To Mile 82

(This is part eight of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race. Jonas is behind the horse, and this section is gonna get gruesome, so be warned, like, really, but first, a flashback.)


2018

Jonas was running drunk. He’d run to the Bronson Place so many times he knew the way even after a few too many beers. A narrow trail carved by dirt-bike-traffic led between valleys to a cement bunker in a little-known portion of Alphonse’s estate. Jonas jogged to the bunker through a motorcycle parking-lot and thumbed a code on a keypad. A metal door opened to velveteen stairs into the earth. The stairwell was lined with silk curtains lit by chandelier.

“Yo, Jonas.” A man in a leather jacket took Jonas’ water-backpack like a butler taking a coat. The security at Alphonse’s estate was exclusively bikers, or at least dressed like it. The clientele themselves arrived by helicopter in tuxedo. “You ran all the way here again, huh?”

“Of course.” Jonas twisted sweat from his headband on the stairwell into the deep. “It’s only twenty miles.”

The man in leather gave Jonas a vodka tonic, on the house. Jonas drank it down. “Need a ride home after this?”

“Nah, nah, I’ll just run. It’s only twenty miles back, too.” Jonas and the man in leather passed through oak doors into an underground casino. Billionaires in black tie bunched around roulette-wheels. Jonas turned away from them and walked into a slim service-corridor. “Can I use your showers again? I worked up a sweat.”

“Sure, sure. I’ll put your water-thingy in a locker. Oh, and, uh, Jonas.” The man in leather pat Jonas’ shoulder. “After your shower, Alphonse wants to speak with you.”

“Seriously?” Jonas scratched his head. “How come? We’ve never met in person before. I don’t even know why he invited me to the casino.” The man in leather shrugged. “I’d rather not see him. Your boss gives me the creeps.”

“Ha, yeah, Alphonse does that. When he’s done talking your ear off, join the gang in the laundry room. We’ve got the nudie-deck again.”


As he showered, Jonas dreaded meeting Alphonse. Jonas had deep antipathy for the Bronsons even if he enjoyed playing cards in the casino’s laundry room, and all the free drinks. Maybe Alphonse had invited him to apologize for the childhood charity-race—or maybe Alphonse had forgotten about that charity-race entirely and had ulterior motives.

Jonas changed into fresh running gear from his locker. He wondered when and where he’d meet Alphonse, but he didn’t wonder long. Alphonse was standing outside the door to the showers when Jonas stepped out. “Jonas!”

“Uh, sir!” Jonas almost saluted at the sight of Alphonse’s gaudy military jacket. “I heard you wanted to see me?”

Alphonse took a good, long look. He appraised Jonas like a horse. “Have you enjoyed my private casino, Jonas?”

“Yeah. No clue why you invited me, but I’m sure glad you did. This is a nice place.”

“You haven’t seen half of it! Let me give you a tour which will explain everything.” Alphonse led Jonas around roulette tables. Jonas felt awkward in his running gear among the tuxedos. “I heard you ran here this morning. Is it because you like my estate?”

“Of course. It’s gorgeous.”

Alphonse laughed as they passed poker-tables. “This casino is in the estate’s back-lot. The estate proper is truly a spectacle. Please, through here.” Alphonse led Jonas through diamond-studded platinum doors. Jonas sniffed: he smelled horseshit. “Welcome to where the real action happens. My heart and soul is in this room, Jonas. Sit down.”

Jonas joined Alphonse in stadium-seating. A whole horse-track had been excavated under the Bronson Estate. The stands were optimistically large; barely a tenth of the seats were occupied by extravagantly wealthy businessmen or members of their entourage.

A gun went off, and Jonas jumped up in surprise. “Ha!” Alphonse pulled Jonas back into his seat. “You’re an eager one, aren’t you?” Now Jonas noticed ten horses racing across the track. They ran from one wall to the other where sliding gates hid the horses both before and after the race. “In this room, we don’t bet money. We bet whole horses! Everyone here brings a horse or two to ante.” Spectators cheered or ripped up bad bets. “I wager my own horses all the time. It’s a thrill!”

“Wow.” Jonas rubbed his chin-stubble. “How does it work? Does the owner of the winning horse get to take the losing horse home, or something?”

“Or something!” said Alphonse. “I knew you’d understand! You’re a racer, too, at heart.”

“Yeah, um… I don’t know if you know this, Alphonse, but I’m sort of… off the racing circuit, ever since my book came out. I just run for the sport of it, now.”

“Even better! It’s more natural that way.” Alphonse clapped. “I want you to give me an edge against the competition, Jonas. My horses are already the best, but only because I learn from the best. Now I want to learn from you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Beat my best horse in a race. I’ll pay handsomely if you can show me room to improve.”

Jonas gaped dumbly. “You want me… to run… in there?” He pointed to the track. “I can’t run half as fast as those horses. No one can.”

Alphonse chortled and slapped Jonas on the back. “You’re right, too right! But I’m proposing a race on your level—an ultra-marathon, a hundred miles around my beautiful estate. Could a human beat a horse then?

“Um… maybe. It’s been done before, but I can’t guarantee could do it.”

“Would you give yourself 50/50 odds?”

Jonas considered. Alphonse licked his lips. “I guess.”

“Then let’s make a wager! We’ll each ante a million dollars, and the winner of a 100-mile race takes it all.”

Jonas shook his head. “No way.”

Alphonse pretended not to hear as he flagged down a cocktail-waitress. “Bring my friend and me two of those Mojitos. Jonas, the rum in these drinks is worth more than most of those horses. Drink up!” Jonas never turned down a drink. It wasn’t a bad Mojito. “Now, what were you saying?”

“I don’t have the liquid funds for that bet, Alphonse. I just play cards with the security gang in the laundry room. What we gamble would be pocket-lint to you.”

“Jonas, Jonas, Jonas. It’s not about the money! You’re a winner! You won The Great Race, didn’t you?”

Jonas inhaled. “Well, not really. It turned out someone else had won.”

“Who cares? You came first first. Who cares who came first second? I won’t take it easy on you, but I pray you can outrace Champ, Jonas. I’m begging to pay you your winnings.”

“I… I’ll think about it.” Jonas stood, staggering drunk. “But for now, the answer is no.”


When Jonas made it to the laundry room, the security gang in leather jackets were playing cards around an ironing-board. “Yo, Jonas!”

“Hey.”

“You really ran here again this morning?” A man in sunglasses dealt Jonas a hand and a free drink. “What did Alphonse want with you?”

Jonas drank up. “I think I’m gonna race a horse.”


2019

BEEP. Mile 71: 21:34 / 11:13:59.

“I think I’m gonna die,” I said. Whitney rolled her eyes and passed me the hose to her water-backpack. I drank. “I fuckin’ inhaled that pizza. I’m bursting.”

Whitney drank, too. “I once watched you eat a full Thanksgiving dinner ninety-seven miles into a 144-mile race. You’ll survive.”

“Ooh, that cranberry-sauce was worth bursting for.” I pat my stomach. “Don’t they make a cranberry-flavored running gel? Do we have one of those?”

“I thought you hated the fruity ones.” Whitney checked her backpack. “I’ve just got peanut-butter and chocolate.”

“Man, screw peanut-butter. Gimme a chocolate.” I tore open the silver packet of running glop and slurped it down. “Aaugh, I’m popping like a balloon.”

“That Turkey Trot was a nice run, wasn’t it,” said Whitney. “The weather was perfect.”

“And that cranberry-sauce.”

“I’ve had years of fun running with you, Jonas. I’m sorry I kicked you out after The Great Race.”

“I didn’t mean to cheat. I promise.”

“I don’t know if I believe you, but who can say what’s good or bad?” Whitney grinned and punched my left shoulder. “It made a great book. I’m sorry you come across as the bad-guy.”

“Nah, nah. Considering you wrote the book from my perspective, you could’ve been a lot more vindictive. Thanks for pulling your punches.”

“I didn’t know you ever read Live to Run.”

“I haven’t, but I’ve read comments on internet forums about it. It’s cathartic to see people online arguing about whether I’m a shithead or not.”

“Why’d the jockey pick this path?” wondered Whitney as we panted up the mountain. “Hermes said the horse didn’t look so good. Maybe you were right: the jockey picked left at mile 60 because the horse couldn’t take the steeper slope. So why’d she pick more uphill at mile 70?”

I shrugged.

“Hermes said Alphonse injected the horse with something,” said Whitney. “Maybe it gave Champ a second-wind.”

“I gotta get me one of those injections.”

BEEP. Mile 72: 18:51 / 11:32:50.

“Yeah, you could use a pick-me-up,” said Whitney. “I promised you’d beat the horse to mile 80, didn’t I?”

“Are you hiding a syringe you didn’t tell me abououwoah.” Whitney took off her visibility vest and sports bra.

Run, Jonas.”

I could only obey. Her naked back demanded I keep up. “Whitney, you don’t need to do this. It can’t be comfy bouncing around like that.”

“Jonas, you once ran ten miles without pants pacing me on a hundo. Just keep this up, it’s downhill for the rest of the race.”

BEEP. Mile 73: 11:19 / 11:44:09.


Hermes’ fanny-pack bounced against his fanny as he puffed down the trail.

Jonas said he lost his visibility vest around mile 68. Why did Jonas turn down a new vest in favor of finding the old one? Hermes could only imagine Jonas was trying to lead him somewhere.

Hermes pointed a flashlight off the trail. The light blared back off the neon-yellow vest, ten feet down the steep slope. It was tied to an old tree’s roots.

Hermes sat on the side of the trail and slid down the slope on his ass. He thought he would grab the vest and keep sliding down to the next switchback, but he suddenly slid into a ditch hidden in the dark. “Whoa!” He braced his legs against the opposite wall before he fell more than a meter. “Phoo-boy.”

He glimpsed down the ditch. It was so deep his headlamp didn’t illuminate the bottom, but what it did illuminate made Hermes double-take. There was a skeleton down there.


BEEP. Mile 74: 8:46 / 11:52:55.

“Easy peasy.” The downhill slope agreed with me. “Georgie Masawa would’ve been home-free if he made it over that peak.”

“You’ve run almost three marathons,” said Whitney. “How’s your knee?”

I extended my left leg for a few paces. As my leg straightened, the kneecap clicked from right to left, and it clicked back when my leg bent. “Starting to click, but it hardly aches yet. I pity myself in ten miles.”

“Hey, what’s that?” Whitney pointed, and I pulled my gaze from her chest to see bright white flour or chalk-powder poured in an arrow. It pointed right, toward a narrow trail. “There’s another fork in the road.”

I stopped dead in my tracks. “This fork wasn’t on any maps.”

“Well, any maps of the Bronson Estate are probably out-of-date anyway.” Whitney bounced on her heels waiting for me. “Who drew this arrow? It must have been some estate-agent clarifying the path for us.”

“Maybe it was Alphonse, trying to trick us into going the wrong way.”

“You’re overthinking it, Jonas.” Whitney followed the arrow right.

BEEP. Mile 75: 8:51 / 12:01:46.

“I don’t know,” I said, following. “Does this really match the other trails in the estate?”

Whitney scanned the ground with her headlamp. “I guess you’ve run fifty more miles here than I have, so you’d know. But you’re also hallucinating, so I’m not sure I trust your senses.”

“I don’t think I’m hallucinating right now. I mean, do you see that?” I pointed just off the trail to an old discarded toy: a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole. It had a little cowboy-hat.

“I do see it. Weird.”

“So I’m seeing straight, at least. Doesn’t this zigzag in the dirt look like a tire-track?”

“It does, a little. But you couldn’t get a car out here on the trail.”

“Not a car-tire.” I grit my teeth. “This trail was made by motorcycles. Alphonse sent his dirt-biker goons to mislead us.” Confirming my paranoia, the trail ended, drowned by grass and brush. “There’s nowhere to go from here. We have to turn back.”

BEEP. Mile 76 (75): 9:02 / 12:10:48.

“Shit.” Whitney fiddled with her GPS-watch while we turned around. “By the time we get back to the fork, our run-tracker will be off by two miles. It’ll say 77 when you’re at 75.”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Should I restart the watch with a fresh run?”

“No, no.” I panted uphill. It was so steep we had to walk again. “I have a sinking feeling the GPS-record of this race will be historically important one day.”

