Road Running

Road Running

Read this with a coffee.

They say it’s bad for your knees eventually but the hard tarmac underfoot compels and propels you as you leave the house down the driveway and down the road at the start of what should be a good but not a long run. You’ve eaten today. You cross the street in two steps and you’re through the arches keeping cyclists slow on the pavement and racing over the gentle sloping arcing to the right then back left at the treeline. Then you’re off the artifice and onto dirt and rocks and wooden bridges over the gullies left by thick streams during rain wearing the earth deep in three floods marked on the path at each end of the track.

You do this for less than a mile under the canopy of trees grown tall and wide unopposed, the river to the right, mud and mangroves hiding away behind tall grasses that have defeated the groundskeepers through inundation after inundation. Music plays in your ears and you’re breathing at its changing BPM as you crunch the track closer and closer into dust with old shoes. Birds are about somewhere. You know there are spiders in the trees and about the base of branches but they’re tucked away from the evening the way you will be afterwards. The sun’s not set just yet but it’s on its way down.

Orange street light incandescence is long gone down here and the purpling sunset drains the colour from everything in the time just before the dark falls. The path leading up the hill at the end of the track is paved again and it climbs up then goes perpendicular to the right before forward again and over across a field towards the road again past which one of the edges of the golf course around which this estate has been built. You take this stretch easy and your thighs hold the strength as you get up the hill at your good speed and on the flat you power forward and your knees and your ankles hold tight, fast, and strong so the rest of you does too. The road goes left a touch before it spills out in both directions onto the main circuit through to the place’s exit where you emerge onto a road that’s become, kicking and screaming, main between a motorway and three schools and interstate migration it’s struggling to handle. The circuit curves in two arcs that you follow to get to that road, to the wide intersection with four lanes and a service station and a drivethrough coffee place in a small strip mall as landmarks on opposite sides. You race past the café on your right and you pass the carpark about it and the road is clear with cars coming in the distance and their headlights growing but not faster than you.

You’ve known for some time that part of it is for the spectacle at least. A silhouette fast and quick across the road, lights still green for traffic going both ways, and you’re across with time and more to spare but still the entertainment of being seen, visible, cut around as a shape against the start of the moonlight and the white high beam bulbs before you’re back onto a short road that meets another at a junction. Here you go right towards childhood friends’ family homes. The housesitting you’re doing means that your running here is starting to get to you in its sameness, its flatness, its persistent and deliberate sense of isolated control over the environment. Surrounded only by old memories. Where else you’re training is among the hills of Brisbane’s inner northwest.

Strava tells you that it’s here, in the green heart of the river city, that you started running as any kind of routine. After hours, 10pm starts, midnight cruises. You’ve never been inactive altogether because you know that your body catches up to you fast and it’s to that kind of image to which you feel, for better or worse, most inclined. Up and down these hills after retail shifts in the first place and the second and now after work and on weekends in the third. You run along the brown snake down the bikepaths and then over the bridges and across the promenades before you make your way back up the long, soft hills through Milton, Paddington, Bardon.

It’s all been road running and you can’t shake that idea that it’s bad for your knees after long enough. You figure this is your first marathon so your training isn’t wearing your bones down yet so much as your muscles. You’re fuelled for the endurance by carbohydrates and protein and the inspiration to impress. Your hair now is too long to look like anything but a caveman pressing on more physically than mentally but you’re making it and your calendar’s opening up for a haircut soon at which point you’ll shave. You thought you’d try the beard until sweat began to pool inside it and come away congealed in your hand as you ran through it and smelling like effort. It’s overdue to go back to clean and you wipe at the sweat on your face as if that will help clear your swollen pores and you press on here, now, your mind on the familiar road ahead in the dark.

You cruise along a section that’s just a bitumen flat, having circled back at the end of the cul-de-sac outside the Weavers’ and you’re past the junction and continuing. You’re running past properties just on the right side of acreage and their fences allude to the interiors with their styles and how much they impose in the night. Evening light through windows is more inviting than you’re supposed to admit and it’s in these polite intrusions of gaze that you peer into the glass to the houses inside which dinner has been settled and everyone’s uncoiling for the end of the day. Instead you’re racing to run and run and run so as to escape something you can’t describe that lingers in your own house when you’re too still. Ensuring for yourself a relationship with endurance such that you don’t stop until you have to and not before just because it hurts a little. So far, it’s been paying off.

You like it when people describe this kind of exercise as an escape. You think this it yourself as you reach the end of the bitumen arc and you go left at the t-junction because you’re not this time doing the short laps to and from where this street meets the start of the bend back the way you came. You used to come home this way from a place further back, towards which you’re going but from which you’ll veer away at the end of this road. This is where you’ve come from. You keep going, straight and narrow and lean and quick, solid and tall. You’re doing well and you realise as you get close to the end of the road which leads to the right down a winding road into the past and left takes you back: you can do well all the way to the end if you focus. You’re about halfway. So you do.

