Story-lovers/readers of Fiction, Faction and Fantasy: This tale was written about 11-years ago for a friend’s son, at a time when he was becoming an adult. It was to inspire a belief in the power of a strong will. The ‘boy’ is now a man and a Dr.
I have written several ‘short’ stories for various competitions [without winning] and am starting to put them around for free. Otherwise, they’ll be joining Dominic Kirwan’s 1st book of Poetry: “Where Words Go When They Die”. I hope y’all enjoy it…
The Burning Man:
Burning-burning-burning! Jesus-H! It hurts! Everything’s bloody burning! Me arms, legs, lungs – even me bloody brain’s burning – if that’s even possible! Oh yeah – I know the drill – the whys and wherefores: head spinning in a vacuum of oxygen deprivation, labouring breath coming through a dry throat in rough gasps; more like a fish out of water than a supposedly-fit athlete! Though in fact, this burning pain is just my own – as per – over-the-top training regime. To achieve my goal – run my dream – as it were, I’d become totally obsessed in the pursuit of finding the best method of creating fast, oxygen absorption and spring-strength for my whole body – all linked to the most constructive muscle and tendon spring and endurance ever known!
Champions know that without these qualities, any competitor will only become – and always stay – just a fair sprinter. To be ‘up’ – to literally keep-up with the very best for that few, frenetically calm seconds that it takes to move over the chosen distance, a winner needs that tiny bit extra, which only brutal mind and body training and conditioning can supply.
I stand at the bottom of the huge sand dune, stretched out to the blue sky two-hundred meters or more above me, already breathing hard and perspiring freely from my warm up. Professional trainers tell me to look at the goal’s end, although I find picking spots to pass over – when pushing your body’s limits uphill in soft sand – a much better approach; in training at least.
Now my mind says: stop procrastinating and get going fool! However, my body says: have a break – give yourself some time to re-gather your energy and focus… ‘Ha! Very clever body!’, I think to myself, not listening to its excuses as I lift my right leg and push with the left to begin the drive to piston these poor weak things way past their ‘use by date’: a little joke that my first trainer told me – and one that has stayed with me throughout ten years of breaking the limits of this particular piece of flesh, blood and bone – which I have become so fond of.
There are many ‘good’ sprinters. Some are naturals – some are laborious fanatics. Others use it as a profession and are happy just to gain a meet ‘place’ and keeping on training, while speaking publicly about its benefits – and often making a good living from it. Then there are the burners. This type describes me. I burn to run – and to run very fast. I love competing against very fast ‘burners’ and being pushed to the maximum that my body can give and stay standing – well, running in fact.
For me, it’s not the adrenaline before a race at all: running fast is life itself. I have never given thought to not being able to run at speed and refuse to entertain the concept of ageing and infirmity. Some say it’s my youth and naiveté that burns, although I am uncaring of the what or why – only the doing. Sometimes my fevered, burning mind suggests that perhaps it is youth and innocence, lighting impossible fires of imagination, which are extinguished only by fast, flowing physical movement in my case.
At my chosen halfway point on the dune, I stop thinking altogether as I step and drive and begin to burn. My mind joins with my body – one entity – working together to trick my body’s safety limiter into opening wider instead of closing off and slowing the activity. I don’t ‘see’ anything anymore – my feet guide me more than sight now. They become my eyes as they drive and push and slip, learning to focus on the terrain as they bend and twist, absorbing muscle memory to power forward – no matter the terrain. I believe that it is these small steps of body-conditioning details; like deliberately making each ankle, joint, muscle or tendon become used to springing forward, especially at times of stress that give the edge needed to win – in a ten second foot-race.
In the very best ten sprinters in any country, there may be only one long second between each of the athletes’ best performances. Yet, it is the one whose body has no idea of lassitude or lethargy – that will cross the line first: take the photo, grab the cash and the girl – become number ‘Uno-numo-macho’ – until the next big race. I don’t want to be that man. I just want to run as fast as humanly possible. For me it’s more of a battle with mind against body, than against an opponent as such. The rest: adulation, fame and sponsorship money will come naturally in this society – part of the deal – forgettable really.
