Six weeks after my first marathon, I ran a second. By then, I’d upgraded my electrolyte drink and taken to eating bananas by the bunch in order to preclude muscle cramping. I also devised a strategy meant to reverse the events of the first race. In the name of husbanding all the glucose, glycogen, and fatty acids that I’d loaded so lovingly into my body the previous afternoon at the Chinese buffet, I planned to start off at a near-crawl, gradually pouring on the smoke until, around mile 12 or 13, I’d gained the pace that would carry me across the finish line.
The race began just before sunrise at a shooting range on Usery Mountain, deep in East Mesa. Holding myself back, trotting along in no particular hurry, I was able to drink in the fresh air, and to marvel as the sky brightened over the desert, which was just then starting to flower. Filled with oxygen and euphoria, I took time to make friends. One man in a white ball cap informed me proudly that his son had just graduated law school to land a plum job in Manhattan with Skadden, Arps, Meagher, and Flom.
“Hah!” I said. “Tell him one lap around Central Park is 6.2 miles!”
“Hah!” He answered. “You bet I will!” And then we both returned our eyes to the road, which was winding into a subdivision.
After mile three or four, I began creeping ahead in the pack. Without accelerating too sharply, or to a pace I would have no hope of maintaining, I overtook one cluster of runners after another. As mile six turned into mile nine, and then mile 11, the runners began looking younger and fitter. This, I thought, is how Hitler must have felt, watching all those second-rate countries fall into his hands. Hello, Poland! Good-bye, Norway and Denmark! France and the Benelux countries, here I come! Greece, Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – you’re next!
Around mile 13 or 14, I found myself within 10 yards of a woman wearing a frilled skirt over her running shorts. Her outfit struck me as frivolous. So did her style of running. Rather than pound along at a steady, if modest pace, she would dash ahead in a full sprint for 50 yards, then stop and walk for a minute or longer. Sprint, walk. Sprint, walk. Every time she reached the top of her sprint, she’d exchange high-fives and triumphant greetings with a friend of hers.
I see you, girl!
The roof! The roof! The roof is on fire!
Mesa residents, including groups from local junior high schools and families right out of Bill Keane’s imagination, were lining the sidewalks and cheering us on. I was anxious to see whether see whether the ecstasy of high performance would make them forget themselves and follow through to the next verse. It didn’t. But their showboating had already absorbed my attention and gotten on my nerves.
The woman in the frilled skirt was wearing an energy belt in some festive color – I think mauve. Most energy belts had room enough for two or three squeegee bottles; hers sported four or five. I had yet to see her drink from any of them. Along with her skirt, and her sprinting, and her braying, they looked like one more affectation, another self-advertising piece of flair.
By mile 15, I had picked up enough speed to close the distance between us. Appearing at her side as she walked, I put on my jauntiest tone, and asked, “Say, sister. You looking to feed the world with that energy belt?”
She looked up, startled. For a moment, her face was blank. Then, as though reverting to character, she grinned and opened her eyes wide as headlights. “No,” she said. “It’s all for meeeeeeeeeeeee!”
With that, she executed a full pirouette and bounded ahead, deep into the crowd.
About an hour later, between mile 21 and 22, I saw a group of four runners stopped in the middle of the road. Their backs were facing me, but they seemed to have wrapped their arms around one another’s shoulders in a sort of group hug. As I passed them, I saw that their faces were grave. Then I saw that the three on the flanks were supporting one in the middle, a woman whose eyes were clamped shut, and whose mouth was wide open in a silent scream, like Bernini’s St. Teresa. I looked to see whether she was the woman in the skirt, but no – she was wearing black shorts.
Just then, I found myself running alongside my old friend, the man in the white hat. After we grunted hello, I jerked my thumb in the direction of the foundered runner and said, “At first I thought they were all taking a selfie together.”
“Hah!” He said.
The old slave spiritual asks: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Truthfully, if I had been, I probably would have been the last to notice. My mind would have been on a million other things.