(This is part five of a story about an ultramarathon-runner who bets his legs that he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race.)
BEEP. Mile 41: 7:45 / 5:27:51.
I drank the last of the water Alphonse had tossed me. I threw the empty bottle over my shoulder.
Did Alphonse really mean to take my legs? Was that… legal? It couldn’t be, but knowing the Bronsons, legality wouldn’t stop him. I shuddered. I had to beat the horse.
If Whitney and Kevin and Hermes could meet me with supplies, maybe I had a chance. If I won, it wouldn’t matter what I’d bet.
Whitney. God. How could she be here, after what I did?
Or, what she thinks I did.
BEEP. Mile 42: 7:33 / 5:35:24.
I recognized my pessimism rising, but I couldn’t change my mind. I was bonking again, and my brain took off without me. I settled into harsh memories in exchange for a healthy downhill pace.
By the time I was 26, Whitney and I had run more ultramarathons than I could recall. Most were a hundred miles or more; we had a knack for hundos. We’d even won a few of the less popular ones, so when I signed up for The Great Race, I intended to finish first. But Whitney wouldn’t pace me: she was running against. “I won’t go easy on you,” she’d said. “I plan to win The Great Race, too.”
“After I get my gold medal, I’ll fix you a veggie-smoothie for when you finally finish.”
“The Great Race is the most popular ultra in North America,” Whitney warned me. “The best of the best will be there.”
“We certainly will,” I’d said. She laughed. “It’s okay if I come second by a hair. I’ll forgive myself.”
“That wouldn’t be a bad twist for the book we’re writing together,” she’d said. “I plan to title it Live to Run.”
“Lemme spoil the ending: I’m gonna win.”
BEEP. Mile 43: 7:19 / 5:42:43.
The Great Race was as strenuous as it was infamous. Three quarters of it were uphill over rough, narrow trails. For the last thirty miles Hermes would pace me, and another race volunteer would pace Whitney.
After seventy miles I met Hermes at an aid station. “Lemme take that.” He filled my water-backpack and put it on himself. “How’s your knee?” I gave him a thumb-up and swallowed a fistful of pretzels smeared with peanut-butter. “Ready?”
I shook my head. “Uh-uh,” I mumbled through stuck-together teeth. I pointed to my left shoe.
“Want me to take it off?”
He removed my left shoe. “Oh, Jesus, Jonas.” Hermes pulled off my bloody sock. Two toenails were loose. “I’ll count to three, okay?” I nodded. “Three.” Hermes tore off the loose toenails.
“Mmmnn,” I groaned.
“Good job, soldier.” Hermes wrapped bandages around my foot, put on a new sock, and retied my shoe. “Let’s go.” We ran. “You’re not far behind the runner in fifth.”
“Who’s first?” I’d asked. “How many miles ahead?”
“Whitney is first, but don’t worry about first, Jonas. There are mountains between you and first.”
“I’m king of the mountain.”
BEEP. Mile 44: 7:36 / 5:50:19.
And I was. By mile 90, I was in second place with Whitney just a mile ahead.
Even Hermes had trouble keeping up with me. At the last aid station, he gasped for breath. “You go on, Jonas. As a pacer, I’m just holding you back.”
“Uh-huh, uh-huh.” I pulled my water-backpack from his shoulders. It took all my brain-power to remember to say “thanks” before I kept running.
At mile 97 there was a fork in the trail. A pink ribbon tied to a tree-trunk told me I was on the correct path, but I wasn’t sure whether to go left or right. I had to choose fast: Whitney wasn’t far ahead.
I heard voices. Cheers. At first I thought I was hallucinating again, but no, it was real: I heard onlookers at the finish line, and the voices were louder when I looked to the left. So I ran left.
Biggest mistake of my life.
I finished first—I broke the tape—but I never saw Whitney and her pacer along the way. I thought maybe I’d just missed them when I passed. I didn’t see whoever put a gold medal around my neck, either; my vision was foggy. Hermes was there, having taken a shortcut.
BEEP. Mile 45: 7:29 / 5:57:48.
When Whitney finished a few minutes later, she accused me of taking a shortcut, too. “How’d you get ahead of me, Jonas?” she panted, glaring.
“I’m not sure.” I massaged my bandaged foot. “Didn’t you see me pass?”
“No,” she seethed, “I didn’t.” Her volunteer pacer shook his head and shrugged.
Kevin hadn’t seen me, either. Kevin was race photographer, in charge of snapping each runner at the 99 mile mark, and he didn’t have a picture of me. Race officiators skeptically eyed my gold medal. “At the last fork, were we supposed to go left or right?” I asked. “I went left.”
