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Breakneck Speed

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You’ll never go fast if you never go fast

The last thing I remember is seeing my bare white toes flying over my head, as my body slammed to the ground, upside-down, with the force of a sledgehammer.

I was 11, pretending I was the Road Runner (beep-beep!). I used to run barefoot around the outside of our house for speed, dodging in and out of trees, jumping a rock pile and sprinting to the finish under a clothesline. I ran for the sheer joy of it and imagined myself winning the Olympics every time I completed a lap.

One night, after dinner, I had run the course in the dark. I’d felt like I was flying as I passed the clothesline, then jogged to the driveway and rested up for another go.

Little did I know, my mother was doing laundry, and had just hung up some wet pillows to dry overnight. As I sprinted to finish another lap, I never saw the sagging clothesline.

From the ground I staggered to my feet, but fell back to my knees. My neck felt like I got a hickey from a love-starved crocodile. My head felt like it was trying to hatch an anvil from the lump on the back of my skull.

All I could think as I crawled off to bed was: If I never went fast, this never would have happened.

In moments of sheer agony, a guy can have revelations. Mine that night was, “Speed is bad.”

From that day forward, I took to exploring the backwoods, where there were no clotheslines. I ran more slowly, and soon discovered a new world: the natural world between the forested tops of the rolling hills of west Jersey. And that laid the foundation for my love of trail running.

Over the many years since, I think I’ve found the essence of devotion to trails. It’s to expand one’s boundaries and to find one’s limits: To explore. To stoke the fiery core of one’s soul till the superficial parts of our civilized world have melted away, funneled down to mind, body and movement. Long, slow distance was for years my method of exploration, but I’ve discovered that in nature there’s always a need for speed.

This past season I began exploring that world of speed again. I was invited to run on a team with Peter Hegelbach, Ken Pliska, Andy Ames and Richard Dissly at the USA Club Cross Country Championships in San Francisco. The 10K course was mostly flat and fast, not really my thing.

“But I like trying new things,” I told myself.

(“What a moron!” I told myself later.)

I flew through the two-mile mark at 9:35, my chest about to explode. That was a two-mile PR for me, and I was still the last guy on my team, back in about 34th place. I unraveled like a cheap racing flat after that, and finished 40th.

Our Masters team took second out of 55 clubs, but we had been aiming for first. I felt like the dragging anchor at the end of the chain.

After awards and dinner that night, the team all went down to watch the sea lions on Pier 39. The faster sea lions there captured the docks and controlled the planks. The slower animals struggled to find a spot.

It’s a rotten feeling to be missing out, and the slow ones barked like homesick dogs in a kennel. Their undefeated wills bellowed from their exhausted bodies as, again and again, they lifted themselves to try to shoulder into the crowd on the packed flotillas.

I saw myself in them: a little too slow to get a good spot, and not at all happy about it.

I told myself, “If you never go fast, you’ll never go fast.” And then a new/old thought hatched in my brain cells again. “Intervals. I need to do intervals again.”

A laundry list of bad memories ensued. The last time I did intervals I pulled a hamstring, and the time before that, I pulled a calf muscle. Another time my illiotibial band twanged like a country guitar. And I remembered how awful my feet and back and stomach and chest and head have felt when I’ve done intervals.

When I got back home, I did intervals, because sometimes you just have to do something you’re not sure you can do … again and again and again, till you get your flippers on the dock.

Trail running taught me that. The sea lions just reminded me.

Bernie Boettcher’s still searching for speed, and not at all happy about it.

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