I begin to burn now as I feel my body begin to work the magic gained from years of often-wicked punishment. This dune is big! From ground level, it looked impossible to make any body continue to push through the very physical and psychological pain, which comes with pushing your body against a texture and gradient that combined, can break any strong heart. Attempts by weaker hearts could perhaps actually stop that muscle – I consider – as I push and drive, slide and sway, sweat and grunt out my pleasure: that I am burning now. My joined body and mind feel electrified by the energy waiting behind the curtain of doubt and uncertainty that have stopped me -so very close to my thus, unrealised faith – so many times previously.
For now, though, there is no pain. No thought at all. No indication that this hot, sweating, crazy human has bills, worries, cares and concerns that affect every human no matter creed, class, race, gender or color. I manage to lift my head and eyes upward, no easy task at this point in my personal contest, as I feel my feet begin to fly.
This is It! This is the point that I need to reach to be competitive and stay in the top ten! I can feel it! Perhaps now, I will cause some of these great, noble athletes – who had to break these barriers as well, I know – to see me as a genuine threat. Even though I am running uphill and in soft sand, I have persuaded my mind to imagine this speed and strength is possible. Like my heroes: Jesse Owens and Jim Thorpe, Peter Norman, Patrick Johnson, Usain Bolt, Carl Lewis and Tyson Gay, my own feet, now only touch the earth to balance my forward motion.
If you were to slow-motion the images of these burning men and watch their feet – as they literally fly over the distance – you would see that these men’s toes only, touch the ground for slightly less time than their opponents. Yet, this tiny difference makes the others look sluggish, almost uncoordinated as they strain in frustration at the backs of such champions. My own belief: that a human could even attempt this ‘burning’ of mind and body in fast, fluid movement, comes from dreams I had when I was a young man.
I often dreamt that I was at the top of a huge mountain… With a steep, bare slope before me – and I would begin running flat out, taking enormous bounds of thirty and forty meters at a step as I caromed down the mountainside in an exhilarating, wild ‘ride’… A dream which gave me the notion that perhaps this type of balance and power, could be achieved through belief and training. Of course, the neigh-sayers and most everyone else, for that matter, told me that I was ‘dreamin’, and that it could not be done in real life. However, a quiet inner voice repeatedly echoed that nourishing belief, can turn the impossible into possible: the ordinary into exceptional – doubt into firm certitude and reality.
Now, as I reached the top and slid over the sharp apex of sand there, I suddenly fell awkwardly, my challenge suddenly transformed from up to down at the dune’s pinnacle: my sand-covered face is looking stupefied back down at the waiting, desert floor – but also realising that I’d finally done it. ‘Probably a tad too much thinking and forgot that there was a top!’ I thought crazily – and began laughing insanely as I began to roll back down the challenge, I had set myself. I realised again that I had done it!
Yes, I was puffing as I rolled over in the warm sand that covered my hot, sweating body and my legs began to cramp immediately from the strain and exertion I had asked of them – but I’d succeeded – and so rolled, still laughing like a crazed, sand-covered madman almost to the bottom: allowing that angry gravity – finally tamed on the upward side – to gulp me down, first slowing, then stopping my descent just above the flat desert floor. The sun was just rising as I sat up covered in sand and sweat, though very much ‘over-the-moon’ at my first ever breakthrough of my mind’s limits – and of my body’s recent, cautious acceptance of its own abilities…
Ten days left until the next race – and I felt as though I had broken through my own, self-doubt barrier. Now, it was just good foods, proper rest and long walks with stretching only, until I lined up with the other men to see who had done their homework. In fact, most coaches agreed that hard training was only beneficial until a week or ten days prior to the event. That in fact – an athlete would only burn up needed energy and power by pushing your body past that time before a competition.
At home I paid bills, talked to family and friends, walked my dog, went to work, but in my heart and mind, I was limbering up over my blocks: eagerly ready to explode from point A to B. The energy building was unique to me. Never had I felt the need to burn so badly; to run flat out over the hundred-meter distance, touching the ground about 40-45 times over the course of the race – and then for a moment only.
