Ryan ground his way up the incline, his compression shirt dark with perspiration. His Reeboks gripped the asphalt and the sound of his breathing was the only noise on the country road. He glanced at his wrist odometer: Twenty-five point seven. Not terrible. But he could go further. Had to.
He’d worked his ass off doing upwards of twenty miles a day for the last three years and knew he was ready to break the next big barrier. Fifty.
His body was up to it, the muscles tight and taut. They’d be going through a world of changes over the next twenty-five miles. His breathing was easy. Just the way he liked it. Easy. The strength of will was there.
There was something almost religious about all this feeling, he told himself. Maybe it was the sublime monotony of stretching every muscle and feeling it fire in response. Or it could be feeling his will propel his body forward when his mind wanted to quit. Perhaps even the humid expansion of his chest as his lungs ballooned with air.
But none of that was really the answer. It was the competing with and against himself.
Beating his own best distance. Crushing his own limits. Running was the time he felt most alive. He knew that as surely as he knew the sun would rise in the morning.
He loved the dull ache that caressed his limbs and even anticipated the moment, a few minutes into the first mile, when a dull throb would climb his body to his brain like a live wire, revitalizing him. It transported him, taking his mind to another place, very deep within.
He was almost to the summit of the hill.
Even this far, everything was feeling good. He shrugged off some tightness in his shoulders, clenching his fists and punching at the air like a boxer deep into the late rounds of a title fight. The late March chill turned to pink steam in his chest making his body tingle as if a microscopic cloud of needles were passing through, from front to back, leaving pin-prick holes.
He shivered. The crest of the hill was just ahead. And on the downward slope was a new part of his personal route: a dirt road, carpeted with leaves, which wound through a silent forest at the peak of these mountains.
As he broke the crest, he picked up speed, tilting downhill toward the dirt road. His Reeboks flexed against the gravel, sliding out beneath him a little.
It had taken so much time to prepare for this. Months of meticulous care of his body. Vitamins. Counting calories. Tracking macronutrients. The endless training and timing. Commitment to his body. It was as critical as the commitment to the goal itself.
As he picked up momentum, jogging easily downhill, the mathematical breakdown of that figure filled his head with tumbling digits. Zeroes unglued from his thought tissues and linked with cardinal numbers to form combinations which added to fifty. It was suddenly all he could think about. Twenty-five plus twenty-five. Five times ten. Forty-nine plus one. Shit. It was driving him crazy.
The dirt road.
He noticed the air cooling. The big trees that shaded the forest road were lowering the temperature. Night was close. Another hour. Thirty minutes plus thirty. This math thing was getting irritating. Ryan tried to remember some of his favorite AC/DC songs as he loped wolfishly through the dense forest.
Highway to Hell bounced in without warning. Great song. Perfect damn title for his length of run. If Bon Scott and Angus Young said they were driving the bus to Hell he would have gladly jumped on board now. He figured if anyone knew the way it was a couple of Aussies as they basically lived in Hell anyway.
Ryan continued to run at a comfortable pace over the silty soil. Every few steps he could hear a leaf or small branch crunch under his shoes. What was that old thing? Something about butterflies? Don’t ever move even a small rock when you’re at the beach or in the mountains. It disturbs the natural order of the universe. Nature can’t ever be right again if you do. The repercussions can start the end of all things if you extrapolate it out far enough.
Ryan’s foot suddenly caught on a tree root reaching up a skeletal finger from the grave and he fell forward slamming into the trail hard. On the ground, the dirt coated his face and lips and a spoonful got into his mouth. He also scraped his knee. It was one of those shitty scrapes that tears a layer of skin off and stings like it’s a lot worse. A thin trickle of blood leaked down his shin and blackened from the dust shot into the air from his fall.
He was up again in a second and heading down the road, slightly disgusted with himself. He knew better than to lose his footing. He was too good an athlete for that.
His mouth was getting dry and he worked up some saliva by rubbing his tongue against the roof of his mouth. Strange how he never got thirsty on these marathons of his. The body just seemed to live off itself for the period of time it took. Next day he usually guzzled gallons of water and juice but in running all thirst faded. The body sustained itself. It was weird.
The sun was basically gone now. Fewer and fewer animals crossed the path near him. Their sounds faded all around. Birds stopped singing. The frenetic scrambling of squirrels halted as they prepared to bed down for the night. Far below, at the foot of these hills, the city lights cast an orange phospherous tint on the few clouds drifting over the horizon. The sun was lowering and the tree canopy rose to meet it like a deep green comforter.
Ahead, Ryan could see a long, winding corner.
How long had he been moving through the forest path? A hour? More? Was it possible he’d gone the ten or so mile length of the path already?
