The Forge is Weld’s monthly creative writing series. This week, local author Austin Wimberly writes about the trials and tribulations of running a marathon.
My English professor friend calls it the perineum. My friend who’s a registered nurse calls it the taint. Whichever word is more correct, I’m not sure, but I never thought I’d be putting deodorant on it. Yet, here I am at five in the morning swiping ever so gingerly. If I don’t, by mile eight, it will start to chafe. By mile 16 it will feel like a wasp has taken up residence, so I’ll bear the indignity.
It’s not the most humiliating part of this experience by a long shot. I still have to rub Vaseline on my nipples. If I don’t, by mile nine, I’ll have little spots of blood on my shirt. By mile 19, I’ll have trickles, and afterwards in the shower, it will feel like someone is taking a scalpel to them.
When I started training for the marathon, everybody talked about being vigilant with my knees and hamstrings. They told me how important it is to stretch. “Don’t want to pull an Achilles or get a stress fracture.” Nobody mentioned the dermatological problems, but those have really been my biggest concern. It’s not the pain that’s involved with skin issues. I’ve had much worse than chafing, but the injuries to the skin tend to rub all the way to my ego.
It’s like this. If I limp the last 2 miles, I get looks of sympathy from other runners and walkers. I might even get a, “You’re doing great! Keep going!” But if I have bleeding nipples, the world does not offer condolences. No, if I have bleeding nipples, the world will treat me like the lepers of old. People will cross to the other side of the street. I will feel the need to shout “Unclean!” but I’ll be so out of breath by that point that no one will hear me.
I still have about an hour before I’m scheduled to start, so I need to go ahead and eat. Nutrition is critical on these long runs. Nutrition. Hydration. Don’t pay attention to those, and you’ll experience incapacitation.
I remember the first time I hit the wall. It was on mile nine of my first 11 mile run. One minute, I felt fine, and the next my body was in full-on rebellion. My legs just refused to go, as if they’d found some secession clause in the constitution that governs my body. I willed myself to move, but my body remained defiant. I walked the last two and barely managed that. It was at that moment that I began to realize what I had signed up for.
The body isn’t really meant to do this. I’m not a biologist or a doctor, but I don’t believe there is anything in the theory of evolution or the practice of modern medicine to indicate that the human body is meant to run 23 miles. But if I eat GU every 45 minutes, if I hydrate, if I eat this peanut butter bagel and tangerine and drink this glass of water, I should be able to get through it. I hope I will, anyway.
Two weeks ago, I ran 20 and didn’t eat my GU as often as I should have. At mile 15 I fell apart. By mile 18 I was openly weeping. That’s something else that will send walkers and runners to the other side of the street. At mile 19, I was so far out of my head that I almost accidentally committed suicide. I was on the bridge that crosses over Highway 280 when I saw a U-Haul truck coming the other way. It didn’t look to me like there was room enough for both of us on the bridge, so I stepped up on a curb that ran along the bridge’s railing. Well, when you’re up on the curb, the railing is only about shin high. On wobbly legs, even getting up there is tricky. The first step up was fine, but on the second one, I lost my balance and felt myself tumbling over the side. I thought for sure I was dead. Luckily for me and the cars passing underneath, I grabbed the railing in time.
Today, I’ve got my stopwatch with me, and I will be sure to GU every 45 minutes and drink something every three miles. I’ve already been out earlier to set out my Powerade bottles. So, I’m all set for nutrition and hydration, and I am prepared to run head-on into a U-Haul truck before I cede the bridge. The rest is up to luck.
The First Five
I should start slow. I know that. On a long run like this, too fast a start can kill your chances of finishing, but I want to push the first mile. The last time I ran this far, it took me four hours and 45 minutes. I’ve got to beat that time if I’m going to stay ahead of the balloon lady, the official “last runner” at the Mercedes. She maintains a six-hour pace, and if she passes you, you have to get off the course. You’re out. No official time. No name in the paper. So, staying ahead of her is paramount. I’ve invested over 850 miles in this over the last eight months, so I want this to count. In fact, if I see the balloon lady passing me, I’m not above throwing an elbow. The way I see it, if I’m going to be disqualified, I’d rather foul out.
The first mile is good for me. A little under 11. Not bad. I’m definitely on pace to be an official finisher. Better slow it down, though. A lot of times, the difference between good run and a miserable one is determined by the first few miles.
One down and 22 to go. No. Better not think about that. Better think about something else. I’ve got to get my mind off of it.
