It was the end of summer—August was upon my sixteen-year-old self and I had worked hard for the entirety of the months since school ended, training in preparation for this day. My mom sat in the dirt, shaded by our big white Chevy Suburban that we drove from Phoenix to Tucson that morning. It was sweltering, and she stared silently at the ground—dreading the race we were about to endure. The look on her face reminded me of when a small child, whose undeveloped mental filters produces the most honest of expressions, tastes an unwanted vegetable in their macaroni. She likes running, but not that much. I didn’t blame her for the bad mood; running uphill for 10 miles to the observatory on top of Kitts Peak in this heat seemed slightly less appealing than when our friend Rami first pitched the idea months ago, while winter was still chilling us to the bone. Now, we were melting in the kind of hot that sucks the energy right out of your body.
“Come on, Judy,” Rami jests, “you’re looking like a sourpuss!”
“I hate you,” my mom replies with a smirk.
Ten miles, I think, as we make out way to the start line. It is just like those hill workouts I did… but for twice the distance. No biggie. I cringe.
The gun fires, and we are off—a crowd of heads bouncing up the hill toward the observatory ten miles away.
After some time, the run took hold of me. I was finding my cadence, following the rhythm of my breath with each short footstrike. A man who appeared to be in his fifties ran up beside me. He had the kind of wrinkled face that I wish to have someday: skin aged by hours spent in the sun, eyes decorated with crows feet. We started making small talk, asking the usual questions about each other’s running history.
“Do you use those funny gel things?” He asked.
I felt my chocolate flavored energy shot for the halfway mark jiggling in my shorts pocket.
“Yes… What do you use?”
He laughed and replied “ah, I don't use anything, I have this fat to use up as energy,” as he patted his belly, giggling.
A few miles later, I was in dire need of much more than an energy shot. My body was protesting, as if to ask, who in their right mind would willingly run up a mountain? I must be insane. My motivator noticed that I was talking less and running slower; I noticed that he wasn’t kidding about his belly fat energy stores. That is old man strength for you: casually crushing teenagers on the hill runs using belly fat.
“You’re doing great,” Mr. Motivation encouraged me, “Just stay right up here with me. Steady your breathing, and try to maintain this pace.” I did my best to take his advice. “Relax your arms, pick up your feet. There you go—now don't slouch over like that. Find that rhythm again. Great, you have it. Just hold on to that.”
“Please, go on without me,” I said.
He looked at me. “Are you sure?”
We wished each other luck and Mr. Motivation took off, disappearing around a corner, not to be seen again. I slowed a bit, massaging a side cramp that had developed in my left abdomen. I looked up at the sky and thought, how am I going to finish this?
Five miles in, five to go. Just keep running, I think. Just keep running... The sun beat down on me, the blazing Arizona heat gripping on to every last second of daylight. I was toeing the edge of my perceived limit. My spirit broke. My confidence dwindled away. My Motivator was absent, leaving my dehydrated, discouraged body only half way up Kitts Peak with no catalyst encouraging me to run faster. The taunting afternoon sun dared me to give up and walk. Step after listless step, my mind was overtaken by the desire to be far from the pain that pulsed through my body.
Legs protesting, lungs reluctantly expanding, and four miles left. From somewhere deep inside my brain, a faint voice refused to cease its endless encouragement that broke through the exhaustion: Just keep running. Just keep running...
Discouragement was getting the best of me, but I put one foot in front of the other. The sun was becoming milder as dusk took hold of the sky, and I looked out upon the creosote bushes scattered along the mountainside. Their pungent scent, filled with the nostalgia of monsoon season in the desert, tickled my nose—as if the creosote were intentionally urging me along with a gentle reminder, a small caress of my past that had carried me to this moment. My senses roused to life. I could see the colorful expanse of valley below me, the patterns of vegetation presented in a lovely mosaic. The air was cooling quickly as the sun slowly creeped away behind the other side of the hill. In that moment, an overwhelming sense of connection swept over me; to the sun, the rocks and plants, and the runners who were journeying by my side with their own internal monologue.
Passion and drive suddenly replaced bodily discomfort, as if some unknown force was renewing my cramping limbs. Fueled with unexplainable surges of energy, the drumming of my feet increased in tempo. Each strike of my soles upon the ground lightened; I was shedding weight with every step. The heavy armor of self doubt cracked and crumbled with the beating of my feet, until it fell away—exposing a raw, true layer of myself.
As I rounded a curve in the summit-less hill, a delightful sunset greeted me. Its rays caressed my triumphant spirit as it surrendered into the horizon. I felt an immense sense of joy and love for everything around me, a feeling only acquired by pushing oneself to the ultimate. I smiled. I cried. I was in pain, but I loved it. My mind soaring, my body failing, I was reborn. I was freshly aware. I was strong. Just when I believed myself to be totally and irreversibly drained, I still had more to give; it was just a matter of being brave enough to dig it up.
Just keep running. Just keep running... The broken record blasted between my eardrums until the words were audible, vibrating through my larynx and puffing out between my lips with every breath. I summoned every ounce of energy in my being to push my legs up the last two miles of Kitt’s Peak. My internal transformation danced with the colors of the sky, and as the sun kissed me goodnight, they lingered for a moment before disappearing completely, leaving behind a blanket of stars.
As the challenge of putting one foot in front of the other ceased its iteration, I greeted the summit broken and beaming.