by Edwin Dixon
It’s 5:09 AM and still the city’s asphalt seeps the equatorial heat stolen from yesterday’s sun. The ground is relentless in its quest to cripple my dripping excuse for a body, my legs and feet seemingly bereft of cushioning ligament, cartilage and sinew, just brittle bone driving home onto merciless tarmac. My hamstrings are ready to snap: fibers of muscle frayed strings tightening on a sharpened blade.
The six-lane highway before me is vacant of all signs of human life, a blackened artery dotted with dim-white street-light circles. For the last God knows how many miles my only company—beside the dying embers of sentience in my battered consciousness—has been the bark of the chain-link street dog, the scuttle of the monsoon-drain rodent, and the hushed code of the shadowed alleyway inhabitant.
The lane closest to the central reservation is pockmarked with sporadic traffic cones to demarcate the running zone. The rest of the highway is open for business. The occasional nocturnal truck slams by, wafting its sweaty landfill scent of the gutter. But in recent memory all I recall is this, the unexpurgated silence of my own impending failure.
I pushed hard at the start. Too hard. Six months of predawn tempos, mindless laps of the track, and long runs into the torched wastelands of the outer perimeters of existence will never ready you for the shock of the klaxon’s call and the ensuing jostling for position, a battle which should only last for twenty metres but somehow enrages you with cortisone for twenty miles. And all the preparation comes to this nadir, five miles from the finish and everything used up, starved, depleted. All of the scientific reasoning—the glycogen reserves, the circadian rhythms, the twelve-by-four-hundred repeats—becomes folklore. VO2 max calculations turn into a metronomic mantra of, ‘Very. Ordinary. Squared.’
A thorn grows under my drenched skin, somewhere beneath my flaming lungs, the pain spreading like sand in an hourglass, wrapping tendrils of torture around my ribs. I feel pitiful. Online forums spoke of visions and epiphanies. I figured finishing this thing might finally mean something.
The lights of the skyscrapers in the middle distance don’t glitter the skies with sparkling welcome. Instead buildings here and there offer a square glow of window, each pale-yellow light the mark of some other stray fringer trying to make their way forward.
A car pulls slowly up beside me, a suicidal move on the darkened freeway overtaking lane. I look down at the driver; he looks up at me, or maybe through me, and beyond, to the charcoal cage of sky encasing us. My gaze isn’t clear through the syrupy film of humidity on my face, but his inebriated eyes seem like deep elevator shafts of black. The guy’s a foreigner, like me. Whenever expat meets expat here, whether across the musky dark-lights of a bar, or through the insect-roasting scent of the market, you ask yourself, Who are you running from? Where are you running from? What are you running from? These questions are as inevitable as the lack of answers. We are, all of us, runners here, carrying scars in deep recesses of mind where no prying eye or autopsy scalpel will ever find them. And if there’s something of myself written in the driver’s irises swallowed of colour then I can only loosely sense it, in the way all human suffering is seen but not invariably heard. Before I can contemplate this coming together of the forgotten his caroused foot finds the accelerator and the car’s away from my hip. I’m alone again.
Blood in my ankles booming as loud as the sea in a cracked shell, I slow right down and pull over to the inside.
Immediately, I’m undertaken.
The shock of it—the presence of the first fellow runner in hours—pulls me out of my pit. Inexplicably, I’m gossamer caught in a tailwind, charging down the purveyor of my rejuvenation. Every step is now, ‘Light. Fast. Free.’ I can see the outline of my saviour moving rhythmically through the streetlamps, encircled by shadows in spinning rotation. With a mission on my mind the strength stays with me. I close the gap marginally, second by second.
When I catch up I can barely believe my eyes. She’s a diminutive figure, barely higher than my third rib, and her small, dark legs belie a muscular sinuousness which pulses in ripples with every cyclical footfall. Her face is lined with age. She must be sixty, at least, the canyons in her cheeks fertile soil for an ultra-trail. She’s running barefoot. Her top is striped in red, black and green. The same colours adorn little flags tied to the end of a braid on each side of her head. Her bib holds no number, just a name: Eve Mutai.
I fall into step beside her, my head bouncing a foot-and-a-half clear of hers, yet in no way do I feel taller. I want to speak to her, thank her, get down on my knees and extol her bare running feet, but I can’t seem to validate my gratitude with the scant human lexicon.
And it seems Eve Mutai is not even aware of my presence, or if she is, she makes no notion of acknowledgment. No matter how much I look at her, no matter how much my face fails to disguise enchantment, there’s not a flinch from her determined, stoic face, permanently set to whatever vision lies ahead. It occurs to me that, unlike everybody I know, Eve Mutai’s not running away from something. She’s running towards it.
There’s nothing left for me to do. I yank off my shoes and socks and launch them to the wayside, flick the tips of my toes free from their burdensome weight. The finish is immaterial now. The distance ahead might be five miles, fifty, a hundred. We’re ochre paintings in a fire lit cave, the city around us savannah, the buildings brush, the road soft earth underfoot.
Edwin Dixon is a High School English teacher who has taught teenagers in Cambodia, Thailand, Korea and England. Are they moody and hormonal the world over? Yes. Is the world doomed in the hands of the next generation? Absolutely not. He completed his Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck University in London and his works have appeared in Ambit magazine and The Mechanics' Institute Review.