"Don't be a maybe, be a definite. You can write a column about the 5-mile trail!"
Tom Law - The Special's Quenton Cassidy - forces me to find my running shoes Monday morning. They hadn't been used for months. Yes, months.
Tom, Joe and Nolan Clancy show up at my door. I have nowhere to hide. We hop in Tom's Mazda and drive to SPAC in search of the 5-mile trail.
And we're off.
Tom breaks sharply, elbows high, striding out, Frankie Brothers would write, "Hits the ground hard" on his catalogue page. Joe stalks, Nolan tracks, all legs and arms - 36 years apart but built the same, like they were spit out of a frozen custard machine. I take a deep breath, early, knowing I'm in the wrong race, the wrong day.
Across the lawn, into the woods, at least we have shade. I navigate over roots and around rocks, wondering if it would be less pain if I sprain my ankle now and call it a day. The shade feels good.
Following yellow markers tacked to trees, we go straight through the woods, then turn left, go downhill, whew that feels good, then along the creek, way down below. Nothing like running downhill, but nothing like knowing that everything that goes down, must come up. We cross a bridge, over a creek and make a right. Tom, Joe and Nolan banter about the footing. I'm already feeling it.
Hikers and strollers step aside as we pass on the left, through a spring, the water rolling off a sand-colored rock (which they later tell me is a giant mineral deposit), it feels like we're in a sand mine. The water splashes from Joe's feet onto my shins, my shoes feel damp. Nolan grunts and skips left, then right, then left, then right. I know to conserve. Tom says something about steps. I think he's kidding. I hope he's kidding. He's not kidding. Steps on a run. What kind of trail has steps?
We start up the wooden steps. I try two at a time, that's not working. I try one at a time, worse. Nolan skips up them like he's chasing his first love. We've gone a mile, maybe. I spit. Pull off my hat, wipe my forehead, tuck the hat in my shorts, my glasses fog up, I push them onto my head. At the top of the stairs, I shudder. This is pathetic. Tom says you never feel quite the same after those steps. I didn't feel quite the same before the steps.
We come out of the woods, across a grass meadow, making a path, I think of Janet Elliot's sign at her farm, "Do not make a path." No one has read it here. We've gone a mile, maybe two. I stare at Joe's feet, knowing I'm cutting my stride but knowing I need something to mesmerize me. Tom shouts directions at each switchback, "left" and we turn left, "right" and we turn right. I'm lagging in last. I don't want them to see me weak. We run downhill toward a pool. I hear kids screaming, laughing, they're having more fun than I am as we angle right, around the pool and back into the woods. I shouldn't have eaten that bowl of cereal this morning.
Through another meadow, back into the woods, left, right, switchback, I spit. I catch myself, breathing too fast, I slow it down, take the best deep breath I can muster. Nobody asks me how I'm doing. I hear conversation, bits and pieces. I can't say anything.
Tom slows, makes a right, stops. We look out over a wooden pier, built by an Eagle Scout. Reeds shoot up from the water, algae and lily pads scatter across the surface like a bowl of vegetable soup across a counter. Nolan's smiling. Joe and Tom are winded, but comfortable. I'm gritting my teeth, trying to stretch, wishing for the 3-mile trail.
Off we go. Tom, elbows high, he's like a steeplechase horse. Nolan jaunts, like a skipping stone across a lake. Joe takes one stride for every two of mine. We cross back through the woods, out of the woods, across a wooden bridge, our feet thwacking like somebody cleaning car matts. Then Tom says it, "Sorry, buddy, one more hill."
I take a deep breath and we climb. It feels like Everest. I think about galloping horses for Mike Hushion at Saratoga, I think about Bill Punk telling me he got some of his best thinking done while running, I think about how I used to feel when I ran. We climb.
By the top, the boys turn left out of sight, I walk. It wasn't a decision, I just drift to a walk. I turn the corner, back in sight, I run. More like a waddle. I turn left at the yellow sign, back in the woods. Then across the road, I hope nobody I know is watching, I'm a 100 yards - it feels like 100 miles - behind the team. Tom said, "No man left behind" when we started. I have been left behind. I see a parking lot, it's got to be ours, the boys glide across the marble facade of a long building. I bet it's a beautiful building, but I can't see.
They stop. I see them stop. Thank God, they've stopped. I slog the last furlong. I stop. I feel pain. And a column.