Based in North Carolina, USA, Cognitive Buffer is a blog by Brian Downs. His posts reimagine ideas, discover hidden nuances, and analyze phenomena that may have not been obvious at first glance.

Runner's High

Runner's High

I hear the bagpipes, faintly at first, then louder, as I crest the hill. The kilted musician is perched on a fabric lawn chair atop a converted school bus. Really? Is that a school bus? My steps are rhythmic, my stride short, my breathing steady. Together, the evening mountain air combined with two mile’s worth of sweat tingle the back of my neck. Uphill, uphill.  


Spectators, blurry and unfocused, line the road. They stand aside their makeshift tent cities and cheer with their homemade signs. The Games have stopped for the runners. Children hand out flimsy paper cups of water. Refusing to downshift, I grab one but can not make the cup meet my mouth squarely, awkwardly aspirating. I cough. Cringing, I chastise myself - I can not afford to lose any precious breaths! Two and a half more miles to go. And they will be the hardest.


My feet wrestle with the irregularly irregular gravel surface, searching for a smooth landing spot. I float sinuously from one side of the road to the other to take the inside of each curve as I ascend. Surely it is better to take fewer steps at the expense of a slight increase in incline along the short side of the curve? Or is it? Does that make sense? I have not worked this problem out beforehand.


The deliciously acrid smell of hamburger-laced charcoal smoke fills the air. But I can not think about food now. I am running. The Bear.  


The flat, soft, and regular surface of the track beckons. I am more than halfway to the top. My stride extends. I am a horse, and my rider has just given me the reins. A familiar face:  “Hello, Friend.” Now up again. My stride shortens. I punch through the trees to the motor road. Mile 3. The road pitches up to the sky as the switchbacks begin.


Almost redlining, I remember - Bit-O-Honey! I search my pocket for the gooey fuel. In a stroke of preparatory genius, I had begun to unwrap the ends before the run. Good thing that - my hands fumble mightily with the nugget. The sweet caramel dissolves in my dry mouth, giving a slow burn of fast energy. The incline steepens. Everyone is walking as I keep running. But I am not gaining on them. Should I be walking? What if I cannot start to run again? Unsure, I begin walking too, leaning forward into the hill.


Now flatter, less steep. Running. Steeper. Walking again. Foggy. I hear, “Almost there, it’s around the next curve!” What is? The Finish? I look down. My watch reads 0.4 more miles! Did I really hear that? Cheering, louder. And music. Rounding the curve, running faster.  


Now, an eerie quiet sets in. Time slows. Or am I slowing? Granular thinking. My legs churn, trying to go faster. Steeper. Suffering. Magical thinking. The green numbers on the digital clock confirm that time is indeed still moving forward. I am 48 seconds ahead of my stated goal. But I can’t hear a thing. Every red cell is shunted away to supply this massive physical demand in the thin air. Now, not able to think at all, I crest the hill. The top. Someone shoves a water bottle into my hand. I am still upright, and I stumble forward on the flat surface. More familiar faces. Family. Thinking returns.


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Staying Cool

Staying Cool

Use Your Head, Part 1