running cold, hunted like an animal for what seemed to be eternity. They were two prizefighters throwing hay-makers, locked in desperation, and an existential fear of loss.
They began the final turn, and Jim thought of every run he’d ever taken, every pain he’d ever felt shoot through his knees or ankles or hips, or kidneys, and he thought of every rainstorm he’d braved and every sunburn acquired, and every girlfriend who hadn’t understood why the hell he wanted to keep running for ninety, one-hundred minutes on end, and the look on his parent’s face in that florescent lit emergency room when the doctor told him he was lucky not to have snapped his god-forsaken leg in half, and he thought of Patterson’s humanity, contemplated the rival’s possible fears and apprehensions and moments of self-doubt that united all athletes, all performers, all creatures, and he felt his brain burn within him, his every sinew and bone asking him to stop, please, just stop right now and give in to this terrible pain that has never been felt by anyone else so strongly, the stabbing, burning, writhing agony.
And then it stopped.
“THIRTEEN FIF…” boomed the PA, but Jim did not care to hear the rest. He staggered aimlessly towards the outer fence, his mind still attempting to make sense of what his body had done. His arms were numb beneath the elbows, and he fumbled lamely to wipe the spit from his chin. Patterson had finished one step behind him, and now lay prostrate in the grass, his chest cavity convulsing, fists balled tightly over his head.
Jim saw Eric running towards him, perhaps thirty feet away and closing, as he sat down on the track. As he watched the rest of the field cross the line, that magical threshold between pain and ecstasy, he embraced each instant, storing it away for some future moment or reflection.
He inspected the blood stain above his right big toe, then gazed up to watch the full moon rising through the cloudless purple sky, and decided he had never loved the world so much as he did at that moment.