near miss

The first 3+ miles of this past Saturday’s run taught me a lot about asynchronous motion. Nothing felt right from the moment I started, every step forced and awkward. But now, with a little over a mile to go, I had my target in sight.

Ahead of me was a man in black, running in the same direction. As I gauged the distance between us, I realized that with a strong close, I could catch him before the end of my route. Fixing my gaze on the MIB 200 yards ahead of me, I quickened my pace and saw the gap start to close. For the first time all day, my legs, arms, and breath all coalesced into smooth motion, and the ground suddenly started passing beneath me in ever-increasing chunks. I allowed myself, for one quick moment, to revel in the fact that I could move at this speed so late in a miserable run and feel so good.

I saw the Jeep Wrangler when it was still 15 yards away. As it approached the blinking red traffic light, its right turn signal flagged that it would be turning towards me as I ran against traffic on the left side of the road. Knowing that the Jeep had to stop, I continued forward, the man in black less than a football field away now.

Pursuit gave way to panic as the Wrangler barely slowed for the red light and barreled directly towards me, its driver still looking over his or her left shoulder – everything happening too fast for me to see a face – at the oncoming traffic he/she was intent on beating while I crossed directly in front of him/her on her right. I remember thinking that if she hit me, at least the point of impact would be my prosthesis, not my good leg.

The shout came out of my mouth as a last-second reflex: “HEY!!!”

I don’t know if the driver saw or heard me first, but the car jerked suddenly to my left at the same time that I swerved right – directly into the middle of the street that was, thankfully, devoid of oncoming traffic. The driver’s-side bumper flashed past me with less than two feet to spare. Now, adrenaline surging through me, I stopped and turned around, swinging my right arm to punch the air while I released a three-expletive barrage at the driver.

The Wrangler’s brake lights flashed as it moved towards the shoulder, hesitantly edging away from me. I could see the driver’s eyes in the side-view mirror, wide open, unsure what to do with the cursing, one-legged runner who had materialized out of the pavement.

Having vented my anger and still shaking my head, I turned and started running again, not caring whether the jeep stopped or continued. The fluidity of my pursuit was now replaced by choppy disjointedness. I relocated the man in black and my heart sank as I realized that catching him was now out of the question. The adrenaline rush gave way to a sudden and overwhelming fatigue. Numb, I slogged through the final half mile, all thoughts of reeling in the man who I now refused to even look for gone.

I finished, hands clasped behind my head, and walked into the parking lot where I had left my car. My daughter’s dance teachers, Lora and Sam, were pulling out as I walked in. Sam rolled down her window. “How was your run?” asked Lora, leaning over from the driver’s seat.

“Awful,” I replied.

*   *   *

I’ve been rethinking that answer ever since I gave it.

On the one hand, in its immediate aftermath I viewed the run as a failure on multiple fronts. I felt out of sync from the beginning. The cold temperature combined with a blasting headwind had left me gasping for air during the first 1.5 miles. The middle part of my route had unfolded like a flu-driven sleepless night, time slowing down and stopping as my body felt worse and worse. Finally, having gutted through all of that and hitting my stride while chasing the MIB, the Wrangler had derailed me, depriving me of the flow I had just found.

On the other, though, the Wrangler reminded me of why I chose to start exercising again in the first place. The one thing that has always sabotaged my efforts to stick with running is me – more specifically, my highly competitive nature. Comparing myself to other runners, setting goals that define success and failure by a number alone, or viewing what I can do now through the lens of my previous two-legged existence – this entire line of thought has always left me in the same place when it comes to running with a prosthesis: frustrated that so much energy and time yields so little objective success.

But as I contemplated the hood of the Wrangler as it crashed the blinking red light, I could see myself bouncing off the windshield and across one (or two) lanes of traffic towards God knows what. So, in the bigger picture, catching the MIB isn’t success and failing to catch him isn’t failure.

The pursuit of some athletic achievement, the need to validate myself by some objective number gives me a short-term rush. Had the Wrangler not ignored New York State Vehicle & Traffic Law, allowing me to chase down the MIB and pass him, I would have congratulated myself on tracking down an able-bodied runner, reveling in the moment of shock that would have registered on his face as he got passed by the one-legged guy. But that would have clouded the real reason I run today: simply to do it.

The near miss deprived me of the one thing that would have “saved” Saturday’s run for me. Thank God for that.

The next mile, the next step, the next breath isn’t guaranteed. In that context, focusing on the MIB misses the forest for the trees.

Lora and Sam – I’d like to change my answer. I had an incredible run.

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