My cousin Charlie had talked me into it. It didn’t take much talking, as I have a hard time resisting challenges. The Route du Vin semi-marathon in Remich. A 21 kilometer journey into the primitive side of my soul, a run towards the essence of manhood.
The first part of any contest is the training phase. My program consisted mainly of cognac and cigars. I can recommend this strategy highly. The people who spend hours each week pounding up and down the pavement, what do they earn? They aren’t going to beat the Kenyans. They just make it that much farther they have to go to reach the end of what they can do.
The day was perfect. Sunshine, not a cloud to be seen, and temperatures in the mid 70s. We arrived in Remich early. Charlie runs on the US Navy system– on time means an hour ahead of time. We immediately grabbed a cafe table at the starting line and ordered our drinks. His beautiful wife and daughter had come along as our support team. I appreciate the sacrifice they made for us that day, the long hours spent drinking beer in the warm sun, admiring the view of the river, the occasional bite of salty pretzel to refresh the pallet.
All too soon it was time for the race to start. Leaving the girls to pay the bill (another noble sacrifice on their part), we stepped onto the street to join the 1800 runners. It is special. You feel special. I knew I was not the star, but I was part of the show, the celebration. It was, in a small way, about me.
By kilometer 2 I knew I was fucked.
Our slow pace (~10 km/hr) was not able to save my legs. By 4 km they were tired. This was as far as I had run in 15 years, the threshold where boredom usually stopped me. I didn’t want to do this run. I have never wanted to do this run. It was Charlie’s idea. Why put up with the pain any more? The beer and pretzels were calling my name.
That was the first opponent. It went down easy. Less than 300 meters and the little whiney lazy voice was a forgotten lump of ectoplasm at the side of the road.
Things continued smoothly until kilometer 8. Determination had gotten me through the last four kilometers, but now my body was done. My hips hurt. My feet were sore. I was still breathing easy, but my muscles were not moving as fast or as far as they had been previously. This got me excited. This is what I had come for, to push past what my body could do. I turned to Charlie, misquoting the Twilight Zone opening monologue “I am now entering into a dimension not of time or space, but of the mind.”
The next few minutes were bad. I could see what I was sure was the half-way point, thanks to a bend in the river, and I could see that it was not getting closer. It took several hundred meters of suffering. Then my metabolism changed. My muscles were drawing energy from a new source. Once again the road rose to meet my feet. I look at Charlie, and say “Second wind”.
As the second wind carries me along, I notice that I am also using new muscle fibers. Hidden fibers in my legs which do not otherwise get used. This also is what I came for. It feels good. The pain feels good. It lets me know I am still alive.
Charlie was keeping track of our pace. As we round the half-way point, he tells me that there is still hope of finishing the course in the alloted time (they give 2.5 hours), “if we want to” that is, if we pick up the pace. I cannot do it. Or rather, I could increase the pace but it would only speed the time of collapse. Perhaps I should have, but I still nursed hopes of running until the clock ran out.
The second wind had carried me around the 1/2 way point. We were now one kilometer down the road home. I had come farther than I had expected, much farther than I had gone before, and was going strong. Mentally, anyway. I took a 100 meter walk break, then another (including a visit to a vineyard to “sample the grapes”). The second wind was winding down. I didn’t want to end that walk break, but I knew I had to. And I did.
At the 12 km mark I was exhausted. I had been overheated since the 5th kilometer. My willpower was used up. I was not forcing my body forward, in fact “I” was only a fleeting shadow on the shreds of my consciousness. It was joy, the pure joy of life, unfiltered by consciousness or awareness, by any need to do the right thing, the smart thing, the moral thing, the strong thing, the weak thing, any thing. Except run.
This is what I had come for. This it means to be alive, fully man and fully animal. I had first outrun my body, then my will, and finally my ego. “Third wind” I told Charlie.
Just past 13 km. There is a voice in my head, crying, wanting to flop down in the grass. I recognize this little boy, and love him. And I know it is the voice of a boy. And I run. Feet pounding the pavement, the voice of a man in my head, comforting the boy, smiling at him, holding him, but not accepting the boy’s view of reality. Run.
I feel my totem animal. I feel the heat of the sun, the heat in my body. Earlier in the race I had been sweating heavily, but not for the last half hour. I had adopted. The lactic acid in my blood, how is it different than the cobra venom in a badger’s blood? It is a price you pay to get your snack. I wish I had felt the badger spirit stronger. Maybe next run.
Now I was running on pure spirit. Exulted, exhausted, loving the purity of the experience. The uniqueness of a body past its limit and still going. Of willpower torn to shreds yet still willing. Of pain and glory and the pure animal joy of being alive.
At 14 km we begin to consistently pass people, other runners who are now walking. I want to lift them with us, tell them that the spirit of the runner lives in them, enthuse them.
I experiment with a different pace. Bouncing, a touch of side to side motion. I alternate a few steps of this with a few steps of normal jogging. My hips are agonizing. The muscles are no longer holding the bones in the proper position in the joints.
15 km. My posture is still good, my breathing remains easy, my spirits are high. Then comes a serious twinge in my Achilles tendon, a short stab of pain. I know the difference between sore and injury, and fear I am one short step away from crossing that line*. For me, the race is done. But I don’t want to stop. I have only just gotten to the place I want to be.
We walk until past the 18 km mark. Every step of the last kilometer has been pure torture to my feet. The support vans come by, and we wave them on, one after another. We are chatting with an English woman who claims to have been done in by the heat. We are in the shade now, and chill as the sweat dries on our bodies. I had tried to jog again twice, but couldn’t even get the first step. My hip joints couldn’t do it, can’t lift the knee high enough to do more than hobble forward.
Somewhere past 19 kilometers the English girl and I catch the last support bus. Charlie decides to run it in. The bus is going the wrong way, continuing upriver 2km before turning back and driving us to the finishing court. I walk the remaining 100 meters between the barriers and across the finish line. I have the last time reported for the race, 2:54.44.
I turn in the chip, to find Charlie, Anne, and Caroline smiling at me. We walk to the car (another kilometer uphill, but I am slightly refreshed by the few minutes rest in the bus). A 20 minute drive home. My wife greets me with applause, and a huge roast with wine sauce. What more could a man want?
*We were running in barefoot shoes. The barefoot stride stresses the Achilles tendon. Yes, the tendon is designed for this. Running barefoot will, over time, make the tendon strong and happy. The operative words being “over time”, not “pushing past the limit first time out.” And my tendons have some damage from a previous experience.