As I wake, my body already knows what is coming. It is hardening itself, preparing. I feel a little bit sick, but this is normal, and it means I'll feel good when I get moving. I choke down some breakfast, though I don't have much appetite. Out the door, ready for the day.
As I start my warm-up, my body feels tense and heavy, but I soon relax into a springy jog, poles in hand, on my way out to the hill. I begin to focus on what I need to do. Three minutes as hard as I can, five times up the hill. Just a mere fifteen minutes of effort sounds small, easy, do-able, but I know it will hurt.
I do a warmup interval. Not all-out, but fast. I feel strong. I can spin my legs quickly. I breathe fast and deep, keeping up with my body's output. I bring myself near the brink of anaerobic pain, and ease off before I get there, revving the engine before the drag.
The tinny beep of the watch springs me to life. My heart rate and breathing quickly accelerate to match pace with my legs as I sprint through the trees over dead leaves and mud. As soon as I settle into a comfortable pace, I up the ante and try to spin faster. I swing my hands quicker to make my legs pump harder. I'm just on the flats now. I have to go fast to make it hard.
This is where the pain begins. Before I reach the hill, I'm already breathing raggedly, but I can't get enough air. I'm at the bottom of the pool struggling for a breath, but I force my legs to move faster. The familiar burn of lactate begins to pollute my thighs. This is gonna be good...
I turn the corner to face the incline. I accelerate; a launching linebacker at the hike. I stab my poles down hard and begin to bound. Huge strides propelled with both arms and legs. I imagine my limbs are the pistons of an oversized engine, and I cram on the gas pedal.
This is where the pain deepens. My face numbs, my bowels cramp, my ears ring, my heart pounds through my body. My legs begin to fill with red-hot lead. My breathing is so fast and hard that it would worry me if I'd never done this before. This is where an athlete is born, in this moment. To ignore the pain and push harder than I know I can is the lesson I'm learning here.
I lift my eyes to the horizon of the gradually steepening slope. I force my body to push harder, and to quicken the tempo. A guttural grunt involuntarily escapes from my chest. A flood of adrenaline. A bucket of gasoline is thrown over the fire in my legs, and I accelerate with the eruption of flames.
As if forcing my way through a stone wall, with determination, focus and aggression, I break through the pain in my body. On this higher plateau, I reach a new level of power. Bestowed with the fear and aggression earned by eons of nature's ancestors fighting for survival, I fly wildly up to the crest of the hill sprinting powerfully over the top.
I come to a screeching halt. I stop my watch. I collapse, doubled over on my poles, gasping desperately for breath. I descend back down through the layers of pain as my body recovers. Seconds later, as soon as I can move, I begin to jog gingerly down the shortcut to the start of the loop. My legs momentarily wobble as if I haven't walked in a very long time. I breathe deeply and flush fresh blood through my body on my way back to the start.
One down, four to go.