To Mile 20

(This is part two of an ongoing story about an ultra-marathon-runner in a 100-mile race against a horse. The runner might win a million bucks, but doesn’t yet know he stands to lose his legs.)


2019

BEEP. Mile 11: 9:45 / 1:13:14.

Alphonse had immediately pulled far ahead. Champ didn’t seem to notice the trail steepening. Already the horse and rider were a dot navigating the switchbacks above me.

After that 4:22 mile, I was in no condition to catch up. I walked a quarter-mile to catch my breath. As if to help me slow down, the incline gradually made each footstep harder than the last, forcing me to trudge.

When this was over, what would I tell my ghostwriter? “That horse, Champ, he’s a beaut. I mostly saw its rear-end, but what a rear-end!”

Why’d I ever think I could beat the horse?

Oh, right. My ghostwriter.

Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 12: 10:15 / 1:23:29.

I met Whitney through my cross-country-running team in high-school. Well, she wasn’t actually on the team, but that’s how we met.

I’d grown up cross-country-skiing in Wisconsin. When my family moved to California, I figured the closest sport would be cross-country-running, but it wasn’t my jam. I could ski for hours over miles and miles of countryside. The running team sported across city streets like they couldn’t wait to stop. Every morning during training, they’d say, “six miles!” and finish fast as possible, then collapse.

They left me in the dust every time, but it didn’t bother me. The quickest varsity runner was a good sport and didn’t mind lazing in the back of the pack with me until the coach found him slacking and made him sprint. No matter how much he lingered to keep me company, he was always the first to finish every run.

Once, when I was left behind during off-season training in the Summer, I met Whitney.

BEEP. Mile 13: 9:44 / 1:33:13.

We both stopped at the same crosswalk signal. She was obviously in the middle of a run; she wore a headband soaked with sweat. I asked if she was on the girl’s cross-country team, because I’d seen her in the hallways at high-school. What was her response? I tried to remember, it was priceless.

“Nope,” she’d said. “I’m a real runner.”

Wow. That ego sparked my interest. “The guys on the team are way better runners than I am. They’re a mile ahead, and probably always will be.”

“Nah,” she’d said. The crosswalk signal changed and we ran across the street together. “Over long enough distance, the tortoise beats the hare. If you guys were running a marathon, their jackrabbit start would tire them out and you’d pass them up. Over a hundred miles, a human could beat a racehorse.”

God, Whitney, I hope you were right.

BEEP. Mile 14: 9:13 / 1:42:26.

Before the train of thought turned pessimistic, I decided to change my mind. The mental game was half the battle. I’m sure every runner has a dumb game they play to pass the time. Mine was talking to cavemen.

“Crosswalk signals,” I said aloud, to no-one. “How would I explain crosswalk signals to a caveman? Well, first I’d explain cars. They’re like fast animals you can climb inside and control.”

The air wasn’t quite cold enough anymore to see my own breath.

“Cars are useful, because they let us travel very far very quickly. But if a car hits someone, it would hurt. Imagine a mammoth trampling you—you know about mammoths, right, Thog, mister caveman? So we have crosswalk signals. They’re clever little boxes which put up a hand when it’s not safe because cars are coming.”

I held up a hand for Thog to see as an example—just in time to catch myself, because my foot slipped on a rock and I fell.

BEEP. Mile 15: 9:23 / 1:51:49.

My grunt of pain sounded like Thog: “Ugh!” My left knee and right hand were bleeding. I didn’t waste any time before scrambling to my feet and continuing to run. From another pocket of my three-liter water-backpack, I withdrew some alcohol wipes and cleaned my injuries as I went. The sanitizer stung.

I could cry later.

I tore open another silver packet of running glop and slurped it down. This one was flavored like peanut-butter, a close competitor to chocolate. I washed it down with a sip from the hose of my three-liter water-backpack, which was almost half-empty. I’d be left thirsty by mile thirty.

My bleeding hand wasn’t a huge issue. It hurt, but lots of things hurt, and in a hundred-mile run, eventually everything would hurt.

My bleeding knee was more concerning. The impact threatened to reignite an old injury.

I also felt a blister growing on my right foot ever since my 4:22 mile. It was about the size of a dime.

But so far so good. The pain was surface level.

Eventually this hell would seep into my bones.

BEEP. Mile 16: 9:41 / 2:01:30.

I plugged my left nostril and fired a snot-rocket from the right. It landed in a neatly trimmed rosebush.

I had to hand it to Alphonse, the Bronson Estate was a sight to behold. With territory overlapping Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah, the Bronsons owned thousands of acres of precisely cultivated wilderness. Alphonse brought business-partners here to ride horses while talking about whatever multi-billionaires talk about. It was the perfect place to relish in richness. The view from the top of the mountain would be breathtaking.

Once I got there.

I couldn’t even see Alphonse and Champ anymore. They’d passed over the peak. Alphonse had probably made mile 20 and tossed the next flag to choose left or right at the fork. I knew he’d chose whichever trail was helpful for horses and harder for humans.

BEEP. Mile 17: 9:37 / 2:11:07.

The pain in my knee reminded me to watch my step along the trail. I didn’t want to slip again or stumble on a gopher hole.

I narrowly avoided another kind of obstacle: a stinkbug. Stepping on stinkbugs wasn’t the worst, but I’d rather not.

A lizard skittered across the path. A chipmunk or squirrel chattered in a tree.

A cool, low-flying cloud brushed by me on the switchbacks. In the last eight miles, I’d climbed at least 2,000 feet. I turned my head to see the trails I’d already run stretching behind and below me. The morning sun cast long shadows of hills and trees.