Whitney led the pace. “Come on. The faster we get back to the fork, the faster we can head downhill again.”

“…Whitney…” I cupped my hands around my ears. “Do you hear a helicopter?”

She looked at the sky. “You’re not hallucinating. I hear it too. Better dress up.” She donned her sports-bra. “Maybe Alphonse is bothering Hermes and Kevin again. I don’t know if I should tell you this, but Alphonse shot down two drones.”

“Two what?”

“Kevin got your pizzas here by drone—you know, those itty-bitty helicopter-robot things. Try explaining that to a caveman.”

“And Alphonse shot them down? Holy shit. What a loser.”

“Excuse me!” Spotlights blew out our vision. Whitney and I almost collapsed in shock. Alphonse was waiting for us at the fork. Behind him, two men in leather jackets emerged from the helicopter as the blades spun down. “A loser, am I, Jonas? At least my jockey stayed on-course.”

“There’s an arrow leading to a dead-end.” Whitney tried to show him, but the helicopter’s arrival had blown the arrow away. “Well, there was.”

“That wouldn’t excuse your exploration,” said Alphonse.

“There are tire-tracks,” I said. “It looks like your security gang made this dead-end with their dirt-bikes and motorcycles.”

The men in leather shrugged, and Alphonse shrugged with them. “How my security-personnel choose to patrol the estate is none of my concern. I didn’t tell them to do this.”

“I bet you didn’t,” I said. “I bet you just winked at them and they knew exactly what to do. But—that doesn’t matter. I’ve got a horse to catch.” I started running down the correct trail, and Whitney followed me, but we both froze when we heard a pistol click.

Alphonse pointed the barrel at my heart. “You ran a mile off-course, and then a mile back. The nominal fee for sporting in the Bronson Estate is ten thousand dollars per mile. I waived that fee for this gamble, but if you’re going to tour, I’ll have to charge. I need twenty thousand dollars, Jonas. Here and now.”

I had my hands up, almost speechless. “Dude.”

Whitney filled in for me. “We don’t carry that kind of money on us, Mr. Bronson.”

“Oh? But you’re already halfway there.” Alphonse walked close enough to count the horses engraved in his pistol’s grip. He plucked the toothpick from my shirt-collar. “This silver ruby-handled toothpick is worth ten thousand on its own. You’re just ten thousand short.”

“Maybe you can add it to the gamble,” I suggested. “If I lose, I owe you another ten grand.”

“I want my money now, Jonas, but I’m not an unreasonable man. I’ll settle for—your finger.”

“W-what?”

Alphonse pointed the pistol at my left hand. “I saw you flip me off at mile 55. You thought I wouldn’t notice, hmm? I value the offending digit at ten thousand dollars.”

“Ridiculous,” balked Whitney. “Where were you at mile 55? I sure didn’t see you. In fact, this is the first time I’ve ever seen you in person. When did Jonas have the opportunity to flip you off?”

“You’re a bad liar, young lady.” Alphonse presented the toothpick and depressed the ruby handle with his thumb. The toothpick spoke with my voice and with Whitney’s.

“I don’t need any help to flip someone off,” said the toothpick, as me. “Take that, Alphonse.”

“Careful,” said the toothpick, as Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.” Alphonse released the ruby handle.

“You… bugged us?” asked Whitney.

“I heard everything,” said Alphonse. “I heard you talk to Thog. I heard you flip me off. I heard you vomit all over my beautiful estate. You owe me ten thousand dollars, Jonas, and you’re going to pay.”

“I’ll pay,” said Whitney. “I’ll call my bank while we run and arrange a transfer from my savings. Just leave us alone.”

“Stop talking, young lady,” said Alphonse. “You’ve run twenty-seven miles on my property so far, and you’re lucky I’ve elected not to charge you for it. By all rights you and your friends owe me well over a million dollars. Instead I’m asking for just one finger. And you can’t take another step until I get it.”

“No,” said Whitney. “I knew you were a twisted sicko, but get fucked, scumbag.”

“Wait.” I showed him my hands. “Which finger, Alphonse?”

“The middle one, obviously,” said Alphonse. “I’ll let you choose your left or right hand, since I’m not sure which you used to insult me.”

“I used my right hand. Now, can we go?”

“Not with my property, Jonas. I want that finger now. And I want the left one.”

I sweat. “Why?”

“Because you flipped me off with your left hand, Jonas. I took photos.” His goons in leather flanked me. “Besides, I know you’re left-handed. Leave double-reverse-psychology to business-men.”

“Leave him alone!” Whitney was crying angry now. “You’re holding us up!”

“Just take it, Alphonse, and make it quick.” I held up my left hand for him. “Stop wasting our time and do what you’re gonna do.”

“Okay. So you see, I own this toothpick now, and I own this finger now, so I’m well within my rights to—” Alphonse jammed the minty metal toothpick under my middle-finger’s nail. I yelped in surprise, but that didn’t stop Alphonse. He grabbed my wrist and pushed the toothpick an inch into my finger. His goons in leather held me steady by my shoulders.

Even if I could describe the pain, I’d still spare you the details. It made me forget my aching legs, my bleeding palms, and my foot-blisters. All I could do was shout and swear and knock my knees. The minty flavor burned. “Alphonse—” I sputtered, “—take the finger!”

“Beg!”

“Please!”

Alphonse shot the knuckle with his pistol. He plucked the fallen finger from a puddle of my blood and his goons dropped me into the same puddle, writhing. Whitney sobbed, but it was actually a relief to lose the needle under my nail. “Jonas!” she wept.

“Aaaugh!” I rolled, clutching my fist. “Alphonse, you sick bastard!”

“Careful. You might accidentally hurt my feelings.” Alphonse squat beside me. “Do you know why I want your legs, Jonas?”

“Of course not, you crazy cretin! The bet’s off, get me outta here!”

“It’s not for the scientific merit. Oh, the lab-boys will have fun examining your musculature, but there’s nothing for me to learn from your legs, Jonas.” I hyperventilated; maybe if I breathed hard enough, I’d get my finger back. Whitney moved to help me up but men in leather stood between us. “Jonas, do you imagine I’ll take your legs all at once?” Alphonse leaned in close. “I’ll take your legs millimeter by millimeter, Jonas. Your agony will be legendary.” He just stared for a moment. I looked back breathlessly. “Run, Jonas. You too, young lady.”

We could only obey.

BEEP. Mile 77 (75): 27:23 / 12:38:11.

“Holy shit,” I panted. “Holy shit.”

“Jesus Christ.” Whitney fished in her water-backpack. “Quick, have some ibuprofen.”

Are you kidding me Whitney ibuprofen is not gonna fucking cut it.” 

“Drink!” I drank from the hose of her backpack and swallowed the pills she handed me. “That’s some salt tabs, too. Lemme get my first-aid-kit.”

“I can’t believe that actually happened.” The helicopter flew right over us. Adrenaline made me run faster than I thought I was possible. “Oh my god, oh my god.”

“Here.” Whitney doused my knuckle-stump with alcohol. She put medical-tape on a cotton-ball and stuck it to the nub. “Hermes will do better than that once we get to mile 80.”

“82,” I corrected her.

BEEP. Mile 78 (76): 7:12 / 12:45:23.

“That’s a mighty-fine pace, Jonas.”

“Of course. I weigh less now.” I held up the knuckle-stump. “A finger’s gotta weigh, what, a pound?”

Whitney almost chuckled. “See, sometimes gallows humor is all that can keep us moving.”

“If I win the race, I’ll buy my finger back from Alphonse. Maybe a hospital can reattach it. Hell, maybe they could reattach my legs, too, if we collect the dough.”

“Maybe we won’t need to.” Whitney pointed. “Look!”

Fresh dung! “Champ must’ve been here not too long ago.”

“And he’s struggling.” Whitney pointed her headlamp at some bloody hoof-prints on a rock. “We can still win the flag at mile 80. 82, I mean.”

Beep,” I said. “I just finished three marathons in under 13 hours. Not too shabby.”

“If Alphonse hadn’t tricked us out of two miles, we’d be ahead of the horse by now,” said Whitney. “Let’s cut the chatter and bomb this hill.”

“Okay.”

BEEP. Mile 79 (77): 6:52 / 12:52:15.

BEEP. Mile 80 (78): 5:46 / 12:58:01.


Kevin honked his car’s horn. “Yo! Hermes!”

Hermes looked over his shoulder and ran to the side of the service-road while Kevin parked. Hermes sat in the car and buckled up. “I figured I might beat you to mile 80 on foot. What took so long?”

“I got your photos developed.” Kevin tossed Hermes the pictures of Sandra and Alphonse with Champ. “You can really see her spurs, huh? They’re reflecting the light from Alphonse’s helicopter. And the horse’s blood shows up pretty well, too. Nice shots, man. Didn’t take much Photoshop to clean up.”

“What are you gonna do with these?”

“Already done, chief.” Kevin sped along the winding service-road. “I posted those photos online everywhere I could. I’ve got two-hundred-thousand followers on Instagram alone. Some are big names in the media who’ll be eager to get some dirt on the Bronson family.”

“Do you really think they’ll see?”

“Of course! I tagged Jonas and Whitney in the post. Half my followers are fans of their book. They’ll share those photos everywhere.”

Hermes pulled a water-bottle from his fanny-pack and gulped most of it down. “Are you sure about this, Kev? Alphonse is gonna flip.”

“I hope he sues me,” said Kevin. “Craig’s been talking with his lawyers since Alphonse shot down the first drone. Jonas bumbled into a social-media diamond-mine, and Craig’s got the capital to put it on billboards. Hey, what happened to you, Hermes? You’re bleeding on the seat.”

“Yeah, sorry. Jonas asked me to find a visibility vest he lost, and I took a tumble.”

“Huh.” Kevin examined Hermes’ scratches. “Did you find the vest?”

“Yeah, but I left it where I found it.”

“Why?”

Hermes chewed his beard. “You ever heard of Georgie Masawa?”


BEEP. Mile 81 (79): 5:37 / 13:03:38.

Whitney couldn’t restrain herself from shouting. “Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”

As we passed her, the jockey sat up straight in the saddle and spurred the horse. “Yah! Yah!” Champ limped a little quicker, and his limping kept up with our sprint.

“What’s your name?” shouted Whitney at the jockey. I was shocked she could shout so loudly at this pace. “You! Answer me! What’s your name!”

“Sandra,” said the jockey. “Who’s asking?”

“Well, Jonas, is it her?” I nodded. “Then say whatcha gotta say.”

“You’re not in your wheelchair,” I panted. “I only knew your name because it was written on the back.”

Sandra blinked. “Huh?”

“I’m sure you don’t recognize me,” I panted. “You were ahead most of the race.”

“What the hell are you on about?”

“I was the kid on the crutch, Sandra. And then you ate my pizza.”

I sprinted ahead. Whitney ran interference.

BEEP. Mile 82 (80): 5:59 / 13:09:37.

I grabbed the flag. Champ plodded just behind us. “Pfft. Big deal,” said Sandra. “Which way?”

“Nuh-uh.” I clutched the flag in both hands, all nine fingers. “You can’t continue the race until I choose left or right, so now you gotta put up with my bullshit!

Sandra squinted at me. “Okay, get on with it.”

“I— I—” I pointed the flag at her. “I pity you, Sandra. I really do. I’m glad I lost that charity race. If I became Alphonse’s lackey, I’d be living in hell, like you. I’m missing finger and pity you. I pity you, I pity the horse, I pity Alphonse!”

“Okay, so toss the flag,” said Sandra.

I considered the fork. Both trails led downhill, but the trail right was more rocky.

Whitney waved at the service-road. “Here come Hermes and Kevin!”

Kevin parked and stepped out of his car with a disposable camera. “Sorry we’re late. Say cheese!” He took a photo of Whitney and me, then tossed us our own disposable cameras. “Exposing animal-abuse is newsworthy stuff, so take plenty of pictures of that ho, ho, holy shit! Jonas! Your hand!”

I looked down. Blood had streamed down my body. “Yeah.”

Now do you believe me, Kev? I told you what I saw.” Hermes brought a first-aid kit. “I found your vest, Jonas.” I nodded in understanding. Before he treated my finger, he offered me race-food from his fanny-pack. I ate fistfuls of salty roasted almonds.

