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For the first mile of my daily run the cows are with me. They seem out of place along this road that winds through mountain pines, but in Arizona cows are everywhere, even at 7,000 feet. They watch incredulously with soft eyes as I run by. They stand as still as statues and only their heads move, slowly and almost imperceptibly, like the heads in paintings of long-dead relatives that gaze right at you, no matter where you stand in the room. I can’t tell if they approve of all this running activity; they are silent.
No matter how far I decide to run each day, running that first mile is the hardest. I feel the same niggling pain under my ribs each time, and wonder how overnight I forgot how to run. Each day I tell myself that I must be going about this running thing all wrong. My shoes are old and probably not the right sort of shoes at all. I’m wearing cotton socks. I expect at any moment a van, driven by a member of the International Federation of Runners, will pull up beside me. A fleet of sleek runners wearing custom made running shoes and synthetic socks will pile out of the back of the van and issue a citation. Or they will grab me and drive off with a screech of tires, taking me to an interrogation room where they will seat me under a bare bulb and ask, “Just who do you think your are?”
I look around uneasily. No vans. No running police. I guess I will have to keep running.
I smirk at the cows, glad that I’m faster than someone.
I came upon running by accident, when I was digging through a pile of magazines at my local used bookstore. I pulled out a copy of a running magazine that had a picture of a beautiful woman on it, a woman with a blond ponytail. She looked happy and carefree. I wanted to be her. My friend Ellyn looked over my shoulder and said casually, “Oh, Suzy Favor.
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"High Altitude Training." 123HelpMe.com. 02 Apr 2020
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“This says Suzy Hamilton,” I said, pointing to the cover.
“Yeah, well, she was Suzy Favor back in high school. I ran against her in cross country back in Madison.”
I gazed at the picture and imagined myself, flushed a delicate pink, having finished my first race, draped in one of those foil blankets. I immediately flipped open the magazine to the interview and began to skim. Then one sentence caught my eye. Suzy Hamilton said she slept in a special high altitude tent so she wouldn’t have to live in Flagstaff. “Hey!” I shouted to no one in particular, “I live in Flagstaff.” Ellyn had wandered off to look at cookbooks.
When I got home I dug out some shoes that looked like running shoes, ones I had bought years ago in a fitness frenzy that lasted only a week. I put on some shorts and a T-shirt and tried out my new running persona on my boyfriend. “I’m going for a run,” I said with a jaunty wave. He didn’t look up from his computer.
My first trip out I barely made it to the end of the street. Even for the seasoned athlete, running at 7,000 feet above sea level is nothing to sneeze at. People get hospitalized for altitude sickness. They built a special training center here for Olympic athletes. Each day as I ran a little further and further I imagined I was one of those athletes. The roaring crowd was
replaced by the cows chewing their cud contentedly off in the distance. Each day the cows got closer, and one day, I passed them. I ran a 10-k, finishing second to last ahead of a walker (another group of walkers beat me). I ran another 10-k, this one straight uphill, and shed minutes off my time. I bought new shoes, made especially for running. I even bought synthetic socks.
When I run the air smells like pine. I lift my fingers to catch the breeze. The pain beneath my ribs disappears. My feet fall, one after the other, in a steady pattern. Soon, I can’t feel the road. I fly past a blur of trees, leaving the cows behind me, their bells tinkling like faint applause in the wind.