I smiled. This connection to my surroundings was why I enjoyed endurance sports to begin with.

BEEP. Mile 18: 10:13 / 2:21:20.

Then I recalled the severity of my circumstances.

What would Alphonse do if he beat me to the finish line? His lawyers could claim my every possession and it wouldn’t come close to a million bucks.

I hadn’t lied when I said my bestselling book made me a millionaire, but money doesn’t last long when you have a habit of drinking, or gambling, and especially both at once. But that was behind me, and about 81 more miles were ahead. I had to win. I literally couldn’t afford to lose.

Of course, if I won, Alphonse could cut me a check and not even notice a million bucks missing from his bank account. He could blow his nose with a million bucks. He could wipe his butt with it.

BEEP. Mile 19: 9:52 / 2:31:12.

Finally the incline shallowed out and my pace naturally quickened. Within minutes I passed the peak and the landscape opened below me.

I almost cried.

Another mountain stood a few miles away, just as tall and twice as steep. At mile twenty, the trial forked; Alphonse had already tossed the flag toward the path to the right, toward Mount Doom. I would only have a few easy miles to recover before climbing again.

I refrained from swearing and just ran. On the downhill slope, my strides were long and easy. If I really barreled, maybe I had a chance of passing the horse down the line.

BEEP. Mile 20: 7:32 / 2:38:44.

As I passed the flag, I noticed a note taped to a trashcan. I took the note and walked briskly while reading it.

“Hello, Jonas,” wrote Alphonse, “I hope you’re enjoying the view. Unfortunately, my accountant has bad news—he says he’s investigated your expenses and calculates that you might not have the funds to pay me back if you lose.

“Don’t worry, Jonas. If it comes to that, I’m sure we can work out an alternative arrangement. If you catch up, we can discuss this in person!”


2009

“And the winner is…”

Alphonse Bronson politely clapped for a cadre of school-children crossing the finish line. He knew he had to clap no matter how bored he really was when the cameras were on him and displayed him on the stadium’s jumbo-tron.

“Isn’t this fun?” A teacher bumped elbows with Alphonse. Alphonse dusted off his sleeve. “What a great experience for these kids, and for such a good cause! Thank you again for your generous donation to our organization.”

Alphonse smiled and nodded. His marketers said donating to charity would help his public-image problems, but he’d have donated elsewhere if he knew this charity would make him waste an afternoon watching kids with medical problems run around a track. “Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.”

As the next group of kids lined up for the next race, the jumbo-tron displayed a celebrity in a tuxedo. The celebrity threw up peace-signs while an announcement played over the loudspeakers. Alphonse couldn’t hear, but the crowds of spectators cheered.

“What’s happened?” Alphonse asked the school-teacher beside him.

“He’s just made a donation,” she said. “From the cheers, it must have been a big one.”

Good, thought Alphonse. The cameras were off him. He took out a metal toothpick and sucked it. The minty flavoring was an appetite suppressant that kept him slim.

The school-teacher conferred with the woman beside her. “Really? Oh. Oh, dear. That’s… macabre.”

“What?” asked Alphonse.

“The donation,” the school-teacher relayed. “People normally donate to the charity itself, but that man in the tuxedo wants to fund medical care for the winner of the next race.”

Alphonse dropped the toothpick when he gaped. “Is that… legal?”

“I guess. And we are a charity—we couldn’t just turn down such a generous offer.” The school-teacher crossed her arms and shook her head. “Oh, look—that boy has a crutch, and that girl’s in a wheelchair. Those poor kids, it seems cruel to dangle that prize at the finish line.”

Alphonse swallowed. Here he was, bored out of his mind, and he hadn’t even thought to gamble. This changed everything. Suddenly the children looked like racehorses. “I know exactly what you mean,” he said. “The disabled kids were put in the race just for publicity. Neither could possibly win. They’re battling for second-to-last.”

“Well, maybe one of them will win. You never know. It’d be a good underdog story. And surely this will inspire more donations.”

“No, no.” Alphonse took out his wallet—crocodile skin—and withdrew a blank check. He waved it for the cameras. “We shan’t rely on fate. I’ll even the playing-field.”

“Oh! Mr. Bronson!” As Alphonse appeared on the jumbo-tron, the school-teacher kissed him on the cheek. “You’re so selfless!”

“I’ll pay every medical bill for every kid on the track—for life—except,” he said, smiling wide, “last place. That’ll make this a race worth remembering.”

The school-teacher blinked. Alphonse pressed the blank check into her hands. The crowds cheered, at first, but the school-teacher’s draining expression on the jumbo-tron made them hush. “That’s… awful. We can’t do that…”

“Could you really turn down such a generous offer?” asked Alphonse. “The little girl’s got the advantage of a wheelchair, but the boy with the crutch is a few years older, taller, and leaner. Maybe he’s a first-year high-school student, and she’s a middle-schooler? It’s really a toss-up.”

“You—you’re a monster!” She slapped his face. The crowds oohed.

“You’ll keep those kids from excellent medical care, just because you think I’m a monster?” Alphonse felt his cheek as he bent over the railing to admire the racers. “Monster-money is legal tender.”

The school-teacher gasped, then walked away sobbing.

The stadium was otherwise silent as the loudspeakers explained the grim donation. The girl in the wheelchair and the boy with a crutch shared a worried glance.

Alphonse almost drooled when the starting gun went off. All but two kids crossed the finish-line within the minute. Then the crowd watched the last two kids race neck and neck, and listened to their panting, and the squeaking of her wheelchair, and the plod of his crutch.

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