“Kevin, look at this.” Whitney took photos of Champ’s hooves—all three and a half of them. “The horse lost half a hoof a few miles ago. No wonder we caught up.”

Sandra folded her arms. “I’m waiting for the flag, you guys.”

Hermes wrapped tight bandages around my wound. “Do you have the finger?” I shook my head. “What happened to it?”

“Alphonse owns it now.”

“Do you want to keep running?”

“Don’t have much of a choice. I’m in it to win it.”

“I’ll call the police anyway. Keep this elevated.” Hermes pat my butt. “Which way are you headed, left or right?”

“I haven’t decided.”

Sandra groaned. “Come on, already!”

Kevin shot close-ups of the horse’s injury. “The trail to the right looks more rocky, Jonas. I bet it’d chip more off this hoof.”

I shook my head. “I don’t wanna do that sorta thing on purpose. I already feel bad for Champ.”

“Jonas. Buddy.” Kevin slapped my back. “Give ’em hell, Mountain-King.”

I tossed the flag right. Sandra took off.

Whitney and I ran after her. Kevin and Hermes got back in their car. “More pizza!” I shouted at them as they pulled away.

“And a veggie-smoothie!” shouted Whitney. “Jonas, you’ve told me why you’re racing the horse, but how did you get the opportunity?”

I pursed my lips. “Long story short, I’m an idiot, and Alphonse knew it. He wanted my legs and he suckered me in. I guess he wants to outdo his father’s race with Masawa.”

“Hm.” Whitney considered. “But why did Father Bronson race Masawa?


2014

“Why did your father race Masawa?”

Alphonse and Sandra were drinking tea on the veranda overlooking the estate. Alphonse polished the buttons of his gaudy military jacket, which he’d just received as per his father’s will. “Georgie Masawa came to our mansion without warning. I think it was my birthday, because I recall my father gave me a gift. It was a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole.”

“Aw. That’s nice.”

“I hated it,” said Alphonse. “My father was trying to make me love horses, and I wouldn’t comply. I threatened to destroy the toy he gave me, but as a child I wasn’t strong enough.”

“But back to Georgie. What did he want with the Bronsons?”

“Oh, something or other about his tribe in South-America, or maybe South-Africa? He blamed my father for their plight.”

“Well, what was the plight? Was it really your father’s fault?”

“I think he confused my father for my grandfather,” said Alphonse. “My grandfather was a real Bronson. This is his jacket, you know. When he left the old country, they blamed him for the collapsing economy.”

“What was that country? Where are you from?”

“No way to know,” said Alphonse. “Without my grandpa, the country crumbled so pathetically no one knows its name anymore. I don’t, anyway. Losers. Anyway, Georgie was upset about it, and he demanded my father make amends. My father asked him how he got to our mansion without a horse. Back then there were no service-roads in the estate, and narrower trails, so Georgie couldn’t have driven. Georgie said he ran here from Cape Horn. My father was impressed, and said if he could win a race against a horse, the Bronsons would sponsor the tribe, or whatever.”

“Huh.” Sandra surveyed the estate. “Then what?”


1987

Three shots echoed across the estate. Masawa made no sound when he hit the dirt. Father Bronson stowed his silver pistol in his gaudy military jacket. “That’ll teach you to make threats on my property.” Georgie rolled and clutched his chest, but he was smiling. Father Bronson scowled. “What’s that look for?”

“You finished the job,” said Georgie. “You Bronsons killed my whole family.”

“You keep saying that,” said Father Bronson, “but from how you spelled it out, I’ll sleep easy tonight. My family has never touched yours.”

“Your father took everything from us.”

“Is there any evidence of that? Besides, that’s my father, not me.”

“You continue his legacy. You pipe chemicals through our homeland. Last month the pipes leaked, and killed my parents and sister. The pipes read Bronson.”

“Those pipes are vital to glue-manufacturing, and completely safe as determined by the letter of the law. If your people are so good at running, why don’t you just run somewhere else?

Georgie chuckled while he bled to death. Father Bronson pushed Georgie’s corpse with the heel of his boot until it slid down a switchback and tumbled into a ditch. Then Father Bronson mounted his horse and returned to Alphonse, several miles away. “I bagged the deer, son. Back on, boy.”

Alphonse dismounted his toy horse and prepared to board the real one, but hesitated. “I don’t wanna ride the horse. My legs hurt. I don’t wanna race no more.”

Father Bronson furrowed his brow. “Not much longer, son. Just thirty miles back home. And the race is over; I can’t find Masawa anywhere. He must have given up, or gotten lost. So join me in the saddle with pride.”

“But I don’t wanna!” Alphonse threw his horse-toy like a javelin. It landed somewhere in the night.

Father Bronson bit back his anger. He picked up his son by the collar and set him on the saddle. “You’ll learn to appreciate horses, son.” Alphonse pouted. “Tomorrow I’ll take you to the races. You’ll love it, and learn the finer elements of life.”


2014

“And I did,” said Alphonse. “Now I understand horses are the mark of a fine man.”

“Okay, so how’s your own horse-race fit into this?” asked Sandra. “What do you want to improve on your father’s race with Masawa?”

“Well, the race ended prematurely.” Alphonse poured more tea. “What an anticlimax. Hardly masculine, accepting surrender. I want to race a man who can’t afford to quit—a man who will chase me to the end. I want to establish my indomitable dominance over a public figure more well-known that Masawa. Someone with farther to fall.”

“Why?” Sandra poured sugar in her tea. “Do you really want to attract all that attention? You always tell me the media is a Bronson’s worst enemy.”

“I’ll control the narrative.” Alphonse sipped his tea. “I’ve already arranged things with my teams of lawyers. No one’s allowed to film on my property, and I own this land from heaven to hell—no news-choppers. Have you met my private helicopter-pilot?”

“Nuh-uh.”

“A genius in every sense,” said Alphonse. “A military man who fought in… some war, I can’t recall. He owes his life to the Bronsons, like you owe me your legs.” Sandra felt the wheels of her wheelchair. “He manages my security personnel, among other things.”

“Oh, the guys in leather jackets? What’s his name?”

Alphonse shrugged.

Next 10 miles
Commentary
Table of Contents

To Mile 70

(This is part seven of a story about an ultra-marathon runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a 100-mile race. Jonas is behind the horse.)

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2019

Hermes rolled down his window and poked his head from the car like a dog. “Wow, this is steep.”

“My car can take it.” Kevin’s car grumbled in disagreement, but still slogged up the slope. Kevin pat the dashboard appreciatively.

“I’m not worried about your car,” said Hermes. “Remember, Jonas has to climb every step of this mountain.”

“He always called himself ‘King of the Mountain’ in high school,” said Kevin. “Pretentious prick. He said cross-country skiing made him better than me at running uphill.”

“Well?” Hermes pulled his head back into the car. “Was he right?”

Kevin shrugged. “He could run hills all day, but he ran them slowest on the team.”

“Endurance might be all Jonas needs right now,” said Hermes.

“It didn’t help him win The Great Race.” Kevin ashed his cigarette out the window. “Jonas had to skip two miles to beat Whitney.”

Hermes sighed. “I was never sure Jonas did that intentionally. He’s not that kinda guy.”

“Oh, come off it.” Kevin gave Hermes another cigarette to light. “I’ve run a marathon, and every mile after 14 punched me in the gut. If I’d accidentally skipped two miles at the end, I’d have noticed—I’d have been ecstatic to avoid gut-punches. But I wouldn’t pretend I’d finished legit, let alone won. Jonas pretended. Jonas broke the tape.”

“Ninety-plus miles will do stuff to you, man. Maybe Jonas was delirious.” Hermes lit the cigarette. “Half the folks I’ve ever met at ultras have hallucinated.”

“Because they were running for days, like lunatics, or because they were 60’s kids, like you?” Hermes didn’t answer. He held up the cigarette and Kevin took it in his teeth. Kevin puffed smoke and shook his head. “Jonas felt guilty, and he felt guilty because he was guilty.”

“I don’t think so, Kev.”

“I know him better than you do. Did you know Jonas lived with me for a while after The Great Race?” Kevin took a hairpin turn on the service-road up the mountain. “Whitney kicked him out of her apartment, so Jonas slept on my couch for a few months. All I ever saw him do was drink.”

“Geez. Now I feel even more sorry for him.”

“Don’t. What he didn’t spend on booze, he gambled.”

“Jonas gambled? Really? What’d he gamble?”

“Anything he could get his hands on.”

“I mean, what’d he play? Internet poker? Gambling’s not legal around here, and Vegas is a little far.”

“He didn’t gamble legal, Hermes, he—” Kevin wiped his eyes. “Jonas went to the Bronson place. You know the Bronson place?” Hermes shook his head. “Alphonse runs a little underground casino. I think it’s literally underground. I’ve never been there, just heard about it. I hear it’s invite-only.”

“How did Jonas get invited?”

“Beats me,” said Kevin. “I just know whenever Jonas got a paycheck waiting tables, he drank half of it and gambled the rest hoping to double-or-nothing his drinking. He always lost, and then he’d always ask to borrow money from me. I lent him fifty bucks before I realized what he was doing with it; I figured he was buying running shoes, or something. He still owes me.”

Hermes stroked his beard. “Gambling at the Bronson place must’ve inspired Jonas to race the horse.”

“He talked about the horse-race sometimes, but I didn’t think he was serious. I bet he’s doing this to be cheesy and romantic for Whitney. Pretentious prick. If he wins a million bucks, he’d better pay back the booze-money he owes me.” Kevin blinked. “Wait. If Jonas has the funds to make a million-dollar bet, he never needed to borrow money at all! What an ass-hat!”

“Maybe Jonas didn’t have to ante anything,” said Hermes. “Maybe Alphonse just wanted to race a human on horseback, like his daddy did with Georgie Masawa. Alphonse said he’s interested in athlete nutrition, right?”

“Yeah, and then he kicked our pizza.”

“But only after learning about it! Maybe a million bucks isn’t much to a guy like Alphonse, and he’s set up the gamble to sort of buy the experience of racing Jonas.”

“You saw that jockey streak past. Alphonse isn’t even on the horse.”

Hermes shrugged. “Whatever. Maybe Alphonse thinks the sport is its own reward, man.”

“Yeah, whatever, man,” dripped Kevin. “Alphonse is fucked up. I never thought I’d meet a more pretentious prick than Jonas, but baby-Bronson’s got him beat. Alphonse better bring that pizza to mile 70.”

“He won’t,” said Hermes, “and if he does, maybe no one should eat it. Do we really trust Alphonse with race-catering?”

“Yeah, you’re right. He’d probably poison it.” Kevin gripped the steering wheel. “Hey. Wait.” He pulled out his phone. “I bet we can fly another pizza in here.”

“By drone? Alphonse would shoot it down again. I can’t imagine your friend would send another drone just to be destroyed.”

“Don’t doubt my connections. You don’t know Craig.” Kevin scrolled through his contacts.


BEEP. Mile 61: 12:13 / 8:12:07.

The mountain was steeper than I’d given it credit for. Whitney stayed ten paces ahead to scan the trail for debris. She kicked rocks aside so I wouldn’t trip on them. Then she slowed to run beside me. “Drink.” I drank from Whitney’s water-backpack. She donned a headlamp and handed another to me. “Put this on. It’ll be dark soon.”

“Oh, no.” I refused the headlamp. “I hate wearing headlamps as much as I hate—”

“—wearing hats and sunglasses, I know,” said Whitney. “Just put it on, Jonas.” I pulled the elastic band around my forehead. The headlamp bounced on my face with my stride. I suppose the annoyance was worth it; up ahead, groves of trees would be thick with shadows come sunset. “Put this on, too.” She gave me a neon-yellow visibility vest.

“What, really? Why? There’s no traffic out here. I’m not gonna be hit by a car.”

Whitney glared, and I knew she wouldn’t let this go. I put on the vest. “Visibility isn’t just for alerting traffic,” she said. “If you fall off this mountain-trail, we’ll need that reflective vest to spot your corpse by satellite.”

“Gallows humor gives me nausea,” I said, “and so does this neon-yellow vest. It’s worse than Alphonse’s dumb military jacket.”