‘Gravity be dammed!’ I thought constantly as the day came closer. My stretching walks had now become a dance – and worship of movement, and my mind wanted to feel those explosive heights once again: now! This hunger was magnificent! I talked to myself silently and relentlessly, promising to allow the wonderful explosion of power and balance out soon. I fed its need, reminding it of the previous hardship and pain it had gone through to get to this point and felt it tug at my muscles, attempting to pry me out of patience and let it out now: but I would not. I felt it build and grow, taking over my mind and body, becoming hungrier and thirsty for release – and although I kept it tamed and docile, I too wanted and needed the release: not unlike a man who craves the two-backed animal and has not been with a lover for many years…
Burn baby burn
The day is here, finally. For the last few days, I’ve tracked the other men who have entered – via their online bios’ and You-Tube races. Not to see what they do, but to see their faces. So, I’ll know them when I see them at the warm up track prior to the event. Oh yes – you must expect that they will try to bluff and intimidate as they stretch and preen, out of site of the public, where young, future champions – novices now – become so nervous watching the top guys warm up that they lose the race in their heads before they make it through the heats.
Intimidation can take many shapes. I have watched great young sprinters turn to jelly, from just seeing one of the greats warming up. Standing beside those hard muscled bodies, massive thighs, and toned calf muscles up close, jigging and dancing in front of their eyes and literally exploding those greats out of their practice blocks. It can be an awesome sight for a newbie.
Big, glaring, shiny, muscle mass and overt confidence never faze me though. I saw with my own eyes, when a short Aussie guy with an average build, almost took the win in the 200-meter at the Mexico Olympics in 1968! I will take that second place with me to my sprinter-grave (a joke among burners – who ask to be buried standing in case they can hit the ground running, wherever they end up)…
1968, Olympics, Mexico:
It was the final of the men’s 200 meters – and as the two Afro-American favourites came around the bend, driving into the final straight, everyone could see it was a no-brainer: these two men had power to burn. They were also using the event to publicise their people’s inequality, in a land that had equality as a foundation stone of their culture and Law. Though alas, for many of the minority (read non-white), groups – that equality was sorely missing any real, or practical application in 1968. Thus, as the two greats saw the finish line beckoning and as one, raised their black-gloved hands in a salute and protest to their countrymen, the little Aussie just kept burning.
He passed the man coming second and in another few meters might have won the race. That race gave me my first great lesson in sprinting: never ever, give up! Run your own race and pump – burn – until you cross the line. Those three great men became fast friends and when Peter Norman died recently, the winner and third place getter from the 1968 Mexico Olympics, 200 meters came to Australia to attend the funeral of a great and fearless man. He was and is a hero of mine and his legacy lives every time I begin to tie my spikes and smell that unique tang of the track, where a normal sized man from a small population in a strange, down-under land, shone his burning Australian spirit to all present…
I have run against several of the big names in this race before, though so far with places and no wins – as I watched their backs cross in front of me – arms raised in victory – giving out delighted glances to us poor losers. Yeah – they shake your hand and say ‘well done! Better luck next time,’ but in their eyes you see the fire: burning low now, but still banked and ready as if they hoped someone, anyone – would challenge them, now that their confidence, body and mind together are burning.
I am ready. My own fires are banked and waiting deep in the bottom of my feet. Waiting to rise, giving strength and faith to muscle memory and hot blood as it enters my heart and begins the now familiar connection of mind and body that will enable me to burn and fly today.
In tracksuit and Skins, I enter the warm up area. There are around thirty men warming up, but I take notice of only two. The big Jamaican – looking nonchalant as he squats and readies his thighs for the push off from the starting blocks – is hot at the moment, and ran under ten in his last race. The US of A’s up and comer is only nineteen, but has already made a name for himself – and run under ten in several of his last College events. Both men know me and nod to me as I pass, giving me a warm glow as I realize that they have checked my own races and times: a small show of respect for someone who has also run ten flat before.
And, although never having broken that elusive barrier, they understand: it is the burning conflagration of mind, body and spirit that gives that tiny, extra aspect of balance and light-footedness that will break through – and I sense that they are wary. My warm up goes exactly as I planned. I have no twinges, no slight strains or sprains. My mind is clear and my body is already heating up and prepared for the burning seconds. I must get through two heats to qualify for the final and am slightly worried that I won’t control my fire. That it will explode and reveal my newfound confidence before I want it to be seen, which is only at the end of the final – as they watch my back as I cross. That’s the only time I want my peers to witness my newfound, power and fire.
