Tag Archives: speed

Four hundred meters

“On your mark, get set … go!”


As the coach said that last word, his arm went down, and Billy and I were off. Four hundred meters, four laps around the track. I don’t how this race ever wound up happening in the first place. Billy was clearly the better runner. And yet here we were, both of us coming up on that first turn, the top-left of my right sole always feeling on these curves like it was shouldering too much of my body’s weight as I tried to maintain speed. I don’t know why we always had to run counter-clockwise around the track. It would have been nice to go in the opposite direction, even if just once in a while, to give that right foot a little bit of a rest, maybe build up the left foot muscles, which, I could never notice a difference between the two, but I always felt it, like on molecular level, they just had to have been a little bit weaker in the left.

“You’re an idiot,” Billy said to me, and now I remembered why I’d taken this challenge in the first place. Because great, you’re the fastest runner Billy, that’s awesome. Do you have to be such a jerk about it? Couldn’t you be a little cooler? And not cool, but like, you know, nice, not a dick. If I’m in the locker room and I ask you a question about performance running socks, do you have to make it into a joke, you and your elite running lackeys repeating everything I say in that stupid nasally voice? That’s not what I sound like, by the way.

I wanted to say something back to him, but I couldn’t. I was putting everything I had into just keeping up, and we weren’t even halfway done with the first hundred meters. Hopefully I didn’t outwardly look like I was giving it everything I had, because I had the suspicion that Billy was doing just fine, that he was taking these three laps pretty easy, ready to just tear off at the end.

And then I thought, what if he was only running as fast as I was running? If I were in a four hundred meter race against someone who I was pretty sure that I could beat, I’d probably only try to match my opponent’s speed for the first few laps. Because why waste any energy? Why not let him lead, and then I could sprint away at the end?

So I waited until we turned the next corner and I slowed down just a little bit. It worked. Billy totally took it down a notch to match me. “You getting tired?” he taunted. We were passing the row of bleachers on the final hundred meters of the first lap, that straightaway where all of Billy’s friends were hanging out in their warm-up suits. I could hear them calling my name out in the same stupid voice they used to make fun of everyone who presented an easy enough target, the high-pitched whine, sucking their cheeks in and sticking out their teeth, smiling and laughing, celebrating even, both at the perceived humor in their jokes as well as the contented belief that they’d never have to be on the receiving end of such verbal abuse.

I put them out of my head and concentrated on what I had to do. I felt OK now, like I had a chance at pulling this off. But there were still three laps left. I’d have to maintain this pace for two more, crank it up at the last lap, and then give it everything I had for that last push toward the finish. Would I be able to do it? Doubt started to creep into my fleeting sense of what now felt like misplaced confidence.

Almost on cue, my legs started to tighten up, not a lot, but it was enough of a physical sensation to give my growing doubts some actual weight. My breathing must have picked up, because Billy looked at me. We were approaching another turn and, so far he hadn’t even bothered to get in front of me. He ran right alongside, not worrying about the extra distance he’d have to cover by staying in that further lane. And I could tell, he really wasn’t worried. “You know I ran a four thirty-five mile last month, right?”

And he actually said it. I still wasn’t at a point where I could get words out, my lungs were right now exclusively working toward supplying my blood with the oxygen necessary to maintain my current pace, a pace which was slower than my initial pace, something that, if Billy didn’t have a problem with a four and a half minute mile, this must have been nothing. What was my best time, five and half? Five forty-five?

I had to slow down again and hope that he’d stay with me. As I pulled back, I could hear him laughing, mocking me, “Still two more laps. You sure you can finish?” and again, I wanted to say something, but my breathing was so controlled at this point. How was Billy able to have what sounded like casual conversation? This pace, was it that easy for him?

For the entire third lap, I had no choice, I had to drop my speed. And on the first hundred of the fourth, Billy started running backwards right next to me. From where we were at, the bleachers were all the way on the other side of the track, but I could still hear everyone laughing and calling out in that mocking voice.

As we approached that last hundred meters, I thought, did I have what it took to race him in a sprint? Probably not. But could I at least put up a good fight? Could I somehow will my feet do what they had so far been unable to do, to pose somewhat of a threat to Billy’s dominance?

