It's to be two sets of 4 reps on the half-mile loop, 400 hard and 400 recovery. The leaders establish themselves within seconds of starting the first rep, arms propelling them forward, feet skimming across the asphalt. Pump your arms. Push on this last little hill. Through the line...through the line...there!
"60 seconds," a voice calls out. Strides break immediately, violently almost, to a recovery trot, burning lungs suck oxygen deep, wills forcing bodies to breathe deeply, slowly, back under control. Breath by agonized breath, guts unknot. Recovery is spent dwelling on how hard seven more of these are going to be. There's no way I can keep that up, minds think.
And yet somehow it happens. For the next 35 minutes, determination grows hardened, bodies are disciplined, and the sound of the cicadas is puncuated only by the periodic voice calling out times. Times that may waver somewhat, but eventually level out and begin to drop as the workout mercifully winds down. The leader finishes the last push, rep 8, with the fastest time of the night.
What is it that drives someone off the couch, out of an air conditioned home, to engage in such punishment? What makes a kid turn his back, however momentarily, on TV or girlfriend or video game or even just basic comfort to run intervals in the dark? What makes a kid leave a perfectly good supper semi-digested in the grass on the side of an asphalt track in the middle of a bug-infested park? And then finish the workout, improving rep after rep? What is it?
It's not duty or even mere compliance; the storms made Coach cancel the evening's practice. The voice that's been calling out splits is that of a runner's mom. Most of the kids on the team aren't here. The ones that are didn't have to be. No. Practice. Tonight. Yet here they are, pouring themselves out, and when it's over leaving glassy-eyed and sweat-drenched and smelly and exhausted. And satisfied.
Tonight the coach, just there as another runner, a peer, sharing the workout with a group of kids one-third his age, is the one who leaves inspired.