Such was the case with the pizza left out on the counter. There it passed from cool to warm. The regular procedure for pizzas, but not warm enough to cook. And then it went back in the fridge.
He was distracted by obligations. The act of putting that pizza back in the freezer was one of absolute dissociation. It had been cold outside. Colder than it had been in several years, for weeks on end. Even grocery shopping was painful. The in and out from the car. The wind-driven walk to the automatic doors. Back out with the groceries. Loading them in the back with the lift gate creating a vortex against the neck and head. It all took concentration to even care about going anywhere.
That’s how the pizza was forgotten long enough to be dangerous.
Perhaps he should have known better. Much better. There was that incident back in college when he competed at the national meet and got so sick following his race that he threw up 27 times overnight. For years the narrative had been that heat stroke caused the illness. Then while reading a Harper’s Magazine article about the rash of food poisoning cases tried and failed against Pepsico, he realized the truth. The team had eaten at Pizza Hut the evening of his race. He’d gotten food poisoning. And almost died.
In the interim there were many moments when he doubted the original prognosis that heat had caused him to get so ill. One summer road race was particularly hot, yet he’d stuck with the leaders and even kicked into the finish ahead of runners he had never beaten before. There were handshakes all around, and a kiss from his girlfriend, who seemed to glow in the thrill of his breakthrough. So the whole heat stroke argument had fallen away in his mind.
Yet we all seem to need to learn our lessons more than once. That spoiled frozen pizza went into the oven without a thought one evening. It tasted good going down. And then hours later, it threatened to come back up again.
At 10:17 p.m. he sat up in bed with that horrid feeling he was about to get sick. He got up and walked around the room. Things were spinning already. It was the same wicked sensation he recalled from that night of the Pizza Hut incident.
Only this time he was not going to give in.
The illness had sucked seven pounds out of him that long May night at Nationals. By morning he was dehydrated and shivering cold. That resulted in a trip to the hospital where they stuck an IV in his arm and forced him to drink a thick liquid tasting vaguely of orange but more like rancid sugar. There were bananas ingested too. All in an attempt to stabilize his electrolytes and everything else that keeps you alive.
That made him think about another incident with food poisoning. He recalled with sadness the death of a teammate that had not gone for treatment for a high fever brought on by cafeteria food brought back to the dorm room. His teammate had died in his sleep.
So the moment he got up to walk around his bedroom these were the memories confusing his already twirling consciousness. He was determined to beat this feeling on his own terms.
His reaction was swift then. He pulled out his running gear from the drawers and closet. He tossed on two pair of gloves and the balaclava used for really cold conditions. Laced up his shoes and lurched out the door into the cold night air. Perhaps he could run it off.
Shadows from streetlights spewed in at least three directions every time he crossed under them. There was the main shadow from the overhead light. The secondary shadow from the light just passed and the new shadow emerging from the light ahead. He was moving through a reality defined by light in thirds.
Nothing came up at first. That sent him running. Something in his dazed state made him think that he could literally keep ahead of the nausea if he just got going fast enough.
His feet made crunching sounds in the snow. He glanced back to study his own footprints. This was something he always did. Out of habit. Form was important. Keeping the feet in alignment made sense. You got more out of every stride.
And so it went. The illness in his stomach sent crescendos of fear through his nervous system. Yet on he went. There would be no barfing if he could do anything about it.
For a mile he ran. Then another. By three miles his legs were warmed up and passing under the many streetlights became something of a flow. He was running on his mid foot now, the way he raced.
Waves of nausea kept coming, but it did not slow him down. He thought back to that image of the Olympic Trials marathoner that raced right through a total barf attack. Bob Kempainen was his name. That brave guy won the race despite projectile hurling somewhere during the marathon.
So there was inspiration in his madness to keep from throwing up. He glanced at his watch. Approaching four miles he was now running 6:00 pace. This was truly out of his head. At his age, he did not even race this fast.
The legs were starting to feel it now. Yet the bracing cold also kept him in a strange equilibrium between thrilling motion and exhaustion. Soon enough it became a struggle, then impossible to keep the pace. Yet on he ran. The next mile at 7:00 pace. Then 8:00. Still he ran into the night.
Circling back toward home the violent waves of nausea seemed to subside. He felt less dizzy. Now it was a question of finishing before freezing. He kept going as fast as possible, but fatigue had truly set in. A passing car honked angrily at him. His effort had taken him out into the driving lane. He did not care. This felt like life or death in his mind. But if death took him by surprise, so be it. At least he’d gone down fighting.
Two miles from home his pace was down to 9:00 per mile and there was still no stopping him. On he clawed. At some point he almost felt like reaching toward the ground with his hands like you would in a bad dream where something is chasing you and you can’t get away.
One mile to go. He wondered if the cure had truly taken place. There was no feeling of sickness up toward his throat like before. Not wet tongue or lips. Only a dry feeling where the cold air had parched his mouth. Still he kept running, gloves off now. The cold air felt good. He was sweaty and a chill reached him through his gear. On and on. This was running the way it should be. Exhaustion setting in. He would sleep well after a shower.
At home he made tracks in the yard trudging around in circles. Finally he stood up and stood still. His breath made clouds and his body made multiple shadows. He stood stock still and stared up at the cold moon. Years ago the heat had not killed him. Neither would the cold. It was the run of his life.