Existing Route – Tom White
John had never been what you would call a runner. The odd run, or visit to the gym, to blow out the cobwebs when he came to feel particularly sedentary, peppered his life since his late teens.
Downloading a running app onto his phone one morning he was surprised to find the login details pre-populated. He didn’t recognise the email address, which was a senseless string of numbers and letters, and the password, when he clicked to reveal it, read:
A private joke, between Su and herself, he thought, and logged in.
An avatar filled the screen. A lycra clad cartoon, boldly rendered in bright colours, and unmistakeable Su, the way she saw herself. She ran on the spot and stretched her calves exaggeratedly, gave him a thumbs-up and wink. Welcome back appeared in a speech bubble. And then:
It has been 635 days since your last run.
Are you ready?
Of course you are. Let’s get started!
Would you like to start a New Run, or stick with an Existing Route?
(John clicked, automatically, Existing Route.)
Remember, it’s not about beating other people’s times. It’s about being the best you, now!
The first route that flashed up on the screen, delineated in a red line, began at the southernmost corner of the beach, traced the edges of a monochromatic sea, skirted the town proper, and met its end at their house. His house. Disregarding the intricacies of language when it came to ownership, he resolved to beginning there, and ending there, and got dressed into tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, and set off for the seafront.
For the next few weeks John ran the same route along the beach twice a week at least. Despite the app’s insistence that beating other people’s times was not at all what running was about, he found that, as he ran, ghostly images of Su’s avatar ran with him. Or rather, ran ahead, because, try as he might, he could not keep up with the paces she set, each avatar representing a time she had ran this route, faster than he. And then, when he did arrive, panting and wheezing at their house, a crowd of Su’s avatars were already there, waiting, jumping up and down on the spot and pumping the air, beaming cartoonishly. Though his phone depicted him moving through this crowd to their front door, when he looked up from his phone the space outside their house was empty, cold and still.
John ran more, ate better, got fitter, faster. He created his own avatar. Lacking Su’s artistry, it bore only a generic likeness to him. White. Male. Short hair, a little scruffy. He gave up when the app asked him to choose his eyebrow shape and chin length.
As the weeks rolled on, he passed the slowest of Su’s avatars, leaving his own older, slower avatars in the dust in the process. Once passed, Su’s faded gradually from view, and could not be made to return. His own remained, presumably the app’s way of showing his progress, of how he was becoming a better version of himself.
Until, one day, there was only one of Su’s avatars remaining— a solitary Su jumping up and down outside their house as John rounded the corner into their street. Her fastest time. I bet she did it effortlessly, too, John thought, throwing his damp clothes into the washing basket.
John ran twice a week at least, still. The weeks passed, but he got no quicker. Each and every time he rounded the corner there would be Su, jumping up and down at his door, her frizzy hair bobbing in a sea of his strained likeness, her chest the only one with a medal emblazoned against it. Gone the wheezing and panting, but still he did not beat her time, could not, if he was honest, bring himself to beat her time.
Then, one morning, he woke before work, and, barely functioning, barely aware he was up and mobile, dressed for his run. When he finally came properly to, having ran without foresight through a pool of seawater the tide had left behind, the cold spray pinpricking his legs, he looked at his phone, half-surprised to find himself on the beach and, looking down at his phone, more than a little surprised to see Su’s avatar some fifty or so metres behind him on the beach, fading, barely there, a ghost of a ghost.
He slowed, and she became a little less translucent. Only fifteen minutes or so until home. Fifteen minutes to decide. He ran, keeping pace with Su, running just a few metres ahead of her, the bright colours of her running gear strong again. He left the beach, skirted the town with her right beside him. Then, as he rounded the corner into their street, and without really knowing why, he put on a burst of pace.
He reached their front door and, doubled-over, sweat dripping onto his phone, caught a split second of Su’s avatar, further down the street and still running, before she faded completely, like the memory of a dream fades, entirely without fanfare.
Tom White is currently studying for a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. He is endlessly fascinated by metaphor, in how it structures and influences how we think, and in creative writing as a research tool. Often, these interests meet, and become entangled.