They both thought they recognized the other, but weren’t sure whether and if so, from where. And neither wanted to break the streak to ask. Every morning, at 5:30ish, they’d both be out for a run and one of them would assault the other. The first time was an accident, handled poorly. The older and fatter of the two was bent down tying his shoe by the side of the trail. The younger, skinnier one never ran directly on the paved trail as he liked to run on the softer, grassier area just to the side. On this particular morning, Stretch had forgotten his headlamp and so was jogging blindly through the dark. He tripped over Chubs with such force that it shoved the big guy face-first down an embankment and into the stagnant puddle that passes for a creek. Stretch, unsure whether what he’d hit was even a person and being unable to help in the deep dark even if he knew, called out a hasty “Sorry!” and kept right on trotting. Chubs got a look at the skinny guy’s silhouette as he disappeared down the trail. He memorized the gait such that he could easily spot the guy next time. When they passed again the next morning, Chubs shoulder-checked Stretch with such force that the initial impact knocked the wind out of the younger back, then the landing on his back knocked him out cold.

From then on it was war. Traps were set. Props were used. One morning Stretch spotted someone peeking above the tall grasses of a nearby meadow just before a pack of feral cats burst forth from that same grass and chased him all the way home. It was his best average mile time ever. On another occasion Chubs had made it through almost his entire run without incident save for occasional strange swishing sounds. As he turned down his street WHAM! A boomerang hit him. A BOOMERANG! That guy is so (ab)original, he thought to himself. How will I ever top that?

But he did. Then Stretch would escalate it further, too. He got the drop on Chubs when they both happend to be at Bull City Running Co. to get some fresh shoes that weren’t caked in mud and blood. He went Loony Toons on his opponent, slithering quietly beneath the chairs to tie the big guy’s shoelaces together. When Chubs went toppling into the rack full of running shorts, Stretch sprinted out of the store with a maniacal cackle. After that, Chubs switched to Vibram FiveFingers purely for the velcro straps. Every run or running-related moment had them on high alert, fearful and cautious and alive. Things went on like this for weeks, then months. The wives stopped asking when one or both would return from their run dazed, bloody, black-eyed, or limping.

Summer turned to Fall, and one day Stretch made it through an entire 7.3 mile run safely. As he showered, dressed, and ate his breakfast in silence, he vacillated between confusion, anxiety, and utter vexation. He couldn’t help but wonder what was going on, or why he cared. Stretch continued running at the same time every day, sometimes doubling his distance by virtue of all his backtracking and meandering. Just to be sure. After a month of so of uneventful runs along with the onset of colder weather, running became boring and tedious and so he joined CrossFit Durham. The punishing workouts eased his worries somewhat, but still… what had happened?

Nothing major. Chubs was a healthy guy, just rather large. He was a former college lineman and couldn’t alter that barrel-like body no matter what he did. After months of intense and paranoid morning runs he developed a stress fracture. Stay off it for six weeks minimum, the doctor had said. And Chubs’ long-suffering wife put her decidedly unfractured foot down this time, making sure he followed the instructions he’d been given. A big, rugged guy like him with his foot swathed in bubble wrap for a month and a half. How undignified.

As six weeks approached, Chubs was practically vibrating with the promise of a morning run. Frosty temperatures and the few extra pounds he’d put back on did not deter him as he headed out in the morning dark. But he made it home unscathed and alone, trying not to notice the great tears of abandonment and loss that mixed with his sheets of sweat. Neither man spoke to anyone about it. They missed each other privately, moving stoically throughout their days, accepting their workouts less like an adventure and more like medicine.

Wanting to regain some joy in his exercise, Stretch entered a Tough Mudder competition in the Carolinas. He had no team, but that was fine. Going it alone meant a greater chance for challenge and suffering, and that’s what he was really here for. Bad idea. There were massive walls to scale along with other obstacles for which he had to count on the help (and mercy) of his fellow Mudders to complete several. But Stretch could see in their eyes that it was mostly pity. They knew he was alone here, and his lack of a dedicated pack saw him falling further and further behind. Eventually he reached a sharply curving metal ramp like something in a skate park. No one apparently ahead or near behind. Stretch ran top speed up the ramp but he was still a good four feet below the edge before he slid back down again. Tried a second time, then a third, only dropping lower. And sooner. Resting, staring at his skinned knees and blinking all kinds of crud out of his eyes he thought, “This is it.” It was over. Still, he took a deep breath and sprinted up the ramp one more time, scrambling for all he was worth.

Just as Stretch reached that plateau, that strange and disorienting physical horizon wherein an athlete feels their greatest efforts are doing nothing more than keeping them in place instead of advancing, he felt himself suddenly floating in midair with a strong hand gripping his forearm. He looked up to see the muddy face of his old adversary, Chubs, who gave him a clever smile and pulled him out of athlete’s purgatory and over the top of the ramp. After regaining their footing, catching their breath, and jogging down the dirt path towards the next obstacle, Stretch spoke up.

“Nathan,” he said, “My name’s Nathan.”

Chubs nodded. “Herman.”

They made brief eye contact as they jogged along, then smiled serenely to themselves. Everything was right with the world. They finally reached the next obstacle — rope netting overhanging a vast pit of mud. Nathan was just about to reach for the edge of the netting overhead when he realized Herman was out of his line of vision. He made it about halfway through an “Ah, shit!” before Herman shoved him face-first into the mud.

22. May 2012 by Greg
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