After his divorce,
Ian took up running.
At first it was just a lark,
something to get him
out of the house
and a few pounds lighter.
A goal to complete a 5k
as a symbolic triumph.
Maybe, somewhere down the line,
he could meet a lean woman
with long brown hair,
probably named “Jen.”
Defined muscles on her thighs and calves,
technical running shirt and colorful leggings,
a “26.2” sticker on the rear windshield
of her Subaru,
and they would jog together
into the sunset.
But it didn’t really go that way.
Ian found that after the initial struggle
to get off the couch and control his breath,
running came naturally to him.
He remembered being a child
with boundless energy
and the joy of speed
and the wind at his back.
I can make it to the stop sign without stopping.
I can make it to that mailbox without stopping.
I can make it to the finish line without stopping.
5k turned into 10k turned into half marathons.
He ran a full marathon, not like the Kenyans, of course,
but he made it to the end,
and that was not enough.
He found himself just a few years later
running 100-mile races in the desert
stumbling up mountains and crashing through brambles
His feet blistered and bleeding,
toenails turning black and falling off,
knees and shins torn to shreds by thorns,
and his family and friends wondered, “Why?”
But he didn’t really have an answer for them.
He just had to go farther each time,
push himself harder,
see what happened when he fell down
and couldn’t get back up again.
It was raining that April night
and the steep path was slippery
and hard to see.
He had already slipped several times
knees and hands mud-covered.
He was far from a checkpoint,
didn’t have any assistance,
no other suffering runners in sight.
He pulled a tasteless protein bar out
from his backpack
and chewed mechanically.
Suddenly in front of him appeared
a glowing orb.
It floated towards him
and hovered in front of his face,
seeming to observe him,
It emitted a high-pitched tinnitus whine.
I’m hallucinating, he thought,
rubbing his eyes.
It had happened before
on lonely trails
when he was dehydrated
The orb did not vanish like other mirages
he had seen.
It radiated a light-bulb warmth.
Even though he sensed a malevolence,
he was almost magnetically drawn
to touch this iridescent sphere.
He reached one shaking finger out to it
then all was illuminated by a blinding flash
for a moment
before he was plunged into darkness.
Spinning, tumbling, blind.
He lost consciousness before he hit the ground.
When he awoke,
he was in a different place.
A flat plain covered with yellow grass
waving in the wind
under an orange sky.
Only one black-limbed tree near the horizon.
His back started to sweat.
Not a soul in sight.
A shriek echoed in the distance.
All he could do was run.