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Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger

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“What’s the worst thing Chloe’s ever eaten?” my 12-year-old stepson, Milton, asks.

I look over at my tabby cat—the closest thing to a child I’d had prior to acquiring step kids—and recall the empty plastic grocery bag she once donned as a cape, then tried to chomp her way out of.

The next time I lace up my track shoes, Jorge delights me by asking if he can join me. He’s fresh out of after-school basketball practice, but, like his father, he nearly always chooses motion over sitting still.

Then last year, the universe bestowed upon me partial responsibility for three more creatures. Learning to co-parent small humans has filled my life with gifts—acrostic poems, the sort of raucous family game nights I (as an only child) had always dreamt of and a continual barrage of superlative questions:

What’s your least favorite food?

Oysters.

What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought?

Me: “My car.” Them: “Besides that.”

What’s the craziest thing you’ve
ever done?

(No comment.)

Michelle, who’s 10, asks, “What are your three favorite smells?” 

I first turn the question back to her. All three kids have the same answer: “Gasoline. New shoes. Rubber.”

“Maybe farts, too,” one of the boys adds.

I go with campfires, Nag Champa incense and rosemary. It’s only later that I realize the answers are really about nostalgia. (Campfires: childhood trips to Colorado. Nag Champa: the incense my mom burned when we read books together. Rosemary: bread baking in my college dining co-op.) After all, our olfactory sensors are part of our limbic system, which regulates emotion.

“What’s the most pain you’ve ever felt?” 14-year-old Jorge asks.

“When she ran Fat Dog 120,” says my husband, George, who’d paced me.

My memory of that suffer fest has already faded. I think, instead, of more recent torment—track workouts, each 400-meter repeat a baseball bat to my spirit. Yet, collectively, they’d culminated in something approaching bliss.

The next time I lace up my track shoes, Jorge delights me by asking if he can join me. He’s fresh out of after-school basketball practice, but, like his father, he nearly always chooses motion over sitting still.

On our drive to the track, conversation revolves around: the most hours we’ve ever stayed awake, the coolest thing we’ve ever witnessed, the worst grade we’ve
ever gotten.

Arriving, we don our headlamps (November in Seattle) and jog a few warm-up laps. Our breath swirls around us, translucent white in the moonlight as it floats up toward the pine trees surrounding the track.

Jorge asks me to time him on a 100-meter sprint. Then he offers to time my 400-meter repeats. I place my right foot behind the line, recalling my visceral hatred for middle-school track—the dread I felt at the crack of the starting gun; the searing glut of lactic acid in my legs; the fear of not being good enough. I’d quit after two years, then spent the next two decades working to kindle a genuine love for running, in all its forms. Eventually I’d grown enamored—not only with gentle miles in the woods, but also with the exhilarating grind of those runs at the edges of my physical and mental limits.

“Go!” Jorge yells.

I take off. On the second straightaway, my breath ragged and legs on fire, I hear him call out, “Fifty-six seconds, 57, 58!” I lunge across the line. Jorge falls into plodding lockstep beside me for my recovery lap.

“Nice work,” he says. “I lied, though. You weren’t actually under a minute. But I got you to push really hard, huh?”

I’m too exhausted to speak. Jorge works around it: “Just nod yes or no: Was that the hardest you’ve ever pushed?” My wheezing gasps seem to answer his question.

On my last repeat, Jorge wants to race. All the way around the track, we sprint side by side—taking turns cranking up the pace, battling for the lead. On the final straightaway, he surges. My legs can’t respond. He soars over the line a stride ahead, and we collapse onto the rubberized track. Steam rises like pillars of smoke from our shuddering bodies. Jorge is elated—alive in a way that I, at his age, never felt at the track.

The night air is crisp, fresh from recent rain. I don’t know about gasoline and farts, but maybe when he grows up, Jorge’s favorite smells will still be rubber and shoes. Pine trees and sweat, too. Maybe someday mine will be.

Maybe they already are.

Yitka Winn once got a C+ in Cultural Anthropology.