I squinted into the darkness and tried to read my Nike sports band and my Droid 2. 3.02 miles. 69.78 miles in five days. 11:53 p.m. It was time. In one minute I would open the thick laundry room door. In my mind, I rehearsed kicking off my shoes, dashing upstairs, and uploading my miles into the second slot on the back of my computer, which was the most reliable one. If all went right, the three miles would register in the Team Bash challenge, resulting in a narrow victory of 0.1 mile.
At 11:54 p.m., I tapped my mouse, plugged the portable zip drive from my watch into my iMac, and Firefox connected me to the Nike running site. I was in. Or was I? We trailed by almost three miles. I texted by dear friend and virtual running friend and she wrote back, “I’ve been watching the computer screen ever since I uploaded my 7 miles at 11:45 p.m. Nothing has registered. Are you sure you uploaded?”
11:57 p.m. My head burned and my heart started to race. Where were the missing miles? We were losing by 2.92 miles. “Damn you Nike,” I howled. Please send my miles to the team challenge. I could do nothing else. The miles had left my zip drive and transported via the Internet to the main Nike Server. Proof of my run showed on my Nike profile but not in the challenge. The seconds ticked at frantic pace, and then for an instant, time stopped. My mind drifted back a few hours, when we still had time.
6:30 p.m. After Easter Dinner, I smiled at my husband. “I am going to do whatever it takes to win this thing,” and he grinned back at me in silent agreement and respect. We’ve been married a long time, and when he met me, I was, as I am now, a runner. The passage of my life is measured as much in miles as it is in minutes. In fact, I have the uncanny ability to know what time it is when I am running. The synapses in my brain that measure miles and minutes have been finely honed by years of calculating the one based on the other.
8:30 p.m. I limped upstairs and uploaded six more miles, which brought Sunday’s total to 17 miles. My hip throbbed. Both Achilles Tendons were swollen and painful to the touch. I sat down in front of my computer and opened the Nike site via Google Chrome. All day long, we had traded the lead with the Speed Zombies. Now the lead stood at 7 miles. I need to stop fighting and take care of myself.
“Travis?” My husband sat all sprawled out on the maroon leather sofa watching Fox News. He glanced at me. “I need you to hide my sports watches.” This is a drill we go through every once in a while after I’ve logged too many miles in a Captain Ahab-like pursuit of another runner in a virtual challenge. I don’t care if my friends think I’m nuts. All I really care about is the silence that enters my mind as my feet tap the pavement. I run so that I can feel still.
After I ripped off my sweaty running gear, I stood under a hot shower and ran shampoo and conditioner through my long, straggly dark blond hair and luxuriated in the smell of the Dove soap and Noxzema facial cleanser coating my light skin. Clean again, I kissed my three children goodnight and curled up next to my husband with ice packs and a bowl of ice cream and we watched ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. I wonder if Sara is running yet. “Josh Hamilton steps to the plate.” Is Joe from the other team running right now? “If Josh can get his off-the-field habits under control . . . “ I want to win this thing. I dropped my bowl into the sink and glanced at the clock. It’s 10:25 p.m. I hate waiting for the results. The announcers droned on and I asked my husband, “Do you mind when I run crazy like this?”
My husband replied without a hint of inflection, “It depends on the context. On why you do this.” This was an easy question and I exclaimed, eyes flashing with excitement, “Pride. I race for pride. No more, no less.” He nodded at me. “In that case, no, I don’t mind. It is noble.”
I grinned my most charming grin. “Can I have my watches back?”
“No. What will happen if you lose?” He asked me, with a gentle touch on my arm.
“I will be lost if I cannot try and we lose. And thus miserable.” I hugged him and he put his head on my shoulder. “Poor thing.”
“If you give me my watches, I will do the taxes tomorrow,” I pleaded. He pulled away from me and laughed. “Done!”
10:45 p.m. Sara had already walked 3 miles. “I can’t believe we’re doing this,” she wrote. I laughed. We were too tired to run, so we were walking and texting as we walked. We knew the other team was also walking in the pitch-black neighborhoods in the sundry suburbs where they resided.
11:04 p.m. I ran into my neighbor, a retired soldier and wise ass. He and I walked around the block and reminisced about road races.
11:15 p.m. I checked my Facebook Feed. Joe had loaded five more miles. I cursed and told Sara. And a minute later, I wrote, “We can still win.” She replied, “Yup.” I smiled. She wanted to win as badly as I did, so I was not alone.
11:20 p.m. I set my Droid on top of the washer and jogged upstairs to check the standings. A lump in my throat formed when I saw we trailed by ten miles. It wasn’t possible to catch up, was it? No matter. I had to try. Travis was asleep so I tiptoed around while I switched into shorts and a light t-shirt. I got outside and texted Sara: “I am running now,” and she said she was too.
Exhaustion peeled away, replaced by adrenaline. My Achilles did not ache. My hip did not throb except on hills. Land midfoot, stand tall and move fast, El. Land gentle, and keep moving. I needed to complete 3 miles in less than 35 minutes, and as I raced the clock, I tracked my progress and kept moving and in between steps I thought about running ultras and the idea felt harmonious to me. The moon rose and appeared through the clouds and in the moment I was in the lightness of my being.
11:40 p.m. I was at the 1.7-mile mark. I had enough time to complete the three miles. Sara told me she had 6.2 miles and I typed back, “You need seven.” Five minutes later, she replied, “Got it.” And then it came down to me: the last runner on the board. I ran alone, pursued by a shadow and a ticking clock. The miles measured the dwindling minutes and the dwindling minutes limited the miles I could run.
Twenty minutes later, Sara and I sat, separated by 3,000 miles, and watched the clocks on our computers hit 12 a.m. EST and 9 p.m. Pacific, respectively. The standings remained stuck; the miles not yet transferred into the challenge. Several hours later, the missing miles showed up but it was too late. The rules allow for no exceptions and we were okay with that. Every runner lives and dies by the clock. We can move the miles and we can chase time but we cannot change time.
Vince Lombardi once said that “Winning isn’t everything; it is the only thing,” but I disagree. We ran for our team and we ran for pride. Pride matters. It always matters.