I wouldn’t be able to find out, because right as I started sprinting, Billy wiped out next to me. He fell to the track, hard. When he bounced up a few seconds later, I was about halfway to the finish line. I looked over my shoulder to see if he could still make a run for it. He probably could have. In fact, for a second I swear I saw all of his muscles twitch, like he was ready to pounce. But then he just stopped. He stood there, and then he started walking.

I crossed the finish line, but nobody said anything. All eyes were on Billy. And just as he was in earshot, I heard him say, “Whatever, I wasn’t even racing. That doesn’t count. Didn’t you see me running backwards? What a joke.”

And I looked to the coach, hoping he’d at least validate my accomplishment, just name me the winner, please. But he looked more concerned with his star runner. “Billy, you OK? Anything hurt?” he was walking in his direction.

“Nah, I’m good. I wasn’t really running that hard anyway.”

Everyone started laughing from the sidelines, and the coach said, “All right, let’s get out of here everyone. Showers!”

It’s not always a race

I went for a run in the park last week. There’s this loop around, it twists and snakes, with just the right amount of hills. It’s nice, because I can run uninterrupted, I don’t have to worry about stopping for any traffic lights or cars. It’s just pure rhythm, and after a while I can sometimes get into this trancelike state.


It’s kind of like when I write, or when I’m reading or watching TV. One of my arms or legs will start tapping on the floor or rocking at my side. Eventually the movement takes over to the point where I’m not even thinking about it anymore. It’s just happening, it’s like a clock, precise in its beat. And whatever I get out of tapping or rocking back and forth, I get it to a much larger extent when I’m running, because I can do it for these dedicated stretches of time.

But last week anyway, I was running by myself, my speed is always pretty constant, all of the sudden I heard someone coming up on my left. That’s OK, it happens. It’s a huge park in a huge city and there are tons of people trying to do their thing. My thing is, whenever this happens, my rhythm and my pace can get thrown out of whack.

I heard someone else coming up behind me and my first reaction was to crank it up a notch. Obviously I don’t really want to do this. I’m not trying to make a race out of everybody that happens to be running faster than me at the park. But even though I didn’t see him yet, he was already in my head. My speed and my stride were calculated in relation to my position in a fixed space. Now I had another body in motion right at my side, and I got a sort of velocity vertigo.

I could no longer tell how I was supposed to be running. I wanted to just keep at it the way I was keeping at it, but I couldn’t tell if I was going slower now or faster. Eventually he broke into the field of my peripheral vision. He was running faster, and I might as well have just let him get ahead, far away from me, maybe I’d be able to get back into my groove.

But no sooner did he overtake me than he jerked to the right, so that he was now running directly in front of me. And then, I’m not sure if I was even perceiving it correctly at first, maybe my running was still a little out of whack, but it’s almost like this guy was slowing down. I kind of matched my speed a little bit, so I was running behind him, maintaining a little distance, and yeah, he definitely must have slowed down, because after a quarter mile or so, I was breathing a lot easier, almost like I was cooling down.

And so it’s like, what the hell man? You sprinted in front of me just to slow down? That’s like running rule number one. If you’re going to make that much of an effort to pass somebody, you’d better make sure that you can sustain that speed for a long time. No, it’s not an exact science. And like I said, when people start running close to each other, there’s definitely some sort of a gravity thing going on, people’s speeds get messed up, bodies are pulled toward or backward.

But then to get directly in front of me? I made my own snap judgment. I thought, OK, if I pass this guy, are we racing now? Was he going to try to steal the lead once more? This was all way more than I had anticipated dealing with when I left the house, but I didn’t have many choices. It was either risk a race, or accept my new, slower run, all to avoid a potentially awkward impromptu competition.

It shouldn’t be this difficult. It’s probably not this difficult. I’m pretty sure that I’m making something out of nothing. Not everything’s a challenge, right? Not everything has to be a race.

But as I stole ahead of him once more I had to fight the urge to look back, not all the way, definitely no eye contact, but a kind of sideways glance, a very subtle communication, like nice try man. No, that could have provoked him, maybe he would have gunned it once more, and I still had a few miles left, miles that I needed that energy for. I stared straight ahead, concentrated on my breathing. Pretty soon it was just me again, and then after that I was back in the zone, just the park, just running, until that guy wasn’t in my head anymore, until there was nothing in my head anymore, nothing but my breathing, my pace, the little pulses of pleasure shooting through my body each time my feet hit the pavement.