The Church of the Sunday Long Run

Alannah Neff (age 17), Carrigaline Community School, Co Cork


Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. My heartbeat thudded, regularly climbing, frequently increasing. My body seemed to audibly creak as sinew slid over bones, causing muscles to contract, then relax, in a never-ending cycle. Thud, thud, thud. Each time my foot hit the solid dirt my breath clouded the arctic air. I felt like a giraffe, gangly and out of sequence as I ran down the first hill. The pent-up anxiety of everyday life which caused my stomach to feel like it had gotten on the wrong side of Rocky Balboa, began to seep away with each step.

Right foot: schoolwork, the Everest mountain of studies.

Left foot: balance, am I seeing my family enough, am I still sane? With each step I ground away my relentless anxieties. They transformed from immovable road blocks to red brick, to gravel, to dust. As the wind hit my face, slapping my cheeks crimson, my dusty worries were whipped away. Step, spring, breath. Step, spring, breath.

My mind drifted, seeking it’s ‘happy place’, the so-called area where one feels comfortable during even the most physically gruelling of times. The road became murky as my sight turned inward. Focus. Believe. I calmly began to construct my self-belief. Like brick upon brick builds a house, I stacked up training sessions I had completed, that I could never have dreamed of attempting. I listed all the times I felt like I was drowning in quicksand, completely immobile, and pushed myself onwards. I focused on all the stinging blisters, crippling stitches and legs rubbed raw from friction. I built all of these, each and every one into an intricately woven tapestry of self-belief.

The tapestry glittered like the river on a July day as I turned it over and over in my mind. I perused its surface, inspecting the quality of its weave, it’s thickness, it’s strength. Any small holes I found, any time my self-confidence unravelled, I hemmed it with yet another achievement. I envisioned each of the sessions I had completed. Sprinting up and down sand dunes in hurricane conditions, beach grass whipping my legs raw, my feet sliding uncontrollably as I searched for grips again and again. I saw countless laps of the track, sweat trickling into my eyes, legs dragging with fatigue, brain ineffective as survival instinct takes over. I pictured runs in the woods, leaves slippery as polished floors, my breath catching like a hinge in need of oiling. Then I pictured myself racing. Grassy, rolling fields soon resembled places of war as thousands of footsteps tore into them. Bodies everywhere, some strewn across the swampy underfoot, rendered incapable of continuing. I imagined myself. I pictured myself strong, like the walls that guard the Saltee Islands against the sea, able to withstand tumultuous storms and unfailing, infallible waves.

I was brave, and daring, like all the greats before me. I was light, a fairy practically floating over mud, hills not an obstacle but a welcome challenge. Ba-dum, ba-dum, ba-dum. My heart had settled into a comfortable rhythm. My legs had lost their new-born feel. I returned to the now from the chasm of my mind and experienced a spiritual relief. My watch emitted a singular beep. I glanced down and was pleasantly surprised to find that half my miles had passed while I was soul deep in thought. “Focus on the now,” I whispered to myself. The air was light and fresh, chilling my nostrils, mouth and throat with each inhalation. Exhale. The terrain had changed from hard-packed dirt to flat, cracked tar. My feet beat out a steady rhythm, as if they were beginning to slowly build to a crescendo. My tee-shirt flapped gently against my skin, my ponytail swinging in time with each stride.

The air went still, as if the surrounding trees had vacuumed the wind up. Leaves rustled ever so slightly. The river alongside me lapped ever so quietly against the shore. Out over the water, a fairy-tale view unfolded. It was as if a painter had dipped his brush in the river and spread sweet hues across the bare sky. There were soft lilacs, fruity pinks and the most perfect citrus colours I’ve ever seen, kneaded together forming an incredibly enticing sunrise view. Seagulls flitted like silver bullets across the sky. Their low heartfelt wails provided a fantastical element to this unequivocal view. An electronic beep drew my attentions back to myself like a boomerang returns to the hand of its owner. Only one mile to go.

Maybe it was the dreamlike sunrise, or the sweet-frosty air in my lungs, but suddenly I felt so very alive. My arms and legs worked in unison, such teamwork no factory manager has ever seen. I could breathe in abundance. I imagined myself like the hummingbird flitting from tree to tree collecting treacly nectar. The antelope and I had much in common as I loped towards home. I was as strong and as sharp as the eagle, his wings like my legs, carrying me with precision and grace. Ba-dum thump, ba-dum thump. Every five steps felt like one, for the effort I was exerting. I defined the laws of physics over and over and I revelled in it. Gone was the worry, the doubt a distant memory. Instead, I was fearless. My eyes wavered from watch to road as I watched my distance left to cover decrease. Half a mile to go. I began smiling. A slow widening of my lips until I was grinning uncontrollably. A quarter of a mile to go, all previous evidence of fatigue faded. Tendons pulled muscles over sinew-covered bones with elegance I had never felt before.

A tenth of a mile to go and I sped up, eager to finish yet tempted by this feeling of invincibility to keep running forever. My feet barely tapped the tarmac as I flitted along. Beep. Doubled over, legs shaking, gasping for oxygen and water alike. I should have felt like I was dying, yet my long run left me feeling reborn.