Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Wretched Runners Forever Doomed

The stars in the very sky! What novelist would have put them there? What painter painted them? Who would have visualized stars as a race feature? But there they were, in a sky black as doom, the last thing I would have thought I'd be thinking about at a marathon. But, then, surprises are what bring delight to life. From the Running Journal, June 2010.


Soon enough it comes time to run the race.

The pre-race fiesta, a night of fitful sleep and the dark-shrouded ride to Long Bay State Park, where the race starts, are all past. Finally, you stand at the starting line, as we do now. It is a moment that hums with primordial emotion.

We’re all here: Two young black women each weighing maybe 85 pounds stand next to me, looking like they could run down a cheetah. Young black men in dreadlocks are here, as are housewives from North America. Old white guys like Burt Carlson and me, we’re here too.

Somewhere up front, Pamenos Ballantyne, the soft-spoken 30-year old Olympic marathoner from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, prepares to win this 2004-edition of Jamaica’s Reggae Marathon.

Temporary floodlights cast light on the immediate area around us. Except for that, we stand on the highway in the dark and face south, the direction we will start running. A giant wall of speakers sits in the grass pumping out reggae music.

They have lighted torches. The wavering flames along the side of the road will help guide us until daylight comes.

It can’t be long now. The crowd shifts forward gently and tightens up. Bodies are close and you can look square into the wide wild eyes of the young woman standing nearby.

Despite closeness, each runner is alone. The road ahead opens on 26 miles of mystery—but reveals no mile, betrays no suspense. It opens instead on your soul. What do you see, marathoner?

Answers vary. Some are stricken by dread, fear. I recall a man from Maryland, at an Iowa marathon, telling me that as soon as the race starts, he immediately has to go to the restroom. Just nerves. He always runs quickly to the bushes, wherever he can, he said.

I recall a young woman standing next to me just before the start of the Boston Marathon. Her eyes darted about like a trapped animal.

“Nervous?” I said.

“Yeah! Aren’t you?”

The truth is I wasn’t—and never have been at the start of a marathon. That seems strange to say. I am by nature shy and timid, usually overcoming those tendencies with some effort. But a marathon does not intimidate me, despite all that might happen in it. Perhaps my running habit has changed me. Certainly it has!

As for now, while runners press in, I stand casually scanning the night sky. Overhead the moon is at third quarter, half full. Despite its glare and that of the floodlights, I can see stars with a sparkling brilliance I haven’t witnessed in years. The glorious view comes as a surprise. It is due to the relative darkness surrounding Negril. On the western tip of Jamaica, Negril is surrounded by a dark ocean. And inland, the swampland known as the Great Morass is dark too.

The town itself has little wasted light flooding empty parking lots. Neon lights advertising stores to a sleeping town scarcely exist. Nor do security lights, so helpful to the crooks. At night, it is dark. As it should be. Light pollution so common in the States—even in the countryside now—is largely absent here. And in the absence of this photonic indulgence, what do you get? The greatest view in the universe—the very universe itself.

We’ve nearly managed to blot it out in Tennessee, where I live. The dusty glow we radiate into space blanks the dim stars and dims the bright ones, leaving little to see. Take a survey: How many people under 30 have ever seen the Milky Way? We’ve pulled the curtain on a panorama that guided and awed humankind for millennia in everything from religion to agriculture.

Here I’ve found a new way to wait for the race to start—study the heavens. There in the east is the red giant, Arcturus, burning bright. Arching to the north my eye skips along the handle of the Big Dipper, a big bopper of a constellation everyone ought to know. It’s upside down now, spilling a cosmic drink, the front edge shooting straight toward Polaris, the North Star. Always at true north, the star is lower than I’ve ever seen it. At Negril’s latitude of 18 degrees, Polaris appears just 18 degrees above the horizon, geometry tells us.

A bright light is just south of Arcturus, where no bright star should be; it must be one of the wanderers. Not red enough for Mars, too high for Venus and too bright for all the other planets save one, I reason, by Jupiter, it must be Jupiter.