That was one of the insane anomalies of running these marathons of his. Time got distorted in a paralax way. He’d think he was running ten miles and find he’d actually covered considerably more ground. Sometimes as much as double his estimate. He couldn’t ever figure that one out. But it always happened when his mind wandered and he always just sort of anticipated it. Like travelling through a tunnel on a train.
He checked his odometer: Twenty-nine point eight. Better than halfway there and still feeling strong.
The dirt path would be coming to an end in a few hundred yards. Then it was straight along the roadway which ran atop the ridge of this ski hill far above cityscape below. The ski hill was bordered with towering floodlights which lit the way like some forgotten runway for ancient astronauts. They stared down from fifty-foot poles and bleached the asphalt and roadside.
The path had ended now and he was on the deserted mountaintop road with its faded center line that stretched to forever. As Ryan wiped his glowing face with a sleeve, he heard someone hitting a crystal glass with thick fingers. It wasn’t a pinging sound. More like a high-pitched thud that was chain reacting. He looked up and saw insects of the night swarming dementedly around a floodlights’s sunburst flame. Thousands of them in hypnotic suicide dive-bombed again and again at the huge bulb.
Eerie seeing that kind of thing way the hell out here. But nice country to run in just the same. Gentle sloping hills. Nothing but heavy silence. Nobody ever drove this road any more as far as he could tell. It was as deserted as any Ryan could remember. The perfect place to run.
The forests mingling smells were clean and healthy, the air sweet. Great decision building his house up here last year. This was definitely the place to live. A slice of Heaven is what his father used to call this kind of country when Ryan was growing up in Bancroft.
He laughed out loud into the silence as he thought of how glad he was to be out of that place. People never did anything with their lives. Born there, schooled there, married there and died there was the usual redneck legacy. They all missed out on life. Missed out on new ideas and ambitions. The doctor slapped their asses and from that point on their lives just curled up like a banana peel in the sun.
It was just as well.
How many of them could take the pressure being a civil litigator? Especially in a firm like Ryan’s? None of the old friends he’d gladly left behind in his home town would ever have a chance going up against a guy like himself. He was going to be the head of his law firm in a few more years. Most of those rednecks back home couldn’t even spell success much less achieve it.
But to each his own. Regardless of how pointless some lives really were, he was going to be the head of his own firm and wouldn’t even be forty by the time it happened. Maybe, they were all married and had their families worked out but what a fucking bore that must be. The last thing Ryan needed right now was that noose tightening around his neck. Maybe the family guys figured they had something valuable but for Ryan it was a complete waste of time. Only thing a wife and kids would do is drag him down. Hold him under water. Priorities. First things first. Career then everything else but put that relationship stuff off until after he could slow down his meteoric rise.
Besides, with all the inevitable success coming his way, meeting ladies would be a cinch. And hell, anyone could have a kid. Just nature. No big thing. Success? That was something else. Took a very driven beast to grab onto that brass ring and never let go. Families were just dead weight when a guy was really climbing. And he, of all the people he’d ever known, was definitely climbing.
Running had helped get him in the right frame of mind to do it. With each mileage barrier he broke, he was able to break greater barriers in life itself, especially his career. It made him more mentally fit to compete when he ran. It strengthened his will and sharpened his mind. Everything felt right when he was running regularly. It wasn’t just the meditative effect. He knew what it gave him was an edge. An edge on his fellow attorneys at the firm and an edge on life.
It was unthinkable to him how the other guys at the firm didn’t take advantage of it. Getting ahead was what it was all about. A guy didn’t make it in the law or anywhere else in the world unless he kept one step ahead of the competition. Keep moving and never let anything stand in the way or hold you down. That was the magic of running.
He got a chill of delicious victory. Thinking this way always made him feel special. Like he had the formula for success that no one had even tried. Daydreaming of success was a very intoxicating thing and with his running now approaching the two and a half-hour mark, hyperventilation was heightening the effect.
He glanced at his odometer: Forty-three point six.
He was feeling like a machine. His calves were burning a little and his back was a bit stiff but at this rate, with his breathing effortless and body strong, he could do sixty or more but fifty was the goal. After that he had to go back and get his briefs in order for tomorrow’s depositions followed by some sleep. Keep the machine in good shape and you rise to the top. None of the drinking or drugs or thousand dollar lunches the morons at his firm were messing with.
He opened his mouth a little wider to catch more air. The night had gone to a deep sea black and all he could hear now was the adhesive squishing of his shoes. Overhead, the hanging branches of pine trees canopied the desolate road and cut the burgeoning moonlight into a million shafts of light.