You’ve been meaning to do a trail run for a while just to mix it up and get a sense for the alternatives to the cracking of bones against bitumen. You find treadmill running too artificial, too efficient for anything except speed training, but you’ve not run a trail for a long while. Maybe even only rarely in the past. What you feel like will be the case is that it will be too variable and too short on the whole. You’re aiming for distance and efficiency not to roll ankles or fall face first down steep slopes. But you’re being unfair. You just prefer living amongst the places in which you’ve surrounded by others. You’re keen to get out of here, out of the home field — clearly — but you’re doing it for your parents to celebrate a birthday and to keep the dog, your longest love, company and walked and fed.

Down this road no one comes on foot but it’s a steady thoroughfare for drivers, feeding as a shortcut from the Bay to the east out to motorway in the west. They’re heading out for a Saturday night socialising. Voices and radios too loud and the thrill of a party ahead of them overwhelming the sense to see whatever else is around. You’re running just as a ghost now, dark all around with only bursting about you with passing vehicles and then fading back to the deep night blue through which you can see, even with the lights of the road ahead, stars. You hate this bit, where the hill rises sharp but not for long and throws off your pace before the lights. You push down here so you slingshot forward up and over it then to the intersection at the second of three service stations you’ll see on this route — this one to your left, the third and final to your right towards the motorway.

There are two or three cars gathered at each side of a red light going across you and some approach in behind. The lights going your way are still green so you accelerate because you know you can make it and because you’re at the part of this where you’ll decide how the back half goes and then it’s all up to you. Your body’s holding up just fine. It’s in your head. What you do is something you can only describe as changing gears, your glutes taking the strength and rushing you forward, long, fast, lean. You’re onto the bitumen before the light changes red. It does when you’re halfway over, everyone watching, the other side approaching before a spillway that will be — that is — empty at this hour and you’re across as engines kick back in and the cars go and you wonder what, if anything, they think. You’re into the shade of the trees before even you know it.

Normally you slow here but now you don’t because you’re running harder and better. This won’t be your fastest or your furthest but it will be your best. Your most confident. You’ll not cross that eight kilometre barrier that feels so good for practice but you’ll make the rest of the seven no worries. You’re down a side road to the hill on which other friends lived, yours and your brother’s, but you’ll come out parallel to the arterial road back home. Its fenceline is ahead on the right and you get there fast and it passes fast as you race through the shade of the eucalypts out even in the middle of the grass between you and the road. This path turns right at the mouth of the boulevard back into the estate and you follow it past the brick facade adorned with the city as a dale name of the place. You come past the bus stop where the path turns to the gravel to the right on a garden path along the perimeter.

The stretch through here is dark and fences are overgrown with branches reaching down towards you in their shadows in the bright moonlight. You press on through here in a breeze, now on the part before the home stretch, and you remember when you used to walk this and then run it badly long ago when you should have been better than you are now in some ways. You’re ahead now by a mile, by a few miles now even just on this adventure, at the end of your twenties. You’ve been told it’s all uphill from here and it has been so far. It is ahead too around the corner to the left.

It’s soft but it climbs and you’ve been training for this courtesy of hilly Brisbane roads. It just rises and you go with it and your mind’s clear and your legs are strong and you’re on the home stretch. Just over the crest of the hill: your fence, behind which the dog awaits your return. You reach it and you see open sky through the gaps in the roofs of the houses built into the hill beneath you. A path from gravel to concrete then back at the end, where a fence intersects access to a park at the muddy banks of the Logan River, leads to the final bend. Once a friend raced down this slope on a bike and missed the turn and hit the fence and you’ve never got it. You still don’t.

You go left where he should have and you’re at the end. You’re passing the neighbour’s place that’s been sold twice since you were last inside playing videogames with people you don’t even follow on social any more. You cut across the lawn between the path and your place and you look right over the street as it tapers downwards and the sky is clear and purple and peppered by stars and a full, open moon. Everything about you lined in silver. You breathe in deep and you slow as you hit the driveway and through the light downstairs you forgot you left on you see the dog sitting, her tail wagging already, as you slow to a walk and end the run on your phone. You unlock the door, call her out to the yard, and retreat to a granite block that’s the start of the garden remodelled out to the back fence.

She presses her head into your loose hands, music still playing in your ears, and everything except her pats and the beat is so far beyond you. But you feel it approaching again. It’s all unimportant for now, everything except the cooling air and the soft wind and your breathing and your heart and the heat inside you. The dog lies on the grass and you take your AirPods from your ears and you sit still and ease and relax. You hear the wind, the dog’s breath, crickets, distant cars. The end of summer and the autumn start here now, one having left the house when you did, and the other making it back on pace. Soon you’ll need water.

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