A margarita, tacos, a good book to read… Margarita, tacos, a good book to read….

The phrase repeated itself in my head, my arms pumped and my legs rose and fell.  With every corner I turned I uttered my motivating mantra to keep me going.

Pete’s Punisher is what they’ve called it.  A name hardly fitting, punisher doesn’t quite seem sinister enough.  Pete’s Purgatory  would  suit it better.

Before last month, the longest run I had ever been on was a mile.  That was back in high school, where we called it The Mile, a run so dreaded it became a sort of passage.  One friend aptly named it The Crucible.  A collective sigh of hopeless disbelief followed the wellness teacher’s command to get ready for The Mile.

We’d all line up, dressed down in our gym shorts and a t-shirt that hadn’t been washed since we first stuffed it in our locker four months ago.  Our heads hung low and our feet shuffled forward as the teacher lead us to the track, to our doom.  On the starting line, tears fell from our cheeks as we held each other in one last tender embrace; for we’d all be changed individuals when—no, if— we crossed that finish line.

“Go!” The wellness teacher cried, starting the timer.  Off we went, some raced forward, sprinting around the track.  Others, non-conformists usually still dressed in their jeans and baggy t-shirts, simply walked around the track.  The PE teacher calls out for them to, “get their asses in gear.” Their roll their eyes in response and noiselessly word, “pfff, whatever.”

That one overweight kid collapses somewhere between lap 1 and 2, serving as an example to the rest of us what’s at stake.

The jocks in the class finish the mile in about five minutes, they exchange high fives and butt slaps, leaving us simple plebeians in the dust.

I did that mile in 6 minutes 52 seconds.  I ran the whole time, I was so proud of myself.  My friend came in just behind me and we did our best to replicate the sporty celebration the jocks did.  Our high fives missed and our peppy butt slap was so tepid and unpracticed it looked more like a fondle than an exuberant celebration.   I smiled and tried to catch my breath.  I did it, I ran the whole mile.

Then I threw up.

Perhaps because I had never actually attempted to run the whole mile.  More likely because PE was after lunch, and I’d eaten half a box of chocolate candy bars meant for a band fieldtrip fundraiser.

From that day I made a decision that I would avoid long distance runs and Carmelo candy bars.

High-school-me would be very unhappy with my recent decisions to pick up running.

“It wasn’t my decision,” I’d tell my past self, “I was forced into this.  I was made to run. They made me do it.  I just wanted to sit at the bar and drink beers and eat cheeseburgers, I promise.”

They needed spots filled for the Wild Rogue Relay, a relay where a team of twelve collectively runs 200+ miles to the coast.  More miles have been run in the last month than the years that predated it.

“Pete’s Punisher?”  Dave asked me the night before. “You’re running Pete’s Punisher tomorrow?”

He laughed, “Good luck with that buddy…” He rested his hand on my shoulder and stared to my eyes longer than usual, as if he was looking at his friend for the last time.  I said my goodbye and headed for the door, Dave turned back towards the bar and held his glass.  He stared into it the same way a soothsayer stares into their crystal ball.  He was motionless but I could tell he was recollecting, I can tell he was reliving some dream, or perhaps a nightmare.

A nightmare I lived the morning after.  When I we reached the trailhead for Pete’s Perpetrator, I felt like I was outclassed; I should have been a mountain goat.  My $20 Asics, 7th grade gym shorts and cotton t-shirt left me sorely underprepared.  I would have been better suited with a rope, belaying gear and a climber’s pick.

A couple of margaritas, three steak tacos, a good book to read

The mantra starts as I pause at the bottom of Pete’s Petulance and bear witness what the next 60 minutes has in store for me.  My feet slide and I lose my footing because the trail is so steep.  Trees and roots become handholds to aid me in my battle against gravity.

We reach its summit, margarita… taco…book.  I breathlessly recite my mantra as I run up the last portion of the trail.  I’m winded, my legs are on fire and my calves are severely cramping.

