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January 21, 2001
January 31, 2001
February 12, 2001
February 28, 2001
March 9, 2001
March 26, 2001
April 12, 2001
April 29, 2001
May 14, 2001
May 31, 2001
June 18, 2001
July 17, 2001
August 15, 2001
September 23, 2001
November 6, 2001
November 27, 2001
January 18, 2002
November 20, 2002


Installment 5: March 9, 2001

 A couple of years ago after the Chicago Marathon, my friend Elizabeth sent out an email to her friends and family thanking them for their support and telling them about her experience running the marathon. I didn’t know Elizabeth well at the time, but I thought it was a good gesture, and I promised myself that, should I ever run another marathon, I would take her cue. Even if the story wasn’t that interesting, I figured torment and self-annihilation are worth ten minutes or so of just about anyone’s time.

Like most good American long-distance runners, Jimmy and I have both adapted to our species, that of the corporate marathoner. This is the evolution that, given your propensity for adaptation, begins after your first marathon, which you have entered on a dare or to lose weight or because someone more attractive than you is threatening to run or even just for the hell of it. At this point, you don’t care about how or when you finish; all you want to do is get the picture in your mailbox six weeks later of yourself grimacing, dripping sweat and stumbling across a thin white line. Actually, at this point you don’t know about the picture.

But at the second marathon, you do, and you try to smile and look nonchalant when the camera guy steps out in front of you as you lurch towards the finish. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making you look like a tortured raccoon at a frat party. But you won’t know this until six weeks later, and by that time you will secretly be using work time to compute your splits and compare them to the previous year, sure that had you not dropped that GU or missed that water station, you would not have finished in obscurity.

The third time you run a marathon, the picture is – yawn – so blasé that you throw it out without opening it, but you spend several consecutive lunch breaks looking on the internet at not only at your own finishing place and time, but also those of everyone you know – and even those who sound like someone you might have met once. This impulse carries with it attendant feelings of great pleasure or sweeping depression, depending on whether you beat the people who you think are more dreadful human beings than you or if they trounced you. And on and on you go, climbing the marathon ladder.

Some people actually win marathons using this method, which means it has been proven scientifically successful. But for those of us with a suspicion that, were the earth to turn to cheese, we still would not win a marathon – well, my swan dive looks like a chicken on a collision course with the ground, but that never keeps me from believing every time that my next attempt will be elegant.           

So last week’s Cyprus Marathon on the coast in Paphos was intended to reach one more rung on the marathon ladder. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. We had sacrificed time and toenails in training, and Jimmy and I had both come up with what seemed realistic, yet honorable, time goals. Jimmy was aiming for three hours and eighteen minutes and I for three hours and thirty minutes. We computed and practiced, running in all manner of life-threatening situations – on busy highways, next to firing ranges, in fields where we were expelled by UN soldiers, past hunters pointing loaded guns 100 feet away – and had laid out our goals before us like two clean, pressed sheets. Unfortunately, we didn’t plan for the wrinkles.

The day before the marathon, Jimmy and I drove along the race course that was illustrated in the brochure to get an idea of what this “mostly flat” course would consist. The brochure propaganda turned out to be technically true if you measure the course’s grade by the average of all of its uphills and downhills. But being upbeat and laid-back as we are, we took it in stride (“in stride” being the average of our reactions, which means that Jimmy said the hills would “make it exciting” while I complained and cussed).

When we went to register for the race (this is a good way to appear laid-back about running – register late and pay extra money) we found that the course had been recently changed to an out-and-back route that would travel out of the city along the coastal road, head back along a side road into town and then repeat. The woman at registration apologized but said she was sure the runners would be happy with the change because “now they won’t have to run those hills.”

Seemed simple enough, and I was ecstatic – at least as much so as you can be while appearing cool, calm and collected. I didn’t want anyone to get the idea that hills were – you know – like a problem for me.
Marathon morning dawned perfectly – no gusty winds, and no chance of rain. It was a little warm, maybe, but pleasant enough. Jimmy had been so meticulous as to print us each a small sheet that listed the kilometer splits needed at each mile to reach our respective goal times. Jimmy carefully taped his to his number. I stuffed mine in my shorts.

