The plan was a five a.m., pre-dawn beach run followed by a six to seven, up before the cars bike ride along the North Carolina Beach coast section of US Highway 421. I am an early riser who usually spends a few oh-dark-thirty hours tapping away writing but as I’m sharing a tiny 12′ by 12′, 14 square meter, queensized bed room and tiny bath with my, “I live to sleep in,” beloved goddess of a wife Durga at the Carolina Beach Inn, a quaint establishment that turns off its internet service at night (?) and has no common area in which I can escape to write without disturbing my darling, any early morning cogitation is reduced to me scribbling stories in a notebook to transcribe later, a process that fails to fill me with joy.
Given these circumstances and the sprint triathlon in which we will be competing in another fifty hours, I choose to run then ride in the sleepy, early morn. That was the plan but as I hiked the two short blocks east from inn to beach I wondered about my plan’s implementation. The black as ink sky crackled with occasional streaks of white as off in the distant south thunder rumbled, the sound and the fury far enough away as to make counting seconds between flash and boom unrevealing. There was a storm but its distance lulled me into complacency.
As the remote lightning did not worry me it is unsurprising that the light sporadic drops that fell earthward likewise caused me no alarm. My attention was not on the sky but rather the beach as I worried about stepping into a hole left over from playful folks the night before. That beach was dark and I kept my head down as I ran, on the lookout for holes, until I became certain that the rolling waves of tide on sand had flattened ankle twisting irregularities. I trotted southward, running along the water’s edge, running at the spot where the ground was most firm, an intersection of land and sea that made for smooth sailing along the exfoliated, packed quartz, the tiny grains of silicon dioxide upon which I plodded.
As I shuffled southward the distant crackle of light and eventual peel of thunder accompanied me in a soothing yet energizing display, a companion that added to the enjoyment I felt jogging along the deserted Atlantic beach, alone on the sand, surf at my feet, my only spied fellow beach goer a dark figure setting his meters high fishing poles in the pliant sand. I greeted my dark stranger as I ran by but heard no reply.
I ran on, counting my breaths in my OCD way, each hundredth breath receiving a tic of a finger, each handful of tics approximating a mile traveled. It had been two hundred tics when I’d greeted my lone and mute fisherman and at three-hundred tics the lightning flashes became brighter, more frequent and the interval of time between flash and boom was now a discernible ten seconds, a span that assured me the storm was still a distant two miles to my south. I ran onward, pleased with the light rain, mesmerized by the lightning, invigorated by the rising tympani.
I laughed aloud as the rain shifted from gentle to drenching. At 500 breaths, a single fistful of counted tics, I reached the pier to which Durga and I had walked as the sun set the night before. The rain, now torrents, the interval between lightning strike and thunder clap shortened to four seconds, I ran onward another hundred breaths, the interval between flash and boom halving then halving again, the strikes so bright as to momentarily blind.
I turn out to sea, tacking against the wind, changing course 180 degrees, heading back to Lifeguard Stand 19, the point where Carolina Beach’s short boardwalk ends and where my run began. The weather has turned from calm to fierce, the rain from peaceful to drenching and my run from tranquil to charged. The lightning concerns me in equal part to its invigoration.
I run faster, determined not to allow myself to be swept out to sea, determined to ride out the storm and revel in her fury. The lightning strikes’ frequency increase, their blinding flash and deafening boom arriving simultaneously. I feel alive. I feel fear. I pray for the lightning to stop. I pray for the lightning to continue. I run faster and think of yesterday’s frolic in the surf with Durga, how, sitting on the beach after I had almost asked her, “Do you know how old I was when I first daydreamed of swimming out to sea? Of swimming beyond my limits and letting the ocean roll over and extinguish me?”
I did not ask. I did not burden her. I did not tell her of the thoughts that have haunted me since I was thirteen-years-old, of my struggle that rises and falls like the tide, a struggle at times easy to ignore, a barely perceptible ebb and neap that transforms into an undertow determined to sweep me away. I remain mute about fighting the sirens’ song of self annihilation by surrender that has plagued me on and off for 45 years.
I had told her none of that as we sat side by side on the beach but I thought of it now as I ran by that ocean, the cascade of water from above and the pound of waves from below melding into one undeniable force of nature. I pass the two poles of my fisherman but his dark figure is nowhere to be seen, the elements too much for him he has retreated, he has sought shelter until the storm’s fury has played herself out. Lightning strikes abound, water cascades down my face, a synergistic combination that blinds. Lightning flash. Thunder boom. Impenetrable darkness.
I run, thinking how glorious it is to dance by the sea, to tempt the lightning quick fate of death, to be alive and to want to live. Tempting fate, I live, and living I wish to live on and on, to battle the elements within and without that let me see, that blind me, that would drown me. The very elements that remind me of what a gift life can truly be.