By Steve Guntli
The poor fools. They have no idea what they’re about to go through. Look at them, stretching and laughing and shouting encouraging platitudes to one another like they haven’t a care in the world. But I’ve been there, man. I’ve seen things. I’ve seen legs give out right underneath a person as they charge across the pavement. I’ve seen thick layers of crystalline salt form in a man’s hair and eyebrows as his body rapidly used up all its vital fluids. I’ve seen a man cross the finish line with huge, rusty stains on his shirt right about where his nipples used to be.
I’ve seen this man. I was this man.
You may so reasonably ask why someone would put themselves through all of these terrors, and then come back and ask for seconds? The answer is complicated, but it can be summed up in one fairly simple sentence: love is strange.
I first started running when I was dating Nicole, who would later become my wife. Before I met her, I didn’t think it was physically possible for a human being to run more than half a mile without imploding like a neutron star. She, a lifelong runner who ran track in high school and college and regularly participated in races, thought I was joking. I was not.
But because I liked her and wanted to spend time with her (and because I wanted some bargaining chips when I tried to convince her to come with me to Comicon), I began going on thrice-weekly runs with her. We started small, a 5k here, a fun-run there. Then, in 2013, as part of an ill-advised New Year’s resolution, I decided to run the Bellingham Bay Half-Marathon, and Nicole eagerly agreed to help me train. I was largely insufferable through the entire process, but Nicole is a great coach and she pushed me to do better. On race day, I clocked a finishing time of 1:57, which is pretty good for a guy who, by the time he reached the finish line, was basically a pale, disheveled head attached to bloody sinew in running shoes.
I was proud of finishing, but fairly traumatized and vowed to not do another half-marathon for the foreseeable future. It turns out “the foreseeable future” was about a year and a half, because there I was in late April 2015 in Oak Harbor for the Whidbey Island Half-Marathon.
Right off the bat I felt bad about this whole venture. I’m was in much worse shape than I was the first time out, and I wasn’t in great shape then. Nicole and I had trouble timing our training schedules, and the most we were able to run was an 11-mile course about three weeks before the race. So I wasn’t feeling particularly prepared as we stepped up to the starting line, and even less confident that I would be able to top my previous half-marathon time, which Nicole wanted me to try to do. But like I said, love is strange, and Comicon was awesome this year, so I had to do what I had to do.
The race started out well. The weather was crisp but not cold, and the course mostly level. I’ve got a real problem with running up hills, not so much physically as spiritually and emotionally. I feel a deep existential hatred at every gentle slope. Luckily, the biggest source of my loathing was right around the one-mile mark, before I’d used up my stores of energy. We were supplementing that energy with gummy bears, which we would pop every two miles or so. While running I’m thinking of marketing this: “Gummy Bear Sport.” They’d be wearing little headbands and we’d replace their little potbellies with shredded abs. There’s money to be made here, I’m sure of it.
It was about the two-and-a-half mile mark that I started to notice some idiosyncrasies in Nicole that only real athletes display. Nicole had decided on a nemesis. As near as I could tell, the decision was arbitrary, possibly based on the brightness of the enemy’s shirt but just as easily attributable to anything else. Nicole’s nemesis was a petite girl with curly brown hair wearing a bright pink long-sleeved running shirt. Nicole pointed her out to me when she was about 20 yards ahead of us.
“See that girl?” she whispered conspiratorially, “As long as we stay in sight of that girl, we’ll be fine.”
At first I thought this was a runner’s trick to pacing, but as the race wore on it started to feel personal. Even stranger, the nemesis began acting in ways that felt adversarial. She was employing a sprint-walk running style, where she would take frequent walk breaks, allowing us to catch up or even overtake her, and then hit the gas and leave us panting in her dust. Obviously, she couldn’t have known my wife had targeted her, but I started to wonder if the two were communing on some deeper level that only athletes can access, a kind of competitive hive-mind that develops in tandem with one’s calf muscles. For my part, I was incredulous of the whole thing, and even felt bad for this poor girl who was the unwitting foil to my competition-crazed bride.
More than halfway through the course, and I was feeling good. I hadn’t stopped to walk yet, except for brief pauses at water stations that never lasted more than a few seconds. I was feeling optimistic and motivated enough that I thought I might try to run the whole thing without stopping to walk. I could sense Nicole starting to get restless, as the nemesis in the pink shirt was disappearing over the horizon, but I begged her to stay with me to keep me accountable to my goal.
At around Mile 7 we hit another hill, not as steep as the first one but much longer. This is where Nicole stumbled on her nemesis’ weakness; it seems the girl in pink had as much affinity for hills as I did, and she slowed to a walk at even minor slopes. Nicole, being a psychopath with reverse biology, is extremely fast going uphill but much slower going down. She says it’s because she’s worried about losing control going downhill and falling over. Obviously, I have no regard for my body or I wouldn’t be doing this thing in the first place, so I greet every downhill slope with a frantic flailing of arms and an unbridled “woo” as Sweet Mother Inertia takes some of the burden off my dying legs.
