Even the sound of his heartbeat pulsating in his ears wasn’t enough to slow him down, now. He was running, whether he wanted to be or not. His feet lifted off the ground, one after the other, without hesitation. The momentum he’d gained had gotten to be too severe for him to stop entirely, let alone dwindle to a jog or even a brisk walk. Sixteen miles so far, four more to go. Keep breathing, keep moving.
It hadn’t always been this way. He hadn’t always wondered about his fate after crossing the familiar red tape, he never had to. It was always somebody else before him, and another, and another. Several bodies whizzed by his own as he panted and struggled for just one full breath. His arms would keep mindlessly swinging against his body, his legs would burn with the fire of exhaustion, but still he would go. How, he could never be sure, but he always made it. He always finished… last.
The last race was two summers ago, and the air was thick with humidity, something about a New England summer had a way of coiling the year’s supply of moisture into one sweltering abnormally sticky day. At the starting line, he remembered the fog of wavy lines drifting into his peripheral from the warmth rising from the black tar. Poised and ready with his shoes crunching against the gravel, he could even feel the heat beneath his toes. This was it, no time for mistakes. No time for humiliation. No time to think abou—and then he was off.
By the thirteenth mile he was ready to collapse, his body hungry and trembling with each labored heavy step. His muscles had never felt so utterly overworked, but still he didn’t collapse. Seventeen gave him hope, three more to go, but the longest three of his life, and he knew it. The sweat from his pores commingled with the now hot beads of water he’d dumped on himself, a mile back. The air drank his energy slowly, but still he was determined. And, breath after harsh struggling breath, he continued, setting one foot over the line at mile twenty before collapsing in an immobile heap, his weak panting temporarily the only sign that his heart was still beating.
And now it beat louder than ever. He counted each pump and timed it with his steps. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Another step closer, another inch further towards his ultimate goal. It was mile 19 now, and there was no turning back, no stopping. His body had never afforded it before, it certainly wouldn’t fail on him now. He refused to let anything take him over right now except for the beating. Thump. Thump. Thump. In time with the tips of his shoelaces scratching the pavement below. In time with his breathing, in time with his thoughts. A little bit further and he’d be home free. He turned behind him, only noticing a few dimly backlit figured breaking through the trees. It was only him now, his chance to shine the brightest.
The beating grew increasingly louder until he thought his eardrums would damn near break from the intensity of it. Thump thump. Thump thump. Thump thump. He felt himself unable to restrain a wide grin as the red tape fluttered and flapped at the curve in the road. Almost done, almost done. Keep going now, don’t stop. Don’t stop. The words soon voiced themselves on their own, his breath drowning out the tone. With one long stride, he planted his foot down with a harsh slap against the tar, and a towel was immediately thrown around his showers. He was beaming now, like a fool but he didn’t even care. He’d made it, he was done. Suddenly two warm hands crept up his spine and circled around him in an affectionate hug. He smiled as he whispered; “I wasn’t last.”
And a sweet voice responded, “I know.”