I used to try to recite poetry on my runs, but my internal collection only got me as far as a half a mile. I tried memorizing longer works like Rochester’s “Satyr Against Reason and Mankind,” but I’d inevitably miss a stanza or invert a word and end up deciding that I couldn’t justify marring a work of art just to keep from getting bored. I switched to books on iPhone for a while, but the problem there was that I got too interested. Getting interested slowed my pace and kept me on the road longer than I wanted.
I’ve found that the way to pass the time is to run with someone, but even there you have to be selective. Not many people run these distances, and the ones that do tend to spend a lot of time talking about IT bands and hydration and different flavors of GU. Conversation like that brings the drudgery into stark relief, and I want to be distracted. So I’ve arranged to do part of today’s run with a friend of mine who has enough stories for a thousand miles. At mile three, I meet up with Adam. He’s just doing eight today, but I’m glad for his company as long as I have it. I know that whatever we talk about will hold my interest.
He actually got me into this. Eight months ago, I was a happy, casual runner, just trying to lose some weight and get in shape. I was up to about 15 miles a week when he found out about it.
“You know, if you get up to twenty miles a week, you’ll be able to train for the marathon.”
“The Mercedes. You have plenty of time.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t really planning on…”
“You really ought to run at least one in your life.”
“It’s an awesome experience. Something to tell the grandkids one day. Real bucket list kind of stuff.”
“I don’t know. I really don’t think my body is cut out for it. A few years ago, I trained for one and ended up with a minor tear to my Achilles tendon. I was limping for months.”
“Get good shoes. It’s all about the shoes. After that, you just put one foot in front of the other and get the miles. Doesn’t matter how. Just get the miles.”
Adam is in good form today. We talk about the recent Red Sox acquisitions and how last season went so wrong. He makes fun of Bobby Valentine, and I opine that Dan Duquette doesn’t get enough credit for that 2004 team. I mean, look what he did in Baltimore last year. “He put that together with paste and unicorn farts,” Adam says. Maybe so. Still, the Orioles had a good year. I just hope we can win at least 81 next season. We’ll see.
Six through Ten
Miles three through eight are the most pleasant of the run because of Adam. Our conversation wanders from sports to the book he’s reading now to what’s wrong with the city and how we’d fix it. We had just started what might have been the most interesting topic of the run — church history — when it was time to go our separate ways. No sooner do we part than I notice a slight pain in my left heel, almost like a bruise. Aw crap, not that. Not now. Not after all those miles, all those weekends. I keep running. Try to ignore it. Try to remember what Adam said about the Great Schism. Drift into a daydream about Apex Technologies.
I think that was the name of the company. If it wasn’t, it was something similar, something vaguely hinting at success. It was early in my career, and I was itching to get out of Birmingham. I’d lived in Alabama my whole life, and this company was in San Francisco. Not much money was offered, but I was ready to go until my family and friends talked me out of it. “What if you get out there and get into trouble? What if you need somebody? You’ll be all alone. And what their offering ain’t much when you consider that you’ll be living in San Francisco. It ain’t cheap to live out there, you know. You’ve got a good job here. Why don’t you just stay here and visit San Francisco every now and then? It’ll be there.”
I wonder what would’ve happened. I don’t think I would’ve worked for the company that long. It was IT in the ’90s after all. But San Francisco. Right down the road from Silicon Valley during the stock option rush. Would I have been one of those fortunate ones?
I wonder what happened to that company. I’ll have to look them up when I get home.
My ankle isn’t hurting any more.
Eleven through Fifteen
I’ve got a nice pace going now. Good strong pace. Not straining, but not laying back, either. Nothing hurting. Breathing nice and even. Weather’s cooperating. This is when running is fun.
There’s a lady up ahead who looks like she’s also on a long run because she’s wearing one of those hydration back packs. And now she’s pulling a GU from her pocket. Definitely on a long run. And definitely struggling. I can see her trying to push through, but her legs aren’t listening. I’ve been there, lady. I hate it for you. I wonder whether or not I should give her some encouragement. On one of my runs a while back, I got into the same state during my last four miles. Barely moving along. Another runner passed by and said, “You got it, man. Keep it up. Finish this.” Made me feel good for a moment. Almost like he was letting me borrow some of his energy. It was nice knowing that someone knew how I felt and believed in me enough to offer encouragement.
But if that same person had said the exact same words to me two weeks ago when my 20 miler fell apart, I think I would’ve cursed at him. I would have definitely given the bird, no question. I was feeling so bad. Encouragement would have felt like a kick in the balls.
