(This is part three of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a 100-mile-race. Our runner Jonas is far behind the horse, but just crested a mountain—only to see another mountain he’ll have to summit soon.)
BEEP. Mile 21: 6:51 / 2:45:35.
Running downhill is easy. Running downhill well is hard. Anyone can jump off a cliff. Only mountain-goats survive.
In high-school, each week of Fall, all the local cross-country teams competed on some rough trails. I was proud of my personal record: I could run three hard miles in just under 16 minutes. I could even keep up with the best varsity runner, Kevin, for the first two miles.
But in the last mile, he’d leave me behind, because the last mile was downhill, and Kevin knew how to handle downhill. Lord, Kevin could sprint. He always finished at least two minutes ahead of me. After each meet I was exhausted, but standing. Kevin usually collapsed and puked. That’s how the coach knew Kevin had done his best and I’d slacked.
On this hundred-mile run, I’d puke eventually. It was just a matter of time.
BEEP. Mile 22: 6:21 / 2:51:56.
Kevin had taught me how to run downhill, but Whitney taught me again.
“What are you thinking?” she’d asked me on a twenty-mile run. We were training for our first marathon. We’d promised to run that marathon together, and beat four hours. “Slow down!”
“It’s downhill,” I’d said. “Downhill is easy, so we should sprint every step.”
“No, no,” Whitney’d said. She easily matched my pace. “Did Kevin teach you that? You can sprint downhill at a three-mile cross-country meet, but you’ve gotta be more careful on a marathon. Didn’t you once break your leg skiing? You’ve gotta take care of your body! Think about your knees!”
Runners often thought about their knees. Knees are important. Knees tell us a lot.
BEEP. Mile 23: 6:13 / 2:58:09.
My knees could tell the downhill slope I’d enjoyed was starting to level out. I looked at the mountain a few miles ahead; Alphonse and Champ had probably climbed most of it, if they hadn’t already started descending the other side.
Even though the scenery was idyllic—the valley between mountains was lightly forested, and birds chirped in the trees—I knew I had to keep my mind off my dismal situation. I focused.
Whitney. We wanted to run a marathon together.
Well, she wanted to run a marathon. I was initially on-board, but after that twenty-mile training-run, I shuddered at the thought of more. “No, no,” I’d panted, “I don’t think I could take another step.”
“You hit the wall,” she’d said. “Hitting the wall means you’ve trained hard. Each time you hit the wall, you push it back—if we keep this up, we’ll push the wall beyond marathon-length and finish just fine.”
“You know a lot about this,” I’d wheezed.
“I want to write a book about running,” she’d said. “Maybe it’ll star us, and this marathon.”
BEEP. Mile 24: 7:02 / 3:05:11.
Kevin wanted to join. He asked me on the high-school track: “How long is that marathon you signed up for?”
“Marathons are officially 26.2 miles,” I’d said. “I think it’s historical. Whitney could tell you.”
“I could run 26 miles,” he’d said.
“26.2. Whitney says every step counts. She also says the last six miles are harder than the first twenty.”
“How fast are you gonna run?” asked Kevin.
“Whitney wants to finish in four hours. That’s about nine minutes per mile.”
“I can run better than nine-minute miles,” said Kevin.
And boy, did he. Kevin signed up for our marathon and crossed the starting line alongside Whitney and me, and 20,000 other people. Like Champ, Alphonse’s horse, Kevin initially begged to run faster than Whitney would allow. “Wow, they give out water every mile?” Kevin took a paper cup from a volunteer. He drank mid-run, while Whitney and I walked a few paces to swallow efficiently.
BEEP. Mile 25: 6:58 / 3:12:09.
“They’d better,” said Whitney, starting to run again. “Even the fastest marathon-runners take at least two hours, and exerting yourself like that, you’ve gotta drink.”
“I wouldn’t mind being thirsty for four hours,” said Kevin, “and if I’m not weighed down by water, I bet I can finish faster than that!”
“Go ahead,” said Whitney. I recognized the dismissive roll of her eyes. “Do what you want.”
So Kevin ran ahead.
We caught up with him at mile 16. He didn’t look happy; his features were gaunt and sweat had dried in salty streams down his arms. “Hey guys—” He almost asked us to wait, but he didn’t. “Take off without me,” he said. “I’ll be right behind.”
BEEP. Mile 26: 7:11 / 3:19:20.
Back in the Bronson Estate, the trail began to grow steeper. While I sipped water from my three-liter backpack, I ‘beeped’ in my head: 26.2, 3 hours 22 minutes. It didn’t quite qualify me for the Boston marathon, but after the Boston marathon, you get to stop. I still had almost three more marathons to go today—and they’d all be slower than 3:22.
Whitney and I didn’t finish our first marathon in four hours. We took an extra 45 minutes. We started walking at mile 22; that was our ‘wall.’ We barely managed a photogenic jog for the cameras at the finish-line.
To his credit, Kevin finished, too. It took him five and a half hours. He confided in me that he’d never, ever run a marathon again, or any distance over ten miles. He’d hit the wall, and it hit him back.
The wall. What a quaint idea.
You could push the wall beyond marathon-distance. But a hundred miles, no.
BEEP. Mile 27: 7:43 / 3:27:03.