Whitney rolled her eyes. “You know why he wears that, right?”

BEEP. Mile 62: 11:58 / 8:24:05.

“No clue. I’d never wear it.”

“The jacket belonged to Grandpa-Bronson.” Whitney puffed. The incline winded even her, even after she’d run only twelve miles. “He was a Major-General back in the old country.”

“What country is that?”

“I don’t think it exists anymore.”

“What happened?”

“Grandpa-Bronson happened. He stole the nation’s treasury, and then whatever he did next, he did it so thoroughly there’s not much evidence to go off. I’ve read everything there is about Grandpa-Bronson, and it’s not much.”

“What was the country called before it disintegrated?”

“I wish I could tell you. Evidence of his war-crimes was buried with the bodies.” Whitney noticed my souring expression. “That’s the rumor, anyway. With his fortune he started a glue factory in the states. His motto was Use Every Part of the Horse.”

“Change the topic, squire.”

BEEP. Mile 63: 12:02 / 8:36:07.

“How’s your knee?”

“Not clicking yet.” For a few paces I bent my left leg more than usual, to test it. “But it’ll start soon.”

“Is the compression sleeve helping?”

“Yeah.”

“Got a headache?”

“A little.”

“Cramping?”

“Obviously.”

“You’ve got hyponatremia. You need more salt.” Whitney fished in her backpack for salt-tablets.

“I’m fine. I’m just bonking.” I suddenly realized that was a lie. I wasn’t just bonking—the shadows cast by our headlamps made the earth shimmer with shadows, and for a moment I worried I was lost at sea. “Wait, no. I’m not fine. I’m hallucinating.”

“That’s hyponatremia. Take the salt.” I swallowed the tablets. “Salt-loss can kill you. Hallucinations can’t.”

“Hell yeah they can.” I slowed to a walk. “I’ve already slipped and fallen on this run. If I can’t see straight, I’ll fall again, and I might not get back up.”

“Okay.” Whitney walked beside me. “Drink.”

BEEP. Mile 64: 13:41 / 8:49:48.

I drank from her water-backpack. “What did Georgie Masawa eat for hyponatremia? You read all about him racing Alphonse’s dad, right?”

Whitney laughed. “Not a lot to read, and certainly no diet tips. Georgie was a recluse. All those ultra-running South-American native-tribes are tight-lipped.”

“Was Georgie one of those famous Indians who run hundreds of miles before breakfast? A Tarahumara?”

“Nah, nah, Tarahumara are talkative compared to whatever Georgie was.” When Whitney shook her head, her ponytail whipped at me enticingly. “We don’t even know how many there were, or where they lived, or what they called themselves. We just call them the Masawas, after Georgie.”

I bit my tongue. “So why did Georgie come all the way to the Bronson estate? Did the Bronsons invite him?”

“Beats me,” said Whitney. “Georgie never said. He was basically mute. And then he died, probably somewhere around here.”

My knees knocked, and not just with fatigue. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. All we know is Georgie died between sixty and seventy miles. If Father Bronson raced him on the same trails we’re running now, he’s not far from us. No one ever found his body, so we’ll never know for sure.” She tugged the corner of my visibility vest. “So don’t complain about the neon-yellow. It might be your only ticket to a proper burial.”

BEEP. Mile 65: 18:21 / 9:08:09.

My stomach churned. “I’m no Georgie Masawa.”

“Good. You need to be better than Georgie Masawa.”

I puked off the side of the trail. Retch after retch, it just kept coming.

Whitney pat my back. “Let it out, soldier. You’ve got a pizza coming in a few miles.”

I dry-heaved a few times. Vomit trickled down the mountain. “I can’t do this,” I said. “I can’t keep moving.”

Whitney walked anyway and pulled me along behind her. “You bet your legs, Jonas. You can’t stop moving.”

“Stopping is for the best.” My steps were trembling. “I bet if I stop now, I can convince Alphonse to settle for one whole leg and the other leg below the knee.”

“Jonas.”

“Or both legs up to mid-thigh.”

“Jonas! You’ve run a hundred miles tens of times. You know this pessimism doesn’t last forever. If you give up now, you’ll kick yourself later. Well, you couldn’t kick yourself, but you know what I mean.”

“Prosthetics are pretty good nowadays.”

“Okay, come on.” Whitney checked her GPS watch. “If you stop right here, you’ll sit on your hands until you die. You can’t really quit until we reach the service-road at mile 70. If you can honestly tell me you want to stop every mile until we smell your pizza at 69, then you can quit. I won’t badger you.”

BEEP. Mile 66: 21:04 / 9:29:13.

“I want to stop.”


Hermes waited with his arms crossed by the 70-mile flag. After the fork, Jonas would either start downhill or have two more uphill miles to go.

“A-ha!” Kevin waved his arms at an approaching pizza-drone. “I knew Craig would come through!” He used his phone to photograph the delivery.

“How’d you convince your friend to send another drone after Alphonse shot down the first?”

“Every start-up wants one thing: for their story to get out.” Kevin took a picture of the pizza-box next to the drone. He gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Craig was delighted Alphonse shot down his bot. I told him about Jonas racing the horse, and he said he’d sacrifice ten drones to put his pizzas in this narrative. Whether Jonas wins or not, if this race goes viral, investments will sky-rocket.”

The drone took off and circled about 500 meters above the 70-mile flag. “What’s it hanging around for?” asked Hermes.

“Craig’s waiting for Alphonse to shoot this one, too.” No sooner had Kevin said this than Alphonse’s helicopter crested the mountain. Kevin grinned while he filmed the drone with his phone. “Here it comes!”

“I don’t know if recording is a good idea,” said Hermes. “Alphonse takes that sort of thing pretty seriously.”

“Shove it. This is social-media gold.”

Hermes covered his ears just in time. The helicopter fired seven blaring shots. The drone crashed into the brush and burst into bits. Kevin’s phone recorded the helicopter descending over them. Alphonse’s voice boomed from megaphones: “I brought you your pizza. No need for impatience.”

“Yeah, feed the camera, scumbag.” Kevin stopped recording as soon as the helicopter touched down and Alphonse stepped out. Hermes stowed Jonas’ pizza in the car to protect it. Keven stepped defensively between the car and Alphonse. “Hey, A.B.”

“A.B.?” Alphonse Bronson parsed the nickname for a moment. “Oh. A.B. Quite.” He gave Kevin a pizza-box. It was tiny, the type of pizza a pretentious prick would order at a hoity-toity restaurant. “Kevin, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh.” Kevin pretended to continue recording Alphonse while he tapped his phone’s screen to save the video to the cloud. “Care to comment? You just shot down another drone.”

“You knew that I would. Would you please stop filming?”

“I’m not filming.” Kevin showed Alphonse his phone’s screen: he’d switched to Tetris.

“If you have been filming,” said Alphonse, “please delete the videos, and any photographs you may have taken. Coverage of the estate is highly regulated. If you want to buy a license to film here, please contact my brand manager.”

“Okay, okay.” Kevin put away his phone. “Did you come all this way just to deliver this pizza? Should we tip?”

“Don’t patronize me, I’d be tempted to charge you.” Alphonse smiled and marched to the 70-mile flag. “I’m here for my own sake. My jockey is arriving as I speak.”

Champ’s hoof-beats roared up to the fork. Sandra knocked the flag to the right, then saluted. “Howdy, boss.”

“Sandra, I told you to go right at mile 60. Why did you go left?”

Sandra noticed Kevin and Hermes. She leaned toward Alphonse so only he could hear her. “Champ is fatigued, sir. I didn’t think he could take the more strenuous route.”

Alphonse tutted. “We discussed this. I didn’t want Jonas poking his nose in that direction. You know Champ’s fatigue doesn’t matter anymore.” He procured two syringes from his gaudy military jacket.

“Hey, what’re those?” asked Hermes.

“I don’t pry into your medical history, do I?” Sandra injected the smaller syringe into her thigh. Then she flexed her ankles. “Lay off my jockey-juice.” Her spurs bit Champs belly, while Alphonse injected the horse with the larger syringe.

“I think those spurs are illegal,” said Hermes. “Can’t you see he’s bleeding?”

“Bah. Champ isn’t bothered by such war-wounds.” Alphonse slapped Champ’s flank and Sandra galloped away. Alphonse retreated to his helicopter and the blades spun up. “Remember, delete any footage of the estate!”

“Yeah, yeah! You got it! Edgy twat.” Kevin lit a cigarette as the helicopter lifted off. “What a caveman. That video is already copied to Craig’s PC by now. Hey, wait…” He browsed through his phone. “Where is it?”

“What’s up?” asked Hermes.

“I had a great connection a minute ago, but now the video is just gone. It’s like—” Kevin blinked. Ash fell from his cigarette. “It’s like reception went down as soon as Alphonse arrived. Damn—He must be wearing a signal-jammer. He suspected I’d sneak footage past him.”

“Or maybe he wears it all the time,” said Hermes. “Maybe he’s just that paranoid.”

“But how’d he delete the recording from my phone?” Kevin scratched his head. “This is fucked. All I’ve got left is photos of the pizza-drone. He’s hacking into my shit.”

“Huh.” Hermes pulled a plastic disposable camera from his fanny-pack. “Maybe my caveman tech won’t have that problem. I snapped a couple pics of those spurs.”

Kevin gawped, then guffawed. “You hypocrite! You warned me against filming Alphonse!”

“Yeah, but I have friends in Greenpeace and PETA who’ll wanna see that poor horse.”

“Nah, nah.” Kevin took the camera from Hermes and climbed behind the driver’s seat. “I know exactly what to do with these photos. I’ll be back in an hour to drive you to mile 80. Give Jonas his stupid pizza for me.”


BEEP. Mile 67: 22:13 / 9:51:26.

“I want to stop.”

“Uh huh, uh huh.” Whitney walked behind to make me plod with decent pace. “Tell me, have you really thought through losing your legs?”

“When Alphonse takes my legs, they won’t hurt any more. He’ll cure my bum knee for good.”

“But you won’t be able to run, or walk, or stand.”

“Like I said, prosthetics are pretty nice nowadays. They can 3D print limbs that make paraplegic Olympic-contenders.”

“And how’re you gonna afford those fancy prosthetics?” asked Whitney.

“Book-money.” My foot slipped on a rock. Thank goodness the trail was so steep that the incline broke most of my fall.

Whitney gave me a hand to help me up, but I just flopped onto my back. “You spent all your book-money, Jonas. That’s why you bet your legs.”

“I’ll write a new book.” Both my palms were bloody. I brushed them together to knock off pebbles and dust. “I’ll have a story worth writing about. I raced a Bronson on horseback and got farther than Georgie Masawa before throwing in the towel. That’s a best-seller.”

“You weren’t so good at writing, if I recall. I wrote Live to Run almost cover-to-cover.” Whitney tapped her foot impatiently. I finally started pulling myself upright. “And before you ask, no, I won’t write this book for you, too.”

“You can buy the story-rights from me,” I said. “You’ll write the book and your name will be on the cover.”

Whitney considered it as we continued to walk. “Maybe if you finish the race. Quitting at seventy miles would be anticlimactic. You’ll run a hundred miles or you’ll write about it on your own.”

BEEP. Mile 68: 21:48 / 10:13:14.

“That’s not happening. I want to stop.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Whitney tore open a silver packet of running-glop. “Eat this.”

“Eeugh.” I shuddered. “No way. You wanna see me puke again?”

“It’s peanut-butter.” Whitney pressed it into my hands. “You love peanut-butter.”

“My stomach doesn’t. Not right now.”

“What does your stomach want right now? Chocolate?”

I shook my head. “Pizza.”

Whitney slurped the peanut-butter glop herself. “You gotta keep moving for pizza.”

“How much farther to the flag? About a mile?”

Whitney checked her GPS watch. “More like a mile and three quarters.”

I stopped in my tracks. “Whitney.”

“Move, Jonas.”

“Wait. Whitney. Do you hear that?” I cupped my hands around my ears. “Hoof-beats.”

Whitney looked around. The narrow trail hugged a cliff-side on our right, and a steep, scraggy grove of trees on our left. The sun had set on the other side of the mountain, so it was dark as night. Our headlamps cast eerie illumination. “I don’t hear hooves, Jonas.”

But I did. I heard a hearty gallop.