Whitney groaned. “You cut two miles off the end! We studied the maps, Jonas, we’d prepared for this!”
“I’m sorry! My mind was cloudy, you know how it is.”
“Uh-huh, sure,” she said.
“Look, I’ll run back to the fork and do it legit! I’ll bet I can still finish third or fourth.” I prepared to take off, but Hermes put his hand on my shoulder. He took my gold medal and gave it to the race officiators, who passed it to Whitney. She still glared a hole in my head. “I didn’t mean to,” I said. “Honest. Just give me a DNF—‘Did Not Finish.’ I don’t mind. It’s fine.”
BEEP. Mile 46: 7:32 / 6:05:20.
I slurped my last silver packet of running glop. This one was lime-kiwi. I gagged. Without water to wash it down, my mouth tasted like runoff from Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
The Great Race didn’t let me DNF; they just ejected me from the competition. That’s a black mark.
Whitney never believed me that it was just a mistake. She was so bitter that she finished our book alone: Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run. Contractually, she was obligated to put my name on the cover, but the story was all about the first woman to win The Great Race. Sold like hotcakes.
I sipped from the hose from my three-liter water-backpack, then spat. I forgot the river was bitter. Why was I carrying it? I dumped water from the backpack mid-run. That saved me about seven pounds.
The water trickled down a ditch into a cactus-patch. The trail was so rough and steep I had to slide down on my butt. I chuckled, wondering how Champ would deal with the path I’d chosen for us. This was hard enough for a human. It would be agony for a horse.
Then I remembered Alphonse’s spurs, and the dark red spots they left on Champ’s ribs. This was already agony for a horse.
And it was approaching agony for me. My bum left knee had started to tingle. Soon my patella would slide around like a hockey-puck.
BEEP. Mile 47: 7:41 / 6:13:01.
The bottom of the mountain gave me a much-needed gift: flats were less brutal on my joints than downhill, and I finally saw a car driving toward the trail. Kevin, Whitney, and Hermes were just a few miles away.
I watched the car chug along the slim service-road. To preserve attractive sight-lines, the roads were far from the trail, but the car drove off the asphalt and crushed a topiary on the way toward the 50-mile flag. Kevin must’ve been behind the wheel.
I really couldn’t imagine why these people had come all this way for me. I was sure, from their perspective, I was a blight on their lives—a cheater who cared more for himself than anyone else, who would betray for personal gain—not even money, or fame, or power, but sheer ego. I wouldn’t have driven here for me, except maybe to watch Alphonse chop off my legs.
As soon as the car stopped at the 50-mile flag, the shotgun-door opened.
Whitney stepped out and hit the ground running toward me.
I cried. I tried squeezing out all my tears before she was close enough to see them.
BEEP. Mile 48: 8:03 / 6:21:04.
I waved. She didn’t wave back; her focus was on her form.
For three-quarters of a mile I just watched her. Her ponytail bounced with her stride. My eyes soaked up the sight. Suddenly the tension in my muscles evaporated.
When she was close, I waved again. “Whitney!”
“Jonas, you idiot!”
She turned on a dime to run by my side. “Give me your backpack.”
“Okay.” I slipped it off my shoulders.
“It’s empty,” she said.
“The water in this place is toxic. I haven’t had a drink in eight miles.”
“Here.” She gave me the hose from her own backpack. The water was ice-cold. “I see the horse a few miles behind. Nice work.”
BEEP. Mile 49: 7:54 / 6:28:58.
“What’s that thing?” She pointed to the collar of my shirt.
“Oh, right. The toothpick.” I showed her Alphonse’s silver toothpick with ruby handle. “Alphonse says it’s worth ten-thousand bucks. You want it? He says it tastes like mint.”
“No way. I’ve read enough about Alphonse’s drug-habits to know not to take anything from him. It’s probably expensive because it’s spiked with something exotic.”
“Oh. Good, I didn’t use it.” I tucked it back into my shirt-collar.
“This is a really… interesting decision you’ve made, Jonas. Win or lose, I’ll have to write another book about you.”
“Why are you racing the horse, Jonas?”
“I don’t even know,” I admitted. “I think I thought you’d think it was a romantic gesture.”
“Standing outside my window with a boombox would have been more traditional.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“The Bronsons charge good money to let people onto the estate. How’d you get in?”
“I made a million-dollar bet.”
“That must’ve been most of your cut from the book-profit.”
“It would’ve been, but I spent all that on gambling and booze, so I anted up my legs.”
“Holy shit, Jonas.”
“I know, I’m sorry. Don’t tell the others, I don’t want them to worry.”
BEEP. Mile 50: 8:01 / 6:36:59.
“Jonas!” said Hermes.