I hear the call for my first race and make my way out into the main track area, where several race officials stand waiting behind the starting line. I know there are people in the stands, because I can hear the buzz of their muted talk echoing around the stadium. I take no notice. I have my number and lane and am only interested in placing my blocks just so, in my lane. This is, as you would have guessed from the run times I mentioned, a 100-meter race. The winner will probably take around 41 – a certain winner – to 45 steps only. Any more than that and you are touching the ground far too often and will be looking desperately at backs – and knowing that you can’t catch them over this distance: unless you burn more than they, then anything is possible: right! Mr. Norman? How many times did the great sprinter and jumper Carl Lewis come from behind and run down the poor guy in front, who was already celebrating his win at 80 meters into the race…
“Gentlemen – on your blocks!” ‘Ahh! – the sweet sound of the starter’s voice – how I do love those words of challenge’. I crouch in my blocks, feeling the fire begin to work its way from my feet through my rock-hard, trembling calves, up, and on to my heart. Now the starter waits for silence amongst the runners, each settling as they make themselves ready for the explosion that must come to compete at all.
“SET!” The starter says loudly, as he raises his arm with the starting gun to fire. A few seconds of nervous energy while the starter ensures all are ready and balanced and “Bang!” goes the starting gun: and I stick to the blocks – like an amateur! Already a meter behind both runners on either side of me, my mind attempts to break from the mind-body connection and explain why I stuck in the blocks and missed the start!
Abruptly, I feel terrible desperation slowing me further as I fight to run smoothly and keep up with the race while urging my mind to let it go. At five seconds and fifty meters, I’m still running on desperation and can see at least four people in front of me as the final length of track looms in my vision. Then suddenly, all those hours of training and practice take over. The burn takes me over and I am strangely at rest – and then at full flight. I feel the ‘joining’, and my steps become light, barely touching the ground as I pick up one, then two, then three of the front-runners.
My burning body slows and cools as I cross the line in second place. I needed a third at least to go further, but second is an automatic qualification at this event and the relief pours through me as I congratulate the other runners and get my free ticket to the final from the race officials. I am now able to watch the other race heats and rest for the final: a genuine benefit for any athlete, but especially in a race like the 100, which is total explosive grunt for five seconds and ‘touring’ for the final five. That small rest can mean the difference between an under or over ten though – and is always welcomed.
The winning time for my heat was 10.31 and my own time 10.37, which is fair, although the favourites will be very low 10’s: fast burns to shatter confidence – and basically; To kick ass and confidence by the very direct means of lowest, fastest times before the final. The Jamaican is in this next heat and expected to win, but it will be worth seeing how the other competitors handle him for the final.
They’re down quickly and off and running. The Jamaican has literally exploded out of the blocks and is around three meters ahead and already looking around to see if any can stay with him. He is alone and stays there until the end, which he made in 10.17. Great time with no push, although I believe that if I hadn’t ‘stuck’ and had to catch up, I would have made a similar time. I even think to myself that my blunder may have been fortunate, as no one will worry about my poorer time now. With the young American still to race and probably wanting to take the fastest time from the Jamaican, I can sit quietly and prepare to burn.
All is quiet for the start of the final heat, as almost everyone here today has come to see this US junior run. He equaled the Olympic record once and has been consistently under 10 in his last four or five starts. He is also very good looking, sports a well- muscled, beautifully toned physique and plays up to the crowd – as he has done since he exploded onto the scene in his university days, a few short years ago. Once again, the starter has control and my fevered body shudders as the gun goes off to start the race. Another young man, wearing German colours is pushing the young US champion.
They go toe to toe until the German slows for the finish line, knowing he has made his point and probably scared the crap out of the young Afro-American, who probably thought that he would cruise through this heat. The time comes up on the digital clock and says 10.07! The fastest time yet, although I catch the eye of the Jamaican runner and see that we both know, that the young US athlete can and will run faster today.
However, we’ve also spotted a weakness in the American sprinter. He was surprised to find someone keeping up with him from the get-go. His usually fluid stride had a touch of ungainliness, when he realized that he was not going to blow this athlete away immediately. That small crack in his armour had given every genuine competitor in the final a tiny hope; That if any could stay with him in the first fifty-meters, a great finish could do him in today. Maybe he had something on his mind. Maybe he was using this run as practice for another, bigger event. It didn’t matter to me or to any of his real competitors: all we saw, was that he had a weakness that could be exploited and tested in the final.
