Emma Li is a San Francisco Bay Area native who writes stories for friends. "Change of Pace" was selected as a finalist in BART Lines contest, 2022.

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Twenty-nine had not been kind to Tetra, and thirty even less so. She realized by now that beneath the jokey veneer of back pain quips were warnings and cautionary tales. One careless encounter with a slightly-too-heavy file box and suddenly she was on her hands and knees, taking slow, shallow breaths that wouldn't aggravate the rebellious nerves in her lower back. Eventually, her coworker found her, and together they managed to get her standing upright.
The next morning, the pain had still not subsided. Tetra grumbled. She hadn't missed a single day of work since her grandfather's funeral six years ago. She loved the lightning pace of finance, and the work was easy as long as she could maintain a rhythm. She was on track for a promotion next month and felt a day off could derail that. But her back hurt far too much to sit in a chair all day. She hobbled to the clinic.
The diagnosis was obvious and unsurprising—a back sprain. The doctor handed her a prescription for painkillers and a pamphlet entitled, Lower Back Injury: Prevention Starts with You. On the back were several cartoon figures of old people demonstrating stretches. "It'll heal in a few weeks. But you should consider more exercise in general. Sitting at a desk all day is linked to health issues later in life."
"I don't have time for that." A line from a documentary flitted across her memory: sharks must swim constantly, or they'll drown. Just like me, she thought.
"Well, you should make time."
The painkillers helped tremendously. She didn't have to miss a day after all. During the BART ride to work, she fumed. She tapped her leg violently, shaking her whole body. What did that doctor know, anyway? She didn't have a sedentary lifestyle. She used to be very active! And fit! She did cross-country in high school, even placing in competitions! It's just that lately, her job involved a lot of time in front of a computer, writing reports and assembling spreadsheets. Getting medals for running wasn't exactly the way to impress your boss. Still, she missed it. Before the ride was over, she had signed herself up for a 10k in a few weeks.
By the next weekend, her back stopped aching every time she bent over. She dug out her old running shoes. "We can take it easy today. Just three miles."
At first, it was euphoric. The familiar feel of her muscles contracting, propelling off the pavement, the sharp, cool air rushing into her lungs, the steady tempo of her legs. Half a mile in, her lungs burned, her pulse pounded in her ears, and she felt the unmistakable urge to vomit everywhere. She half-walked, half-jogged the rest of the route, ending with her slowest mile time ever.
This would not do.
She threw herself into training. A thirty-minute run in the morning, work, another thirty minutes in the evening, more work, sleep. Repeat. The day of the race, her boyfriend Edwin dropped her off at the starting line and told her he'd be at the finish in an hour. She laughed and told him to be there in forty-five.
The key is to never stop. Once you stop, the fatigue catches up. You have to keep your blood flowing. As long as you keep going, momentum is on your side. It's far easier to just take another step. The air flowing past you carries away the heat. Once you stop, you'll feel all the heat your body is producing, notice your muscles screaming, and it'll make you even more tired. If you stop and rest, there's a chance you won't start again. So never stop.
She wasn't first, or second, or even fifth. Her back raged up in protest at the 7k point. Out of humiliation, she signed up for another 10k. A fourth place finish for her age group. Better, but not good. Another 10k. Then a few half marathons. A full marathon. And now, an ultramarathon.
She found that the running dramatically improved her quality of life. It made her more focused—better prepared for the workday. Serendipitously, it even gave her something to bond over with a VP from upper management.
The ultramarathon was less than two months away, and she was reaching the point in her training where she'd leave work early in order to run before it got dark, making up the time later in the evening.
As she was about to take off, Edwin texted, We need to talk.
It'd been a while since they'd had a date.
She met him at the coffee shop on Market and 3rd, already annoyed and thinking of how she could make up for her lost training time. Edwin was inside, sitting with a mug. His eyes were downcast, steadfastly avoiding hers. "Look, I don't know how to say this any other way. This isn't working."
Tetra blinked. "Okay."
"Is that it? Is that all you have to say?"
"I mean—" Her phone rang. "Hold on, I have to take this," she said without even glancing at the screen.
He exploded. "See, that's exactly it! You never have time for me. For us. Everything else takes priority! At first it was just your job, but with all these fucking marathons, I barely see you anymore. We don't even play board games anymore."
Tetra thought about her runs. At the beginning, Edwin had joined races with her, but his lackadaisical attitude and need for frequent breaks frustrated her so much that she'd banished him. "If I do anything, I want to do it well. You know that."
Edwin sighed. He stood up, setting his mug down with a final clink. "I like you, but I can't do this anymore. Goodbye, Tetra. I hope your race goes well." And with that, he walked out the door, disappearing into the crowd outside.
Tetra's phone was still ringing. She picked up. An automated voice chirped to her about a new federal student loan repayment program.
She headed home, through Montgomery Station, onto the Dublin/Pleasanton line. She slumped into the vinyl seat, glad to be off her feet. Edwin breaking up with her hadn't been planned for. She'd always achieved her goals with ease and grace: good grades in high school, good university, good job. How dare he threaten her plans? He was supposed to propose! She could then be a homeowner at 32, mother at 33, Director at 36. Profiled in Runner's World by 40. Retired by 55. That was her plan for a happy life. That was her plan for success. She would have to find someone else, and who had time to date?
Edwin wasn't perfect. Not by any means. He had no ambitions of his own: his most passionate hobby was memorizing board game rule books. The only thing he ever talked about at events were incredibly detailed but hyper-niche fan theories for major superhero franchises; Tetra's coworkers were often bored to tears and would usually express concern later. But still, he was kind and thoughtful, bringing her food at her office late at night and carrying her to her bed after she'd fallen asleep at her desk. She was surprised to find disappointment welling up in her chest.
The train hurtled out of the Transbay tube. The screeching of its wheels changed pitch, dying down to a quiet, staccato hum. The Port of Oakland was behind the train, the raising cranes forming dinosaur silhouettes against an orange-splashed sky. Tetra stared out of the window, transfixed. She'd lived here for years now, taken this exact train multiple times a week, but had never really noticed the particular quality of the Bay Area sky at sunset.
For once, she didn't have the stomach to answer emails or review documents. She didn't feel like reading tips on effective pacing or reviews for new gear. Leaning her head against the window, she just sat and watched San Francisco recede into the distance. She closed her eyes, and took a breath.
Did you know it's a myth that fish will die if they stop swimming? They'll be fine as long as there's oxygen in the water.

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