A horse rounded the cliff-side, charging right toward us. It wasn’t Champ. This horse was fiery-red and puffed steam from its nostrils like an engine.

Its jockey was a skeleton. I didn’t realize I was hallucinating until I’d already leaped left off the trail. “Jonas!”

I rolled and rolled downhill. My body broke dry branches. I caught an old tree-trunk with my ribs, and held it for dear life.

“Jonas, grab on!” Whitney leaned off the trail ten feet above me. She lowered her water-backpack by one strap, dangling the other strap almost within my reach. I reached.

I slid deep into the dirt. The tree’s rotting roots straggled into a dark, narrow ditch down which I tumbled until I was face-to-face with a skull.

I breathlessly watched the skull, waiting for it to fade like any other hallucination.

It didn’t. It stayed. The skull connected to old, broken bones.

Nausea gripped me again, but I couldn’t puke it out. The sick felt tethered to my spine. “Georgie,” I whispered.

“Jonas!” shouted Whitney. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah!” With renewed adrenaline, I scrambled from the ditch. At the surface I shed my neon-yellow visibility vest and tied it around the roots of the rotting tree. “Help me up!”

“Hold this!” Whitney dangled her water-backpack. I grabbed the hanging strap and she pulled me back onto the trail. “Don’t jump off again, nimrod,” she said.

“You don’t have to tell me twice.” We kept walking.

“Where’s your vest?” she asked. I shrugged. “You’re lucky I could spot you. You almost Masawa’d yourself.”

BEEP. Mile 69: 24:19 / 10:37:33.

“I want to stop.” I looked at Whitney expectantly. “I’ve said it five miles in a row. You have to let me stop.”

“Say it again at the end of 69, when you smell pizza,” she said. I groaned. “If you want your pizza sooner, then jog with me. Come on.” We jogged slowly. The worst of the incline was behind us. “Once you’re over this mountain the rest of the race is downhill or flat.”

“I still want to stop. The pizza won’t change my mind.”

Whitney sighed. “You really want to give up your legs?”

“Just seven-tenths of them.”

“Why does Alphonse even want your legs?”

“I wish I knew. He just said ‘medical purposes.’ Alphonse says my legs are worth a million bucks to his laboratories, or whatever.”

“And apparently you agree,” said Whitney, “since you took the bet.”

“No, no.” I covered my face. “Initially I lied I had a million bucks to ante. When Alphonse found out I don’t have the money, then he said he wanted my legs.”

Whitney’s lips popped. “How did he find that out?”

“I don’t know. He said something about his accountant running numbers.”

“But… wouldn’t he…” Whitney trailed off. “Wouldn’t he check before the race?”

Her realization dawned on me with agonizing crawl. “Oh God,” I whimpered. “Alphonse always knew I didn’t have the money. He was after my legs this whole time. This was his plan from the start.”

“Keep your head, Jonas.”

“At this rate? My head’s all I could possibly keep, because it’s empty and useless.”

“Jonas.”

Tears streamed down my cheeks. Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. I drank deep. “I can’t stop here, Whitney.”

“I know.”

“Don’t let me stop. I have to win the race.”

“I know.”

BEEP. Mile 70: 14:52 / 10:52:25.

The jockey had tossed the 70-mile flag to the right, toward more uphill. I looked around; where was Kevin’s car?

“Jonas! Whitney!” Hermes approached with a pizza-box. “Kevin drove out to develop some photos.”

“Seriously? He’s gotta post pictures to social media now?” Whitney rolled her eyes. “What a pretentious prick.” I didn’t mind. I was already scarfing down my second slice of pizza. The oil soaked my mouth and throat. Whitney traded her empty water-backpack for a full one from Hermes. “Jonas has got some cuts and bruises. How’d the horse look?”

“Not great, honestly.” Hermes treated and bandaged my injuries while I ate, then pointed to his own ribs. “The jockey was really giving him the spurs. Alphonse injected the horse and jockey with something, too. I figure that means they’re in bad shape.”

“How long ago did she pass by?”

“About an hour ago.”

I shoved the rest of the pizza in my mouth. Whitney smeared sauce off my cheek. “An hour ago, we were barely three miles away,” she said. “We can make up three miles over thirty.”

“Just let me know if there’s anything I can do,” said Hermes.

“Mm!” I swallowed the last of the crust. “There is.”

“Yeah?”

“I lost my neon-yellow visibility vest.”

“I’ve got another you can wear.” Hermes opened his fanny-pack.

“No!” I walked down the trail. “I lost my vest around mile 68. Promise me you’ll find it.”


1987

“You should know something, Masawa. My horse can run a bit faster than this.”

Georgie nodded.

Father Bronson pat his horse’s mane. Behind him on the saddle, eight-year-old Alphonse Bronson clutched a plush horse’s head on a wooden pole. He and the toy horse were wearing little cowboy hats.

“We’ve raced almost seventy miles—”

“Sixty-three.” Georgie spoke without eye-contact to Father Bronson.

Father Bronson twirled his mustache. “I rounded up. In any case, you must understand you have no hope here.”

Georgie shrugged.

“I’ve been humoring you so far. My horse could have finished a hundred miles hours ago.” At this, Georgie smirked. Father Bronson gripped the reins. “What’s that look for?”

“I just wonder,” said Georgie, “who’s humoring who.” He accelerated for a few steps, in jest, just until Father Bronson flinched and sped his horse in chase. It was hard to tell whose gait was more naturally perfect, the horse’s or Masawa’s. Georgie laughed and returned to his ordinary pace.

“I mean it!” said Father Bronson. “I agreed to this race suspecting you had no chance of winning, but I hoped you would prove me wrong! I wanted to analyze your form to enhance my race-horses. You would have been a whetstone to sharpen my blade. But I’m afraid you’ve got nothing to teach me. If you were a horse, I’d make glue.”

Georgie’s smirk became incredulous. “Mister Bronson, sir, do you race for fun, or profit?”

“Both.”

“I race for food.” Georgie subtly sped up. “I’ve raced horses to death, far faster than this, from Columbia to Patagonia.”

“I told you, I’m humoring you!” Father Bronson made his horse match pace with Georgie. Alphonse bobbed his toy horse up and down with the gallop.

“Mister Bronson.” Georgie kept speeding up; he bounded majestically like a deer. “You killed my family. You threatened my people.”

“Well, actually, technically,” said Father Bronson—

“—and you demand I win a race to save our homeland.”

“You’re making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Father Bronson. “Besides, you leapt at the opportunity to race me today.”

“Because this isn’t really a race.” Georgie stopped laughing and locked eyes with him. “Mister Bronson, I’m chasing you to death. Not your horse—you.”

Father Bronson shivered. He wanted to say the peculiar Indian was japing, but he realized he’d never seen a human run as fast as Georgie was right now. Masawa had just run a half-mile in a minute, and he didn’t even look particularly winded. “Stop looking at me like that!” Father Bronson whipped the reins and his horse galloped at a pace no human could hope to match, until Georgie was a speck miles behind them. Finally Father Bronson stopped on the side of the trail. “Off, boy.”

Alphonse was glad to dismount; he and his father had ridden for hours today, and his thighs had chafed since mile three.

“Stay right here, son.” Father Bronson turned his horse around. “Mount your pony.”

“But my legs hurt.” Alphonse withered under his father’s glare. He mounted his toy horse.

“Stay put until I come back. I’m going hunting.” Father Bronson pulled a silver pistol from his gaudy military jacket. “I saw a deer back there. They’re rare in the estate.”

“Are you gonna mount it over the mantle, papa?”

“No, no, no, son.” Father Bronson made sure the pistol was loaded. “This one’s a loser.”

Next 12 Miles
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Timing

By mile 70, it’s getting dark and spooky.

This is a bit of an issue, because by my own reckoning, it’s only about four or five in the afternoon. When Jonas was around mile 31, Kevin was just waking up at 10:00 AM. According to this website the sun shouldn’t finish setting for another hour or so, at least.

Lemme show you a quick spreadsheet: the first column is the mile number, then the next column is Jonas’ time on that mile, then the total time elapsed since the start of the race, then Jonas’ average pace thus far. The last column shows the current time, based on Kevin’s alarm at 10 AM, in red.

spreadsheet.pngI’m not stressing about the realism of the race’s chronology right now. By changing the time in the red box, I can adjust the whole column at once. Maybe Kevin sets his alarm for 11 AM, or noon. It’ll be whatever makes sense when all’s said and done.

I’ve watched some documentaries about ultra-marathons, and it seems the races normally begin early in the morning, before sunrise. So the beginning of the race is about right, but I don’t mind changing it a little.

I’ve also made a little elevation map. So far it doesn’t look too ridiculous.

elevation.png

See you next time!

Next 12 Miles
Table of Contents

PS. The first time I wrote this, Georgie Masawa was a Tarahumara, from a South-American tribe of natural runners providing campfire-legends for ultra-racers. I think the running community at large first learned of Tarahumara from the book Born to Run.

This draft, Georgie is more mysterious and the Tarahumara are only briefly mentioned. For me to use a real tribe would require, like, research, man, and could come across as exploitative. I think Georgie’s more meaningful when he’s more abstract.

To Mile 60

(This is part six of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who bets his legs he can beat a horse in a hundred mile race. For now, Jonas is ahead of the horse.)

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2019

BEEP. Mile 51: 11:52 / 6:48:51.

Hermes’ compression-sleeve was a lifesaver for my left knee. The knee ached without a sleeve ever since I broke my leg cross-country skiing as a Wisconsin teen, but I hadn’t worn a sleeve this morning because the only one I owned was cotton. After just twenty miles it would’ve rubbed my knee red-raw. Hermes’ compression sleeve was silky nylon. The man knew how to live.

“Drink.” Whitney gave me the hose to her water-backpack. My mouth was still dry from twenty miles with hardly any liquid. As I chugged, Whitney put something in my palm. “Swallow these.”

It wasn’t my place to ask what she’d given me. I just swallowed them.

“That’s two ibuprofen and a salt tab,” she said. “You’ll thank me for the painkillers, and hyponatremia is a death-null. You’re already acting confused.”

BEEP. Mile 52: 8:11 / 6:57:51.

“Can’t too many meds cause kidney-failure?” I asked.

“If you win a million bucks tonight, you can buy as many kidneys as you want from the Bronsons,” said Whitney. “If you lose, you’ve got bigger problems than your kidneys.”

I gulped. As we ran into the shade of trees, a chill ran down my spine. “Change the topic, squire.”

“You just finished two marathons in under seven hours. Nice job.”

“I don’t want to think about running.”

“What have you explained so far to Thog, the caveman?”

“Just cars and crosswalk-signals.”

“Airplanes are usually good for a few miles,” said Whitney. “Explain airplanes.”

“Well, Thog, do you know about birds?”

Whitney smiled. “Thog know bird. Thog eat bird.”

“Have you ever wanted to fly like a bird, Thog?”

“Why Thog want that?”

“You could fly up high to see where all the animals were hiding. You could drop rocks on enemy tribes. You could spy women from afar to take back to your cave—I’m sure flying would be a hit with the ladies.”

“Ooh. Thog want that,” said Whitney. “Tell Thog about airplane.”

BEEP. Mile 53: 8:03 / 7:05:05.

I felt the ibuprofen kicking in. It didn’t help my aching legs much, but it helped. Whitney was right to worry about hyponatremia, too; low salt-levels could make me cramp or even hallucinate. “Well, Thog, I already explained cars, remember? An airplane is like a car that can fly like a bird.”

“How Thog get one?”

“Ooh.” I bit my tongue. “It’s harder to get an airplane than a car. Airplanes are expensive.”

“Eckspensif?” asked Whitney. “What that?”

“You know, you have to trade a lot of berries and animal skins and stuff for an airplane.”

“Oh. Thog have many berry and animal skin. Thog trade for airplane. Bring many woman back to cave.”

“The tricky thing is, though, piloting a plane is a lot harder than driving a car. You’ll probably have to get a license, or something.”

“Lie…sense?”

“I mean, you gotta prove you can fly without crashing and killing everyone aboard.”

“Ooh. Scary. Thog reconsider.”

Whitney and I laughed. My cheeks were red. “I missed running with you, Thog.”

