At 4:09:44 race time, John Kapernick has already crossed the finish line. He’s blocks away, in fact, and in his hotel room where he steps gingerly into a tub. He showers slowly because everything hurts. His quads and hamstrings are tight and tightening, and his chafe just keeps burning.
“Hot, tot, tot,” he says as he lightly rubs the foam around his groin because this is bad. “Raw meat” is how he described it to a fellow runner in the finisher’s chute.
“Aw, man,” this man empathized. “I got a bit of that too,” and he lifted his running shorts, exposing his own pubic hair tangled in a raspberry clot of bloody skin.
John Kapernick’s skin is bubbling, some of it blistered and broken. Raw. Red. The water hits it. He sucks in. Winces. Tears in his eyes because it burns, but it’s a sweet kind of pain. He had done very well. Better than anyone expected. Better than he expected. He had done more than finish the race. He killed it. It was an optimum performance. There were times in the race he felt less than optimal, but his pace was steady. He hit his splits. He raced smart—didn’t take it out too hard, kept himself in check after the 10K split when those less experienced runners drop it down, and he didn’t take the first mile out hard. Difficult to do with the excitement all around, the anxiety and nerves telling you to flee or fight. To go. Just go. Forward. Fast. On your legs. Like an animal.
He was reserved. Smart. He watched his pace. Analyzed his watch. Knew the excitement to get going would make that first mile feel easy, make it feel like nothing at all, and that could be trouble. It could mean taking it out twenty or even thirty seconds too fast and there was no such thing as putting time in the bank. Time put in early in the race means untold struggle later on. It means wobbly legs at mile 23. It means cursing yourself for being so damn stupid. Doing something like that? Bolting out front for what? Because you’re excited? Because you can’t control the legs you’ve been training on for years? It’s amateur. It’s stupid. It’s what rec runners do for a photo op.
John Kapernick is no rec runner. He is a collegiate athlete who held onto this life. Kept it with him through relationships and tragedy and regrets and hangovers and personal joys and failures. It’s always been there, his hour and thirty minutes on the trail. That’s his. His time to take this world for what it is—a series of impositions punctuated by too much time in front of a computer screen—and let it all go fuck itself. He hears birds. He smells trees. He listens to the gravel grit under his feet until his head disappears into his legs and he’s all primal instinct, smelling the other runners he passes, sniffing them—actually sniffing them. The men, to see if they’re a threat. The women, to see if they’re willing to mate.
He does not know these things for certain, but on the run he comes to these conclusions. Why else smell someone else as they pass? It’s animalistic. Primal. It is very non-screen and on a completely different plane of existence. It is not a series of impositions. It’s no series at all. It’s going from one point to the next, and knowing that’s all there is. There’s the start and the end and the middle. You live in the middle. Here, is where you exist with your legs moving on the trail, your ears hearing the birds, your nose smelling the trees, the threats, the potential fucks.
The floor goes boom. The water sputters.
His legs—no, his groin—is raw like red meat.
At 2:36:41 race time, John Kapernick crosses the finish line, elated. He has PR’d by a lot. He dropped 13 minutes from his last marathon in Duluth, a flatter, faster course. He averaged just under six minute miles, something he didn’t think he could do in his mid-thirties. Until very recently—this moment, this race, in fact—he believed his best racing days were behind him. PR’s a thing of the past. A younger man’s game. Young bucks, he started calling them. They have the resilience, the hunger. They are better able to do this thing that he does, that he can’t control, that compels him. The compulsion. That’s it. The compulsion to wake early, run over lunch, see more sunsets than the average man living in a city and ignore them all.
John ran smart. He was right on pace from mile one. He was a little fast through the half, but that was to be expected. He held on after mile 20. He negative split his last two miles. He felt strong, like a beast. An animal, a survivor. He has done this before. He has done it many times before, but never at this level. He’s a different kind of runner than he used to be. A new kind. A better kind. He trained for this and he was ready. He showed up today. Today, he was here, present, running smart and doing the things that experience and intelligence and years upon years of training had taught him.
