Keep your breathing steady. Don’t lose your pace. You’re doing better than yesterday. Don’t think about the miles remaining or you’ll start sprinting and, with the chill in the air, get exhausted. If there is any doubt, an ache will fester in your legs. Today will be the perfect run.

Joe ran this trail many times before, tackling the switchbacks snaking up a moderately sloping hill where I waited. I watched Joe rampaging along, his pace determined as he navigated the switchbacks’ curves. Joe’s breathing was more even on this attempt. I used to hear him rasping and pounding his feet as he rounded each switchback. Back then, he ended his run earlier than he had intended and would descend back down toward the parking lot exhausted and frustrated. On this run, Joe had better control, he pushed his body on with more confidence. It was unlikely, but maybe Joe would enjoy this run.

There was much to enjoy on this trail. It was autumn and the leaves boasted passionate colors. There were lush green leaves bordered with yellow outlines and bright yellow leaves spotted with an orange glow. Lastly, there were the brilliant, passionate red leaves, reminiscent of the horizon at sunset. Soon the leaves would wither, turn brown, and float to the ground, useless and unwanted. But for the moment, there was a colorful, silent symphony playing for Joe.

However, Joe took no time to observe the immense autumn colors; he needed to run. He focused his eyes on the trail, and his mind focused on his five-mile goal. His pace quickened, his steady breathing faltered.

No, Joe, slow down. Get your breathing under control. Without control, you will become exhausted, your legs will ache, and you’ll be a failure. The athlete inside you cannot fail. You have to be perfect. You have to be the best. Today will be the perfect run.

Joe stumbled over an oak’s exposed roots, his momentum nearly forced him to the ground. His concentration was breaking. A tumble on this steep section of the trail could do more than just break his concentration.

Joe slowed his breathing to regain his pace, but he inhaled too deeply and the cool autumn breeze penetrated his nostrils. Cold discomfort radiated from his nasal cavity; his eyes watered. Joe shook his head to rattle the discomfort. He couldn’t slow down. He needed to run. Today had to be the perfect run.

Joe saw a weathered mile marker at the bend of the next switchback. Moss was overtaking the aged, wooden marker, but peeling white paint proudly displayed the number “4”. Four miles, he had completed four miles. One mile left to run. No, Joe, don’t think about the distance. You’ll see the five-mile marker soon enough. It is the only one you want to see. Until then, it’s just you and the trail.

Joe passed the four-mile marker and slowed his pace as the trail ascended and curved around the hill. The roots were treacherous; a fall would end his run.

In moments the trail leveled off and Joe gradually quickened his pace.

Keep this strategy up and you can do anything, Joe. You can do this; you can be a great athlete. Today had to be the perfect run.

Joe never heard a sound. Perhaps he was too enveloped in his own breathing to hear, but Joe was no longer alone. A lean man had caught up with Joe. They were running side by side. The trail was used by a lot of runners, serious competitors and those bleeding off stress. There was no need to acknowledge the other runner’s presence, but Joe turned for a glance.

The sight nearly knocked the wind out of him; the runner was Joe. However, this runner, this other Joe, had the look of an experienced athlete. His muscles pulsed with confidence as the runner’s feet embraced the ground with certainty. The runner’s breathing was steady, effortless. The runner’s movements were graceful. He was at ease in the autumn air in only a T-shirt and shorts. The runner’s pace never quickened as he overtook Joe. The runner was the perfect athlete. Joe stared at the runner with awe and frightened contempt.

A bright flash, like the flash from a camera, almost brought Joe to a sudden halt. He looked around, searching for a photographer in the trees. Joe saw no one. A second flash emanated from a tree on the right side of the trail. Still no photographer. A third flash briefly lit up the trail and the runner in front of Joe. Then two more flashes blinded Joe; he lifted his hands to shield his eyes from the tedious strobes of light. Joe focused on the trail ahead and that perfect runner.

The runner started waving and smiling at the phantom photographers without ever missing a stride. Joe boiled with contempt.

A choir of cheers ripped through the forest like a crowd of banshees encouraging their favorite runner to win the race. When did this become a competition?

The runner and Joe rounded the trail past a large red maple, and the cheers Joe heard were now mixed with insults targeted at him. Joe ground his teeth, quickened his pace, and widened his strides. He swung his arms in sync with the increasing speed of his legs and no longer shielded his eyes from the spectral photographers. Joe’s contempt transformed into anger, teetering on madness.

The runner ahead of him could not be caught; his effortless strides kept a constant pace ahead of Joe. Joe wasn’t certain if the runner knew he was being challenged. It didn’t seem to matter anyway; Joe could not catch the runner. In madness, Joe broke into a sprint.

A tomato hit Joe in the face. The rotten skin of the tomato ruptured easily, spewing its liquefied goo across Joe’s face. The phantom hecklers laughed loudly at him and his uneven strides. Joe desperately reached his arms forward with every stride as if he could desperately grip the air to pull him forward and increase his speed. Joe’s eyes were welling up with tears. Pace and breathing were forgotten, the runner was Joe’s only focus. Joe sprinted towards that smug fool waving at imaginative photographers and crowds. Joe wanted to strangle the runner, to destroy the man who ruined his perfect run.

Joe spotted a bright red ribbon stretched across the trail ahead of the runner. The ribbon was tied to two pine trees at the top of the moderately sloping hill. Joe’s breathing was rapid and shallow, and his throat was throbbing with every breath. His upper back and neck cramped up, radiating pain with every breath. Joe’s leg muscles burned from the sprinting torture. Joe ignored his body’s warnings and kept running toward those two trees and the ribbon that would prove he could best the perfect runner.

Joe never got to prove a bloody thing. He plowed his right foot into a clump of roots, stubbing his toes and twisting his ankle. Pain drowned Joe’s concentration and he fell to the ground.

The runner reached the ribbon effortlessly; the crowds cheered, and the photographers took their pictures. The runner danced at the finish line while waving exuberant kisses to his spectral fans.

Joe coughed up dirt and leaves. While still on the ground, Joe glanced up at the victorious runner. The two competitors locked eyes. Adrenaline surged through Joe’s legs. It was a bluff, Joe was in no position to rise and rush his rival. The runner smiled, shrugged, and walked out of sight, swinging the winning ribbon above his head. The phantom cheers faded with the runner. Soon, Joe only knew silence and the throbbing pain in his right ankle and toes.

Joe pulled his aching body up with the help of a weathered mile marker. Joe wanted to chase that runner down and pummel every ounce of breath out of him, but Joe was too exhausted, too distraught. He was ready to go home. Joe would never be an athlete like that perfect runner, that perfect thought. Joe was a failure. Joe limped back down the trail to get to his car. It would be a long walk. His heart was heavy and his confidence was shattered. Today was not the perfect run.

I wanted to call out to Joe. I wanted him to turn around as he started back down the trail, bewildered and broken. However, I lacked the ability to speak. I could only watch from my spot on top of that moderately sloping hill. I was the weathered five-mile marker. Joe had leaned against me after losing his pointless competition. Joe never turned around to see what was real. He only fretted over an image he could not achieve. Today, Joe remained blind.

© 2016 C. J. Staryk. All Rights Reserved.


5 Responses to Runner

  1. Pingback: Contest Revision | The Haunting, Aching Echo of Wonder

  2. Beverley Nunnally says:

    Wonderful story. I really liked it


  3. Ryan says:

    Again, wow. This is excellent!

    Liked by 1 person

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