Doubling Back

Brian Oliu

  • I am running a marathon in eight days, and my body is not ready.
  • It is difficult to assume that my body is not ready, because this would mean that I would know my body—how it operates under these circumstances; how despite never running for more than a handful of minutes at a time, it can somehow understand the task ahead of me & know exactly where it should be, what it should look like. I am far from optimized, & I am aware of this: that there could be a beautiful moment where running is simply a task that needs to be done & nothing more—that I am literally going through the motions.
  • On my last long run before the race, my right leg locks up. It is a run like any other run—a celebration of the end of marathon training; of surviving something that seemed impossible months ago. The race has always been less about the race, but more about what needed to be done for the race—the day of is supposed to be a coronation; a day where everything goes beautifully: a day where there are water stations every couple of miles, rather than forcing myself to go hours without drinking, occasionally hiding a plastic bottle in the bushes for the second loop, all the while hoping that a stray dog doesn’t puncture the plastic with its teeth. The day of coronation before the coronation ends with my leg refusing to straighten—the knee permanently fixed to a half-bend, as if I were the perfect model for a caricature of a person running: leg lifted in the air while the arms punch skyward. I too, am like the drawing, frozen in motion, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
  • I would like to tell you that this was sudden: when you hear stories of injuries, one can pinpoint the exact moment of disaster. There was no pop, no grand flailing about—instead, silence, as if nothing about this was anything but routine. There is no moment where the foot strike reverberates up and through the leg, sending a bludgeoning shock through the body. There is glory in failure—a grand gesture of the body breaking: a torn tendon coiling up the back of a leg and resting in a spiraled heap at the bottom of a calf, a bone splintering and piercing through what was otherwise flat. Instead, at one moment, I could run, & the next moment I could not.
  • There are theories that the body is constantly fighting to get back to what it once was: that there are stories of men & women who lost a considerable amount of weight, only to have their bodies balloon back to where they were once comfortable—their metabolism slowing to the point where despite their size, their tolerance for food is much, much lower than what science can afford them. You will lose 10% of your fitness if you stop running for a week—each run will be 10% harder than what it once was. Running will get harder & harder until you want to stop entirely—everything zeroed out, my life once again measured in inches around my neck. How quickly the body forgets. How well it remembers.
  • On my diet there are what are called “cheat days”—days where I am allowed to eat whatever & however much food I would like. It is a reminder of how simpler my life was when I did not have to concern myself with such things as weight: when you weigh over 300 lbs, you do not think about your weight until you start losing weight—I never reached a moment where I said “this number is too high.” It is easy to convince yourself that your body is where it should be because you do not need to do any convincing. You exist and you simply are.
  • There are trigger points all over our body: places where you can press into the thick ropes of tissue in hopes of causing the muscle to contract around its intruder, causing the muscle to finally relax—to unclench itself and allow the mechanism to start from zero, a hard reboot of a tendon. To do this, it is not enough to use your own hands, as your body can sense that this is something that you are doing to yourself—that because you are willing this to happen, there should be no reason to change. To jam your thumb into the soft spots beneath your hip is the status quo: your body in constant conversation with itself to self-preserve and to hold fast. The trick is to use external force: a molded piece of plastic, the hands of a loved one. If we use our hands, we can predict the outcome before it even starts. It is why we cannot tickle ourselves with our own fingers. It is why we cannot drown ourselves in our own bathtubs. We must keep our plan to cause pain a secret from ourselves.
  • My father has a dream that after a day where I allow myself to eat whatever it is that I desire, I gain all of the weight back. I come descending down the staircase as large as I have ever been, unphased by what has occurred to my body overnight. My father is hesitant to tell me about this dream, yet I ask anyway: I want to know what happens, how shocked he is to see me, how I skip breakfast as my stomach is still bloated from the night before. I too think about this, although I have learned the hard way that bodies do not change overnight. It will be a slow ascension: the new clothes that I have purchased will fit a little bit tighter. I will claw through the hangers in the closet to find a shirt that always felt a little loose. I will buy back all of the clothes that I have donated; I will knock on the doors of every big-boned boy and ask them for my twice-worn jacket, and they will not yet understand. How could I have done this to myself. How can I continue to do this to myself. The dream being someone else’s does not make it any less real.
  • Every run starts and ends at the same place: I calculate the distance beforehand to see which route I need to take—which side streets I need to weave around in order to make sure that the miles match the grand plan. My father, when he ran this race, would go out as far as possible until he reached the halfway point—then he would turn around and run home. His reasoning for this is that he had to make it back somehow, so he might as well run. I choose less of a direct route—I make sure to loop back around; to take different roads home to fool myself that I am covering a new ground; that there is something surprising that this world has to offer me. On the day my leg locks up, I am as far away from home as I possibly could be. I am at the edge of a river. I am at the bottom of a hill. I press my thumb into the side of my knee in hopes that my body would let myself go. The body has ways of holding on to things. The body has ways of seeking out the familiar. This was always the outcome—the doubling back with no chance of return. The past body welcomes me with open arms and a swift jab to the side of the knee. Welcome back, it says. It seems like you were gone forever.

    Brian Oliu is originally from New Jersey & currently lives & teaches in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He is the author of two chapbooks & five full-length collections, ranging from Craigslist Missed Connections, to NBA Jam, to 8-bit video games, to computer viruses. This piece is from a memoir in-progress about translating his grandfather's book on long-distance running.Other sections from this project have recently appeared in Denver Quarterly, Catapult, Another Chicago Magazine, and The Rumpus.

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