“We made it!” I exclaim, I raise my arms and wait for my friends to join my celebration but they don’t reciprocate.

“Up the first hill,” Laura says.

“How many hills are there?” I wonder out loud, though the second I ask I know I don’t want to know the answer.

“I separate it into four hills in my mind, though there’s several ups and little downs.”

Pete’s Pestilence.

We continue our uphill struggle.  The trip has turned from a distance run into a grueling hike.  None of us a jogging, we’re all walking, stumbling, marching towards the end.

Three “hills” later we reached the actual summit and it’s beautiful.  On one end of the hill there’s a perfect view of snow-capped Mount Ashland.  The sky is blue and the view is crystal clear.  A bird chirped in a nearby tree completing the scene in a stunning fashion.

On the other side of the hill, a view of a city, far off into the distance.  I can’t quite make out its details but it looks far away, several miles to be sure.

“Is that Medford?”

Again Laura responds, “That’s Ashland.”

Pete’s a Prick. He’s a man I only know for his creation, but I hate him all the same.

The excitement for reaching the top instantly leaves me as I realize we’re still on the first half of the run and we’re miles from home.

A pitcher margaritas, five steak tacos, a good book to read…

I don’t know any of the trails so I wordlessly follow my friends as they jog the twisting curves of Ashland’s countless running trails.  It’s a blessing not knowing where I am most of the time.  Knowing how far from I am from the end only disheartens me, only tells me the struggle will continue longer than I want it to.

An hour or two into the run my mantra is so ingrained in my mind I half expect a taco truck to appear around every corner.  For breakfast I ate a chocolate chip cookie (hardly the breakfast of champions), and I didn’t bring any water to drink; it’s hard to tell if I’m hallucinating or simply delirious with hunger and expectation.

But my legs carried me onward.  I followed my trail Sherpas as they lead me down the winding trails back to Ashland.  I didn’t collapse and I didn’t give up: I didn’t want to be that overweight kid in gym class.  The only thing that kept me going was the three part promise I ritually repeated to myself.

The smells and sounds of Ashland assaulted my senses as we ran from the trails  back to town and back to our cars.  I drank a liter of water and fanned my soaked shirt to cool myself off.

“10.2 miles,” a friend says checking her watch.

10.2 miles.  Miles that left me winded, tired and sore.   Most of my pain attributed to Pete’s Punisher.

Why do people run it? I wondered as I drank water like a man dying of thirst.  They know its name, know its promise yet runners all flock to it like climbers to Everest.

But after I thought about it, I understood.   Despite waking up early, despite running up a 70 degree incline, despite being tired, a sense of pride prevailed it all.

Sure, I walked a good portion of it and I complained to myself the whole time but still, 10.2 miles is 10.2 miles.  I would have been in bed sleeping, snoozing away the morning sleeping in on my day off.  A pastime I’m all too familiar with.  Instead, I reached a milestone in my athletic life.  I ran 10.2 miles.

I proved the high school version of me wrong; he’s sulking in the corner with a box full of empty Carmelo candy bars and empty dreams.

*          *          *          *          *

The waitress walks up to the table with her pen and paper, “What can I get you today?”

“Six steak tacos, please.”

She starts to write something down then looks back at me and arches an eyebrow, “did you say six?”

“Yes.”  She begins to write down the order when I interrupt her, “no, I’m sorry,” I say correcting myself. “Seven please.”

“OK…Aanything to drink?”

“A margarita please.”

She shoots a quick glance at her watch, almost unperceivable but I know it’s there: a gesture of silent disapproval.

Other days I’d be embarrassed at an 11am margarita, but not today.

A minute later she brings out the margarita and I order another before the glass hits the table, she pauses but I ignore her body language.  I sit back in my chair and take a sip from my reward.  The sun is out, my legs are still on fire but I’m sedentary.

The tacos arrive; I open my book and devour them both.