The man, running. His face lined, and red. His hair greying and sweat-soaked. His shorts blue, his t-shirt white, his socks red. His shoes blue and white, but flecked with splashes of mud. The paper square on his chest. The words “Running in Partnership”. The number 1313.
His ankle support? Check. His knee brace? Check. Vaseline below his groin? Check. Vaseline on his nipples? Check. His ridiculously expensive running shoes? Check. His perfect physical condition and natural athleticism? Not so much. That’s why he’s in such agony, despite the extra strong painkillers prescribed to his father and borrowed for the day.
Where does it hurt? His right ankle, twisted playing football two and a half years ago and feeling weakened and on the verge of breaking down ever since. His right knee, early onset of arthritis possibly, and it feels like it’s crumbling with every step. His left knee and ankle, supposedly his “good” side but sending out distress signals now, either in solidarity with their counterparts or envious of the attention they receive. His back, upper and lower, hurt in drunken teenage falls, debilitated through years of wear and tear and exacerbated by excessive training for this event. His chest, lungs tightening as he struggles for breath, his heart, thumping frantically, trying to send oxygen wherever it’s needed, but unable to cope with the demanded exertion. His head, rolling from side to side, the ache becoming unbearable, becoming dizziness, vision becoming blurred.
The man, no longer running straight but staggering from side to side, his gait unsteady, his footsteps faltering, stumbling. His legs giving way. The road rushing up to meet him, hard, unforgiving, bruising, grazing, drawing blood. The man rolling, involuntarily, onto the softer grass verge, but denied any comfort this might bring when the roll carries him into the ditch, free falling, the landing softer this time but still heavy. Bones jarring, head spinning, air knocked out of lungs.
The man tells himself that he could get up if he wanted to, once he’s taken a little time to recover. The man tells himself that someone will soon see him from the road and offer help. This morning the man was telling himself that he could run more than 26 miles without stopping.
Time passing. The man hearing footsteps running past, above and alongside him, feeling strangely self-satisfied that he reached this point quicker than they did, yet knowing they will reach the finishing line long before him unless they stop, which he implores them to do. His breath short, his voice feeble, his cries unheard. Footsteps carrying on. Never stopping.
The man led helpless, alone. Remembering. Remembering the school sports days, not being picked for the six-a-side football or the relay team, even though he was better or quicker than half of those who were. Remembering how his flimsy arms struggled to even lift the shot, let alone putt it anywhere other than nearly breaking his own toes. Remembering everybody laughing at him, and avoiding sports day from that point on, feigning illness and injury when the team was picked or on the day itself. Remembering further back, to the only time he ever won, his unbeatable three legged race partnership with Lenny, but unable to remember receiving any kudos or credit for the victory.
Remembering forward again, to standing in the corner at school discos, staring dreamily at Sharons and Sarahs, Kerrys and Ruths and all the other girls he longed to dance with and so much more but could never even speak to. Further forward, trendy town centre bars or cheap meat market nightclubs, same scenario just shorter skirts, alcohol failing to give him the confidence he craved. Fast forwarding years to the one, the one and only, trying to remember wild nights of passion but the memories overwhelmed by nappy changes, failed DIY projects and mortgage interest rate comparisons, recollections that offer little comfort as he flounders in his trench.
A young man peering down into the ditch, or possibly just a boy, fresh faced and quirkily handsome like the man used to be, but also hesitant and gauche like the man always has been. He wears a t-shirt with no number upon it. He asks a facile question “Are you okay?”
A typical response “Mustn’t grumble,” followed by a rare and reluctant admission of vulnerability “I could do with some help getting out of here though.”
The boy small and slight. The man burly and still somewhat overweight despite the training, far too heavy for the boy to lift. The man slumping back into his ditch, settling down as if he’s starting to feel at home there.
The man noticing the boy is wearing jeans, and no number “You’re not in the marathon?”
The boy shaking his head and pointing eastwards “No. The marathon runners all went that a-way. Sorry!”
“That’s okay. I’d pretty much given up on winning anyway. I’m not really one of life’s winners, as you might have guessed by my presence here. I thought running in this and getting a nice shiny medal would finally give me a sense of accomplishment. But I waited too long and got too old, and I’m past the prime I never had. It turns out forty years of boredom and frustration isn’t the perfect preparation for the ultimate physical endeavour after all.”
“Boredom and frustration?”
“Story of my life. I had all these hope and dreams. Too many. While I was dreaming, the rest of the world was getting on with living, and I drifted further and further back. My rebellious teenage phase came after everybody else had gone through theirs. I was two years behind on my five-year plan, five years behind on my ten-year plan, now fifteen, twenty years behind my life plan. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“So… mundane. I went straight from frustrated virginity to domestic boredom, with just a very brief stop at marital bliss. Now I try to relive a youth I never enjoyed vicariously through my teenage children. They’re at college and university, living my dream, doing what I never did. If I was any worthwhile sort of parent I’d be happy for them. I try to be, but I’m envious of them instead.”
“But you have a degree.”
The bitterness in his voice “Open University. That doesn’t count. It isn’t the same thing at all.”
“So what does count?”
The man pausing, then “You know what? To really count, the best way for me to actually be somebody, would be to die right here. That woman did, and she became famous. Her charity giving site ran into the millions. I could be a hero like that.”
His smile beatific, then darkening. Disappearing. “But it wouldn’t be like that for me, of course. Everybody’s been there and seen that. They’d just think ‘So what? What’s new?’ I’d be a bandwagon jumper, a latecomer on the scene, just like every other aspect of my life. Anyway, she was at the London Marathon; so much more iconic than this provincial jog-along. And she was young and beautiful, and I’m just… this.”
“What was her name?”
“I can’t remember.”
“Then she’s not even famous anymore, and it’s a poor kind of fame if that’s what you aspire to. You could only be ‘that guy’ or even ‘that other guy’.”
“Touchè. So I can’t even be famous for dying. Talk about kicking me when I’m down! Why not come down here and physically do so as well?”
“Why don’t you get up and stop feeling sorry for yourself? Don’t be famous for dying; be a hero for finishing despite adversity. It’s only a few miles to the line.”
The man climbing to his feet. The boy helping him out of the ditch. The runner and his helper starting again. Carrying on. Now within sight of the racecourse where the run will finish. Entering the racecourse. The stands packed. Faces, colours, sounds. The crowds cheering. Inspirational.
“I’m so tired. Everything hurts. How far to go?”
“Look ahead. That’s the finish.”
“Who are all these people?”
“They’re here for you. You deserve to cross the line without me. I’ll hang back and let you go on. Ready? I’m letting go of you now.”
The runner taking a step forward, then stumbling back. His eyes blinking. His brow furrowed. Frightened and confused. “Something just thumped me in the chest.”
“That’s you breaking through the wall. Don’t let it stop you now.”
“Okay I’ll – ow! It happened again.”
“Ignore it. Keep going.”
The runner lurching forward. His beatific smile returning. “It doesn’t hurt anymore!”
“Nothing can hurt you now. Look around yourself. These people are here for you. They’re chanting for you.”
The roar of the crowd “Come on! Come on!”
The runner, so close to the line now. “Come on! Come on!”
“Come on! Come on!”
The doctor pushing down upon his chest “Come on! Come on!”
The buzz and thump of the electric resuscitator “Come on! Come on!”
The resigned look of the doctor. “Sorry everyone, we did our best but I’m pronouncing it. Time of death: 1.13pm"