Out and Back
Race day arrived bright and clear with a cool breeze from the southwest. Since the race was at nine, I skipped breakfast, but drank some juice. The start and finish were on Main Street, so I parked behind our office and let myself in for my final preparations. It was funny to come into the empty office in my running clothes, but our ladies' room was far preferable to the portolets for which one has to line up. That done, I walked down the street to join the gathering crowd.
I was surprised to find Janey in addition to my usual friends. She had come only to watch the race, but that changed when I introduced her to the others. Someone pointed out that anyone interested enough to watch a race would soon be racing herself. Since Janey had on running shoes and loose pants, she was persuaded to run along with us for the first bit.
One of the others, who hadn't been running long, was selected to make sure that Janey didn't risk hurting herself by going too far too fast. That settled, we did our stretches, double-tied our shoe laces, and envied the men. They, not wanting to wait in the portolet lines, were pissing behind bushes and little trees at the edges of Stockport's scenic parking areas. One of the less inhibited members of our group called out to one,
"You're killing that bush."
It was only then that I noticed the writing on the back of Janey's T-shirt, which said, "Back off. I had beans last night." As I laughed, I was glad that I wasn't trying to make her into an official full-fledged broker. Just as I was about to ask her where she got the shirt, the call came to go to the starting line.
Since it was the biggest race of the year in our fairly small community, there were a good thousand entrants behind the start banner stretched across the street. When the gun sounded, we were all packed together and could hardly run. The first quarter of a mile consisted, as usual, in zig- zagging through jams. By the time that we reached the railway station, I had broken out and was trying to make up lost time.
I hate it when the timers at the mile markers call out the times too loudly. I can then hear the time a good distance away, and it gets my hopes up, only to be dashed when I finally arrive at the marker. This one did it right, and I heard, "Seven minutes forty three seconds." That was acceptable. I had had twenty seconds on my watch when I reached the start line, so that was seven twenty three. Hold the same pace for the time being and keep chopping something off a seven and a half pace.
The ocean then came into view, and I was conscious of a light breeze coming off it, just enough to cool without interfering with progress. A young man passed me quickly with a good stride, running easily. How could such a good runner have managed to get such a slow start?
We were now all strung out, running in single file down the middle of the narrow road, with seawall on one side and houses on the other. I was beginning to move into the mid- race mental state where thoughts and questions from everywhere zoom into mind, and then drop out again. As usual, one of the questions was, WHY AM I DOING THIS?
Originally, of course, there was the matter of proving that I wasn't deformed. But, surely, no reasonable person would now think me deformed. Pure enjoyment? I couldn't say I was experiencing pure enjoyment at that moment. Mixed at best. But this was a race. Running with Erica did produce something close to it. Health and longevity and all that? I hardly thought about such things, at least at the conscious level. On the other hand, there wouldn't be any point in accumulating enough money to avoid the nursing home if one didn't live long enough to have to avoid one.
At the two mile mark I was fifteen eleven. Arithmetic was becoming harder, but I derived the discouraging conclusion. I had picked up only two seconds on a seven and a half pace, and had actually slowed down. This could well be a bad race. On the other hand, one mustn't panic at the two mile mark. I made no conscious effort to pick up the pace, but the body has a way of making its own decisions.
As the road swung left to follow a small peninsula sticking out into the water, I gradually caught up to a man of middle size with a blue shirt and black shorts. As I drew even, I noticed that he was breathing a little too loudly. I hoped that I didn't sound like that.
As I rounded the point, he was still with me, a man who probably didn't want to be passed by a woman. What, I wondered, would he have thought if he had realized that she had one leg longer than the other?
My mind shifted to handicapped people, people who were really handicapped. I was faster than any wheelchair racer I had ever seen, but they passed lots of people. I was also faster than the man from Cincinnati who runs marathons on crutches. But he, too, passes people. Anyhow, I was ruining this man. He was going faster than he should to stay with me, and there would be a reckoning. I added a little speed to get ahead, and then returned to my pace.
It wasn't long before I heard steps behind me. I knew better than to look back. It costs a step. But I wondered. Black Shorts again? If he was trying this hard to keep up with me before we had even reached the half-way point, I wouldn't again save him from himself.
The man who materialized was different. About the tallest person in the race, he was bearded and balding, forty or so. He was also running with less effort than Black Shorts, a trifle faster than myself. I let him pass, but then stuck close. Was I making the mistake that Black Shorts had so nearly made? With almost the end of my mental acuity I made a decision. This man was going to get what would be a good time for me. If I stayed with him, I wouldn't have to think at all, just run.
