Wintergreen Neurosis
John A. Ward

Joe warns me about Doc Deekins.  He is on to him, but he likes to watch him work.  That's why he runs next to him.  Joe tells how he saw Doc take down Dan Kelly ten years ago at the Egg Harbor 30K like it is yesterday.  They are grunting along, smooth as whippets.  Doc makes a show of peeling the red-yellow wrapper from the Bit-O-Honey, a peanut butter-honey taffy he has been carrying since the start of the race.

"What's that?" Dan asks.  Already his concentration is broken.

"It's Bit-O-Honey," says Doc. "It's loaded with glucose.  It's energy.  When you run, you burn energy.  Take this and you get it back."  He pops a piece in his mouth. He continues, his words muffled by the confection on his tongue, "You get a burst.  Want to try?"

"Sure," Dan says.

Doc gives him a piece.  Dan unwraps it and starts chewing.  They run in silence for a mile.  Then Dan feels the stab of a stomach cramp.  He grabs his gut and groans, "Doc, I've got a pain.  Do you think it could be the candy?"

"Probably," Doc says, "you should know better than to eat when you're running."  He spits an unblemished chaw, still in its wrapper, sideways onto the road in front of Dan and cackles before moving along to find another victim.

This is why we are crouching on the starting line next to Doc today, so Joe can get another story and I can test my mettle against the master of subterfuge.  The gun goes off and we move through the summer heat.  The only breeze is the slipstream from our bodies.  Doc is well past having a shot at first place, but he is still the king of cats.  We are not three miles out when he turns to me and says, "How are you feeling?"

"Good," I say.

"You look good," Doc says.  "I was in a race last week, hot day like this, right next to a guy like you, feeling great, until it hit him, heat exhaustion.  He got clammy, turned white.  They had to pick him up in the ambulance.  He was in the hospital a week.  It will be a month before he can compete again."  True to form, he runs a mile in silence.  The heat waves shimmer from the long ribbon of asphalt.  Then he asks, "How are you feeling now?"

"I'm feeling a little tired," I say.

"Better slow down," says Doc.  "That's how it starts."  He glances over, to watch me check my stride and fall back.

I just wink and say, "Nice try,"   Joe laughs and claps his big hand on my shoulder.

First published: May, 2010
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