One hour later I lined up again and this time – against the best here today. Nine men had made the final and I had been assigned lane seven because of my time in the heat. I was not expected to win, in other words. I didn’t care what lane I was given. I was ready to burn and burn brightly. After all – all lanes are exactly 100 meters – although the lower numbered lanes are usually given to the fastest heat time winners and one of those lanes often wins. “Not today mate!” I murmured to myself as I set my blocks.
As we crouched to set ourselves in the starting blocks, I took the time to look across at the men beginning to stretch legs and sway as they settled themselves into their respective block crouch. Then suddenly, in that minuscule moment of silenced time, I had an epiphany. I saw that we were all equal as men under the sun. That this 100-meter race was an extension of how our lives should be. Here, there was no poverty, no colour, no rich and no poor. Stature, status and position in society meant nix here. All present believed that they could win – and all had an equal chance. A strange thought at this stage of the game, but that’s part of my mind also: ‘must let it do its thing,’ I thought rather superstitiously.
Time sped up again and my eyes came back to look at the track directly below my bent head. My hands were now balancing my body – and my trembling legs were burning to drive me out of the blocks and down the track: my mind, now heedless of anything, except the burning desire to smoke this track. At the starter’s call of; “Set!” We moved as one, up and into the drive-out position. Nine strong fit men waiting with almost exploding hearts to jump. To drive out of the blocks and into the spread-legged drive that moves you down the track until you begin to run upright.
Bang! No time to think, my body, mind and muscle memory are using that robust training to spring and fly; Swinging arms driving everything automatically.
I feel the burn coming on as my body stands to its full running height, twenty-five meters down the track. I see nothing. I have no idea who is beside me, in front, or behind. My mind is exhilarating in the freedom of this fast, free, wind-blown movement. I’m burning and I barely feel my feet touch the track. I have always counted my steps as an indication of how far I have left to run, although my count cannot be right this time. I see the finish line coming rapidly toward me as I stride out, flowing over the synthetic track underneath me. One, two, three steps, before I throw my body at the finish line and I am through: finished. I slow behind the line and look immediately to the time-board – and see: 9.96. Lane 7.
I’d done it! I’d broken the barrier! Now I realised why those winners had that look. I didn’t really care who came elsewhere. My faith in my beliefs had been justified at long last. Finally, I’d made the small number of men who had somehow broken through that elusive barrier of mind over matter. My peers from the race began to congratulate me – and I found myself doing similar automatic shakes and pats, as had the men who had beaten me previously. I was also sure that the fire was burning in my eyes and I found that I really did want someone to challenge me: right now, while I was at my very best.
The Jamaican had run second and the U.S. youth third. For the first time since we had run against each other, the Jamaican athlete came and talked to me. He told me that as we ‘stood up,’ after about thirty meters, he saw my feet begin to fly rather than run and realised that he couldn’t beat me in that state. He also said, that he saw the US youth glance across and miss a beat at seeing that extraordinary, lightly balanced form against him – and then he congratulated me. Though I understood, that it was not on the win itself, but on the great effort to defeat my mind’s doubting nature.
“No one could have beaten you today,” he said. He also told me that if it had been a faster field today, that perhaps a few records might have tumbled. Then he apologised to me, for the lack of solid competition that would have made me go even faster today. We became firm friends after that day, though I never ran competitively again. I had a shocking, debilitating accident soon after and could never find that smooth place again. I was not sorry or angry about it, as I had realised by then, that all things change and pass. I had trusted in my beliefs to prove my theories of faith and mind over body to my own satisfaction – what more could I want.
Now, there was only one thing left to do as far as I was concerned. My final run – before the accident stopped further burning – was back at the dunes where I had learned so much about myself. I found a massive old dune – back in behind the coastline – with vegetation growing on it, which made it solid and stable: stable enough to burn one more time – and pelt barefoot down its dreamscape slopes – while taking the largest, most beautifully balanced running steps in the known world – just as I remembered from my dreams: I burned.