One of the pleasures of an out-and-back race is that everyone gets to see the leaders on their homeward trip. I was still hanging tight on Oldie, as I had christened him, when a young red-headed man came around the bend ahead and zipped past us on the other side of the road. It wasn't our local favorite, Steve Michaels, nor was it anyone I had ever seen before. It was apparently an interloper from outside our area.
No sooner had I gotten that through my head than Steve appeared, taller than the leader, and with a funny little black beard. He also had on his usual torn shorts and regrettable T-shirt. His stride was less compact than that of the leader with a funny but fluid little motion of the hips. I called encouragement as he passed. He had a couple of hundred yards to make up, which, the way the leader was going, might be impossible. I found myself thankful that I didn't have to try to catch anyone like the red-headed youth.
The thin trickle of runners coming the other way soon thickened to a stream. The first woman, a diminutive college track team member with a high power-to-weight ratio, was almost hidden among the men. The next one, quite a way back, was a tall pretty blonde. She would never catch Sally Jo. I didn't try to count how many women were ahead of me. I just hung on to Oldie as we rounded the half-way pylon. I felt pretty strong, particularly as we passed a whole clump of runners. But I had been running too many years to take false encouragement. A great many people, perhaps the majority, slow down as they get toward the fourth mile. You have to pass lots of people just to keep your pace.
I had enough energy to look closely at Oldie as he turned in front of me and passed. His legs were awfully long, but he wasn't lightly built. He kept his hands well down and his body upright. I then concentrated on my own form.
I became oblivious for a while until I heard a shout of encouragement from Barbie, the one Janey had run with, coming the other way. I returned it, glad that Janey was nowhere to be seen. Had she gotten as far as the first mile? We were now passing the tail end of the race, people who were struggling and might not even finish. There was a huge older man, pounding violently. Heart attack city, I thought.
I hardly caught the time at four miles, and couldn't have subtracted twenty seconds and divided by four in any case. I was almost sure that Oldie was speeding up. I was also a strong finisher, but maybe not that strong. Just as I was wondering if I could hang on to him, we came to the second water station.
Almost no one comes to a complete stop to take water. However, a few people walk, and a good many slow down as they take the cup and drink at least a few swallows. I have found that, having taken water, it takes some little distance to pick up the same pace again. A dozen or more people were proceeding slowly on both sides of the road as they were handed cups of water. There were several women among them, and, to my surprise, Oldie slowed to take a cup.
I saw my chance. Those three women might well be in my age group. And the best way to keep up with Oldie was to pass him. I went fast right down the middle, crunching discarded plastic cups and splashing the spilled water. It was all daylight on the other side and only a mile and something to go.
I got beyond the five mile mark, still unable to do arithmetic, when I heard familiar steps behind me. I didn't even look as Oldie slid slowly alongside and edged out in front. Then, for some reason, he didn't open the distance. Had he spurted temporarily to pass me?
For me, the only really painful part of a 10k is that stretch that begins with about three quarters of a mile to go and ends when I can see the finish line. The pace is unnaturally fast, but one isn't sure exactly how long it must be maintained.
We had now left the ocean and were headed along streets with which I was vaguely familiar. Since it was a well- publicized race, there were an increasing number of spectators, most of them yelling and cheering. It helps a lot. I, at any rate, am enough of an exhibitionist to want to look good in public.
With less than a half mile to go there was a bridge over the railway. Coming out, I had hardly noticed it. But now, trying to hold on to Oldie, it seemed like Everest. At the top was a middle-aged woman, standing on the sidewalk watching. As I ran harder and harder and moved more and more slowly, I fixed my eyes on her face. The more pain I felt, the harder I looked. It was as if I could find the meaning of it all in her face. She looked troubled, probably thinking I was in a bad way. As I drew agonizingly up to her, she murmured, "It's only a little way to go," as if speaking to an exhausted child.
Oldie had gone bouncing over the bridge on his great long legs. When I reached the top, he was coasting down, twenty yards ahead of me. I hardly cared, not even having enough left to take full advantage of the down slope. Back on the level, I ran mechanically, not able to wonder in any clear terms how far I had to go.
By some miracle, I found myself, a couple of minutes later, still within reach of Oldie. Better yet, I knew where I was in relation to the finish, two blocks to go to Main Street. There was then a right turn and another two blocks to the line. The sides of the street were crowded with spectators. Since the runners were strung out, it was like running a gauntlet. Then, almost to Main Street, I saw Janey at the corner, yelling and jumping up and down.
