We start off from the gate, just a quick warm up, moving the joints, trying to ease some stiffness out of my old bones, then a short run over to the big tower, high stepping through the ruts. The mud dries hard like baked clay and there are deep grooves and holes from the trucks. We jog through the palm grove, then hit the tower; ten, twelve flights up. Feet clanging on metal. "Hit every step," Stroud says, and we do.
Quads burning at the top, we turn, tapping our way down, careful in the dark, then at the bottom, back up again, pushing harder the second time, legs heavy and thighs burning, until at the top we are barely running anymore, just one foot in front of the other, step by step, and we reach the last landing and lean over, breathing hard.
Then back through the grove to the road, and off we go, a loose pack. Rock wants to sprint the light poles, and I say show me how. Off he goes into the dark, charging, unstoppable. If you told him to attack a tank with a tent peg he would bring you the treads as a war trophy.
James and I run together, Stroud and Will somewhere behind us, Rock somewhere ahead. No traffic, almost cool, nice night for it. Footfalls on the rutted crumbling pavement slap slap slapping and breathing sounds, my love hate, the pain and effort, the endorphins and accomplishment.
How many years now. Of running like this, roadwork, getting in the mileage. 1986. Harmony Church, so fucking cold even in those dark blue sweats, those long runs, Charlie 4-2, hating it with my shaved head, screaming drill sergeants, wanting to run into the woods and hide and run away, run away. Months pass and jump school, all those feet slapping so loud in formation, like a living thing, part of something more then yourself. Could run forever like that. Sweating even early in the day, the Black Hats yelling, calling cadence, fall out and you're finished.
Now it's me and Rock, James is back behind us, Rock and I side by side, through the dark. I'm keeping a fast pace. Fast for me. I know I can't hold it, won't be able to keep it coming back, but it feels good, stretching it out, legs pumping. More.
Gunfire to our right, other side of the wall. It's 5.56, seven or eight rounds fast popping. Rock flinches and swerves. "Test fire pit," I say, someone is going out, testing those weapons. We run on.
James is with us again, and we turn around, sweating despite the coolness of the night, a little breeze so good on the face, breathing still okay, starting back. We pass Will and Stroud after a moment, materializing out of the darkness. We pass without speaking, just heavy breathing and a little head nod.
James and Rock and me, James moving a little ahead. Harder now, breathing heavier, but still good. Rock wants to know the distance, and I twist and turn my wrist, trying to see the readout of the Garmin in the yellow streetlamp. "One. Point. Five. Six." I try not to gasp. Maybe a mile to go, mile and a quarter.
Rock gone now, just behind but invisible in the dark, might as well be a mile, James and I side by side. He is a former Marine, fast, maybe the second fastest in the former PSD, third or forth fastest in the company. He moves like a machine. He is speeding up and now my legs are heavy, I feel myself slowing down. Bit by bit. Rock passes me, joins James, they speed away, and now it's just me.
It's just me. Running in the dark. It hurts. It feels good.
To my left is the wall and outside it, Iraq. I run and run, willing my legs to go faster. Heavy and slow and man it was so easy twenty something years ago. Helicopters passing overhead, a pair, no lights, just over the wall, outside the wire, low and loud. Rotors beat the air. I look for them, see them, ghostly, light shapes against the ink. Loud clattering ghosts.
Pushing more. Almost there, got to be. Sweat on my lips, stinging my eyes. Feet sound hollow as they beat the ground. Slow, slow old man. I push and my legs are made of wood.
I see them just ahead, slow jogging in circles, waiting on me, Stroud, Will. Maybe 300 meters to the gate, waiting at the curve in the road. I ease to a stop, stop the GPS on my wrist, hands on my hips, behind my head, turning my face trying to catch the breeze. Not jogging, let the kids do that, I'm done, man, walking in circles, slow deep steady breaths. Cool down.
Rock and James banter, James talking about his fast run time on the last PT test, making a point to mention he was sick. "What was your time, Rock," I say, and Rock says that I wouldn't let him run it, remember. Resentment just there underneath. I had forgotten. He rolled his ankle ten days before the PT test and I told him he couldn't run even though he swore he was fine. He would run with a sucking chest wound. You can't stop Rock.
"You were on profile, Rock. Why are you making me the bad guy?"
"The world needs a villain, Staff Sergeant." Wisdom from the Rock.
They go back for Will and Stroud. I walk in circles, waiting. Where is the breeze?
They come out of the dark, see them before I hear them, sprinting the light poles. Four abreast, sprinting, arms and legs pumping. They are young and strong. They look like warriors. They look like champions.
They sprint past me. I turn the Garmin back on, run to catch up. Smiling.
Yeah. Good run.