Don’t get roped in too early. Check your pace. Mind your fuel intake. Take what you need, no more. At least three energy shots. One at mile eight, another at fourteen, another at eighteen, and be ready to take the fourth (in reserve) at twenty-two. Keep the caloric intake up. Don’t fall into glycemic deficit. The deficit is when the race is over. No getting it back. Takes too long. By the time your body processes the sugar necessary to keep pace, it’s too late. You’ve crashed. You’ve cramped. You’re quickly going north of three hours and what piece of shit runner worth his mettle doesn’t break three?
Rec runners. Rec runners finish north of three.
All of this has happened to John before in other marathons. Not this one. Not this time. He ran smart. He trained well and kept pace. Kept it all in check.
He reaches for the shampoo, hears a blast. Feels it in the floor. The water pressure. Does it drop for a second?
Sirens. He winces.
At 2:38:11 race time, John Kapernick is already receiving congratulatory text messages from friends who tracked his splits on the Internet, his phone vibrating in his race bag that has been set out with the thousands of others in rows behind tents and orange plastic fencing manned by an army of volunteers.
His bag’s number—his race number—faces out and up among the mass of little plastic sentries waiting to be handed to racers hobbling to the table. Some gleeful. Some angry. Some in visible pain. Some bleeding from the nipples. Some with shit running down their legs. Some dripping with perspiration. Some dry as a bone, salt crusted and streaked down his face, squinting in the shade, eyes burning. Apologetic, saying, “Sorry, can you read my number?”
“Sure,” says the volunteer. The racer dumps a bottle of water over his head, wipes his face down, and allows his vision to blur for a moment and grunts away what just happened out there on the road, the hours—days, seemingly—he was away and adrift, all body and movement and filled with a single purpose. John Kapernick is in a jaunty mood, however. He’s rarely been in a jaunty mood before. He’s talking and joking with strangers. He rarely talks to strangers. He rarely talks to anybody, really, but during the race he met up with a runner who pulled him from mile 12 through mile 22. An old-ish man. A teacher, he said, who does two or three marathons a year and always finishes around 2:40.
Harriers. This man was a harrier. Every runner like John Kapernick wishes to find a harrier at every major race, and perhaps someday become one. It was one of the things that made Boston unique.
Because 2:40 race time was important. 2:40 race time was a benchmark. 2:40 was the time John Kapernick was hoping to get and at the 12-mile water stop he found this man, a man who called himself JV, who said he would finish the race at 2:40 no matter what.
“Doesn’t matter the conditions. Doesn’t matter the heat, the hills, the shits, whether I train a lot or not at all,” JV said, “I will hit 2:40.”
“No kidding? That’s what I’m shooting for,” John said. “I want to sneak right under it.”
These men spoke in short clipped phrases, huffing now and again, but they held a conversation, helped each other out. At 16, JV grabbed a banana half for John and tells him it may not be a fancy energy shot, but it has worked for him for years. They both felt good. Amateurs—rec runners—were already miles behind.
“Back at Marine Corps, I shit myself at mile seven. No joke!” JV said.
John laughed. “That ass chafe had to be bad!”
“So bad I might as well been dragged down a gravel road buck-ass naked—Two fuckin’ forty. Stick with me, Hoss.”
Hoss, JV called him. Hoss because John Kapernick is a big man by a runner’s standards. He’s tall but not lanky. He’s thin but muscular. He’s got an athletic build, but an athletic build is not the sort of build for an elite runner—not for an elite distance runner. You’d see guys like John Kapernick tearing around the track doing 800s and 1500s, a race that still requires brute strength and momentum, but for anything 5K and above the guys who do it best are all limbs. Guys like JV who at nearly fifty years of age is light on his feet. Graceful.
“Stick with me, Hoss,” this man said.
At 1:17:04 race time, John Kapernick crosses the half. It’s quick, but not too quick.
No, it’s too quick.
“Bit quick, but a good day to be a bit quick,” JV reassures.