My pain wasn't entirely gone as I began my final acceleration. I was catching Oldie, and, when he took the corner wide, I cut inside, almost brushing Janey. I might have been a yard or so ahead of him when he realized that I was there. We were both running side by side, almost at full speed, with a short block to go. I looked only at the banner stretched across the street, but the commotion of a big man beside me beginning to sprint was unmistakeable.
There was a woman in front, and we were catching her fast. I went right and Oldie left. We zipped past and then closed again. I was on tiptoes, straining with everything and pumping furiously. The noise was deafening, and I didn't quit until I was a step past the line, tearing up the chute. Oldie was just in front of me, and as I bent over gasping, I grabbed his arm. He, less exhausted, smiled and supported me. At length, I managed to get out,
"Did you get our time?"
"No. I was too busy racing you."
He then turned to the woman we had passed and asked her. She said,
"I was forty five oh three. You must have been just under forty five."
My previous best was forty five eleven. I was tempted to think that I felt absolute joy, pure and unmixed, as I staggered along the chute to get my card. On the other hand, there is, with me, a second voice which may be subdued, but is never entirely suppressed. On this occasion, it spoke in the second person rather than the first. It always does when pushed into a corner of my consciousness. It said,
"This is very likely the best race you'll ever run. Each one will be slower from now on until you hurt something and won't be able to run at all."
I'm used to this voice, and don't allow it to upset me unduly. It's really, I suppose, the voice of a doctor telling me there's something wrong with me. And I know how wrong doctors can be. The result is that I never get quite as high as the average person. However, I can get high enough so that, as with my legs, most people fail to notice any abnormality.
I wasn't the only euphoric person in the crowd of milling runners. Mine wasn't the only personal record, and, anyhow, unless one has a dishonorable time, there is at the end of a race a degree of pleasure equal to the sum of the pain experienced on the course. I heard that Steve Michaels had caught and beaten the red-haired interloper, thus upholding the honor of Stockport. I came upon Steve in the crowd and congratulated him. Even though he didn't know me from Eve, he responded pleasantly, even asking me my name. It dawned on me that he was less excited winning the whole race than I was with my little P. R.
Soon, I was back at the finish line cheering for my friends as they came in. All of us, including Janey, found each other in the crowd and made our way down the street for the awards ceremony. Steve got his trophy for winning, and Sally Jo got hers for first woman finisher. Then they went into the age divisions, giving trophies for the top ten per cent in each age group. There were first, second, and third for women 25-29, and I waited on tiptoes when my division, women 30-34, was announced. "Fourth place, Marcia Galler, forty five oh three." I realized that it would have to be the woman I had passed at the end, even before she emerged from the crowd to get her prize. By the time the announcer called,
"Third place, Adrienne Brooks, forty four fifty eight",
I was my modest and demure little self. When I got back with my trophy, Janey almost hugged the life out of me. We watched the rest of the awards, and to my surprise, Oldie trotted out to take second in the 55-59 category. I had had no idea that he was that old. The awards finished with a great cheer for Eek Olafson, the man who won the 80 to 85 category. They announced it as if there had been other entrants in that category, and Eek bounced up, a jaunty little man with a purple bandanna around his neck. Things then broke up, and our group, laughing and singing, jogged a quarter mile to the only working-class bar in Stockport.
After I got home and showered, I suddenly felt hungry. As I headed for the Boathouse, it wasn't particularly on my mind that Heston and Hiram would be there. But, when I entered, they were sprawled back in wicker chairs with coffee on the table and a game of GO, of all things, pushed off to the side. This time, I was spotted immediately and invited to their table. I asked if they were finished with their game. Hiram replied, his face shaded by the bill of his cap,
"Yeah, it don't take Heston long to beat me."
I had wondered how Hiram might refer to Heston. He was deferential enough so that one might have expected a "Mr. Heston," but there was also a strain of gruff familiarity between them that demanded something less formal. However, Heston was the sort of man for whom any first name would be wrong, not because he made a point of dignity, but because it was so hard to imagine him as a child.
Heston, of course, praised Hiram's progress at GO. At first, it had seemed surprising that Heston himself could master the complexities of an arcane Japanese game more subtle than chess. But now, as he gestured at the board and mumbled, it seemed that he might have a definite non-verbal intelligence well suited for the ambiguous and shifting shapes of GO, where there is seldom a sharp line between surrounding someone else and being surrounded oneself.
The boat, it seemed, was doing well, much better than either of them had ever imagined. Passages were booked up for some time, and, despite having doubled their rates, demand was greater than ever. I responded,
"You've become fashionable! Once that happens, you can double your rates again and people will want to come all the more. They'll boast to each other how much it costs."
