Thirty-Six Seconds

Submitted into Contest #136 in response to: Write a story where hard work doesn’t pay off.... view prompt

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American Coming of Age Contemporary

     One oppressively humid Saturday in late July while the rest of the city was at the beach, Rachel tried to maintain a 7:50 mile pace for a fifteen-mile run. The first mile was easy because she was essentially still asleep. She spent the second mile congratulating herself for getting out of bed, even though she had only gotten five hours of sleep and was still on Mountain time, instead of hitting snooze and convincing herself she would run after work. Her future self would be grateful, even if her current self was tired and hungry and knew she was just delaying everything she had to do in the office. 

         On the third mile, she debated which combination of Central Park perimeter and outer park loop road she should do.  It was blasphemous to say to her New York Road Runners friends, but she actually preferred the true perimeter to the park loop road, especially at 6:30 am on a Saturday. The 6.2-mile rectangle required dodging clueless pedestrians, distracted dog walkers, and awestruck tourists while not tripping over the ancient square cobblestones that approximately technical trail running in some sections, but the regularity of the geometry appealed to her. She counted down the numbered streets on the east side from where she entered on 75th, navigated the developing chaos of Central Park South, counted up the west side numbered streets, and then appreciated the peace of Central Park North before counting back down the east side streets. It had the added benefit of decreasing the odds of being run down by a spandex-clad weekend warrior biker or psyched out by the faster runners.   She ended up doing two perimeters with a cut through to make it fifteen miles and then working for fourteen hours that day.

         Rachel is a type A personality personified, exactly the type of person who thrived in the male-dominated business world. In her mid-twenties after two years of eating at her desk, overindulging with her consulting firm colleagues to celebrate the completion of projects, and occasionally going back to her exorbitantly expensive apartment to sleep, she had realized she needed more female friends and perhaps a hobby. Shortly after having this epiphany, she overhead the friendly doorman talking to someone about the New York Road Runners. Rachel had shown up to a group run a few weeks later and been surprised at how much she liked the people she met, despite but probably really because of the different type of intensity among the serious running crowd. 

         Her closest running friends, the ones she had volunteered with before actually entering races, had similar upper-middle-class backgrounds and stressful professional jobs; however, one of them ran to deal with her postpartum depression, one traded Friday happy hours turned 4am club nights for 5am Saturday runs, and one had been in a horrific car accident as a teenager and was told she would never walk again so essentially ran on spite. In comparison, Rachel’s life had been free of adversity, but these wonderful women accepted her anyway, spending more time listening to her complain about work travel than they had could have been expected to, and always pushing her to keep pace. In basketball running had been a conditioning drill and a punishment, but because of them, she became a runner. A few years before that humid Saturday, she had run the New York City marathon and finished in a very respectable first marathon time of 3 hours and 56 minutes. A promotion had taken her away from group runs for a while but Jacqueline, the recovering alcoholic who had described her peak alcohol consumption as being eerily similar to Rachel’s post-assignment celebrations, qualified for the Boston marathon by running the Chicago marathon. Rachel had signed up for her hometown Philadelphia marathon, determined to join her.

         In unseasonably warm mid-September, Rachel finished an assignment in Madison, Wisconsin – boring as far as cities go but lovely for long runs – and had a rare weekend off with her parents at the Jersey Shore. Her back was sunburned, and she wanted nothing more than to lie on the beach reading a trashy magazine, but instead she plodded through eighteen miles back and forth on the main street of Ludlam Island. The sun beat down on her and her sports bra rubbed her raw skin, but she kept an eye on her watch and kept running, enjoying the occasional whiffs of coconut sunscreen, salt water, and dune grass. By the time she finished, the sun was setting over the bay and she chugged a glass of water before joining her parents for a glass of wine on the deck.