But it is too quick for a 2:40. It’s not as quick as John has taken out other marathons. He’s been as fast as 1:15 only to blow up around 17, 18, hell, 20 miles and shuffle in, sheepish, ashamed, stopping at a curb and shouting, “Fuck this. Fuck, fuck, fuck. I’m an idiot. Stupid,” sometimes to his fiancée, sometimes to one of his injured teammates who was out there cheering in support.
“Fuck this!” he’d shout because his calf had cramped. “It’s fuckin’ hot out here. Too fuckin’ hot. They had the orange flag up at the start. Eighty degrees at seven in the morning? Fuck this.”
And his buddy, his fiancée, once even his father, would say, “OK, I know. Just get moving. Just keep rolling. Come on.”
“Fuck!” he’d respond.
Because this was the worst. This was failure. It was failure yet again. This was Duluth in late June. There was an entire Great Lake off to his left where there was supposed to be a northerly wind bringing cool air over the lake to keep the course cold, like an air-conditioner. The lake effect. Yet it was hot, much too hot for an optimum performance.
“I think I tore something,” John shouts. “Does this look torn? Just look at it.” He swipes his arm toward his lower leg where something is going wrong in his calf muscle—spastic movements as if there’s an animal under his skin bedding down.
“Dehydration,” he curses. “Fuck.”
“I’m not mad at you,” he says. “I’m tired,” he admits.
His fiancée (ex), his buddy (sometimes), or his father (trying to reconnect), pat his shoulder, tell him he can still get under three. Just roll on in. Just roll.
But that wind is coming straight from the south. It’s boiling down in the Gulf of Mexico and creeping up that hot-blood river and settling the humid reek of the Deep South here, of all places.
“It’s Duluth, goddamnit,” he spits.
“I know,” she says and she hands him a Gatorade she bought at the gas station.
“It’s piss warm,” he says and drops it to the curb.
At 47:04 race time John Kapernick rips open his first energy shot. It’s strawberry-banana because for whatever reason that was the only flavor that didn’t turn his stomach during his last training cycle. He tried four different brands and about twenty different flavors. He went with strawberry-banana. It tasted most natural and he was best able to process the peculiar, snot-like substance as if it were baby food.
For years, among his running buddies, the use of energy shots was hotly debated on many long runs. First the conversation would be about whether they were effective. And, yes, they all understood, more or less, that the intake of simple calories should be beneficial to the race, but what they could not understand was why this form was any more suitable than any other, say actual bananas and oranges. They decided that it mostly came down to convenience and the concentration of caloric intake.
“How much water do we gotta drink with this shit?” was a question commonly asked.
“Fuckloads,” was a typical response, and they all knew what that meant.
Needless to say, they were slow to adopt it. They were a skeptical group, untrusting of change and stubbornly unwilling to. John Kapernick’s voice was loudest in this. He prided himself for years—throughout his early twenties, his early marathon days—as being a blood and guts runner.
“Nobody used this crap before. Salazar, Kempainen, the first Kenyans to come over. Water and orange slices. That candy goop is all just marketing bullshit.”
“Yeah but …,” his comrades would argue on the trail, in the winter, at night, the city lights running along the cloudsheet, bringing the ceiling of their land, of their free space to roam lower still, so they are running into a wall of snow and yellow light, and to each one of them, this is love, pure and simple.
“It’s like swallowing cum. I’m serious. It’s strawberry-flavored jizz. Disgusting.”
“I guess I wouldn’t know what jizz tastes like,” one of the fellas would say.
“It has the same consistency, dumbass. It’s goddamned ejaculate with coloring and flavor added.”
“They’d need dudes wanking it all day. There’s no way they could get that much to sell in even a regional market. Not viable, man.”
“Insemination clinics find plenty of perverts willing to wank all day.”
“Cost prohibitive. You know how much desperate mother’s pay to get that shit? Dude. Not. Viable.”
