At big city marathons I fancy myself a gladiator in an arena and so I don’t be inclined to wear headphones as I wish to hear the cheers of encouragement from the crowds who come out to support by clapping and cheering. I fancy they are out there for me, even though they aren’t, and I want to see and hear them and engage with them a little bit.
“Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained?” is something that Maximus (in the movie Gladiator) roars to the audience when he slaughters his foes in the arena and for some reason these lines keep going around in my head today as I fancy myself in the arena in my own special way. But I am not fighting wild animals or armoured men on chariots with spears; I am fighting, as always, my own inner demons, my desire to quit, and the nihilistic side of me that doesn’t see any point in anything.
As probably everyone knows, the legend of the marathon traces back to Ancient Greece where supposedly a chap called Philippides ran 26.2 miles and promptly died on his arrival in Athens, from Marathon, to report of victory at the Battle of Marathon. I sometimes wonder if I might drop dead in the middle of a marathon. A faulty valve in my cardiovascular system and pop, goodnight Irene. “There would be no greater glory than to die on the battlefield” is a stupid line that goes through my head and which is likely there on account of watching too many silly movies.
I feel great at the start of the race. There is a group of drummers banging out some tribal beats which gets me into the primeval psychological state of someone who is about to go into battle or maybe just that of a hunting warrior about to go after some buffalo on the plains. Drum beats echo heart beats and are synonymous with them. Thump, thump, thump, thump. Somehow the rhythm makes one want to move one’s limbs in time with the beat, and such beats are perfect for the apex predator about to go on the hunt.
At the start of every race I like to be sure my bladder is as empty as possible and so I always make repeated visits to the port-a-loos. I hate port-a-loos, I literally have recurring nightmares about such toilets, but they are a necessary evil. Upon entering one at near the start line I am stunned that there is not a single drop of pee on the seat, no stink, and no traces of anyone else’s bowel movement. I am so surprised that I actually take a photo of it. The second portaloo was the same, while the third had a splash of wee wee on the seat. Still, two out of three ain’t bad.
Before long the race starts and, even though I am somewhat of a fatty from 2 years of nihilistic eating, and virtually no training bar the past two months, I feel confident I can run the distance in under 3 hours and 30 minutes.
Clipping along nicely at the start, I’m not too far behind the 3:15 pacer. I hadn’t intended to go this fast but with the tribal drum beat and two bananas inside me I think – why the hell not 3:15? Am I not worthy of 3:15, even if a little bit obese? In the harsh laws of the jungle where running even faster than this could be the difference between starving to death and running down an antelope there would be no room for making the excuse of being too fat or not having done enough training. Boo hoo, bitch, run or DIE!
After a few miles the 3:15 pacers start to inch away from me. That’s okay though, the inexorable train that is me is still well ahead of schedule and running at a 3:20 pace.
Along the route there are choirs, people pumping out music, little kids putting their hands out for high fives and other kids with little cardboard signs sporting Fly Agaric Mario mushrooms which read “Push For Power Up” and they seem to garner a little bit of glee from every participant that taps it.
Consuming these mushrooms, as part of shamanistic rituals, apparently used to be a part of Siberian culture before Communist Russia made such practices illegal. One person, perhaps a Shaman, would consume the mushroom, which interestingly helps to convert one psychoactive compound, ibotenic acid, into another psychoactive, and supposedly less toxic, compound called muscimol. Others would subsequently drink the Shaman’s piss and get a cleaner intoxicating experience, such that swilling urine could ever be considered “clean”. Having said that – I do wonder if there is a connection with the practice of alcohol consumption where one says that they are “going on the piss” and getting “pissed up”. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the expression carried over from ancient pre-alcohol times where people enjoyed a mug of mushroom piss as a means of getting inebriated. I guess we’ll never know for sure. Writers and intellectuals have connected their consumption with Viking beserker rages, Celtic gods, Santa Klaus, Cu Culain, ancient Druidic practices, and even St Brigid. Plausible or not, the most modern incarnation is in the video game Super Mario where he eats one and grows much bigger and has a temporary burst of power such that he temporarily becomes an immortal giant. And this is just the sense of immortality one needs to feel when running a marathon. Thanks, kids. The Super Mario power-ups were greatly appreciated.
I pass halfway and I’m still going strong and expect I shall finish in under 3 hours 20, but at around 15 miles a heaviness starts setting into my legs. No problem, I think, slow down your clip a little, drink a little more water, pop an extra gel or two, and the heaviness will pass. “You’ve been hitting the nitrous a bit too hard and are still easily on track to get a sub 3:30, 3:20 was too ambitious for a fatty like you anyways,” I say reassuringly to myself.
15, 16, and 17 miles go by at a slightly slower pace but I still think I will get a second wind as this often happens in marathons after a momentary period of torture and a sense that it is impossible to continue. At some point after 17 miles a chap with “Vegan Runners” on his singlet passes me and I wonder why, in prehistoric times, a vegan would ever need to run. I mean, it isn’t like one would have to chase down Bison or Antelope with a spear. Leaves just sit there on trees and don’t really need to be chased down in my experience.