In the end, I decide to pass her without saying anything. I want to encourage her, I really do, but life to this point has taught me that it’s better not to offend. Or maybe I’m simply a coward about some things. Besides, we’re different genders. She might think I’m coming on to her. And what if she gets a second wind? She won’t be able to pass me because I’ll have weighted this whole relationship down with unintentional flirting. Then she’ll get all pissed off because I will have kept her from achieving her targeted time, and she’ll tell her friends about the creepy guy who screwed up her run. And this town is so small, I’m bound to see her at a race…no, just being out here is awkward enough. I pass without saying a word.
It really is mildly embarrassing to run in public. Most people are not graceful in their movements, and running, with all the jarring and the jiggling it causes, tends to emphasize maladroit motions. When I started my training, I embraced the absurdity of it by wearing a headband. Sure, it kept sweat out of my face, but it also reminded people of a certain age of the Bjorn Borg era of athletic wear. This was when I was 20 pounds heavier, too, so it wasn’t a pleasant experience to see me lumbering down the sidewalk. In fact, I once got heckled by some teenage kid. “Nice headband!” he yelled. I smiled, but it hurt my feelings a little. But I kept running and had almost put him out of my head when he came around the block for another pass. “Keep running, fatass!” I didn’t let on, but that one stung.
I used to heckle all the time at Barons games, but no more. That punk kid taught me that words can hurt a lot worse than sticks and stones. So I have made a solemn promise to never heckle another athlete as long as I live. Although honestly, I will still heckle those guys on the 40-man roster with the big bonuses. I mean, how can you not?
Sixteen through Twenty
I’m hurting, but I’m not going to let myself complain about it. Not until mile 20. Then I can complain all I want. I need to check my pace. 11:20. Not bad. Still way ahead of the balloon lady. Come on son, keep it up.
My feet are hitting the pavement in perfect 4/4 time. At this tempo, the quarter note is at 128 on the metronome, and there’s a mantra in my head chanting in perfect time. Just get the miles. Just get the miles.
Why am I doing this? Really, why am I doing this? I tell people it’s because of Adam’s peer pressure, but I don’t think that’s it. Is it because I’m 40? It’s a milestone year after all. Over the hump and all that. Do I feel like I have to make a statement? That I have to do something like this in order to matter? If so, why this exactly? Why not something else like learning to read Hebrew or climbing an Alp?
I know. I know. It’s something very few people ever do, and it shows the endurance of the human spirit. I can see that. But really, there is only one marathon runner to ever make it into the cultural consciousness. His name was Pheidippides. The story about him that people remember is the one related by Lucretius.
In that version, the Athenians score an upset victory over King Darius and the Persians on the Plain of Marathon. Pheidippides, who witnesses it, runs to Athens, declares victory, and dies. Western civilization is saved, and everybody is happy, at least until Xerxes appears ten years later to try and finish what his father had started.
But the story that’s closer to the time of Pheidippides is the one told by Herodotus. In this one, the Athenians are preparing for the battle against the Persians, and they see that they’re short-handed, so they send the courier, Pheidippides, to Sparta to ask for help. Pheidippides runs to Sparta, a journey that takes him three days because the distance is quadruple that of a standard marathon, and asks the Spartans to assist in the upcoming glorious battle against the Persians. They tell him they’d love to go fight Darius, but the moon’s not right. Best of luck, and do keep in touch. Pheidippides runs back and tells the Athenians the bad news, but the Athenians end up winning anyway. Western civilization is saved and so forth.
I’m not Pheidippides. A hundred years from now, nobody will ever know that I did this. So why am I doing it? Am I trying to run my untraveled roads as some sort of penance? Maybe, but I don’t feel sorry for my life. I feel that I’ve had a pretty easy time of it up to now, actually. I’m happily married. I’m enjoying my family. Sure, I’m getting older, but how many people even get to be 40? So what exactly, am I doing out here?
I don’t have a good answer.
I check my watch. I’m still at an 11:20 pace. I’ve done a personal best for 20. Just get the miles.
My body seems unaware of my mind. It’s running of its own volition without me telling it what to do. If you cut off my head, my body would keep running another three miles.
Nothing hurts. I am past fatigue. If I stop, I’ll stop for good. If I keep going, I’ll keep going. An object at rest…an object in motion. I keep going.
There is more. There is always more. Past reason. Past endurance. Past the end. Remaining. More.
Just get the miles.
Austin Wimberly is the author of Sobornost, which was published in 2012 and was inspired by Wimberly’s adoption experiences. Sobornost is currently a quarterfinalist for Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award, and you can read a long selection of it here. When not earning a living as a software engineer, parenting, or keeping peace between the dog and cat, Wimberly writes. On February 17, 2013, he completed the Mercedes Marathon in 5:25:49.