And these were solid points that silenced the group as they headed into a break in the trees, the trail leading them down the river valley into a stretch of path that was never plowed. They go here, into this darkness, into this place of shin-deep snow because John Kapernick claims the scenery is better. It’s off the freeway, gets down onto the riverflats. The trail narrows here and to be down here, where the world is all twisted tree and God-dropped gullies, uniform snow following the contours of the land—to be down here is to be alone. It is to be away. It is to be alone and away, and it is to be in love.
And they run like this for a mile or more, these few men, disappeared into the trees no different than the deer or streams cutting trail from here to there.
“Horse ejaculate,” one of them finally suggests. “They could use horse cum in those things.”
At 36:39 race time John Kapernick crosses the 10K mat, well under 3:10:00 pace, the fucking time those ball-swinging amateurs brag about when they “qualify” for Boston.
“Oh, you haven’t done Boston yet? You really should. Heartbreak Hill is a killer.”
“That right?” John would say to this fuck at the Macalaster track doing 200 repeats. Two hundred repeats for a fucking marathon.
“Yeah, but you gotta get a qualifying time.”
“So I hear.”
“It’s 3:10 for anyone under 39.”
“Right,” John would say because he’s run 3:10 before. He’s run 3:10 during 30-mile long runs. He’s run three fucking ten; he’s just never run it to qualify for Boston. “I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
“You’d be surprised,” says this fuck, smirking, stretching, wearing compression shorts, an iPod strapped to his upper-arm, and sunglasses wrapped around his face like some meathead outfielder for the Minnesota Twins.
John stretches his quads because that’s what this 3:10 meathead is doing, but the meathead is doing it all wrong. He’s lurching his legs out and his goddamn balls are bursting through his spandex and John wonders if he’s doing it for his sake.
Amateur fucking bullshit.
And the real reason this amateur fuck does the 200s and runs his 3:10 isn’t because of the purity of the sport, or the movement, or the run. It’s for some stupid meathead reason like that word they swaggered around 15 years ago in college.
So John asks, because he must ask, “You play lacrosse in college?”
“Yeah,” this amateur says. “How’d you know?”
“Just a guess,” says John and he trots off feeling satisfied, knowing that here’s a man who he will crush somehow. Maybe in a cosmic way. Here’s a Boston Marathon qualifier and finisher who’s just another amateur fuck doing the wrong things on the track for a race and sport he will never understand.
How could he? There is no understanding it. It’s motion and it’s a direction. It’s a thing John does, a thing he is doing now: Twenty-eight 400s at 75 sec/lap with a 200 jog recovery. The amateur fuck does one lap with him and makes an excuse why he can’t keep up. Something to do with shin splints.
John had shin splints. In middle school. And he never bitched about them and he never quit a workout because of them. He never complained to Coach. He never pinched his side and limped and said this was too much. He ran on the pain because that’s all running ever was, and the more you do it and understand that, the more the pain becomes another enigmatic result of the run, which itself was a puzzle, or alien universe, or a parallel one, maybe not on another cosmic level, maybe a step back in time—whatever it was—it was not a three fucking ten qualifying time for Boston.
He’s done that before. He’s done that as a 26.2 mile split on 30-mile runs.
When John finally finished the workout, the track is empty but for some college kids in the stands drinking and laughing or doing whatever college kids do on a cool spring evening. They’re doing the things that John never did in college.
At 5:56 race time John finishes the first mile of the race. There are hundreds of people in front of him, many of them wearing the strangest things. Tutus. Biker hats with the little brim. One guy is wearing a Lycra suit that is all green. Other people are prepared to be on the road all day. Backpacks and fuelbelts and baseball caps. For them it’s not a race, it’s a journey, and John can feel the surge of their human mass behind him, pressing forward, urging him to do something stupid in front of all these rec runners experiencing the glory of being in the lead at a major race. But what he wants to do—what he truly, truly wants to do—is murder them. Maybe not their bodies, but their spirit, surely. Decapitate it, break the back of their will. Show them that there are few who truly deserve to be on the road on this day.