         There were these two long runs and thirteen others (she skipped one week), and then three or four midweek three to ten miles runs. The midweek runs were even more of a grind, getting done before or after long days at the office, or at a temporary office in another city. Her Peloton sat in her living room mostly gathering dust, but she did ride a few days when it was simply too hot to be outside. She worked hard at work, and outside of work she ran. Her per diem meal charges had never been higher but she lost five pounds and drank a little bit less. She ran in hotel parking lots and strip malls, ran along both rivers in Manhattan as well as around Central Park innumerable times, and most importantly, ran almost every day she would have rather been doing anything else.

         The Sunday before Thanksgiving came as a relief. Rachel had another rare full weekend off from work and slept harder in her childhood bedroom than she had for months. By the time she toed the starting line on Sunday, she was eager for the gun to sound. It was a blissfully cool, cloudy morning and the first nineteen miles breezed past. The crowd and the 3-hour 30-minute pace group allowed her to turn her brain off and let her body move like the trained machine it had become. As she approached the turnaround point in Manayunk, a northwest suburb, she was perfectly on pace and felt strong, confident she would qualify for Boston.

         Just as she rounded the cone to start the final six miles to the finish line, a compact blonde woman with a French braid hit the ground hard in front of her, bracing with her right hand and rolling onto her left side. Instinct moved Rachel’s feet before her eyes registered what had happened and she side-stepped directly onto a cone, crashing to the pavement on top of the woman. 

         “FUCK!” she said, the scrapes on her palms and knees jolting her brain. “I’m so sorry,” she corrected, pushing herself up off the woman and extending her hand to help her up. “Are you okay?”

         The woman was shaking but replied, “Um, yeah I think so. It happened so fast, I don’t even know why I fell. I’m really sorry”

         “I know, I know. I’m so sorry I couldn’t avoid you,” Rachel said, forgetting her split times and the finish line.

         “It’s okay.” The woman smiled and tossed her braid over her shoulder. “Let’s go, only six more miles.” 

         They ended up running the remainder of the race together, finishing bloodied and bruised in 3 hours, 28 minutes, and 16 seconds. When they were safely wrapped in silver blankets and sipping Gatorade, weight of the finisher medals heavy on their necks, the woman introduced herself as Anastasia. She and Rachel chatted for a few minutes and hugged goodbye before going to find their bags of warm up clothes, promising to look for each other in Boston and try to stay on their feet in the meantime.

         That year and most years, the published maximum qualification time for a 28-year-old woman entering the Boston marathon was 3 hours and 30 minutes, but the actual cut off time for acceptance was faster. Rachel got an email from the Boston Athletic Association and was astonished to learn that year the cut off was 3 hours, 27 minutes, and 40 seconds. She had been a varsity basketball player as a freshman, gotten honors on a school-record thirteen advanced placement exams, been undefeated on debate team, high school valedictorian, magna cum laude at Wharton, and gotten the job her classmates dreamed about and the bonuses to go with it. Rachel did not fall short of goals.  To her credit though, her immediate thought on reading the email wasn’t “Anastasia sabotaged me” but instead “I’m so excited to go cheer for Jacqueline.” Maybe she was capable of grace in the face of failure after all. After experiencing the electric environment of Boston on marathon weekend as a spectator, she would occasionally dream of returning as a runner, until she remembered all of the hungover Saturday morning slogs and eerie late night zig zags on quiet streets. Maybe someday, when she aged into a slower qualifying time group….

March 07, 2022 04:46

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2 comments

L.M. Lydon
14:34 Mar 15, 2022

There's a lot going on with the POV character. I like how you depict the struggle of true change- that sometimes a person would rather be doing anything else!

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Michał Przywara
21:03 Mar 12, 2022

This is an interesting story. On the surface it's about running competitively and qualifying for races, but it's really about Rachel moving from one stage of her life to another. I get the sense that running opened her eyes to the world being bigger than she used to think, and since then her attitudes and views have been shifting, growing. I think the transition was subtle, believable, and well done.

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