“I’m glad to see you again, Jonas.” Whitney pointed up through the branches above. “You should tell Thog about helicopters next.”

I looked up. I’d prayed the helicopter flying overhead was a hallucination. “Alphonse.”

BEEP. Mile 54: 8:09 / 7:13:14.


Kevin paced around his car, smoking a cigarette and swearing. Hermes napped across the back seat. The sixty-mile flag fluttered in light breeze.

“…Finally!” Kevin waved both hands in the air.

Hermes opened his eyes at the buzz of an approaching aircraft. “What’s that?” A plastic craft the size and shape of a bird of prey hovered before Kevin and gently set a pizza-box on the dirt.

“I’m friends with a guy who runs a start-up delivering stuff by drone. I figured we couldn’t get Jonas’ pizza into the estate any other way, considering the hassle we had at the gate.” Kevin opened the pizza-box to check its toppings, then gave a thumbs-up to the drone’s camera. “Pineapple-olive, just like Jonas ordered. Eeugh. Well, it’s his shitty pizza.” Kevin showed the drone’s camera both sides of his credit-card. “Christ, who orders a cheeseless pizza? Pretentious pricks, that’s who.”

Hermes watched Kevin inhale the last of his cigarette and blow the smoke at the drone as it took off. Hermes pursed his lips. “You don’t seem to like Jonas very much, huh, Kev? Why’d you want to come here and help him?”

“Jonas and I go way back, back to high-school cross-country. But he was always a pretentious prick. Always ragging on about skiing and the Wisconsin countryside and crap like that.” Keven sat in his car’s driver’s seat with the pizza-box in his lap. He used his smartphone to add a tip onto the delivery. “If he wins a million bucks today, Jonas better pay me for the pizza. It costs two hundred bucks to deliver like this. And he got it cheeseless, the pretentious prick!” Kevin lit another cigarette and puffed.

“Why do you smoke, man?” asked Hermes.

“Calms me down,” said Kevin, apparently unsarcastically. “Don’t tell me you’ve never smoked anything, hippie-beard.”

“Nothing legal,” said Hermes. “I just mean, as a cross-country runner, I figured you’d worry more about your lungs.”

Kevin reclined his seat. “Spare me the speech, dude. I’ve heard it all before.”

“Bet you have,” said Hermes. “I heard it all the time when I was drinking myself to death.” Kevin tapped ash from his cigarette. “When I was Jonas’ age, all I did was drink and run, but I only really learned to love running after I quit drinking. Got better at it, too.”

“I’m not like you weirdos,” said Kevin. “I don’t run ultras. I run on a treadmill in my air-conditioned basement, three miles at a time, three times a week. The treadmill doesn’t care if I smoke.”

“Running is running. Don’t Run to Live, man, Live to Run.”

“If that kinda thinking got Jonas into this situation, he should’ve just settled for living.” Kevin puffed his cigarette. “Should’ve just left the Bronsons alone.”

“I’m just saying, you could really… Uh…” Hermes pointed skyward. “Hey. Look.”

Kevin shaded his eyes from the sun. A helicopter was flying toward them. “Huh,” said Kevin. “Must be Alphonse.”

“Do you think it’s coming clos—” Hermes’ words were blown away by the helicopter landing abruptly before them.

“Good afternoon, gentlemen!” Alphonse Bronson stepped from the cockpit. “I suppose this is yours?” He tossed the drone onto the dirt. It was mangled and torn.

“Whoa!” said Kevin, “Did you fucking shoot it?

“No, I didn’t. My helicopter-pilot shot it.” Alphonse saluted back to the helicopter as the blades spun down. “Your drone was in my private airspace, and my pilot has an itchy trigger-finger regarding invasion of my privacy.”

“It’s not a government spy, crackpot! It’s a pizza-delivery bot!

“I see. Please, forgive me.” Alphonse bowed, sweepingly. “I’ll pay for the drone, but I hope you understand I don’t want any unauthorized visitors on my property, flying or otherwise. If you’re hungry, please, call me and I’ll have a trusted estate-agent bring you something more sophisticated than a pizza.” He passed Hermes a business card.

“The pizza’s not for us,” said Hermes. “Jonas asked for it specifically.”

Alphonse blinked. “Oh.” He pat his gaudy military jacket’s pockets for a minty metal toothpick. “May I see it?”

“Excuse me?” Kevin pulled back the pizza-box. “Hell no.”

“Please excuse my abruptness. I’m fascinated by athlete nutrition,” said Alphonse. “What pizza-toppings does an ultra-runner order? Maybe my horses could learn a lesson from Jonas.”

Kevin raised an eyebrow.

“There’s really no need for suspicion,” said Alphonse. “I assure you, I’m not nearly nefarious as the media portrays me. The Bronsons aren’t a photogenic family, but we’re much more personable in person.”

“It’s pineapple and black olive,” said Hermes, “and cheeseless.”

“Cheeseless!” Alphonse clapped. “How intriguing!”

“Yeah, I’ve met lots of runners who say cheese makes them nauseous,” said Hermes. “They don’t do dairy on a run.”

“You know, when I was young, my father took me to Italy. I learned that cheeseless pizza is perhaps the most historically authentic,” said Alphonse, “and definitely delicious!” Kevin rolled his eyes. Pretentious prick. “But how might a runner eat a whole pizza mid-stride?”

“Jonas is hungry enough to eat a horse,” said Hermes. “It won’t take him long to finish this. Maybe he’ll walk for a few steps to scarf it down.”

“Is the pizza cut into squares,” asked Alphonse, “or are slices more convenient?”

Hermes shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”

“The things you perceive not to matter might matter most!” said Alphonse. “My father always taught me—”

“Fine you pretentious prick!” Kevin opened the box. “It’s cut into slices, okay?”

Alphonse kicked the bottom of the box. The pizza flopped onto the dirt. Alphonse stepped on it and smeared it with the heel of his boot.

Kevin stared at the pizza. “You asshole!” He rolled up his sleeve and approached Alphonse. Alphonse just smiled and pulled a pistol from his jacket. It was silver and had horses engraved on the handle. “What the fuck.”

“You visit my property at my mercy. I don’t approve of flying-machines intruding to deliver mysterious pizzas—especially flying-machines with cameras.”

“We don’t want any trouble,” said Hermes, with his hands up. “Mr. Bronson, sir, would you please send us a pizza with pineapple and black olives but no cheese? For Jonas.”

Alphonse put the gun back in his jacket. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“You’re a dickhead!” said Kevin. “Aren’t you supposed to be riding a horse right now?”

“My best jockey’s on the job.” Alphonse climbed back into his helicopter. “You’ll see her soon enough, as she streaks by.”


BEEP. Mile 55: 7:59 / 7:21:13.

“Anyway, Thog, that’s what helicopters are all about,” I puffed. Whitney’s pace was demanding but manageable.

“There it is again.” Whitney pointed up at Alphonse’s helicopter. “Maybe he’s spying on us.”

“I wouldn’t doubt it.”

“I can’t believe he switched out for a jockey,” said Whitney. “I read all about the Bronsons when I was researching Georgie Masawa. Alphonse seemed like the kinda guy who’d wanna do things himself, if only to gloat.”

“He flipped me off,” I said. “He said he was injured when his horse brushed against a branch, and he was eager to show me the band-aid on his middle finger.”

“Pathetic,” said Whitney. “He can’t even give the bird himself. He has to blame his horse.”

“Yeah.” I chuckled. “I don’t need any help to flip someone off.” I raised my middle-finger at the helicopter. “Take that, Alphonse.”

“Careful,” said Whitney. “If he’s really spying on us, he might take that personally.”

“You think he’s that petty?”

“From what I’ve read, no one is more petty than Alphonse Bronson.” Whitney passed me the hose to her water-backpack. “You know that better than anyone.”

I sure did. I grit my teeth.

BEEP. Mile 56: 8:02 / 7:29:15.

“Let me talk to Thog.”

“Thog here.”

“I told my friend Whitney that racing the horse was a corny attempt at romance,” I said, “but that’s not it. I have a grudge against Alphonse I couldn’t put off any longer.”

“You’ve told this story to Thog a hundred times,” said Whitney, “but Thog is happy to hear it again. You’re good at telling it.”

“I broke my leg cross-country skiing when I was fifteen,” I said. “If I ever wanted to ski again, I needed surgery my family couldn’t afford.”

“Mm-hm, mm-hm.”

“We heard about a big charity event in Colorado,” I said, “sponsored by the Bronsons. The Bronsons had an awful reputation, but if they were funding a charity event, maybe they weren’t so bad. So I went, and they gave me a crutch for free. I just had to run in a charity race.”

“How’d that go?”

“Alphonse offered free medical-care for life to every kid in that race except last place. As the kid on a crutch, it came down to me and the girl in a wheelchair.” I took a deep breath. “I would’ve been nothing but thankful if I’d just gotten the crutch, but taunting me with the possibility of getting my knee back, good as new—it wrecked me. I still see the girl in the wheelchair when I close my eyes. She beat me by meters.”

BEEP. Mile 57: 7:48 / 7:37:03.

“Thog understands,” said Whitney. “The Bronsons have hurt a lot of folks. You’re among an elite crowd, including Georgie Masawa.”

“I know.”

Hoy, hoy! Outta the way!”

Whitney and I heard galloping hoof-beats. Champ streaked by us, full-tilt.

Yah! Yah!” shouted the jockey. The hoof-beats became quiet in the distance ahead.

“Oh my god.” My knees quaked.

“It’s okay,” said Whitney. “Don’t panic. The horse won’t always be behind us, or ahead. Races are about change.”

“No, it’s not the horse.” I held my head in my hands. “The jockey was her, Whitney. The girl in the wheelchair.”

“You’re hallucinating, Jonas. She could have been anyone.”

“I’d know the back of her head anywhere.” Now I led the pace.

BEEP. Mile 58: 7:32 / 7:44:35.

Whitney sped a few steps ahead to slow me down. “Drink.” I drank from her water-backpack. “Swallow.” She ripped open a silver packet of running glop. I slurped it down: peanut-butter. “Drink.” I drank from her hose. “We’re closing in on that mountain.”

“Yep.”

“Is there another flag at mile sixty, to choose which way we run at the fork?”

“Yep.”

“Have you looked at maps of this place?”

“Yep.”

“Does either way, left or right, avoid that mountain?”

I puffed. “Nope.”

“Then save your gas, Jonas. The fork’s the jockey’s. Let her choose. You’ll choose at mile eighty, I promise.”

BEEP. Mile 59: 7:15 / 7:51:50.

I let myself slow down. “Thanks, squire.”

“Think about your pizza.”

“Ooh.” I salivated. “Kevin’s such a snob about pineapple on pizza, but I can’t get enough.”

“The combination of savory and sweet is old as cooking,” Whitney concurred, “and you never know what tastes good after sixty miles until you get there.”

“Nah. I’ve been praying for that pizza since mile five,” I said. “I hope they could get it into the estate.”

“I hadn’t thought about that.” Whitney put a hand over her mouth. “I should’ve asked for your pizza-order before we came in.”

“I need that pizza, Whitney.”

“There they are.” Whitney pointed ahead. Beyond the trees, beside the flag at mile sixty, Kevin and Hermes waited in the car.

BEEP. Mile 60: 8:04 / 7:59:54.

Hermes made a gesture for Whitney I couldn’t see. “Jonas, do some stretches and check where the jockey tossed the flag,” said Whitney.


“It’s not good, Whitney.” Hermes brought Whitney behind Kevin’s car.

“What? What’s wrong?”

“Alphonse stopped by.” Hermes opened the pizza-box in the back-seat. The pizza was mushed and dirty.

“Ah. Shit.” Whitney put her hands on her hips and breathed through her teeth.

“That ain’t half of it, sister.” Kevin tossed the destroyed drone before her. It was still smoldering. “Alphonse is packing heat. We called the police, but they said Alphonse is legally justified shooting down drones in his private airspace. Who’da thunk.”

“Okay. Okay.” Whitney covered her mouth. “I’ll handle this. Get another pizza to mile seventy. It’s uphill the whole way, so it’ll take us a few hours.”


The jockey had tossed the flag left, and I was glad. The trail right was steeper.

“I’ve got bad news,” said Whitney.

