COVID-19 played only a minor role in my new running habit. The real catalyst was my dysfunctional competition complex. When I train with others, my outsized desire to crush everyone in my vicinity is matched only by my limited ability to do so. In other words, I like to win but I’m rarely capable of winning.
And this makes me bitter.
I kept this flaw in check for years, managing to enjoy my chosen sport of cycling, but it gets harder as I age. Each group ride has become a secret Death Race 2000. As other riders enjoy the camaraderie and friendly rivalry unique to cycling, I secretly plot their destruction.
When the pandemic hit, group rides stopped. It was a relief, frankly. Then the group rides resumed despite the ongoing public safety crisis, largely because most cyclists rank somewhere between heroin addicts and masturbating teenage boys in their desperation to participate in their sport.
But I didn’t want to join them. My wife Marilyne and I had taken to riding just the two of us, and that was fine by me. We missed our friends, but neither of us missed their potentially virus-packed snot, spit, and sweat—and I certainly didn’t miss secretly feeling like Batman riding in a pack of Jokers every time I took to the street.
Running also filled the void, much to my surprise. Previous to marrying Marilyne, I’d always attempted the activity with my usual macho gusto, thinking every outing had to be a beatdown to see which would collapse first, my legs or my lungs. When she learned of my sordid history with running, she challenged me to unchallenge myself. “Go run around the block, once,” she suggested, defying my masculine logic. “Once you can do that without pain, run around the block, twice.”
Then three times, four times, etc.
I hated it in the same way Daniel hated painting the fence and waxing the cars in The Karate Kid, but I did it to humor her. Then, after a while, it occurred to me that my painless block had grown into a painless three miles. My wife had Mister Miyagi’ed me into being able to run a 5K.
Then came four miles, six miles, eight miles. I now had the running foundation to push well into the double digits. And the only person I competed with is myself. It was liberating.
Until last week.
My current goal is to run a marathon, provided my half-century-old body can handle the training. To get there, I go on one long run each week with a bunch of little runs thrown in on the other days. Last week’s long run goal was 15 miles.
I was on mile 12, happy to only have three miles to go, heading south towards the Manhattan Beach Pier, when I caught up with a woman in her mid-twenties. Her brunette ponytail bobbed side-to-side atop the muscular shoulders and compact build of a lady crossfitter. She wore a black sports bra and tiny, blue volleyball shorts that did her posterior justice. I had to put serious effort into averting my gaze as I came up behind her.
I normally run at anywhere from an 8:45-minute mile to a 9:15-minute mile, depending on my body’s mood. Today was a 9:15 day. She was going about 9:30. (My Garmin Forerunner 945 watch feeds me this data. I’m fancy like that.) Frankly, I could have run behind her all day because, well, I think you know, but propriety overruled lechery. I picked up the pace to about 8:30. Slowly passing her would have just made a creepy moment even creepier. I figured I should rip off the Band-Aid, blow by her, and get on with my run.
I pulled my gaiter over my mouth and nose as I got within six feet. I didn’t make eye contact, but I could see she was wearing a black face mask and that she was attractive. I pondered why, even in middle age, pretty girls still make me nervous. As I pulled ahead, I put the whole neurotic episode behind me and focused on the cement under my shoes.
Then her black mask came back into my field of vision. Annoying.
I picked it up to an 8:15-minute mile. The mask fell back. Then it caught up. 8-minute mile now. Mask still there. This continued until we were tearing down the Strand at a 7:20-minute mile, both of us dodging walkers and surfers, breathing hard, and refusing to make eye contact.
I tried to believe this was her natural pace and the grudge match was all in my head. But it certainly wasn’t my natural pace and, in the parlance of my youth, I wasn’t going to let this chick beat me. Not because she was a she—I also would have thrown down with a dude, albeit sans the creepy old guy factor—but because I like to win.
I slalomed left around an old guy with a walker then did a Neo-worthy
backbend to avoid getting clotheslined by a surfboard. I had a few miles to go to complete my marathon training for the day and that this impromptu battle of the sexes might impede that. That said, I would have rather had my heart explode all over The Strand than let her leave me in the dust. She started it, so I was morally obligated to see it through.
But as long as I kept at her side, we’d only keep going faster until someone snapped—given I had 12 more miles and 25+ more years on my legs, that someone would probably be me. One of us had to be the grownup, so I relented, sort of, falling in about ten feet behind her. It seemed acceptable. She felt like she won because I backed off. I felt like she hadn’t won because I could catch up to her at any time. If she wanted to spend the next couple miles with an anonymous old guy hot on her heels, that was her choice.
We settled into an 8:45 pace and I did my best not to stare at her butt. Fortunately, the path split at the border of Hermosa Beach. I saw that she was heading right down the stairs to the beach where The Strand continued, so I went straight on Hermosa Avenue. The moment she turned, I climbed off my chariot of fire and slowed to about 9:20.
The Strand and Hermosa Avenue are separated by multimillion-dollar waterfront homes. Occasionally, these houses are separated by walk streets. Running down Hermosa Avenue, you can look down these walk streets and see The Strand, the sand, and the Pacific Ocean. After a couple blocks at my reduced speed, I glanced down to the beach.
There she was. She had also slowed to about a 9:20 pace. I doubt she was matching me on purpose, but it clearly indicated that our time together had been a mutual vendetta.
I continued through Hermosa, trying to quell the competitive testosterone flooding my system. I wanted to cut down one of the walk streets and teach this person a lesson. As I approached the border of Redondo Beach—about a mile from my house—I’d achieved a semi-hormonally-balanced state when, about 20 yards ahead, The Strand ended and she popped onto the street in front of me.
I no longer cared about looking at her ass. I just wanted to kick it.
I set a pace that I felt would completely destroy her before the end of my run without completely destroying me. Suddenly, a pretty blond on a beach cruiser rode up next to me. She offered me a beautiful, wide smile and a pink Rapha cycling bottle filled with water.
It was Marilyne. She’d GPSed my phone so that she could join me to offer moral support for my final mile.
“How are you feeling?” she said. “You’re almost done!”
I pointed angrily at the lady crossfitter up ahead. “SHE’S GOING DOWN!” I bellowed.
Marilyne smiled even wider and rolled her eyes. Not the first time she’d seen me declare war on a stranger. “Of course, she is, my love.”
Then it hit me. I’d had a great run. I’d already won in the sense that I was that much closer to being marathon ready. Hammering a youngster to placate my brutish male ego wouldn’t make that success any sweeter. What’s more, given I had 14 miles on my legs, she’d probably crush me in the final sprint and I’d spend the rest of the day feeling butt-hurt, having snatched defeat from the hands of victory.
I slowed to a 9-minute mile, giving my nemesis an insurmountable lead. I took the bottle from my wife. “Ah, screw it,” I conceded, squirting water into my mouth and all over my face.
“Sounds like a good plan,” Marilyne’s smile became infectious. I couldn’t help but smile back.
It sounded like a very good plan, indeed.