Where most entrepreneurs would have been delighted, both Heston and Hiram were somewhat uncomfortable. Still, I think Heston was pleased that Hiram was being successful, and that he might have found something he could keep doing indefinitely. Heston said to me with a chuckle,
"Hiram overheard one woman telling another that he reminded her of Blackbeard the Pirate."
I admitted that the same thought had struck me on first seeing Hiram. It was the first time I had seen Hiram embarrassed, but it turned out that he was the sort of person who likes to be mildly embarrassed. We had quite a jolly time, particularly when I pointed out that their customers, especially the women, were really paying to take cruises with Blackbeard the Pirate. I suggested facetiously,
"You might increase your gross by having a stooge walk the plank and be rescued secretly. Or you could hang a weighted mannequin from the yardarm, and then drop him overboard."
Hiram was really quite pleased with this last idea.
"As long as I've practically become a showman, I might as well put in a few stunts."
When my food came, I attacked it in a way that aroused comment. It then came out that I had been in the race. Heston was absolutely astonished. He had passed by the race, but had never dreamed that anyone he knew would take part in such a thing. I enjoyed his reaction. He was, I believe, more shocked than he would have been if I had told him I was a prostitute in my spare time. Hiram, by contrast, wasn't particularly surprised. He said,
"I spend a lot of time running on that treadmill on the sloop, charging the batteries, sometimes an hour at a time. I've wondered how I'd come out in a race."
"When I tried your treadmill, it felt like going up a gentle grade. An hour of that would get you through a 10k and then some."
Hiram laughed. I was sure that he had in his mind an image of himself running along in shorts, without his hat, and found it ridiculous. He then asked,
"What would Heston think if I started running along in pink shorts?"
I was catching on to the way Hiram and Heston teased each other. Hiram pretended to think that Heston was more of a country squire than he really was. Heston, on the other hand, pretended to think that Hiram was a wild teen-ager with romantic notions. They were now trying to place me. They had begun by both according me the status of an honorary princess, but that was now gone. In their world, princesses didn't run.
The upshot was that the three of us began to feel our way toward something new. There were questions about my other interests and activities. Heston supposed that, since I ran, I might do almost anything. On inquiry, he discovered that I played golf. Hiram burst out laughing in a way that disconcerted the entire restaurant.
The joke turned out to be that Heston was also teaching Hiram to play golf. The outings were evidently rather comical, and Hiram was imagining what they would be like if I were added as a third. I asked Heston jokingly,
"What's all this about teaching him GO and golf? Are you trying to make a gentleman of him?"
I've never been known for tact, but no one seemed to mind. Hiram replied,
"His idea is that, if you treat a bad news character as a gentleman, he'll become one. How's it working?"
"I'll have to see how you play golf."
It was fixed up that we play the very next day. That suited me quite well. I could certainly take an afternoon off for golf with a client like Heston. In fact, it would be, so far as I knew, the first time a woman broker in our office had ever asserted her right to take her business to the golf course. It was hard, at any rate, to imagine that Sandy Meadowes had ever done so.
It also suited me in another way. After the race I had run, I knew that I wouldn't want to run the next day. Indeed, one must, in a certain way, start over again. I couldn't imagine a gentler and more pleasant place to begin than on the sort of golf course where Heston would play.
That night, I called Janey. In the aftermath of the race I hadn't had a chance to ask her about her date with David, and I was curious. This time, my lack of tact was more serious. Janey tried to carry on as we had the day I lent her the dress, but she was forcing it. I had no right to ask her, in any detail, how her date with David, or anyone else, had gone. It made it worse that she was my assistant and that she might think she couldn't refuse to tell me.
On a more basic level, I kicked myself for assuming so blithely that Janey could have no serious interest in David. It was he, not myself, who could marry her and make her secure the rest of her life.
In fact, nothing extreme of any kind seemed to have happened. David had been nice, and Janey had liked him a little better than she had expected, given what she had seen around the office. While she said nothing of it, she must have supposed that there would be future dates. In that case, she must have wondered where they might end. I therefore avoided all reference to our plots against David and mentioned the loan of the dress as if it had been an innocent joke. Janey seemed much relieved and responded happily,
"It really confused him at first. He didn't say anything, but I could tell. Finally, when he said what a nice dress it was, I told him he'd seen it before. He couldn't guess when, but, when I told him it had been on someone else, he finally got it. He thought it was funny then. He's not such a bad sport."
I said some good things about David, and then arranged for Janey to cover for me while I played golf. I pretended that that was my reason for calling, thus implicitly re-affirming the business arrangement we had reached. I may be tactless, but I'm good at getting myself out of the holes I blunder into.