“I’ve got good news, so lemme go first.” I pointed left. “The jockey chose the shallower path. Champ must be getting tired.” I grinned. “She was just galloping past to freak us out.”

“There’s no pizza,” said Whitney.

I looked at her dumbly. “Huh?”

“Alphonse stole your pizza and gave it to the jockey. She ate one slice, and the horse ate the rest.”

My blood boiled.


2014

Sandra knocked on the door. “You sent for me, sir?” There was no response. The door was ajar, so Sandra peeked into Alphonse’s bedroom. Alphonse was bundled up in blankets in the fetal position. He waved a finger to tell Sandra to come closer. Sandra rolled her wheelchair to his bedside.

“My father died this morning,” said Alphonse.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Sandra.

“He said I hadn’t made anything of myself.” Alphonse coiled into a tighter ball. “He still thought himself a bigger man than me.”

Sandra tutted. “Well, he raised you. If he considers you a failure, he must’ve failed as a father.”

Alphonse considered. He sat up, still wrapped in blankets. “Yeah. That’s right!” He turned to Sandra. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If he calls my aspirations twisted, he has only himself to blame. And now, without him holding me back, I can be a real Bronson!”

“Exactly, sir!” Sandra clapped. “Let’s celebrate! Do you have any jockey-juice? If I can stand, we’ll tango!”

“Yes, lets!” Alphonse opened a drawer on his nightstand. He passed Sandra a syringe which she injected into her thigh. Then she stood from her wheelchair as if she never needed it. “Come here!”

Sandra had practiced dancing ever since she first tried jockey-juice. She and Alphonse danced around his bed. “What’s the first thing you want to do, now that your old man isn’t around?”

“The same thing I’ve done all my life,” said Alphonse, “dwarf my father’s legacy! My father made millions, I’ve made billions. My father raced glue-horses, I breed champions.” They wheeled around the room. “Anything he did, I’ll do with ten-fold the grace!”

“Yeah! That’s the spirit!” Sandra let Alphonse dip her. “Show your daddy who’s daddy!”

Alphonse kissed her on the lips.

Sandra grunted and pushed him away. “Whoa! Hey! I didn’t mean it like that!”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Alphonse adjusted the cuffs of his gaudy military jacket. “I just thought—My father… was a father, and I thought you meant—I thought you were volunteering to make me a father, too.”

“No, no, no.” Sandra sat back in her wheelchair; Alphonse had diluted the jockey-juice, and she felt it wearing off. “I’m sure you’ll find the right woman to carry the Bronson genes.”

Alphonse looked out a window over the estate, and, sighing, shook his head. “I think I’m the last of my lineage. I can’t imagine meeting a suitable receptacle for my seed.”

Sandra breathed in relief. Some lucky lady dodged a bullet.

“No, I know exactly how to put my father’s memory in its place.” Alphonse smiled at the sun. “I’ll follow in his footsteps and beat a modern Georgie Masawa. Maybe I’ll run him to death, too.”

Sandra bit her lip. “With all due respect, sir, if you follow in your father’s footsteps, you’ll always be a step behind.”

Alphonse paused and turned to her. “I understand what you mean, but there’s a little more to Georgie Masawa than the history books tell. There’s room to improve on my father’s ambition.”

Next 10 Miles
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To Mile 50

(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.)

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2019

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 turned 26, Whitney and I had run more ultra-marathons 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?”

“Uh-huh.”

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 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 second or third.” 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 of my three-liter water-backpack, then spat. I forgot the river was bitter. 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 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, and so was mine. For a quarter-mile my eyes soaked up the sight of her ponytail bouncing with her stride. Suddenly the tension in my muscles evaporated.

When she was close, I waved again. “Whitney!”

“Jonas, you idiot!”

“I know!”

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.

“Thanks.”

“What’s that thing?” She pointed to the collar of my shirt.

“Oh, right.” 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 through 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.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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?”

“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, on 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.”


2013

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 her 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 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?”

“Nah.”

“What’s my name?”

“Why would I care?” Alphonse 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.”

“Yeah?”

“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.”

“His body?”

“My father ran Georgie to death. Poor guy. What a shame.” Alphonse reconsidered. “I mean, if he weren’t such a loser.”

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Water Backpacks

This time in Man VS Horse, billionaire Alphonse reveals that if broke ultramarathoner Jonas loses this hundred-mile-race against a horse, Alphonse will take his legs in retribution. Hoo boy.

Anyway, I keep mentioning ‘three-liter water-backpacks.’ I figured I’d explain what I meant.

CamelBak Hydrobak 0.8L Backpack | Backcountry.com

This is a Camelbak; maybe you’re seen or used one before. It’s basically a slim backpack with a balloon inside you fill with water (or soda, or wine, or whatever, if you’re adventurous). Some Camelbaks hold one liter, others hold up to four. Mine holds two liters of water, and it’s really a lifesaver. When I used to plan twenty-mile runs, I had to consider where all the local water-fountains were so I could hydrate. A Camelbak freed me to run basically anywhere.

I’ve never run far enough to justify refilling my Camelbak mid-run, but Jonas drank about a liter per ten miles. If he can’t meet his crew soon, he’ll be in trouble.

Cross your fingers!

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To Mile 40

(This is part 4 of a story about an ultra-marathon-runner who makes a million-dollar bet that he can beat a billionaire on horseback in a hundred-mile-race. The ultra-marathoner will soon learn that without a million dollars to lose, the billionaire will demand his legs.)

cardFront

2019

BEEP. BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.

Kevin turned off his alarm-clock. It was ten in the morning. He slumped out of bed and started a pot of coffee.

As the coffee dribbled, Kevin checked his Facebook, his Instagram, and his Twitter. He smiled; he’d doubled his followers since Jonas’ book came out. What was the title? Live to Run? Kevin would never bother reading it, but apparently he came across quite well. He’d have to thank Whitney for the publicity.

Kevin checked his texts and almost dropped his phone. “Jonas! You idiot!” He dialed a number and put the phone to his ear. “Whitney! Your ex is making an ass of himself again! Call your Uncle Hermes, I’ll pick you up.”


BEEP. Mile 31: 8:04 / 4:10:22.

The maps said there was a river running down this side of the mountain, and technically, there was, but I hesitated to fill my three-liter water-backpack. The water flowed crystal clear from a rusty industrial pipe. It never occurred to me that this river might be man-made, and chlorinated, or worse.

Anyway, I filled up my three-liter backpack and tossed in a water-purification tablet. The backpack sloshed every step. After half an hour bouncing on my back, the water might be drinkable. I crossed my fingers; I couldn’t run seventy more miles without water.

On a typical ultra-marathon there’d be regular stations where runners could load up on supplies, or seek medical attention, or even quit the race. Some ultras over hundreds of miles were just lots of loops around small courses, so runners passed one aid-station over and over. A runner might even have a partner, a ‘pacer,’ who could carry things like a squire for a knight.

I was Whitney’s first squire.

BEEP. Mile 32: 7:32 / 4:17:54.

She’d signed up for a fifty-miler by the beach. We’d planned it for months. I’d be at each aid-station every ten kilometers. After thirty miles I’d be allowed to run beside her and pace her for the rest of the race.

Her Uncle Hermes taught me the rigmarole of race-staffing. He was an old hand at ultras. “Here, Jonas, hydro those guys.” At a marathon I might hold out a paper cup of water for the racers every mile. At the ultra I filled up a guy’s water-backpack while he puked into a bush. His stomach-capacity impressed me; he was skinny like a skeleton, but hurled up whole pints. Hermes pat him on the back and offered him some pretzels. “Whitney should be here soon,” Hermes told me. I wondered if she’d be as gaunt as most of the people who’d already passed.

“Hoy!” Whitney waved as she came around a cape. She was exhausted but jubilant. She tossed me her water-backpack. “Fill ‘er up and put ‘er on!”

Hermes untied Whitney’s shoes while I filled her water-backpack. I turned the backpack upside-down so the air-bubble floated to the top, where I could suck it out the hose. That’d keep the backpack from sloshing every step. “You’re the seventh woman overall,” I said, “and fourth in your age-group.”

“Am I on pace?”

“Perfectly.” I donned Whitney’s water-backpack to carry it for her while Hermes finished retying her shoes. If Whitney had crouched to tie them herself, she risked cramping and collapsing. “Let’s go.”

BEEP. Mile 33: 7:27 / 4:25:21.

It was fun to work pit-stops for Whitney, and I treasured running beside her when she was already fatigued. After she’d run thirty miles I could actually keep up with her, and I felt useful pacing her to the finish-line in ten hours. She ran the last mile in eight minutes, then kicked off her shoes. Her toenails were black and bleeding. We collapsed together near the ocean and let waves lap at our legs.

Then she asked, “when are you doing one?”

So I was obligated to let Whitney pace me on a 50-miler. And let me tell you, she looked different after I’d run thirty miles.

She was like peanut-butter: on a long run, I couldn’t get enough. When Whitney ran beside me, my body demanded her. She was salt and sugar and oil.

That’s why I signed up for a 100-miler. I was eager to speedball my girlfriend when my body was battered and bruised. “Are you sure?” she’d asked. “My Uncle Hermes ran few hundos back in the day. He says it’s a whole new world of pain.”

“Running is all about suffering,” I’d said. “The one who suffers best is the one who wins.” And boy, did I suffer. I ran from sunrise, to sunset, to sunrise, and Whitney was an irresistible siren luring me on when I wobbled.

BEEP. Mile 34: 7:44 / 4:33:05.

That hundred-miler was at a national park in the Midwest. About twenty-two hours in, I saw a bird I didn’t recognize. “Whitney?”

“Need water?” She offered me the hose from her water-backpack.

“No, the bird.” I pointed at the sky, near the sun. “Look. A big red bird.”

“There’s no bird, Jonas.” Whitney shook her head. “You’re hallucinating. Hermes warned you this would happen eventually.”

“Huh?” I couldn’t believe it. The bird looked real as anything I’d ever seen. “It’s right there, though. You must see it, it’s huge. It’s got a wing-span like a semi-truck.”

“Does that really sound real to you?”

“I guess not.” The bird dissolved into clouds. “Maybe I should quit now and take the DNF—‘Did Not Finish.’ Hallucinating doesn’t seem healthy.”

Whitney puffed as we jogged uphill. “You can stop at the next aid-station if you want, but you’re just a few hours from the finish. Hallucinations can’t hurt you, Jonas.”

“I… I don’t know.” I wondered which rocks and trees were real or not. “I don’t know.”

“Look. Jonas. Look at me.” Whitney pulled off her sports-bra. “These are real. These are right in front of you.” I drooled. “Keep running.” I could only obey.

BEEP. Mile 35: 7:21 / 4:40:26.


Kevin rolled down the driver’s-side window. “Hey! You! Open up the gate.”

A security-guard sitting in a booth crossed his arms. He wore a leather jacket and sunglasses. “No one gets onto the Bronson Estate without permission.”

“Call Alphonse. He’s gotta be expecting us.”

“Lemme see your ID.” Kevin gave the guard his driver’s license. “All of you.” Whitney gave the guard her license, too.

“I don’t have an ID, man,” said Whitney’s uncle Hermes. “I try to stay off the grid.”

“Then look at the cameras, sir.” Hermes noticed a security camera on each side of the wrought-iron gate into the Bronson Estate. The security guard returned their IDs. “I’ll tell Mister Bronson you came, and you can schedule an appointment. Mister Bronson doesn’t want to be disturbed today. He’s on important business.”

“So are we,” said Whitney. She sucked the air-bubble out of a water-backpack. “Could you please contact Alphonse? I think he’ll want to let us in.”

“No dice.”


BEEP. Mile 36: 7:51 / 4:48:17.

I sucked water from the hose of my three-liter backpack, then spat it out. It tasted bitter. The water Alphonse pumped up the mountain was chemically treated to look pretty. No wonder there was barely any wildlife in the Bronson Estate besides rodents, lizards, bugs, and birds. Fish weren’t welcome. A deer stranded here would die of thirst.

And so would I. I hadn’t had a drop of water in six miles. My mouth was dry. I couldn’t keep this up. I didn’t stand a chance.

My phone rang.

I pulled it out of my backpack. “Hello?”

“Jonas, you idiot!”

“Hi, Kevin. I guess you got my text. I’m racing the horse as we speak.”

