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Long-Distance Man This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

There is something exquisite about the pain of a workout. The burn trembling through the runner's legs, the pat of feet against the ground. Alone, it is brutal and self-motivated. The toughest athletes forge their own paths on late-night tracks, hidden hills, and winding, rutted trails. As glorious as that sounds, it sucks. A lot. The team workout sucks almost as much, but there is the bond, the sweaty clasped hand at the top of the hill, a clap on the back at the end of a ladder. The gasped “Good work” uttered between gulps of air. A bond is tied – at least in that moment.

Cross-country is the strangest of high school sports. We simply run. Run like animals chasing a rabbit, battling our own wits and flaring pain. There is skill, yes, but a different kind. It is the skill of reading your abilities, of overcoming the incessant demand for relief of pain. Our minds are either sharp, conquering the body, or dull, ignoring it all together. Those who think that running isn't a real sport are in the dark, ignorant of the intricacies and pleasures of our task.

I have never “played” a sport. You don't “play” running. Runners compete, but it's more of a battle than a game. It is seared with pain, frustration, and a dab of pleasure. We are not in it for fun; if it comes, so be it, but we are not fun addicts. Pain is our addiction – sweet, deep pain. The more one suffers in the right direction, the better one becomes. There's a point when the mind welcomes this pain. Instead of the early rejection, the body understands the mind is master and obeys. The waves of pain still come, but they are controlled, expected, and yes, desired.

All this passed through Jack's mind as he struggled through the snowy hills, sneakers soaked as he pushed through the deserted streets. His Under Armour was drenched with sweat, and the long windproof pants shuffled in an obnoxious monotony. No music today, just the crunch of his footfalls, his ragged panting, and an inglorious struggle to conquer the miles. What he would not give right now for solid, dry road. His sneakers slipped on the snow, his stride wavered, and the sweat poured into his eyes. What an awful run.

The winter affords few fantastic runs, the kind when your body suddenly forgets the feeling of fatigue and spurts forward with unknown energy. Miles melt away and the pace quickens to a sensation of flying. Nothing equals this majesty. The runner feels indestructible, totally in control, and at peace. The snow, thick and slippery on the ground, kills all chances of this marvel. The runner is alone to face the grinding cruelty of a punishing run. Even in packs, this joy or horror is felt individually, each to his own corporal whims. Running is not played at, it is fought, experienced. Running is not a game, no sir, running is truly living.

Pushing through the last stretch of that snowy run, Jack's face bore the telltale grimace. Look at a runner's face. Nine times out of ten it will have this grimace, the putrid expression of despair and struggle. Once in a great while, you may see something different, something altogether strange, a smile perhaps, a determined baring of the teeth, or maybe just a blank expression of peace. That is what we fight for, the goal of the grimace: the runner's peace, a higher plane of existence. It exists, and it is living.

Not for Jack. Not on this brutal, windswept afternoon in the snow. His feet smarted with cold, and his hands were red and numb. The last mile stretched before him, formidable and threatening. Despair, as always, clutched at his heart and his slipping, swooshing legs begged him to end their burning. His face darkened in thought, the action of pumping his legs, pushing, pushing, pushing the earth down and away from him became an absolute necessity. Don't think, just move. The terror in his legs merely grew, and he knew it was time to initiate the final push.

Uttering a muffled grunt, face contorting into an even deeper grimace, Jack thrust all his remaining energy into pushing. Arms pumped furiously, and a surge of desire propelled him to the gate. All runners know of a gate. Run to the gate. The final destination, the slowly approaching self-set finish line. We all need solid goals, and for us, a gate symbolizes that goal. We force this finish line upon ourselves. No, we do not stop when it is clear we lack the energy to go on; we stop when we reach the gate.

Four hundred meters is an infinite distance after a long run, and the final kick is a risky thing. Too often distance runners force their tired legs to kick too early and ultimately peter out to a slow jog before the gate. Gasping, slipping, and fumbling along, Jack thrust his lanky frame at the slowly approaching finish line, wide-eyed and terrified at the explosion of resistance in his lactic acid-laced muscles. With the final push, arms flailing, mouth open to the heavens, wind whistling on his chest, he arrived at the end. The cool down grasped him in its warm embrace of immediate relaxation and his body praised his decision to stop.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.




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