To the west Orion the hunter marches off this night’s stage, followed by Canis Major the big dog. Sirius, the dog’s nose, is the brightest star in the sky—except for the one we circle, the sun.

The race starts and jolts me out of my astronomical idyll. I run south with the pack, trying not to step on people. At three miles we cross the Negril River, make a turnaround at a traffic roundabout in Towne Centre, and head north.

Approaching the turnaround, I realize that I must have already met Pamenos, the race leader. But it is still so dark I never knew when.

On we go, heading north now. The course goes past where we started and continues on north, following the meandering coastline past Bloody Bay and Orange Bay, to finally arrive at Green Island Harbor, where it makes a second turnaround at the 16-mile marker. From there the 10-mile return to Long Bay State Park brings the total distance to precisely 26.2 miles.

At the aid stations they hand out water packaged like I’ve never seen before—sealed in a clear plastic bag, hand-sized, a little water pillow. It can’t splash out like a cup. You can bite the corner and conveniently squirt it in your mouth without stopping.

Somewhere around mile 9 the sun rises. We can’t see it for clouds. What we see are the green-shrouded trees of the Great Morass in stark relief against gray-streaked salmon stratus.

Soon afterwards my run wilts in the heat. I expected it—just not so soon. At mile 11, my pace creeps over eight minutes per mile. By comparison, my average pace for the whole distance in the Country Music Marathon was 7:25. Here I can’t even hang onto eight—and I know it will get worse.

Part of the problem is that this is my twenty-fourth race this year, way too many. I’m declaring a rest the moment I finish! If I do—because you don’t know. Just past mile 13, I am running alone, when here comes Pamenous going the other way. The man is miles ahead of me. He has already made the turnaround at mile 16 and is headed back, well clear of challengers, who aren’t even in sight.

Two lone marathoners meet on the road. Separate in culture and speed and over a generation apart in age, we spare a common experience here today—and run exactly the same distance. He looks relaxed, comfortable, just running fast enough to win. We pass.

“Go, Pamenous,” I yell.

“Yeah.” A little smile.

By the time I make the turnaround and reach 18.5 miles, near where he is now, he will be breaking the tape at Long Bay, winning this marathon for the third time in four years.

Actually by the time I reach mile 18, something else happens—my watch shows me 9:12, a number greater than nine minutes for the first time. In the eight miles remaining, I will manage to push the pace below nine in only three of them. Eight minutes, slow early on, has now become a wistful dream.

The mercury pushes into the 80’s and the sun bears down.

At the little town of Orange Bay a scattering of people stand on the roadside gossiping, watching, applauding. Little kids play and ride bikes.

My slog continues. A sardonic fathom narrates:

“Stand aside, ladies and gentlemen! Pay attention. Here comes one. Look! Witness the heroic effort! Note how ponderous it is—how puny the effect. See, his energy is gone. See how his knees barely bend, how his feet nearly scrape the ground.”

“And see how, even knowing that, he keeps going, and trying harder and harder—and gets slower and slower. Check his loss of muscle strength, too!—see that, the slumping body, the loss of posture. Pathetic, I tell you.”

“I got to say ‘desperation.’ That’s the word. Look at that face, folks. A grimace frozen, a death mask, if I ever saw one. He’s not alone either. Here come some more. Applaud if you will. Shed a tear, sentimental fans. These wretched souls, can’t stop. They are forever doomed to run, run, run.”

“And here’s the dangedest thing: I swear—can you believe it? —by tomorrow they’ll be describing this as ‘fun,’ and using expressions like ‘words can’t explain...’ and so and so on. Yes, they will!”

“Stand back, folks. Make room. Don’t get too close!”

My feeble trudge ends after three hours, 37 minutes and 25 seconds, my slowest time in years. For the 60 and over age group, I’ve finished first—not because I ran fast, but for the good and usual reason that no one else ran faster.

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