His odometer: forty-six point two. Sweat was running freely down his face now but running at night always made that easier. The breezes would swathe like cool silk and dry the moisture from his feverish skin. He ran face first into a pocket of humid air and it pressed down on him like too many blankets on a winters night. He coughed and spit.
Ryan was suddenly hit by a stray drop of moisture, then another. The drizzle that they had been warning of all week finally arrived. It wasn’t raining hard, just that misty stuff that atomizes over you like a lawn sprinkler shifted by a light wind but it would have been nice to finish the fifty dry.
The road was going into a left hairpin now and he leaned into it, shoes gripping octopus-tight. Ahead, as the curve broke, the road went straight, as far as the eye could see. Just a two-lane highway laying in wait as far as the eye could see. Now that it was wet, the surface went mirror shiny, like a ribbon tied in a young girls hair. A dense creeping fog began to tease across the hillside, coming closer toward the road.
Ryan checked the odometer, rubbing his hands together for warmth as the temp began to drop dramatically. Forty-nine point eight. Almost there and other than being a little cold, he was feeling like a million bucks. He punched happily at the air and screamed with anticipation of victory. He felt amazing. Tomorrow, at the office, was going to be a victory from start to finish.
He could feel himself smiling, his face hot against the increasingly heavy rain. His compression suit was soaked with sweat and drizzle made him shiver as it touched his skin. He breathed in heaving gulps of the chilled air and as it left his mouth it turned white where it mingled with the fog. His eyes were burning from the cold and he closed them, continuing to run, the effect of total blackness comforting him.
Step by step. Stride by stride.
He opened his eyes and rubbed them with fingers red from the cold. All around, the fog breathed closer, snaking between the limbs of trees and creeping silently across the asphalt. The overhead lights made it glow like a wall of colorless neon.
Another hundred steps and he was there.
The strides came in a smooth flow, like an oiled machine. He spread his fingers wide and shook some of the excess energy that was concentrating and making him feel tingly. It took the edge off but he still felt as though he had shotgunned on a hundred cups of coffee. He ran faster, his arms like swinging pendulums, pulling him forward.
Twenty more steps.
Ten plus ten. Five times . . . Jesus, the math thing was back. He started giggling out loud as he went huffing down the road, compression pants sticking like a second skin.
The sky was suddenly ripped open by lightning and Ryan gasped. In an instant, blackness turned to hot white and there was that visual echo of the light as it trembled in the distance, then fluttered off like a dying bulb.
Ryan checked his odometer.
Five more feet! Three more steps! There it was yelling and screaming and high fiving him and tossing streamers!
Fifty miles! Fifty fucking miles!
It was fucking incredible! To know he could really, actually do it suddenly hit him and he began laughing uncontrollably.
Now to get that incredible sensation of almost standing still while walking it off. Have to keep those muscles warm. If not he’d get a chill and cramps and feel like someone was going over his calves with fish hooks.
Hot breath gushed visibly from his mouth. The rain was coming faster in a diagonal descent, backlit by lightning and the fog bundled tighter. Ryan took three or four deep breaths and began to slow. It was incredible to have this feeling of edge. The sense of being on top of everything. It was an awareness he could surpass limitations. Make breakthroughs. It was what separated the winners from the losers when taken right down to a basic level. The winners knew how much harder they could push to go farther. Break those, patterns. Create new levels of ability and confidence.
He tried again to slow down. His legs weren’t slowing to a walk yet and he sent the message down again. He smiled. Run too far and the body just doesn’t want to stop.
His legs continued to pull him forward. Rain was drenching down from the sky and Ryan was soaked to the bone. Rain streamed into his eyes and mouth and he coughed to get out what he could as it needled coldly into his face.
“Slow down,” he told his legs. “Stop, goddammit!” But his feet continued on, splashing through puddles which pooled here and there along the foggy road.
Ryan began to breathe harder, unable to get the air he needed. It was too wet; half air, half water. Suddenly, more lightning scribbled across the thundering clouds and he reached to stop one leg.
It did no good. He kept running, even faster, pounding harder against the wet pavement. He could feel the bottoms of his shoes soaking through, starting to wear out. He’d worn the old ones; they were the most comfortable.
Jesus-fucking-God, he really couldn’t stop.
The wetness got colder on his cramping feet. He tried to fall but kept running. Terrified, he began to cough fitfully, his legs continuing forward, racing over the pavement.
His throat was raw from the cold and his muscles ached. He was starting to feel like his body had been beaten with sledgehammers.
There was no point trying to stop. He knew that, now. He’d trained too long. Too precisely.
It had been his single obsession and as he continued to pound against the fog-shrouded pavement all he could hear was a cold, lonely night.
Until the sound of his own screams began to echo through the mountains and fade across the endless road.