At around mile 20 my legs are feeling heavier than ever and spontaneously start to seize up completely with some of the worst cramps I have ever experienced in my life. It starts as a hamstring tightening and I slow down to a walk, then my calf and quads start to constrict and my left leg is almost completely locked up. Ahhhhhh. Then, my right leg starts to follow the same pattern and I envision being on the pavement within the next few seconds. Race over. Finito. Forget Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C, it’s over, bitch! You failed. You lose.
But I have never not finished a race! It’s never happened. Failure is not an option. My cramped legs feel hard to the touch and I dig my fingers into them in a bid to prevent complete muscle failure and press the hard crampy feeling out of them. Miraculously, it seems to work and the pain eases off, and, instead of face planting into the pavement, I set off again, slowly. Crisis averted.
Less than a mile further on my legs start to cramp again and almost instantly a charming English lady comes to see if I am okay and in my slightly delirious state I wonder if I have died and am being visited by an Angel from heaven. I tell her as much and she looks a little unsure as to how to take this and I suspect she thinks I have gone completely out of my mind, and maybe I have.
She hands me a gel and reassures me that I’m doing well and offers to top up my water. Knowing that there is an aid station soon, I say that there is no need and depart, telling her that I shall, later on, pray and thank god for sending one of his angels to assist me in my moment of need. I trundle on slowly and carefully, but the cramps come right back again in less than a mile at which point I see a vision of goats licking salt off of the side of cliffs in my mind’s eye.
“Salt,” my inner Shaman is telling me. “You need salt. Without it you will die.” Realising my skin is as salty as a bag of chips I wonder if I might replenish my lost salts by licking myself but the logistics of that just don’t seem particularly laudable. “Lick someone else,” is the next thought that my addled brain suggests and the last fragments of my sanity that remain instantly dismisses this idea as complete strangers don’t tend to like that sort of thing even in normal times, although I have no doubt some do, but most of us like to get to know people before we allow them to lick salt, or anything else for that matter, off of our bodies.
Almost as soon as I have this vision of salt licking goats, I see the words “Coroner” above a corner building of some kind.
“Yes, you’re dead, mate. You’re definitely dead,” I think to myself, “there is no way you would be beside a coroner and seeing angels if you weren’t actually dead.”
But then I see past the sign that was obscuring my vision slightly and I realise that the sign does not say “The Coroner” but actually says “The Corner Café”.
“Salt!” I think, “the angels of death have not come for me just yet.”
I push the door of this small café in and am greeted by a cheerful looking black man with a typical Manchester accent who says “Alright, mate, have you come in for a full English?”
“Salt,” I blurt, “I need salt. Bad cramps. Any sachets of salt?”
A woman behind the counter says: “No, love, we don’t have any sachets in here”.
“Shaker,” I say. “Shaker.” And the black chap understands my delirious efforts at communication and grabs one from one of the tables. I put out my sweaty hand and he shakes salt on to it and I blurt “more, more, more” and then lick it off like a junkie sucking up cocaine.
I tell all present that I will remember them in my prayers and also inform them that, in my delirious state, I thought the sign outside said “The Coroner” and they all laugh. Not a bad way to die really, in a room full of laughter. An uncle of mine recently said that one should always strive to live in such a way that even the undertaker was sad to see one go, and I like to think the same could be said for coroners, and even the staff in corner cafés everywhere.
“Go on, mate, catch him now, catch him,” encourages my black Mancunian saviour as I leave the building.
Within minutes I start to feel a lot better, though the va-va-voom seems to have left my body permanently. “At least I feel confident of finishing now,” I think.
At around mile 24 some people are blasting out YMCA and it gives me a moment’s joy and I try to do the hand gestures which elicits their laughter and also triggers a crampy sensation in my left calf which dissipates almost instantly but I realise it may be better not to make any more such sudden movements until I get over the finish line; until one crosses it nothing is over. Nothing.
I pass the 26 mile point and with only .2 miles to go I find myself pondering how that last .2 always feels like the hardest part of the race. Life too is like that. That last moment before death must surely be the most painful, the most delirious. That last moment is perhaps not the last of anything but merely a tunnel into some kind of, as yet, unimaginable rebirth where one is reincarnated as some other life form. Maybe I will come back as one of those mountain goats that has to scale cliffs to get an essential lick of life preserving salt rather than having the luxury of a random “Coroner’s Café” and the assistance of a complete stranger. Wouldn’t that be quite the adventure?
I cross the line at 3:46. I have 3 weeks until my next marathon. Next time I will do better. I shall regroup, reassess, and try again, and my next attack shall be stronger, faster, better. Maybe. I suffer, I obtain.
The start of the next beginning.
Peace and love to all who have taken this journey with me by reading my words ✌️😀🏃😍 🦶.
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PS: this poem entered my head on concluding this so I thought I’d pop it here.
Do not stand
By my grave, and weep.
I am not there,
I do not sleep—
I am the thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints in snow
I am the sunlight on ripened grain,
I am the gentle, autumn rain.
As you awake with morning’s hush,
I am the swift, up-flinging rush
Of quiet birds in circling flight,
I am the day transcending night.
Do not stand
By my grave, and cry –
I am not there, I did not die.
– Clare Harner.