Bob never said anything when Wade turned up the pace half a notch.
Neither did Wade. Each struggled to keep his breathing quiet and steady, to hide the mounting strain. When it was over and Bob lowered his head, as if studying the V-shaped pattern of sweat that darkened his shirt, Wade said, "That was good. About eight minutes."
"Yeah," Bob agreed, although both knew they'd knocked off the last three miles well under 7:30.
That's the way it went every morning. Wade was always a little bit stronger, a little bit faster, a little bit keener to turn the psychological screw. "I didn't get to bed until three," he'd say as he casually dropped the pace into six-minute territory. "I had too many chocolate chip cookies," as he nudged them towards the biggest hill in the county. "I think I'm getting the flu," as he cut into the wind. "I feel pretty bad today," as if, by accelerating, he could make Bob share his misery.
Bob could always keep up with his neighbor on the five- or six-milers they took before work, even though Wade seemed to want to make it a leeetle bit uncomfortable for him. Bob could coast on his friend's shoulder. He could lose himself in Wade's rhythm, in the swing of his arms -- which sometimes seemed as powerful and relentless as the arms driving a locomotive's wheels.
Come race day, it was a different story. Bob would dash ahead for half the race, only to find himself empty when Wade flashed by in the final miles. It didn't seem fair that if they covered the same distance at the same speed day after day, his partner should be able to leave him every time they ran against the clock. Yet gradually, Bob narrowed the margin, crossing the line a few seconds closer to Wade each time. He knew that Wade had noticed, but neither of them ever mentioned it.
Now, with their goal, the Run for Your Life 10K, only two months away, Bob felt sure his progress could bridge the gap.
He'd always felt that running gave him a license to eat, not that he overdid it or anything. But now he revoked that license and shed a little weight. It was no big deal, just half a pound a week or so, but he felt leaner, lighter on his feet. Gravity was his first victim. His confidence grew as his circumference shrank.
As senior engineers at Automatic Wedgies, Bob and Wade talked shop when they ran. At first, Bob found it tough to concentrate on technical subjects while lactates washed through his thighs like battery acid and the air short-changed him on oxygen. Recently, though, he could hold his end of the conversation, with the result that they became more productive on the job. Sometimes they joked that they should receive bonus pay for their training runs. On the other hand, they mostly talked running while they were at work.
Each morning Bob seemed to match Wade's pace a little more easily. Maybe the big guy was coming down with something. One Thursday morning, Bob surprised himself by surging ahead as Wade's once-smooth stride locked up. "You go on," Wade shouted when Bob turned to see what the matter was. "You've got a good pace there."
This would be too easy.
How many times had he dreamed of matching Wade step for step in the final mile of a race and then -- with his legs pumping like pistons, his arms driving like hammers, his lungs heaving like a bellows -- he would hurl himself forward in a final, heroic sprint to break the tape, his PR, and the heart of his adversary? No, it wouldn't be a pretty sight. He wouldn't want to frame the photo they would send him on approval a few weeks later -- but he sure would order half a dozen 8x10s.
Now it looked like he would take Wade's measure without even extending himself. He felt a vague sense of loss over the ease of his anticipated victory.
Poor Wade just didn't seem to have it anymore.
On Sundays, they rested.
Nowhere was it written, "Thou shalt not run." Bob and Wade had never even discussed it. They had an understanding that the body needed to rest and rejuvenate after the weekly grind. Bob had always felt refreshed and ready to go after a day among the couch potatoes.
But with the Run for Your Life 10K coming up, he decided to take an easy jog on Sunday afternoon. He walked outside and felt a little self-conscious in the bright sunshine, almost as if he were naked in spite of his running shorts and T-shirt. He walked a little, and then fell into an easy stride, in the opposite direction from Wade's house.
A commotion of fur and tails startled him as he ran beside a scraggly hedge on the south side of town. A squirrel broke through the bushes and darted up a tree, followed by a cat. In hot pursuit came a yappy little mutt whose pedigree was best left to the imagination.
"Here's the food chain in action," he thought, laughing out loud. But he stopped cold as he rounded the turn. A much bigger, much toothier dog that had formed the next link in that chain skidded to a halt in front of him. He stopped dead in his tracks and took care not to meet the dog's eyes. He'd read that territory and dominance are the two things that snarling, vicious, frothing savage hounds from hell understand best, so he wanted to make it clear that he posed no threat. He eased himself by the beast with tiny crabwise steps, bowing and scraping until he'd reached a certain distance where he felt safe to jog again.
When he hit the shower back home, he reflected on how the food chain he'd observed had been broken, and how he'd wound up as the missing link. The big dog had traded its original prey so quickly for Bob. Maybe he should raise his own sights to a new level.