Mile 9 of the race passes right through Windjammer Park, where the whole thing started. This seemed unduly cruel. From the Mile 9 signpost, you can smell hot dogs grilling. You can hear the band warming up, the crowds cheering, the announcer starting to congratulate half-marathon finishers who are somehow four miles ahead of me. I had to actively resist the sweet siren song of a cover of “Margaritaville” and turn away from the park, towards what would turn out to be a nightmarish 2-mile hill under the glare of direct sunlight.
This was the first moment where I honestly considered just giving up. Not slowing to a walk, just completely calling it a day. Even Nicole seemed vexed by this huge hill so close to the end of the race, but still she stuck by my side. That is, until…
We were winding our way around a narrow dirt trail, trapped behind a pack of middle-aged women who were noticeably slowing. A tough-looking guy with a military haircut came barreling down the opposite direction, and shouted in encouragement, “Great job, ladies!”
Thinking myself hilarious, I called up to Nicole, who had managed to squeeze ahead of the middle-aged women.
“Nicole!” I shouted. “I’m a lady!”
The ladies around me weren’t amused, and Nicole didn’t even hear me, because without warning, she was sprinting ahead like a dog who had just seen a squirrel. It wasn’t until I came off the dirt trail and onto the wide, paved stretch of hill that I saw why: her pink-shirted nemesis, back in sight for the first time in miles. And Nicole was already well ahead of her.
Feeling dejected, I trudged along as people I’d left behind miles ago started to overtake me. The hill seemed to stretch on into infinity, and every inch of me burned. Watching how easily Nicole crushed her nemesis, I started to feel guilty, like I was some sweaty burden keeping my wife from reaching her full potential.
I was feeling ready to collapse when I spotted Nicole waiting for me at the next water station. It seems she felt guilty for letting her competitive spirit get the better of her, and was resolved to run the rest of the track with me, even as Pink-Shirt overtook us once again.
The hill finally leveled out at the 11-mile marker. I was exhausted and hurting and feeling largely defeated, but I also knew that I’d run 11 miles, so what’s two measly miles by myself?
“Honey,” I said, tapping Nicole on her sweat-drenched shoulder. “Go get her.”
With a grateful smile, Nicole was off like a shot. In the distance, I could see her easily overtake her nemesis and disappear around the corner. I knew I wouldn’t see her again until the finish line.
So now it was just me, dragging deadened limbs across an unforgiving blacktop towards a glory I could no longer conceptualize. Clichés like “runner’s high” and “hitting the wall” were turning to ash on my tongue. I didn’t feel high and I didn’t feel defeated. I was just a lone soul forcing myself onward down a road I was no longer convinced had an end.
And then, a curious thing happened.
From out of a cluster of runners about 100 yards ahead of me, I saw a flash of bright pink. She was slowing down again, anticipating a slight crest that would lead to a 2-mile slope towards the finish line. Maybe it was the crazed machinations of my fevered mind, but I felt a sudden urge of competitive spirit. I felt the last well of strength within me burn as I focused my energy forward. I no longer cared about winning any medals or finishing with a good time. I didn’t even care about the food and water and beer waiting for me at the end. The race narrowed down to just two people: myself, and my newly adopted nemesis.
I surged forward, Pink-Shirt responding with her taunting sprint-walk gait, letting me gain ground before pulling ahead. She was well ahead of me as we came out of a small valley and started on what would be the final uphill battle of the race. Pink Shirt slowed to a walk. If there was ever a time for me to clinch this, it was now. Focusing every ounce of my hatred for all things hill-y into an engine, I charged the hill. Every part of me screamed in protest, including, possibly, my voice. I can’t be sure about that, but I was getting some weird looks.
By the time I was heading back downhill, I was coasting. I could no longer sweat because there was nothing left in my body to secrete. I could no longer feel any pain because all the nerve endings were dead. I let my momentum carry me back down the hill, back to the narrow dirt path where Nicole had first left me, back towards the vibrant, thumping music and white noise of cheering voices that gradually pulled into focus. I thought of looking back, of seeing if my nemesis was still nipping at my heels, but I knew that she wasn’t.
Finally, the finish line was in sight. Brightly colored banners festooned the long alley that had been built on the lawn. I tried to ignore the big, red LED timer that revealed I was clocking in at around 2:05, and instead scanned the crowd for my wife. I saw her near the finish line, medal glinting around her neck, cheering wildly for me as I finally barreled across the finish line.
My nemesis was long forgotten. I’d won the day.
My stomach began to churn as my body struggled to reorient itself to a relatively stationary mode. A pre-teen boy draped a medal around my neck, handed me a plastic bag dripping with condensation and shuttled me down the line to make room for other finishers. A photographer snapped my photo. I’m sure it’s one for the Christmas card.
Nicole found me soon after, bent over a picnic table and wondering why the roof of my mouth felt like it was cultivating mold. She had finished about three minutes before me, but she still looked and behaved like a human being, while I was more jellyfish than man by this point.
In time, I would feel the pride of completing something challenging, of setting goals and sticking to them even when the going got tough. For now, all I wanted to do was fall over into the grass.
As for the pink-shirted nemesis, we never saw her again. I didn’t notice when she finished, and she spent so much time running ahead of me that I never noted her name or her number. Maybe she never really existed, but was a mental construct we’d designed to keep us going. Or you know, maybe she just left. There were a lot of people there.