The race began well. We ran out of town through a construction site where the road was in shambles and dust hovered in the air, but then we were out on the open road, the blue ocean stretching out in front of us. Eventually we turned right onto a side road and ran through fields of yellow clover and pink orchids. The stench of manure was rather persistent, but then the side road met the coastal road again and we were back along the water. The turnaround was at the bottom of a long winding hill, where we headed back towards town. I was feeling all right, meeting my splits according to the time chart, but the pace up the hill felt a little fast. I tried to shrug it off, but I was panting by the time we reached the top.

Pretty much everything after this exists as a giant vaccuum in my mind. By talking to people after the race, however, I managed to reconstruct the events. At the top of the hill, we ran about halfway back towards town and then were directed away from it again, to the turnaround at the bottom of the hill. We turned around again and this time ran all the way back into town. We turned around. We left town, but all of a sudden the leading runners started passing us. I couldn’t figure how they had come from behind me, but I was more concerned that my body was starting to fall apart. I couldn’t figure it. We were halfway through the race according to the kilometer markers, but it felt like mile 21.

I think it was about this time that I met Andreas, a Greek Cypriot who developed an instant brotherly affection for me. It was nice to have someone to talk to – I even practiced Greek to get my mind off my quickly deteriorating health – but he started doing quirky things, like tugging my arm with exasperation every time I took a walking break and forcing me to run on the inside of the lane so as to shield me from the traffic. Unfortunately, the bad pavement was there, so I began a silly dance of hopscotching behind him each time he forced me over. The truth was that the traffic was picking up by now, including plenty of heavy machinery puffing clouds of black smoke into the breathing air, and there was no traffic control to speak of. What had seemed a road an hour earlier now was revealed for what it was – a highway – and the course was revealed as it was: a massive screw-up.

Because by now we were literally running in circles—off the highway, back onto it, turning right, and then right again, and again in an unbroken chain. I was trying to keep a good pace, but about this time realized I had lost my time chart. In retrospect, it was a good thing, as two days later we would discover that there had been a “mixup” with the pace charts. The calculations were incorrect and had us running much faster than our carefully calculated goal times. Stumbling along now, I could only remember that pride goeth before a descent into great pain. I chanted over and over in my mind, “I have severely overestimated my abilities.” To the tune of shuffling feet, this sentence worked like a mantra. It even worked up the multi-kilometer hill that we ran once, twice, three, four times as one arch of an endless loop.

Even Andreas had given up on me by now, but he still lied to me at every turn around as we passed each other. “I’m waiting for you!” he would call. His perjuring of himself finally caught up to him the same time I did about three miles from the finish. I grabbed his arm when I shuffled up beside him. “Come on,” I said, rolling my eyes. He looked worn and drawn. “You are very good,” he panted. “Please go.” So I inched away from him, desperately in need of companionship, but even more frantic for the finish.

The sun was beating hard by this time, burning skin and thickening the aroma of manure. Black smoke and honking vehicles clogged the roads, and cement grinders and potholes threatened our way into town. Turning the last corner, a blue truck lurched up onto the sidewalk where I had been running to avoid the traffic jam of Sunday afternoon beach-goers. There were no other marathoners in sight. Two Cypriots jumped out, and I recognized them as Andreas’ friends who had been supplying him bananas and Gatorade during the race. As I approached, they began to chant like my own personal fan club, “You are the BEST!!! You are the BEST!!!”

The irony and the absurdity of this moment overwhelmed me, and I burst out laughing. As I passed by, they called out, “Don’t worry!! Andreas is behind you. He’s coming soon!” I turned around and gave them two thumbs up.

In the end, the race director had to get up on the stage and tell the hefty crowd that there would be no awards ceremony, as the course marshals had misguided the runners, lengthening the course by anywhere from 3-8 kilometers. Apparently, about 20% of the runners had quit in exasperation and the director was looking the potential end of his race’s future in the face. He thanked all the runners and then apologized again. It looked to me that he was holding back tears, so I did the only thing I knew to do: I lied.

I went up to him, I shook his hand, I looked him square in the eye. “Thank you,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ll be back next year.” 





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