I've just reached the bottom of the half-mile hill, the warm-up portion of my run, and it almost broke me. My legs hurt, my feet feel like they're about to fall off, and I'm not sure I remember how to breathe. But it always feels like this at the start of a run, when my body realizes I'm not just fooling with its head; that I'm actually starting a three-mile run.
I'm looking at the hill ahead, feeling the one behind and wondering why the hell I'm doing this. Why the hell I'm not sitting inside on my ass watching American Idol. Inside it's warm and there's beer. Out here it's about 50 degrees and threatening rain. By the time I get home I'll be soaked through with sweat, and, if the dark clouds ahead decide to burst, cold, wet rainwater. I see the stop sign on the corner up ahead. It taunts me. It's telling me I'm an idiot for doing this. It may be right. I feel old, beat up and slow. Oh God, do I feel slow.
I press the center button on my iPod, and the pleasant male voice with a Palo Alto accent tells me I've been running for four minutes and three seconds. The voice reminds me of everything I hate about Californians and their smug, fitter-happier-smarter-than-thou attitude. I imagine he's just some guy they picked up from the Apple office floor. I imagine there are a thousand more just like him. I call him Apple Man, and I despise him. I want to succeed just to spite him. He is the perfect trainer.
Apple Man tells me I've covered slightly less than half a mile in my four minutes of running. He tells me I'm running an 8:15 pace. Not Olympic, by any stretch, but faster than my mom can run. Faster than you probably run. Faster than I ran a month ago. Shit, faster than I've ever run. Suddenly I don't feel slow any more. Suddenly I feel fast. Paula Radcliffe fast. Lance Armstrong fast. Superman fast.
I cinch up my sneakers and kick. I launch myself across the street, through the trees and along a course that will take me over three miles of hard, cold ground before it dumps me back home where the couch, the beer and Idol are waiting. But I don't think about any of that anymore. Now I think about the rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement, keeping my breathing steady and the wind across my face. Right now I'm all about speed and the long-view goal of being fit. Right now I'm all about leveling.