“Jonas, I’m here too.” It was Whitney. “We’re outside the Bronson Estate.”

“Oh… I’m sorry you came all this way for me.” I wiped tears off my cheek and licked them off my palm to conserve water. “I need supplies, guys.”

“We’ve got all you need, Jonas,” said Uncle Hermes. “We’re gonna get you through this. But there’s something you’ve gotta do.”

“Okay. What?”

BEEP. Mile 37: 7:43 / 4:56:00.

“I just heard your GPS-watch beep,” said Whitney. “Are you using the running app I introduced to you? Do you have a premium membership?”

“No. I’m still bumming off your premium membership.”

“Perfect. I’m logging in on my own watch,” said Whitney. “Alright, I’m monitoring your run live. We can track your GPS-location and meet. I see you’ve got an eight-minute-mile average so far. Not bad. You might actually do this.”

“Jonas, they’re not letting us onto the estate without permission,” said Hermes, “but they won’t call Alphonse to ask if we can come in. Can you make him open the gate?”

“Uh…” I looked at the horizon. “I don’t know. He must be miles and miles ahead.”

“Catch that horse, Jonas,” said Whitney. “We can’t help until then.”

Kevin hung up. I tucked the phone back into my backpack.

BEEP. Mile 38: 7:21 / 5:03:21.

Whitney’s voice rejuvenated me. I felt her assessing my form from afar.

This was possible. I had a chance. I just had to catch the horse.

My blister was bigger than a half-dollar. Each step, I stomped my right foot until the blister popped and soaked my sock with warm fluid. It hurt—it burned like a salted wound—but now it wouldn’t mar my stride.

Whitney, Kevin, and Hermes. What a nice reunion. I’d texted only Kevin about racing the horse because I didn’t think Whitney cared for me anymore, but I suppose texting anyone about my dumb decision was just a cry for help. “Help, I’m going bankrupt staring at a horse’s ass!”

But what an ass.

And there it was.

Champ and Alphonse were stopped by the side of the trail halfway down the mountain. No wonder I hadn’t seen them from above—I’d assumed they were twenty miles passed, not waiting for me just ahead.

“Jonas! Good to see you.”

“Alphonse,” I panted, “What are you doing here?”

“You’ve got the advantage now!” Alphonse cheekily displayed a band-aid wrapped around his middle finger. “I endured an injury a few miles ago, when Champ brought me too close to a tree branch. I hoped to hold out until mile forty, but I fear I must throw in the towel here.”

BEEP. Mile 39: 7:32 / 5:10:53.

I slowed to linger beside him. “You mean… you give up?”

“No, no—My best jockey is tapping in! She’s arriving here by helicopter. She’ll ride Champ in my stead. Thirsty, Jonas? Catch!”

He tossed me a plastic bottle of water. I walked a few steps to drink two-thirds of it. “You can’t switch out. This race is between you and me.”

“Actually, if you read the contract you signed, you’re racing the horse, not me. The jockey is irrelevant.”

I locked eyes with Champ. The horse flared its nostrils. Alphonse’s spurs had bloodied Champ’s ribs. “My crew needs your permission to enter the estate, Alphonse. Can you let them in?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Alphonse, “but we have something to discuss. It’s come to my attention that you lack funds for our wager. If you lose, you can’t afford to pay up.”

“Really? Gosh.” I feigned surprise and jogged away. “I’m sure your people can talk this over with my people, once you let them in.”

Alphonse jogged after me. His spurs clattered every step. “I’d rather talk to you directly. I want to propose a deal.”

“What kind of deal?”

“Let’s call it…” Alphonse laughed. “Charity! If Champ wins, you’ll make a donation within your price-range and we’ll call it even.”

I tried running faster to leave him behind, but while I followed the trail around back-to-back switchbacks, Alphonse cut corners to keep up. “A donation? To who? How much?”

“Nothing you can’t afford, and for a noble cause. You might know that the Bronsons have significant holdings with wings of the medical industry.”

“Horse medicine, or human?”

“Both! If you lose, I’d just ask you to provide a sample for the labs. I’m sure they could learn from your impressive physique.”

“What do you want? Like, a spit sample? Blood?”

“No, no, Jonas.” Alphonse covered his mouth to hide giggles. “Jonas, I want your legs.”

“…Huh?”

“Your legs, Jonas. I value your legs at one million dollars, and accept them as your ante. If you lose, in lieu of one million dollars, I will take ownership of your legs.”

“Like… cut them off?”

“For medical purposes! And remember, only if you lose.”

“I can’t accept that. No one could.”

“Jonas, Jonas. If you win this race, you expect me to pay up, right? It’s only fair you keep your end of the bargain and put something at stake. You must restore the bet to make up for your deception. I can’t forgive you otherwise.”

“No deal.”

“You should really consider my generous offer. Remember, you’ve run almost 40 miles on my private property; at my standard rate of $10,000 a mile, you already owe me about half a million! You’ll ante both legs, or we stop the race here and now and I’ll settle for just one of your legs, or both legs below the knee.”

I was about to say I’d shove a leg, or both legs below the knee, right where the sun didn’t shine, but then I heard distant whirring helicopter blades. I was ahead of the horse, and would be at least until the new jockey arrived. For the first time in this whole race, I had the advantage. I couldn’t physically bring myself to turn down the wager. “Okay,” I whimpered. “I’ll take the bet.”

“You mean it?” Alphonse laughed and clapped. “I’ll call the front gate and let your crew into the estate. Oh, what fun!” He finally stopped following me. I left him and Champ behind.

BEEP. Mile 40: 9:13 / 5:20:06.

I plucked the red flag at the fork and tossed it toward the trail to the right. That trail was rocky and narrow, and I hoped a horse would have trouble with it.


2012

“And the winner is…”

Father Bronson’s coughing drowned out the announcements. He sounded like he’d hack up his last lung. Alphonse pointed to the stadium’s sparse spectators. “Look at all those winners, Dad!” Men in expensive suits cheered or tore up bad bets.

“Where did—” Father Bronson coughed again. He gripped the wheels of his wheelchair to hork up phlegm. “Where did you find these people?”

“They’re colleagues, and colleagues of colleagues,” said Alphonse. “None of them is worth less than a billion bucks, and they relish the thrill of putting millions on the line. I truly have the people’s support!”

The gates at the finish-line slammed shut before the last horse. Their jockey howled and shook the reins until a dart shot him in the neck. The jockey fell from the saddle, unconscious.

Six men in leather jackets led the horse into a big metal box, and tossed the jockey in afterward.

“Son, what’s happening?” Alphonse shushed his father.

The six men turned a heavy iron crank. Horse-glue poured from a spout into a bucket. The spectators cheered.

A woman in a white lab-coat and rubber gloves led two men carrying a white cooler to the big metal box. She opened a drawer on the box, where her two men retrieved another cooler full of eerie lumps. “Organs!” said Alphonse. “Even a losing jockey’s organs are economically valuable. Think of how many lives we can save with transplants, and how much we can charge!” While her two men loaded the box’s drawer with the empty cooler for the next race, the woman with the lab-coat withdrew a syringe from a panel on the box. She brought the syringe to Alphonse. “Look, dad!”

“What is that?” asked Father Bronson. “Hey, don’t!”

Alphonse relented and didn’t yet inject his father with the syringe. “Once we’ve extracted every organ with medical value, there’s chaff leftover. Our labs have perfected a technique to turn that chaff into a nutrient-paste. It’s a cure-all! Don’t you want to walk again, Dad? You could even ride a horse!”

Father Bronson blanched, then rolled the wheels of his wheelchair to turn away. “Son, I don’t think you’ve understood the finer points of my advice. My enemies in the media may disagree, but even have standards, and what you’re describing is beneath me.”

Alphonse struggled for words. “Oh. I get it. This is the jockey that came last. I can’t inject you with a loser. Your blood is too royal for that.”

Father Bronson opened his mouth, but decided against the rebuke he had in mind. “I’m leaving, son. Contact me when you’ve made something of yourself.”

As his father wheeled away, Alphonse shook. He took a minty metal toothpick from the breast pocket of his gaudy military jacket and suckled it. “You, Doctor,” he said to the woman in the lab-coat, “bring me the jockey who won that race.”

“In a syringe, you mean?”

“No, just send them over.”

The doctor walked to the finish-line and addressed the winning jockey. The winning jockey didn’t get off her horse; she rode it to Alphonse’s track-side seats. “Howdy, boss.”

“Congratulations.” Alphonse tossed her the syringe. She cringed, but caught it carefully. “That’s a month of medical care in a hypodermic needle. Good for what ails you.”

The jockey smiled. “I appreciate it, sir, but you already pay all my medical expenses.”

Alphonse cocked his head. “Huh?”

“When I was a kid, I came second-to-last in a charity race, and since then you’ve funded my healthcare. Thanks to you, I’ve got the best wheelchair on the market.” She pat her horse.

“Oh.” Alphonse shrugged. “Well, with that injection, you won’t even need a wheelchair for a while. You’ll be able to walk. I’ve seen lab-rats with terminal illnesses get a new lease on life.”

The jockey inspected her new syringe. “If I come first again, will you give me another?”

Alphonse laughed. “Let’s make a deal.”

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To Mile 30

(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.)

cardFront

2019

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.


2011

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.”

“A tournament?”

“Yes! A whole tournament, where the last in each race will be turned into their…” Alphonse rubbed his chin. “Their useful components.”

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Running and Memory

If you can’t tell from this story I’m writing, I like running. It’s a uniquely human activity; no other animal runs quite like us. We’re good at it, too—depending on who you ask, humans might have evolved to run prey to death. In Man VS Horse I want to make readers feel the mental states and thought-processes behind running a hundred miles, based on my own experience running marathons and reading about ultra-marathoners.

Stories need characters. It might seem difficult to squeeze a character out of a purely physical challenge like racing against a horse, but thankfully, there’s a huge mental component to running. You might think the biggest bottleneck is strength or endurance, but even if you know you’re capable of running twenty miles, getting out of bed to do so is still tricky. Jonas’ train of thought during the run will be a window into his character and a source of conflict throughout the narrative.

When I’m running, my train of thought goes in weird directions, and I want Jonas to show that. For the first ten miles, Alphonse kept Jonas company, but now that Alphonse has taken the lead, Jonas is left alone with his mind.

I take advantage of this to introduce the reader to Whitney, Jonas’ running partner and ghostwriter. If you’re sensitive to spoilers, close your eyes: Whitney will show up later, around mile 50, I think. Introducing her now lets me set the stage for her arrival.

I think Jonas reminiscing about Whitney is an accurate portrayal of the running mindset. I often find myself recalling the past during long runs. It’s a chance for me to review and reinterpret my history. A long run is the perfect opportunity to reduce a character to their base elements.

I also play dumb games with myself on long runs, like Jonas explaining modern items to a caveman. If you’ve got a dumb endurance-sport mental-game, let me know! I’d love to hear.

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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 immediately galloped far ahead. Champ didn’t seem to notice the steepening trail. 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 Colorado, I figured the closest sport would be cross-country-running, but it wasn’t my jam. I could ski for hours and hours over miles and miles of countryside. The running team sprinted 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 I didn’t mind. Kevin, the quickest varsity runner, didn’t mind lazing in the back of the pack with me until the coach found him slacking and chewed him out. No matter how much Kevin lingered to keep me company, he was always 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. “After 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 struggle was half the battle. I’m sure every runner has a dumb game they play to pass the time. Mine was talking to Thog.

“Crosswalk signals,” I said aloud. “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 can 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 scrambled to my feet and kept running. 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 skiing 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. This pain was surface level.

Eventually 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 a million acres of precisely cultivated wilderness. Alphonse brought business-partners here to ride horses and talk about whatever multi-billionaires talked about. It was the perfect place to luxuriate in richness. The view from the top of the mountain would be glorious.

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 near 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 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 right, the quickest path to 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 with 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 family’s 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 teacher conferred with a woman beside her. “Really? Oh. Oh, dear. That’s… macabre.”

“What?” asked Alphonse.

“The donation,” the 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 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 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 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 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 a minute. Then the crowd watched the last two kids race neck-and-neck, and heard their panting, and the squeak of her wheelchair, and the plod of his crutch.

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