The author (right) trails runners Alfredo Santana and Marielle Hall. (Photo by David Meyer)

The author (right) trails runners Alfredo Santana and Marielle Hall. (Photo by David Meyer)

by Dante Zappala

The nomadic thunderstorms of the weeks before had failed to bring relief in their wake. It took ten hours of steady rain to finally erase the humidity. Twilight ended abruptly. The clouds cut to black. I looped the infield at SCH’s track, shirtless, inviting a chill, still thinking about yesterday.

It would take more than rain to wipe away the recent past. I wasn’t going to be able to simply forget, certainly not as I jogged in recovery. The sting of the race the night before was still acute. Try as I might, I couldn’t escape my brain, not even in cool darkness.

For days ahead of the race, I had visualized a scenario. If I ran on the absolute redline, I could finish a 5k in under 16 minutes. I’d have to bleed out perfectly, but I became certain that I indeed had just enough blood to pull it off.

On race morning, a wandering thunderstorm was predicted to hit the Fort Washington area around 7:30. This would have washed out the race and I was resigned to believe I’d lost my chance to suffer. By mid-day, that cell had simply disappeared from the weather map. I still have no idea where it went.

I arrived at Germantown Academy in time to see my training partners race in the mile. Alfredo won in predictable fashion. Eliot and Marielle ran PR’s on a humid evening with the sun still beating down. This is a special group of runners. They work hard and they get better. What could be more satisfying in its simplicity?

I started my warm-up in the waning heats of the 400 meters. My legs felt fresh and ready. This was rare enough to be recognized. I’d done just a few easy runs in the days before and it helped. Then I got word that Alfredo and Marielle would pace with me for the race. They wanted to get a little extra work in after the mile.

They are both accomplished runners. Alfredo was an All-American at La Salle. Marielle is an NCAA champion and now a member of the US National Team headed to Beijing for the World Championships in August. Having these two lead me out for most of the race was a treat for sure, and it felt almost like cheating.

We went out a little slow, about two seconds off the pace through the first kilometer. Alfredo recognized this and injected just the slightest bit of intensity into the race and that’s when the bleeding began. Lap after lap, my heart rate rose, my reserves depleted and my focus shifted to the mental prep I had done in the days before. I knew that my brain would be awash with despair. I knew I’d want to quit. I knew it would hurt. My plan was to just ignore it all and hold the pace. Always easier said than done.

I was slowly slipping off the pace. Marielle was wearing a bright orange shirt and it floated now several meters ahead of me. With three laps to go, they represented the triumph, the barrier I wanted to break. They paced for a sub 16 with solid strides, without regard to my circumstance. The tides of my ambition would brush closer to them and then fall back. The aftermath of each successive cycle was a painfully growing gap between us.

At the bell lap, they had escaped into the darkness. I was alone with no vision into the mystery the flood lights created in the beyond. As I descended down the back stretch, past the lights now and in the remnants of dusk, I could see them pull out at the three-mile mark. They never intended to cross the finish line, they only intended to get me close. The last 200 meters would be a possession all my own.

I counted. Seconds are invasive creatures to running, like moths in a closet of nice clothes. On their own, they are easy to kill. Collectively, they can strangle a goal, a belief, a hope. There were too many to measure at this point in the race. I had to start swatting.

My sprint was intense, perhaps too much so. Maybe I left it out on the track. Maybe there was more to give three laps out and it would have put doubt to bed. I could have been well inside the gate rather than watching it close in front of me. My legs moved furiously, a silent scream at time, demanding it to stop.

I saw 16 on the clock. My sprinting persisted. The race wasn’t over. Moments of loss, resignation, and bitterness all flashed in the small space of less than two seconds, the vortex between me and the finish line.

I wobbled on the outside of the track. The perfect opportunity had passed through like the thunderstorm that didn’t. It had disappeared into the nether, into the nothingness of two seconds gone by. Two seconds. This was the rhythm of my breath now. A steady army of seconds, lined up in two columns, started an immediate attack on my psyche. They smelled the blood I’d left on track. They knew my secret – there was something left to be had. And they were hungry for it. They poured in against the tide of sweat and embedded themselves like parasites into my mind.

The humidity is on the rise again. I don’t know when the next perfect storm will pass through again. Yet the desire to break 16 remains. I have no choice but to embrace the time in between.