BEEP. Mile 1: 7:17 / 7:17.
I’d ran hundreds of first miles faster than that. This morning, I paced myself.
The horse had no trouble keeping up. Alphonse tugged the reins to stay alongside me, but his horse Champ begged to pull ahead. “Regretting this, Jonas?”
“Not yet,” I puffed. This was an easy pace; I could speak aloud, coherently, at this pace. “Just ninety-nine more to go.”
“That’s the spirit.” Alphonse Bronson stroked Champ’s mane and brushed dust from the horse’s leather saddle. The Bronson Estate’s million acres were landscaped with artisan dirt for rustic authenticity. “With a million dollars on the line, you can’t let your head get away from you.”
“Uh huh, uh huh.”
“A million dollars. A hundred miles. That’s ten-thousand dollars per mile!” Alphonse laughed. “To some people, that’s real money.” I pretended not to see his grin, focusing on my feet slapping the trail. “You’re sure you’re good for it, Jonas?”
“Uh huh, uh huh.” I sipped water from the hose of my three-liter backpack. I took a sip every mile. I could do it by muscle-memory, even without my GPS watch beeping.
BEEP. Mile 2: 6:33 / 13:50.
“Let’s call that mile a tie,” said Alphonse. “We’re neck and neck entering mile three. How exciting!”
“The only mile that matters is the last one,” I puffed.
“Every step matters,” said Alphonse. “You wrote that in your book.”
Did I? I’d never read the darn thing.
“We tied on mile one and mile two! Allow me to treat you to a tasty morsel.” Alphonse unbuttoned the breast-pocket of his gaudy military jacket.
“I’m not hungry.”
Alphonse took out two toothpicks and picked his teeth with one. He held out the other toothpick for me; his horse was so tall that I had to reach far above my head to take it.
“What’s this for?” I puffed. The toothpick felt oddly smooth, and after steadying my eyes to focus as I ran, I saw the toothpick wasn’t wooden, but metal, like a needle.
“Suck it,” he said. “That’s a ten-thousand dollar custom-order toothpick. It’s made of silver, and the handle is a ruby. I mean it, suck it, it’s mint-flavored! Zero-calorie snacks like this are how I keep my figure.”
BEEP. Mile 3: 6:59 / 20:49.
“I’ll save it for later.” I stuck the toothpick through my shirt-collar. This was my favorite shirt, a prize for finishing my first ultra-marathon, a fifty-miler. I didn’t win that race, but even last-place got a shirt, and it was a good shirt. Its light mesh material never rubbed my nipples bloody like cotton did.
With my hands free, I corrected my form. Form was vital. Sure, the only mile that mattered was the last one, but that last mile was built on every step up to then. I guess my ghostwriter knew what she was talking about.
Champ, the horse, seemed to understand, too. His form was impeccable. His ropy muscles wrapped his legs and shoulders and buttocks. Champ’s breathing was strained not by effort but by desire to run faster than Alphonse would allow.
“I don’t know how the view is down there,” said Alphonse, “but here in the saddle I can see the first flag at mile 10.”
I saw it too. At the base of a mountain, the first flag flapped in the breeze.
BEEP. Mile 4: 6:54 / 27:43.
I let Alphonse explain again while I sipped from the hose of my water-backpack: “Don’t forget, the first of us to that flag chooses if we go left or right at the first fork.”
I knew. I knew. I’d obsessed over maps of the Bronson Estate; I saw the race’s possible paths and elevation profiles when I closed my eyes. With scenic environs and a variety of terrain, it would be a fun place to run under better circumstances.
If we went left at the fork, we’d go through a valley and skip most of a mountain. If we went right, we’d go right over it.
I was no stranger to running up mountains. In fact, I’d won some ultras over mountains. I was king of the mountain. But I reckoned Champ would be the mountain’s champion and leave me in the dust. I had to be first to the fork, and I had to choose left… or, if Alphonse was first to the fork, I had to cross my fingers and pray he’d prefer flatter terrain.
I puffed and puffed. The air was just barely cold enough to see my breath.
BEEP. Mile 5: 6:46 / 34:29.
The weather was perfect for a run. Not too sunny; I hated sun in my eyes almost as much as I hated wearing hats and sunglasses. Buttermilk clouds dappled the sky. I could enjoy a long run on a day like this, but today was not that day.
“Tell me, Jonas. Do you want to go around the mountain, or over it?”
The question caught me off-guard, and I considered lying. Maybe I could use reverse-psychology to make Alphonse choose the flat terrain. “Over,” I said. “Your horse doesn’t know there’s a million bucks at stake. When Champ’s terrain gets tough, I bet he’ll stall and slow down. A man’s more nimble than a horse on rocky mountain trails.”
“Ha! Maybe he’ll fall and break his legs.” Alphonse pat the saddle. “Don’t worry about my horse. Champ could jump over the mountain. What would you prefer, personally, over or around?”
