(A discussion on another forum inspired me to write this the other night.)
In April 2003, I was aiming to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials at the Boston Marathon. Having recently run a 20-mile race in 1:49, I had a decent shot if the weather and the Fates cooperated. Unfortunately, it was bright and cloudless and in the 70’s and climbing fast as I stood on the starting line. My coach and I had agreed that I would bail before halfway if it became obvious that for whatever reason I had no shot at running 2:22.
I knew right away at an almost conscious level that I wouldn’t be finishing, so I ran a little recklessly, going through the first downhill mile in 5:01. I made little effort to ease off and just kept falling down the hill at an absurd pace. When the course leveled off at four miles I already felt like ass on a stick. I made it pasty 10K in 32-something, then started looking for a place to bail. The density of spectators in this race makes this difficult. Right around 12K, I selected a spot smack in the middle of a Puerto Rican family and sat on the curb. Three young kids immediately sidled up to me offering cups of water. Despondent though I was, I found this absurdly touching and drank the proffered liquids. Then I got up and with a “gracias” head down the sidewalk.
I didn’t get far. I realized I was facing a big problem. I needed to find my way to the nearest meatwagon reserved for elite and seeded runners, a vessel that would carry my sullen ass to the finish area. But I wasn’t going to be able to use the sidewalk; it was crammed with people–standing, sitting in lawn chairs, and swaying drunk in a few cases. I watched the race for a while and realized my only option was to rejoin the field and shuffle along until I saw one of the aforementioned vans. So I wandered back into the fray.
And what a fray it was. I was about eight miles from the starting line, and a glance at my watch told me I was running with people doing about 10 minutes a mile. It was surreal. Most of them looked like they’d already run a full marathon, and they were not yet a third of the way through the race. I saw scores of charity singlets, suggesting that many of those in my midst were running their first marathon. I wanted to shout, “It’s not always this bad, trust me!” A guy lurching along in front of me had a shirt that said “TALL TOWER 2003″ and it was no lie–he had to be 6′ 9”. I looked for Will Farrell. I had my singlet in my hand so no one could see my number. I clambered over a guardrail to avoid triggering the chip mat at 20K, the unholy roar of the Wellesley College student body seeming to obscure this curious act. Finally I saw my oddly shaped limo. I showed them my number and was granted access to the back seat, next to a Russian woman whose legs seemed to comprise 80% of her minuscule height. Soon we were off, and a half hour later pulled up to the Copley Hotel, where my bag of belongings awaited.
I secured my stuff from a BAA volunteer, and then a strange thing happened. I was handed a finisher’s medal.
I didn’t know what to do or say. I wanted to ascertain that the volunteer knew what the word “finisher” meant, but then I said screw it–I just wanted to meet my friends at the 23-mile mark and be ferried home. I hopped on a westbound MBTA car and sat down, lost in thought concerning what this would mean in terms of my training and racing plans in the near future.
“Congratulations,” someone said. I looked up, wondering who was being lauded. A young couple was looking my way and smiling. I hadn’t realized that I was dangling “my” medal between my legs in full view. “I can’t imagine doing what you just did,” the male half of the duo said. I smiled, but I doubt the couple caught the irony it bore. “Thanks,” I replied. There wasn’t much else I could have said, although a demented corner of my sun-baked mind wanted to add do you want it? If not it’s going on e-Bay, baby!
I tracked down my friends, who offered empathetic condolences without offering platitudes–they were also marathoners and they know that Shit happens. When I finally got back to my lodgings in Concord, all I wanted to do was sleep even though I wasn’t tired, and avoid the Internet and my own message board at all costs. I felt like doing something radical and idiotic just for the sheer recklessness of it, like shagging a whore. I think all I did was watch TV, keeping to non-network stations that stood no chance of mentioning a word about the Boston Marathon.
In the end the medal wound up hanging from the driver’s side mirror of a randomly selected car parked on Main Street in downtown Concord. The reasons it had been given to me in the first place were wildly unclear, so it seemed fitting that its passage from me to someone else be absolutely aimless.