But he keeps himself in check. He runs smart. He analyzes his splits. He’s quick, but not too quick. He schooled himself. He has learned and he now feels he’s on a different level of understanding in regard to this test of human limitations.
That’s all running is. A test of will and limits. And for a long while John quickly found that his ability to push the limits of his training knew no bounds. His bounds were extrinsic. Things like his job, relationship, spending time with family. And, yes, those things were important. His fiancée was important. She was very important and she should know that when the off-season comes after Boston, they’d go to the zoo all the time. They’d talk about the wedding. They’d make plans.
They’d go on picnics and see her friends.
“Don’t you like the ladies on the team?” John would say.
“Yes, but all they talk about is running.”
“So, that’s what we do on Saturdays—”
“And on Tuesday Tune-Ups, and Wednesday Work-outs, and Friday Pre-Race and Sunday Long-Runs.”
“They’re our friends is all,” he’d say.
“I don’t care. Why do you care what they run?”
“I don’t. But I’m gonna do it anyway, so if they’re down with it. Fine. They can follow me.”
“I’ve tried that.”
“How do you mean?” he’d ask and he’d know.
Then he’d look for a door to slam, but John knew, Courtney knew, he was not the door-slamming type. He was not the break-shit-and-regret-it type. John was the type who would yell and scream and slap walls and find something appropriate to throw, like a plastic Kool-Aid pitcher. Because this wasn’t about breaking shit. It was about releasing some of his will, testing the limit of this relationship, seeing who was mentally tough enough to gut out the final leg.
So he’d grab his shoes. “I’m going on a run.”
“Of course,” she’d say.
And he’d run in the dark. Running in the dark was becoming his thing and he came to like it. There were fewer people out. His night route went along the railroad tracks where there were others like him out there. Silhouettes of deer and men talking to themselves and people getting high in the ditches in the brush on the shore of the scum-water lake that smelled like sewage, but is beautiful at night. It reflects the moon. And the dogs howling in the distance could easily be mistaken for coyotes, and there are tales of mountain lion sightings, even in the cities. They follow the river, and that’s where John is going. That’s where he’ll end up. It’s where the tracks end after they slink through the city, under the underpasses and behind the parking garages and deep within the rattle of the chain link fences, where the spectacle of man rises on the twinkle of yellow lights and spits him out onto the black mud shores of the Mississippi.
At race time 4:09:44 the floor goes boom and the water sputters.
Then soon, too soon, John Kapernick is racing past 4:20:54 when the sirens hit their peak; he’s past 5:37:11 when he finally texts his father four capital letters, “IM OK;” he’s also past 6:07:39 when he posts to Facebook a brief first-hand account of what just happened and how confused he is by it all; he’s past 9:56:23 where he’s admittedly a little too drunk but down on the street by a barrier looking toward the cop cars and fire trucks and becoming increasingly enamored by the lights; he’s past 12:34:12 when he dials his ex-fiancée and says a few things he’ll regret and one thing he will not; he’s past 72:26:18 when he says point blank to Andy, who skipped Boston for a wedding, “Figures. The year I run the race of my life, nobody will remember it.”
And, finally, he’s past race time altogether. He’s in a boat where a boy is bleeding from the neck, and though none of it has anything to do with time anymore, John is still counting the beeps, the ticks, the pulses. He’s counting them by days now—months, and years—and he achieves lifelong goals—running a 100-mile race—and he takes into account lifelong failures—never married, no kids, skipped father’s funeral—and he assesses midlife surprises—living in Northern Mexico?, learning Spanish?, running in the high desert?
At all these turns, John looks back on that long trail to see race time 00:00:00 when he first set off to become a runner, yes, but also something more spread out through the penance of this action, like a ripple—a wave—a contusive blast from a bomb—an explosion of self and gratitude and yearning that has left him behind, naked and raw in the shower, as he tries to be there at the finish line, trying so hard to be there to welcome the shrapnel with the meaty part of his thigh and let it rip his flesh from hip to knee.