Great Unexpectations

I’ll make one thing very clear: I am not a runner. I don’t even like exercise all that much but I will begrudgingly admit it has its benefits. I am a few pounds (okay, more than a few pounds) overweight and just like everyone else, I have fitness goals I would like to achieve. So I kick myself in the butt and drudge through a couple of miles around the neighborhood every week. Recently, I’ve worked my way up to jogging three miles straight. In the Florida heat and humidity, this takes a special kind of inner pep talk to get me to tie up those running shoes.

You should get out there and get it over with.

But it’s so flippin’ hot!

Think of how good you’ll feel afterward.

If I don’t die of heatstroke first.

Those extra pounds aren’t going to disappear with wishful thinking. No pain, no—

It’s been a rough week. I’m tired. Please, just let me enjoy my afternoon bowl of popcorn in peace.

Okay. You’re an adult. You can make your own choices.

Thank y—

But I don’t want to hear your complaining when you step on the scale tomorrow morning.

Pause. Groan. Put away popcorn machine.

On the weekends, I wake up early. The world is quiet. No traffic, no pedestrians. Just the buzz of June bugs under cardinal calls and mockingbird songs. I’ve grown accustomed to the sulfuric well water smell misting from yard sprinklers. It hisses and spits over clean cut, verdant grass, adding weight to the already heavy morning air. There is no breeze at this early hour. The thick atmosphere hangs over the ground, wet, still and warm. So it’s pretty much like running through smelly bean soup.

I don’t wear earbuds. The morning soundtrack is what keeps me grounded. There’s a lot of chaos and noise in the world and this is the one place where I can unplug for a little while. For that reason, I do look forward to these morning runs. Unfortunately, after the first mile I’m content. By the second mile, my body chimes up.

“Okay, that’s enough. Can we go home and eat food now?”

The two and a half mile mark makes or breaks me. Now I can usually talk myself through a final half mile. By then, my sense of satisfaction for sticking with it to the end overrides my desire to quit. But this morning was different. Here I was, down to the last half mile of my run and the meter on my reserve fuel tanks had tilted into the red zone. I only had a few minutes of energy left. Wiping a river of sweat off my temple, I set my eyes on the end of the road.

I can do this. I’ve done it before. Go ahead. Go for it.

So I slogged through the next quarter of a mile.

Oh God.

The energy was draining faster than usual today.

I’m going to die right here on this pavement.

I just didn’t have it in me.

By the time the paramedics arrive I will have drowned in my own sweat. Oh jeez, I hope they won’t disclose that in my obituary.

Was it the work week that had sapped me dry? Was it the dishes in the sink waiting for me at home? Was it my irritation with my neighbors who, now a week after the 4th  of July holiday, were still shooting off fireworks at two in the morning? I turned onto the final street of my route, my low fuel alarms blaring. I closed my eyes. It was time to just admit this was going to be one of those ‘off’ days and raise the white flag of surrender.

When I opened my eyes again and looked down that short but unreachable distance of road, I noticed another runner ahead of me. She was two hundred feet away, jogging about the same rate as I was. She had the same stride. In fact, everything about her reminded me of myself: weight and build, dark running clothes, dark hair pulled into a bun. The fiction writer in me suddenly sat up and blurted an absurd, but entertaining, thought.

“Dude! What if you accidentally ran through a time portal and this really was a version of yourself running up ahead? Oh my God, wouldn’t that be weird?” The possibility amused me.

The writer in me continued, “What if, stay with me, this is like that moment in Harry Potter where he sees his future self accomplish something great so the Harry Potter in the present believes he can accomplish it too?” Huh. I smiled at the thought. It was absurd, but it was also just entertaining enough to get me through these final few minutes of my workout. I decided to run with it.

The weight in my legs ebbed away. A new surge of energy and inspiration washed through me and the last quarter mile suddenly felt like my first. I picked up my feet, breathed in deeper and peddled after my ‘future self’. The distance closed. I would reach my goal after all. I would have my Rocky Balboa moment for the day. The invisible finish line was now seconds away. But as I approached my three mile mark, I saw the girl up ahead slow to a walk and rest. The fiction writer shook my shoulders now.

“Holy crap,” she choked down the excitement, “what if you’re the inspiration for your future self now…but, like, even further in the future? What if you pull ahead of her and became another version of your future self in this weird space-time continuum?”

You are certifiably crazy.

“I know,” she clapped her hands, delighted at the observation. “But what if?”

I almost laughed. My resolve renewed, fueled by the insanity of the idea. Nothing around me had changed. The temperature wasn’t cooler. The humidity hadn’t lightened. But I’d found inspiration in a complete stranger. In that moment, where the inner dialogue shifted from ‘I can’t’ to ‘I want’, all my inhibitions melted away. The pavement under my feet, the air in my lungs, the trees lining the road, all suddenly became my quiet cheerleaders.  I caught up to this ‘future self’ and as I passed, I waved, smiled and said ‘good morning’.

It was not me. Just another jogger out enjoying an early Sunday morning.

“Aw, too bad,” the writer sighed. “That would have been one hell of a story, am I right?”

The woman nodded and smiled back and I continued on— for another half mile.

Eventually, the inspiration faded and I conceded to a walk. I was exhausted and exhilarated with the morning’s turn of events. This was the farthest I had run. Ever. A few minutes ago I was struggling, ready to give up and now here I stood at a new personal best. And that woman will never know how she was the one responsible for my breakthrough. That is the beauty of this life. We can all go about our own business, stuck in our mundane routines and, without even realizing it, still inspire others. What if we allowed ourselves to run with just one silly, ridiculous moment of inspiration a day? Imagine the new mile markers we’d reach. –E.R.