The vultures circle above my head like a black halo of death.
This is it, I think.
The stillness of the forest is unsettling. It is the sound of silent laughter, mocking me. As I look up, I can see his face in front of me. I’m not sure if it’s actually him, but the bowling shirt is unmistakable. He sneers at me.
He’s here to give me the strength to go on.
I stretch out my hand with what little energy I have left, and ask for it. Ask for the tiger blood. Charlie Sheen shakes his finger in front of my face, reminiscent of a scolding father when you want a sip of his beer. And in an instant, he is gone. Nothing but trees and stillness, as I lay face down in the mud. A dead man. Lost in the void of this wilderness. Two hikers walk past me with their golden retriever.
What’s his deal? the portly one asks.
Don’t stare, darling, there are weirdos and homeless here all the time. I just didn’t think they’d be up THIS early.
I decided to wake up early Wednesday morning to get a good long run in: at least 10 miles. My reasoning was that I wanted to see if I could do it, and if I couldn’t then I would have ample time to at least try to build up to it by the weekend. On the other hand, if I could run the distance, but then was not able to walk the next day because I overexerted myself, I would have ample recovery time. And seeing as how I’ve only run on the treadmill up until now, running outside seemed the next logical step. There’s a park called Rock Creek Park nearby the apartment I’m staying in here in Silver Spring. Perfect.
My alarm had gone off at 6:30, but I pulled the blankets tightly around my neck, and relished in the extra half an hour I could use to lie in my bed before having to force myself to get up. There’s a lot of light pouring in through my blinds, painting my face like a tiger. I pull the blankets up over my eyes, to shield myself from the reality of what I am about to do. I shut my eyes. 30 more minutes, I softly whisper in my head.
Shit, fuck. I had originally planned to leave my apartment at 8 am, but I still want to eat a decent breakfast before leaving so I wasn’t running 10 miles on an empty stomach. I also need a good half an hour to digest the food, so I’m not throwing it back up in the sweltering summer heat.
I stumble out of bed and sloppily pour cereal into a bowl. About 1/3 of it manages to actually get inside the bowl. After pouring the freckles of bran with milk, I sit and eat, as I go over the running route I had mapped out the previous night on my laptop.
Simple enough, I think to myself. I run down 2nd St. to Colesville, and then run down Colesville and around the roundabout to N. Portal Dr. From there I take E. Beach Dr. and can easily find Beach Dr. which will take me throughout the entire Park and is a good 10 miles to the end and back.
I leave my apartment, stick my headphone in my ears, crank up my ipod and am on my way. I run the route that’s memorized in my head. I run down Colesville. The day is brisk, but not yet hot. The sun is shining, and the skies are a bright blue. This is such a great idea, why have I not done this before? Idiot. As I cross the roundabout I can’t find any street signs, so I run straight, which is what I remember on the map. Soon, I find myself on 16th St. Where the hell is N. Portal Dr.?
I know there is an alternate entrance into the park on 16th, so I continue running down the street. I don’t want to interrupt my pace by searching wildly for a street I don’t even know exists.
(From this moment on, time is a abstract blur of a painting)
16th seems to go on forever. I begin to prematurely panic that the existence of a 2nd entrance to the park on 16th is about as obscure as the entrance to Narnia in a wardrobe, when I finally see a small trail off in the distance that disappears into a thicket of trees. The canopy of trees block out the sun, and I’m running in shaded darkness. I envision the opening sequence in Silence of the Lambs, which motivates me to run faster.
The run is beautiful, and I have no idea where I am, or where I’m going, but do not care at this point. I run over bridges, and through shallow crossings of creek beds. I am in a movie right now, where I am some badass hero who is running through the main credits before he gets a call on his cell to report back to the station because some heinous crime has been committed, and I’m the only one who can solve it.
By either some miracle or inevitable coincidence, I run into Beach Drive: the main road that goes through the park. I know this will take me to the bottom of the park which is around 5 miles.
The five miles have begun to take a toll on my knees. As I reach the bottom of the park, I soon discover I am at war with my knees, at which point I turn around and start heading backwards. Retracing my steps, I find my way back to the small dirt trail where I had met Beach Drive earlier. This is the crucial decision I have to make without stopping: do I continue up Beach Drive which I know will take me to the entrance I was originally supposed to enter the park from N. Portal, or should I just retrace my steps on the dirt path and go back exactly how I entered? Within a split second, I find myself back on the dirt path, following the river, and crossing the beautiful bridges and creek beds.
I plan on doing this many more mornings after this, I muse. Even after the half marathon is over.
As I look up at the scenery, I come to a fork that I don’t remember seeing before. Did I come from the part of the fork that had rocks in the path, or the other one? I don’t really remember these rocks, so I go the other way.
I see a few hikers, and feel reassured and smile and nod at them. The universal code for friendliness and the pretentious acknowledgement that we’re both healthy people getting shit done even before the rest of the population is even awake.
The further I get, the more unrecognizable everything seems. The sun has now poured in through the canopy and the trail does not look like the same badass movie set that I had been running through earlier. This resembles more like a movie set where a dumb asian kid gets lost and dies of exploded knee caps and heat exhaustion, in no particular order.
I approach more forks, and make many more poor choices where I feel I am taking myself even further from where I want and need to be. If this was a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book, at this point I would have been devoured by a three-headed snake monster after contracting syphilis from getting gang-banged by alien hoodlums in an alley I mistakenly turned into.
The more I try to find a way out, the deeper into the park I seem to get. It’s like a chinese finger trap. At this point, I do not know how many miles I have run, but it seems like a million. The sun is now out in full force, and I have taken off my tank top and wrapped it around my head. This is a tactic I vaguely recall in “Man vs. Wild.” Although, I believe he had soaked his cloth in his own urine to stay rehydrated. Mine is soaked in a more appealing alternative: my own sweat and tears. I cannot retrace my steps and go backwards at this point, because I can’t even remember the correct-wrong forks I had taken to get back to the correct fork I had wrongly entered in the first place. I soon realize I am no longer in marathon training. I am in survival training.
I look upward at the sky, and follow the trail towards where the trees appear to cover the sky less and less. The trail finally takes me out to a suburban road that is completely unfamiliar to me. But at least I’m back at civilization. I want to hail a cab, but realize I’m not carrying any money. Nor do I have a phone to call someone to come pick me up. I begin running in a direction down the road I believe to be towards Silver Spring. It could be a direction towards New Jersey, and I wouldn’t even know it. I could actually be in New Jersey, right now, and not even know it.
After running for 15 minutes, I finally come across an apartment complex. By the apartment sign, there is a hispanic man watering flowers. At first I am drawn to him because I want to rip the hose from his hands and drink myself into a coma. But then I realize he may know where the hell I am. I ask him if I am headed in the right direction for Silver Spring. The man looks at me as if I’m an idiot. Sure, I’m wearing a tank top on top of my head like a woman who had just stepped out of the shower, and apparently Silver Spring was right down the block, but I am still offended by his smugness.
When I finally recognize where I am and reach my apartment, I go up to my apartment, grab cash, and go straight to the 7 Eleven on the first floor and buy a jug of Gatorade. When I down the entire jug, the Gatorade washes away the entire past 2 and a half hours: the heat exhaustion, the fear of dying in a park full of happy hikers, the knees I once had before they abandoned me in the middle of a bright sunny technicolor version of the Blair Witch set. But most of all, it washed away the apprehension I had about running a half marathon. Bring it on, bitch.