It is 7:45 a.m. on a Tuesday, and I am sucking wind trying to keep up with a man more than twice my age while crossing the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge on foot. His name is King Grant-Davis, and he is my running partner.
I had been doing pretty well up until this point, mind you. King had suggested that I try taking breaths through my nose instead of my mouth while running in an effort to keep my breathing from becoming ragged. And I had managed to keep up until a bicyclist buzzed by within inches of my elbow, causing me to gasp for air. I cast a glance over at King and saw him staring straight ahead, bounding onward like a 58-year-old juggernaut, nostrils flaring ever so slightly with each carefully timed respiration.
King first showed up in the City Paper office about a month ago, trying to get in contact with Neville Miller, a weatherman and fellow runner who had just left town for a job in Missouri. He came upstairs in navy coveralls, asking to speak with the man who'd written Miller's going-away story. At that point, I had no idea how well-known King was in the Charleston running community. While many runners his age are just out there to stay in shape, he races to win. And while long-distance running is sometimes perceived as a hobby of the over-achieving upper classes, an excuse for skinny white people to don scandalous shorts and buy little "26.2" bumper stickers for their Volvo station wagons, King often can't afford to register for races. So, to earn his entry in events like the Cooper River Bridge Run and the Turkey Day Run, he volunteers at race expos and hands out registration packets.
There is little that is orthodox about King's running style. The first time I met him for a run, he handed me a bottle of orange juice and instructed me to chug it before we started. He eats boiled eggs directly before training. He never stretches. He wears safety goggles to protect his one good eye from road debris that might get kicked up by passing truck tires.
And he's whipping me into shape. Before our first run together, across the bridge to Mt. Pleasant and back, he gave me some coaching on how to train, eat, and get in the right mindset for a race. After we had finished the run (he rarely speaks while in motion), he asked if I remembered running behind a man in a neon-green shirt. It was hard to forget; we had nearly caught up to him on the downhill stretch toward Mt. Pleasant and had opened our strides considerably to try and catch him before he ultimately pulled away. "What you do is you find someone like that who's a little bit faster, and you try not to let him get away," King told me. Simple as that, I suppose.
For the past four years, I have been running more or less aimlessly around the neighborhoods where I have lived, turning a corner any time I don't feel like crossing traffic and heading back home whenever I am tired. It relaxes me. But King has awakened the part of me that cares who wins or loses — a part of me that hasn't had much of a say in my running life since high school track and cross country.
I felt that competitive urge recently on an eight-mile slog across the Isle of Palms Connector. King kept pulling ahead of me, and I took his advice: I wasn't going to let him get away, and in fact I was going to beat him. Heading up the only major incline on the bridge, I pushed headlong into the whipping wind, dizzied though I was by the whoosh of traffic just a few feet to my left. At the top of the bridge, I looked to my right and saw the American flag planted at the apex, rippling chaotically in a gust that suddenly stole the breath from my open mouth.
And as quickly as I had begun my sprint, I gasped and slowed to a jog, watching in amazement as King overtook me without comment. He was breathing calmly through his nostrils.
Paul Bowers is a recovering soccer player and a halfway decent runner. He plans to run the Charleston Half-Marathon in January and the Cooper River Bridge Run in March.