Sal comes home. He has been gone ten days.
His trips do not usually keep him for that length of time.
In his absence I become a strange creature. A bachelor of sorts, hobbling together meals that would never otherwise pass for meals, leaving dishes in the sink.
Today is the usual computer work with added welcome-home preparation, punctuated by a run, a ride, and a plyometrics session. One moment I’m washing dishes, the next moment I am in running tights. Sometimes both at once.
I have found my legs.
I cannot wait for his plane to land and so I take my legs out for a tour to keep myself busy. In my ears a new mix of "Beirut", "Hot Chip", "The Stars", "Her Space Holiday", and "I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness". There is one song by Mason Jennings. It is the outlier. If it were part of my data set I would throw it out. Today I keep it in on purpose.
I have named the mix Nine Miles. That’s the estimate for today. Nine miles. Technically, I am running for time, but I predict 9.4 miles total. It’s a rough guess based on previous weeks pacing, and the feeling in my legs, which is calm and confident, but not necessarily eager.
My route is into the Northeast. Up some of my old familiar bike routes all the way out to the Rose City Golf Course. It seems a long way to go when I am thinking about it.
I usually pass the Golf Course on my way to Rocky Butte. It’s a cold and gray place during the winter but, then again, what in Portland isn’t?
I’m eager to get there but I set out with a steady pace. At one mile I give in to the fact that I’m overdressed, stop the watch, shed layers, re-attach musical gadgets, start the watch, and am back at it.
It’s what I love about running, and what I know I will grow to love about cycling. The places I can go, the things I can see, the miles I can cover.
With my feet.
I am headed up 47th Avenue battling wind when I realized that it has been nearly 4 years since I have gone further than 8.25 miles. The foot. I’ve been protecting the foot. Running for joy. Running without structure. Running without consistency.
Just running. When and where I felt like it. No more, no less.
Times are different now.
The plan is lined up, the workouts mapped out, the runs scheduled and miles increased in careful succession. I’m surprised by how fast my body responds to the discipline. How fast it comes around. Remembers. Delights.
The muscles now are loosening up. The arms feel good. Strong. They move with the momentum and purpose of dual pendulums. They are marking off the pace like a metronome.
I check the watch. 165bpm. Perfect. It will fall when I go downhill, no matter how I push. It will climb when I climb. With 165 on the flats I’m in good shape. I am shooting to average 160.
Beirut is a strange running companion. An orchestra in my ears. Too happy maybe for a fast run, but perfect for a day like today when the body feels steady and calm and just wants to do what it knows how to do. Some days, the music is the only thing that gets me through but today it’s almost white noise.
I am paying attention to my breath. I am starting to know exactly what 160bpm feels like when measured in the pressure of air taken through my nose. I am starting to know 165, 170. Less than 160 and I’m unaware of breath.
Mile 4 is where i turn into the golf course, to cut across. The course map in my mind is meticulous. I studied it carefully, memorizing where I would be at which point. I could look at the wrist for this information, but I get tired of the watch.
I like to run for landmarks.
I never look at the distance on my wrist. I never look at pace. Time and heart rate. That’s it. That’s all I want to know.
I climb to a ridge above the golf course and the wind is frozen and sharp. I tug down the sleeves that have been pushed up. Reinstate the gloves. Pass a miserable looking woman with a dog. Think about stopping to re-jacket. Dismiss the idea. I’ll be off the ridge soon and it will be too much.
Heart rate at 171. The wind is a bitch.
I start to do math calculations in my head. Pace calculations. Not for this run, but for others. This many miles in this amount of time equals x. This many miles at this pace = y. The numbers and distances are irrelevant but the equations get me through the wind.
The mind is a funny thing.
Mason Jennings comes up in the playlist, which is on shuffle. The outlier. He takes me away from the math.
This is a vacuum.
I like to say that sometimes I can sort through difficult problems or challenges – reach resolutions during runs. But those are only on the runs where I ignore my body. This run, with this attention to breath and heart. This is a vacuum.
I disappear into it.
It’s like shooting through a selective focus lens. Certain things are unpredictably clear, the rest blurred and forgotten. The clarity is random and unordered. One moment I’m aware of my foot, the next; my ears. Then there’s a curb. I am aware of my body suspended in air, touching nothing, as I leave the street en route for the sidewalk.
Then it’s gone.
Miles 6, 7, and 8 have disappeared and I am suddenly heading over the freeway overpass, watching cars speed along with important places to go. I’ve taken a wrong turn at some point and I’m beginning to think that it made my route longer.
Either way, this is the home stretch.
My legs find another gear. They take the heart to 169 and I have never been more comfortable. Wet streets, trees that look cold, old houses, car doors opening, stoplights, crosslights, restaurants, cyclists.
I notice the runner.
There are now only 3 minutes left until I call time. I have no idea how far I’ve gone. I’m close to home, but I won’t make it in three minutes. The runner is stretching.
He has the look of fast. He finishes with his stretching and begins to run. Confirmed. The fast looking runner is fast.
I hit the stop button and slow to a walk. Check the stats while I walk the 4 block cool down.
Distance: 10 miles
Time: 80 minutes
Avg HR: 161bpm
Sure, just numbers. But the pace indicates progress. The comfort indicates evolution. The feet indicate happiness.
The heart is calm. The legs still springy. We walk the cool down, enter the house, and jump on the trainer for intervals. After such a run, I don’t even hate the trainer to death.
I sweat like a waterfall. It gathers in pools underneath me. Eyes fixed on clock ticking over. On, off. On, off. Max, recover. Max, recover. Agony, relief. Agony, relief. Over and over again.
I’m a monkey with a ponytail doing tricks on a bike that goes and goes but never gets anywhere. Look mom, no progress.
Water break. Plyometrics. Jumping, jumping, more jumping. The legs holdout.
Sal’s plane is in the air. I have just enough time to empty the dishwahser, hang my bike on the work stand, shower, and dress. As I walk into the airport his plane is landing in a terrific turbulence. Plane thrown right to left, people screaming.
"Madone." he texts, "That one took the cake!"
Ten days. Ten miles.