When Whitney and I trained for longer distances, we learned not to call it ‘the wall.’ It’s not an insurmountable obstacle; it’s a temporary circumstance to make peace with, like a surfer diving under harsh waves. Ultra-runners call it ‘bonking,’ because it’s like a sledgehammer smashing your skull.
Instead of training to push back the wall, you train to run through the bonk. All the bonks. Over a hundred miles, I’d bonk at least a few times. The first one would come soon.
The trail became steep and demanded every atom of my effort.
I tore open another silver packet of running glop. I aimed to slurp one down every hour or so. I’d finished off the flavors I liked; no more chocolate or peanut-butter. This one was orange-creamsicle.
I washed it down with a sip from my three-liter water-backpack. There wasn’t much left.
Maps of the Bronson Estate showed a river at the top of this mountain. I could refill my backpack there, if the water was palatable. If it wasn’t, I carried some purification tablets.
Racing the horse was the most well-researched stupid-ass decision I’d ever made.
BEEP. Mile 28: 9:39 / 3:36:42.
The scrapes on my hand and knee still trickled blood, but they didn’t hurt anymore. I actually almost forgot about them. But the blister on my foot had grown to the size of a quarter, and I felt it every step. Eventually I’d have to stop and lance it with something from the little first-aid kit I kept in my backpack.
I sniffed. I smelled horse poop. A pile of round, brown droppings waited in the trail ahead. It looked fresh. Alphonse and Champ must have passed less than an hour ago.
This was possible. I could do it. I almost smiled.
Then I got bonked.
BEEP. Mile 29: 10:44 / 3:47:26.
“Oh, old friend,” I said to myself. “Here we go again.” Pain wandered up and down my legs, but worse was the cold wash of pessimism and self-loathing. I started walking. It’s not shameful to walk uphill. Soon I’d hit the top of the mountain. Then I could recover.
While I walked, I opened my backpack. I carried a plastic baggie of peanut-butter and two bananas. I peeled a banana and used it to scoop peanut-butter into my mouth.
Running does weird things to your taste buds. When I’m not running, I don’t care for peanut-butter. After twenty miles or so, I can hardly think of anything else. Whitney likes vegetable-smoothies after running seven hours, not a step before.
When I finished the banana and half the peanut-butter, I sealed the baggie and put it back in my backpack. I tossed the banana peel off the trail; I never liked litterers, but banana skins decompose, and anyway, this was Alphonse’s estate, and I hated that son-of-a-bitch. I wouldn’t mind if he slipped on my banana peel. I wouldn’t mind if he choked on it.
BEEP. Mile 30: 14:52 / 4:02:18.
Alphonse had plucked the flag at 30 miles and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was broader and smoother, all the better for Champ to sprint.
As the slope leveled out, I started running again. I sipped the last of my three-liter water-backpack to swish peanut-butter from between my teeth. The bonk would be back, but so far so good.
On the horizon, there was another mountain—a third, looming incline still veiled by the distance. In maps of the Bronson Estate, every trail eventually went up that mountain, but somehow I was less daunted by that final foe. With any luck, Whitney was right, and Champ would be more fatigued than me by then. I’d be king of the mountain.
How did Alphonse know I didn’t have the funds to pay up if he won? Could he see my empty bank-account? I could only hope to finish first, or, if not, hope that Alphonse Bronson was a reasonable man. I swallowed.
Alphonse Bronson gripped his father’s shoulders. “Dad, are you watching?”
“I’m watching an empty stadium.” Father Bronson pulled the wheels of his wheelchair like he wanted to roll away, but Alphonse kept him there. “Fill the stands with spectators before you bother showing me.”
“But father, look!” Alphonse pointed to the starting line, where ten horses stamped the ground behind their gates. “I know you’ll be proud! I’ve invented a new, efficient kind of racing!”
“Racing is already efficient,” said Father Bronson. “The winner wins. The loser loses. The difference is efficiency. The most efficient finishes first.”
“…And the least efficient loses!” Alphonse waved his hand and the gates opened. Jockeys bounced on the horses’ backs. “And what do we do to the losers?”
“Glue, son,” said Father Bronson. “The most efficient use of an inefficient horse is glue.”
“Right!” said Alphonse. “So look!” He pointed to the end of the track, where nine gates waited open. “Ten horses, nine gates. Think of musical chairs.”
The gates swung shut behind the first nine horses. The tenth horse whinnied and threatened to throw their jockey from the saddle. “Son—”
“Watch,” said Alphonse. The tenth jockey dismounted to help some men in leather jackets lead the tenth horse into a big metal box in the center of the track. The jockey shut the box’s iron door while the men climbed onto the box to lay hands on an iron crank. When they turned the crank, white goo oozed out of the box’s spout into a bucket. “Glue! The last horse is processed into paste with corporate efficiency, as God intended!”
“Hmm.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “Hmm.”
Alphonse stopped grinning. “What’s the matter, Dad?”
“Horses are one thing. Humans are harder. However many horses you have, you need humans on your side.” Father Bronson cast his gaze over the empty stadium. “If you can’t get the people’s support, you’d might as well be paste yourself.”
Alphonse misunderstood. His father was dismayed with the empty stands, befitting such a grotesque scene, but Alphonse kept watching the tenth jockey. “I’ll impress you, Dad. I’m sure I will. I’ve got a tournament planned.”
“Yes! A whole tournament, where the last in each race will be turned into their…” Alphonse rubbed his chin. “Their useful components.”