I grimaced. “Over. I’m king of the mountain.”
He laughed again. “Jonas, leave reverse-psychology to businessmen. I’d like to go over, too—I’m calling your bluff!”
BEEP. Mile 6: 6:52 / 41:21.
When I was younger, I imagined an average person trying to keep up with me as I ran. It pumped up my pride: “oh, Jonas, have mercy! Slow down! Six miles is too much!”
“Six miles is a warm-up,” I’d say to my shadow. “Don’t give up now—let’s sprint the next block!”
But today I felt like the shadow. Alphonse allowed Champ to pull ahead a few yards. “You should know, Champ can run a bit faster than this. He’s descended from my father’s race-horses.”
“Believe me, I know.” Alphonse had told me many times before.
“My father’s horses never lost a race,” said Alphonse, “because if his horse ever lost a race, it turned out it wasn’t my father’s horse after all. It was retroactively disbarred to preserve my father’s spotless record.”
“Must be nice to be able to do that.”
BEEP. Mile 7: 6:03 / 47:24.
The horse was leading the pace, faster than I would’ve liked to maintain. “So Jonas, where did you get the money for this little wager?”
“Book-money,” I said. “I’m a national best-seller.”
“I’ve read your book, but could you remind me of the title?” Alphonse put a finger over his smile. I knew he was testing me, and delighted that it took me a moment to remember.
I stalled by panting, but finally recalled: “Don’t Run to Live, Live to Run.”
Alphonse chuckled. “If we live to run, surely Champ here is better at living than you. Wouldn’t you agree?”
BEEP. Mile 8: 5:55 / 53:19.
“He’s a beaut,” I said, not lying. Champ’s pure black coat was intimidatingly sleek. “What does he eat?”
“Nothing that isn’t hand-picked by my professional equine-dietitians,” said Alphonse. “My father founded his own company to produce acceptable foodstuffs for his racers.”
I took a silver plastic packet from the pockets of my three-liter backpack. I tore the packet’s top and squeezed the contents into my mouth.
“What’s that?” asked Alphonse.
“I don’t have any dietitians, but companies make foodstuffs for human racers, too.” I crumpled the packet and tucked it into my backpack. “That one’s chocolate-flavored. One of the only flavors I can stand.”
Beep. Mile 9: 5:48 / 59:07.
The flag was so close. It would be embarrassing to choose the left trail, around the mountain, after I pretended I wanted to go over—my reverse-psychology would be laid out for humiliation, and I knew Alphonse would relish the opportunity—but I could take the shame, and I wasn’t sure if my legs could take the mountain better than Champ’s.
I put on the gas.
I shot ahead of Champ, each stride Olympian.
“Oh ho!” Alphonse let the reins go slack and kicked his spurs into Champ’s ribs. Champ effortlessly kept pace with me. “You’re really not so slow, are you?”
I didn’t have breath to respond.
“But we’re pretty quick, too,” said Alphonse. Champ pulled forward. The horse’s hooves tossed rocks at me, but I ran faster and faster.
BEEP. Mile 10: 4:22 / 1:03:29.
Alphonse plucked the flag from the dirt right in front of me. “Photo-finish! Ten miles, still neck-and-neck, but Champ pulls through in the end!” The sarcasm dripped; Champ wasn’t even winded.
I barely resisted collapsing on my knees. I couldn’t speak for panting, but Alphonse filled the dialog:
“Jonas, I was joking about reverse-psychology,” he said. “I know this is just a friendly wager, so I’ll indulge you by choosing what’s best for both of us in the interest of sportsmanship.”
Through my panting, I managed to smile. “Really?”
“The view of the estate from the top of this mountain is breathtaking, especially this early in the morning. I think we’ll both appreciate it.” He tossed the flag toward the trail to the right. “Let’s go!”
“And the winner is…”
On his eighth birthday, on his father’s lap, Alphonse Bronson cheered for another horse-race. “Daddy, was the winner one of yours again?”
“No, no, I didn’t have a horse in that race.” Father Bronson stroked his beard. “But I’ve got another horse in the next race. Look close, guess which one it is.”
“It’s the one that wins, right?”
His father chewed his beard. “You know, son… in every race, there’s a horse who comes last.”
“Yeah!” Alphonse punched his own palm. “What losers!”
“The Bronsons didn’t build their fortune by racing horses. We began with glue-factories.” His father looked away. “I bought those losing horses for cheap, and made them into glue. So at least they were useful in the end, right?”
“I still own those glue-factories and sometimes the horses get mixed up.” His father pointed to the starting gates. “I think the horse racing now might have been destined for paste. You’ll see what I mean.”
The starting gun. The horses raced.
His father’s horse was last.
“What a loser,” said Alphonse.
“Exactly,” said his father. “Sometimes a glue-horse pretends to be a racer. It’s a good thing we Bronsons can tell the difference.” His father’s men led that horse into a white van. His father ripped up some betting slips. Good riddance, thought Alphonse.