“You idiot!” said Kevin.
Whitney tossed Kevin my empty water-backpack. “Jonas, sit down.”
“I don’t know if I can. I don’t think I’m physically capable of sitting.”
“Then lie on your back.” Whitney and Hermes helped me collapse onto the dirt.
“We’ve got your favorite flavors of running glop.” Hermes held up some silver packets. “Chocolate and peanut-butter.”
Whitney wiped sweat from my brow with a towel wrapped around an ice-pack. “It’s getting warm today.”
“I noticed,” I said.
“Warm is good,” said Whitney. “Humans handle heat better than horses.”
“Need any footwork?” asked Hermes.
“Please. I need new socks.”
“Okay.” Hermes pulled off my shoes. “Hoo boy, Jonas.” My right sock was wet and bloody. “Blister?”
He peeled off my socks. “Uh… Whoa” I wiggled my toes. I’d removed all the nails weeks ago. “No loose toe-nails this time, huh?”
“Not making that mistake again.”
“Okay, moron,” said Kevin, “if we’re getting you through this, we’ll have to meet up every chance we get. The service-roads only meet the trails every ten miles, so we’ll see you at mile 60. What should I have ready for you there?”
I pawed at the zipper of my water-backpack he held. I retrieved my second banana and the rest of my peanut butter. I ate it all like a slovenly pig. “Pizza,” I said. “I want a pizza. Large. Pineapple. Black olives. No cheese, it nauseates me on a run.”
Kevin raised an eyebrow and looked to Whitney. “Is pizza, uh, kosher, in a race like this?”
“There’s no diet after sixty miles,” said Whitney. “The body wants what it wants.”
Hermes slipped a compression-sleeve over my left knee and retied my shoes. “You’re good to go, Jonas.”
I lay spread-eagle for another half-minute. Finally I pulled myself to my feet, with help from my pit-crew. “I’m sorry, guys.”
“Come on.” Whitney took off in front of me. At the trail’s fork, she asked, “Which way are we going?”
I plucked the flag at mile 50. The trail to the right ran through an expansive clearing of tall grass. The trail to the left ran through a shadowy wood. I tossed the flag to the left. “It’s warm. Let’s enjoy the shade.”
Alphonse left his father’s deathbed, leaving Father Bronson alone with his doctors, nurses, and attendants. In the hallway of the Bronson manor, Alphonse impotently sucked a minty metal toothpick while clutching a syringe.
“He didn’t want the jockey-juice?” asked his best jockey.
“No.” Alphonse gave the syringe to his jockey, who waited in a wheelchair. “He still thinks it’s abominable.”
“His loss.” The jockey injected the syringe into her leg. Instantly she stood from her wheelchair as if she had never needed it. “Who was this one?” she asked, returning the empty syringe.
Alphonse shrugged. “Some loser.”
“Oof.” The jockey smoothed wrinkles from her pants. “Do you know the names of any of the jockeys in your races?”
“What’s my name?”
“Why would I care?” asked Alphonse. He petulantly picked his teeth.
“My name’s Sandra.”
“I’ll forget it soon.” Alphonse walked away from his father’s room.
Sandra pushed her empty wheelchair behind him. “Do you even know your father’s name?”
Alphonse shrugged again. “What a loser.”
“I’ve heard he was something to behold, back in his day.”
“His day is done.”
“You mean—” Sandra covered her mouth. “You mean he’s dead?”
“Might as well be, already.”
Sandra released her breath. “Don’t you have any fond memories of your father?”
Alphonse paused. He opened the curtains over an ornate window overlooking the estate. “One, at least.”
“I must have been seven, or eight, or nine.” He wiped his toothpick on the curtain and put it back in the pocket of his gaudy military jacket. “My father challenged the best human runner on the planet to a race against a horse. He let me ride in the saddle with him.”
“A human has no chance against a horse.”
“Around a race-track, no, but across a hundred miles, a human might have a shot.” Alphonse smiled. “Gosh, what was the runner’s name? His name was… was…”
Sandra watched Alphonse wrack his brain. She wondered what it meant that Alphonse hadn’t even bothered trying to remember her name, or the name of his father, but seemed to recall a man he’d met decades ago, as a child.
“Georgie,” said Alphonse. “Georgie Masawa. A little Mexican kid, about 5′ 6”. Mid-twenties.”
“How’d the race turn out?”
“Georgie lost. He didn’t make it seventy miles.” Alphonse surveyed the estate. “He tried keeping pace with our horse from the get-go, and my father tired him out. You know, I don’t think we ever did find his body.”
“My father ran Georgie to death. Poor guy. What a shame.” Alphonse reconsidered. “I mean, if he weren’t such a loser.”