After all, he reasoned a month later, his Sunday runs were paying off. Where once he had been pleased to finish within two minutes of Wade in a race, he held him to 15 seconds in a tune-up 8K. "Judge your pace a little better, and you've got him easy," he figured. Maybe he should look for bigger fish to fry.
Still feeling stiff and a little sore, Bob took heart in seeing that Wade dragged through their Monday morning workout, too. As the week wore on, Bob felt stronger by the day, while Wade seemed sluggish. It was as if Wade's endless litany of complaints had finally backfired, psyching him out while Bob took strength from them.
Just ten days before the Run for Your Life 10K, Bob made a late trip to the grocery for some fresh alfalfa sprouts. On the way back, his headlights picked up the reflective tabs of a pair of running shoes. Pumping above the bright arcs were arms that seemed as powerful and relentless as the arms driving a locomotive's wheels. Only one runner moved like that. But when Bob pulled up to the intersection, the form had disappeared in the shadows.
Wade never mentioned anything about secret workouts the next morning.
Neither did Bob as he cranked up the pace half a notch. Each of them kept quiet as they struggled to conceal their growing oxygen debts like a pair of proud paupers.
Bob felt eager for the gun before the Run for Your Life 10K. He lined up just in front of the six-minute sign.
"Are you sure we're in the right place?" Wade asked him, eying the smaller, leaner runners around them.
"I averaged about six minutes in my last 10K."
"Yeah, six minutes and ninety-seven seconds."
Bob's smile took a moment, as if he thought Wade had spoken to someone else. He was preoccupied with the well-rehearsed image of how he would finally run away from his training partner, lifting his arms at the finish to acknowledge the crowd's cheers. Somehow he envied sprinters their ritual of crouching to the blocks, shaking the final kinks out, and then basking in a moment's meditation before their ultimate test.
He'd gone over his splits a thousand times. He knew just how much to increase the pressure after the first mile mark. He knew how hard he would have to guard against lagging in the middle third. He knew how he would suddenly feel light and tireless in the run home. He knew how Wade would struggle in frustration so far behind and unable to make up time.
He knew how the adrenalin would rush at the sound of the gun.
He moved off the line easily and found himself snaking through the early clumps of runners. After three hundred yards, he glanced around and saw that Wade had already fallen thirty yards behind him. Today would be his day.
As the field funneled into the first turn, Bob took inventory. The pace felt right, all systems go. He knew by measuring his progress against Wade that he was in the best shape of his life. All the morning runs and the new Sunday work-outs had paid off. All that was left was to do it.
One mile passed, then two and three, and still Bob ran smoothly. Runners strung out before him and he felt like a shark harvesting the stragglers from a vast, tasty school of fish.
At four miles, Bob pulled alongside a balding man whose arms flapped as if that might help drag his flagging body through the final stages of exhaustion. "Easy prey," he thought at first. But unlike those he had passed so far, this guy fought back and matched him stride for stride.
Bob decided to run with him for awhile, take it easy for now, then outkick him at the end. That was when he heard the chilling sounds of the measured breath and the unnaturally light footfall that meant Wade had reeled him in again.
He thought of that old cartoon in which a camper laces up his running shoes while an angry bear crashes through the woods.
"You don't think you can outrun that bear, do you?" his companion asks.
"I just have to outrun you," he replies.
Bob thought if he could break away from this geezer on his elbow, Wade might be satisfied with passing him. He unleashed a giant surge to make his sacrificial offering.
It worked. The old man fell back and Wade swallowed him up. Just as suddenly as he'd surged, Bob turned into a toy soldier whose spring had wound down. Wade swept past him with a word of encouragement. Five or six more went by in silence. Minute by minute, Bob's panic gave way to resignation as Wade's group padded their lead over him.
The race, so clear in his imagination, turned into a blur as Bob traded a second here, a few tenths there, for minor adjustments in his discomfort index. Even so, he jogged in 15 seconds under his PR. But Wade had waxed him by a quarter of a mile, and more runners streamed by in the final yards.
Wade later acknowledged that he'd been doing evening workouts to prepare for the big race, but Bob never mentioned his own Sunday afternoon excursions. In the coming year he could build them up to ten or twelve miles, like stockpiling secret weapons.
Although they'd both set PRs in the Run for Your Life 10K, neither of them said a word about the race as they jogged through their stiffness Monday morning. Both complained about how bad they felt as they turned up the pace half a notch.
About the Creator
Alan Gold lives in Texas. His novels, Stress Test, The Dragon Cycles and The White Buffalo, are available, like everything else in the world, on amazon.
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