Bloody toenails. Thigh chafing. Blisters on top of blisters. The delusion that I'm the fastest runner alive usually hits around mile 7. The pain hits around mile 10. The belief that I'm not going to make it hits me somewhere in the final two miles when I transition from the smoothness of the trail to the uneven sidewalks of the city.
On Thursday, I ran 14 miles in cold rain. I was racing against the setting sun and the worsening weather, rain blinding me every step of the way. I saw less than five runners the entire time (excluding the 5k that I accidentally came across towards the second half of my run). The river was rushing and the trees were exploding with green. Commuters were stuck at traffic lights and I ran past them and past whatever fear I might've had of being alone. I dodged the 5kers and heard one of them yell "good job" at me, the outsider who'd infiltrated their race. I ran under bridges just as the homeless were settling in for the night, the street lights shining through the mist. I stared at the river churning alongside me, my constant running companion.
The sky grew darker and my thoughts followed it. If someone pulled me into the river now, who would come save me? Would I be too tired to swim, or would my adrenaline kick in? A few miles earlier, I'd been running over a bridge where it would've been so easy to lose my footing and fall through the metal grates. I ran faster, fear and adrenaline mixed with the excitement of my overactive imagination. A lone Jeep pulled into the parking lot near the trail, and I ran faster still, looking over my shoulder to check that I was still alone. I imagined the murderers of prime time crime drama. I tried to conjure a thousand reasons why someone would pull over at that exact spot at precisely the moment I was jogging by.
Fueled by my sinister fantasies, I ran what was to date the longest and probably the fastest course of my life. I was soaking wet from head to toe and shivering by the end. I gorged on three sushi rolls from Grubhub afterward, feeling ill from so much nourishment at once. I could barely stand in the shower, grabbing at slippery tiles for support. Running so utterly alone felt like leaving the world of the living. There was no interaction with the world, no physical contact other than foot-to-pavement, rain-drop-to-skin--external factors that I became numb to after only a few miles. I was not entirely sure where I'd gone for those two hours, but it didn't feel like it had been the same course that anyone else had run that evening in Philadelphia.
I woke up feeling the kind of sore that oozes from your muscles to your bones to somewhere deep inside the brain, the kind of fatigue that could lay someone out flat for sixteen hours of deep sleep. It is this all-encompassing fatigue that reminds me of what the body is capable of, and how this in turn affects the mind.
Two days later, I still woke up feeling like I was dead. I told my friend how "dead" I felt, how much my ass hurt, and how little I could move. Then I read the news.
They pulled a dead body out of the Schuykill River. They didn't know how long it had been there, but it had floated near the South Street bridge, one of the main entrances to the running trail in Center City. I was freaked out by the overlap between imagination and coincidence--what if I was one of those people who could sense imminent danger? Had I run past this very body two nights earlier?
When truth and fiction overlap, I think that is the mind telling us that we have no choice but to follow the story. Tomorrow I will run by the river trail again and the day after that, hoping to get a little closer to the edge of the trail without falling in, to imagine what this nameless, faceless, genderless person might have felt.
It might take five miles just to decide what the name might be--was it Tom, a middle-aged roller blader, or Becky, an orthorexic three-time marathoner? Was it a jump or a fall? A push, perhaps? Each possibility pushes me farther along the trail. Each one makes me both a little less and a little more terrified to be out there alone, armed with nothing other than an untouched energy gel and a single key to my apartment. What would someone guess about me if they found me as I was at that exact moment? Would I find the strength in me to stab someone in the eye with my key if necessary? I was the victim in the unsolved mystery, the character in my unwritten story.
I run to find the answers to my fiction almost as much as I run to get faster. The mind gets sharper as the muscles get more carved and knotted. The imagination blooms wild as the rain beats down upon it, numbing the limbs to any pain until I've completely stopped moving.
For several glorious hours, writer's block feels impossible. Pain feels irrelevant. Characters take shape and leave as quickly as they come, some always just a few strides out of my reach.
I checked the news again today and the details are starting to form. White male, partially decomposed. He was found not by another runner, but by an oil refinery worker. His identity remains unknown, and I'm not sure whether to feel relieved or not that he was not wearing running clothes.