In the course of my rather uneventful life, there is no greater mystery than my decision to run the Boston Marathon. Dumb! And bizarre. … As it turns out, this mystery is no mystery at all. It’s a story, actually—a cursed one, perhaps, but at least a complete one. Yes sir, this story has an intro, rising action, a climax that will knock your socks off, falling action and a surprise ending that attempts to connect the unexpected and strange. Welcome to TNB!
One time, back when I still believed the world was good, I followed a 22-week training program outlined in Mark Twight’s book Extreme Alpinism. The regimen promises that after 22 weeks of self-flagellation, a climber “peaks”—this is a two-week period during which you’re finally able to climb at the top of your game. While I agree that 22-for-two is crazier than asking to be paid in Canadian dollars, I had a feeling that I was headed toward physical wealth beyond my wildest dreams.
In the latter weeks, the book ominously calls for a “depletion day”—where you go as big as you can. And because of my calendar’s terrible sense of humor, D-Day would be the Boston Marathon, which always takes place on the third Monday of April. Normally, I avoid encouraging anything that makes losers feel like winners, such as marathons and golf. However, since I would be running a marathon as part of a greater training schedule for climbing, I was able to justify partaking in this parade of meekness. I am, after all, better than everyone else.
And, of course, as I’d realize during race day, I am, without fail, always wrong.
The smell of Vaseline and feces is a wretched potpourri that could mean any number of things, but in this story, it takes us to the starting line of the Boston marathon.
Just before noon, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, was a madhouse. There were 22,500 runners, and all of them looked uneasy, as if they had bellies full of beer, spaghetti and other simple fuels made to fire them out of the start corral, a fenced-in space to cage the runners.
My friend Amy Davison and I waded through this kennel of jog-hounds, watching people piss and shit themselves in pre-race anxiety. While we were both here to run in the race, our circumstances couldn’t have been more opposite. Amy had a number and I didn’t. It’s funny how a piece of paper stapled to your chest can lead to such an asymmetrical fate. Amy was an entrant. She had paid the $145 fee and had previously run another marathon with a good enough time to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon, making her an official participant.
I, however, was a bandit, here to poach a race that 22,500 people had paid lots of money and run many miles to compete in. I was a physical degenerate with no money, an occasional smoker who had never run farther than six miles before. So what? Since I didn’t feel official, I figured I shouldn’t look the part. I showed up to ground zero wearing a pink Hawaiian shirt with blue flowers, electric-blue surfer shorts, aviator shades, some old sneakers lacking even the most primitive arch support and tall socks that added an elegant fuck-you touch.
“I can’t believe you’re wearing that,” Amy said. “You’re insane. These people are not going to stand for it. There are guards here to nab chumps like you.”
She was right. Over by the lively Port-O-Johns, a dozen civilian air patrollers were surveying the scene and containing their pack of barking attack dogs. The men seemed eager to use the canisters of pepper spray holstered to their belts. Another group of patrollers was guarding the rear of the corral, where the bandits typically jump in under the assumption that anyone with a high number is too weak, fat or old to care.
“Don’t worry,” I said to Amy. “No one is expecting someone dressed like this to run 26 miles. They think I’m a spectator. See?” I showed her a can of Budweiser I was holding, just in case. “Plus, I’m not going anywhere near those cops, for both personal and legal reasons.”
I watched a bandit sneak over the fence and into the mob. The patrollers grabbed at his heels, and it seemed as though he had made it safely into the corral until one of the official runners ratted him out. An angry mob twisted the bandit’s arm behind his head and threw him to the dogs.
“Whatever,” Amy said. “Just stick with me. If you make it past the start line, you’ll be fine. Then, just try to finish, OK?” Amy showed her number to a guard, and entered the corral. I was sneaking around behind her when I felt something grab me by my shirt collar.
Everything about the person I turned to face suggested someone better left alone. He wore a tank top covered in blood and sweat stains and a Red Sox cap tilted to the back of his greasy bald head. Tissue-thin Umbro shorts yielded a pair of spindly legs that would’ve given the man the appearance of a daddy longlegs, except for his feet, which were bound in white running shoes and must’ve been at least a size 13.
“You’re not fooling anyone,” he said. “If you jump in now, the dogs will maul you.”
“What?” I said. “Who the hell are you?”
“Never mind. Listen, there are five rules to being a bandit,” he said, holding his hand up. “Follow them, and you might actually make it to the end.” El Bizzaro began his list, folding down each of his long gnarled digits with every instruction. “First and foremost, don’t jump in ’till the pack starts moving, which won’t be for 40 minutes after they fire the gun. There are a lot of people here, and none of them feel very sane about being so close to each other. Two, never cut off anyone with a number. They kick, and some are wearing cleats. Three, don’t take the water and food from official stations. If someone catches you drinking their water, especially toward the end, it will set them off like a hyena.”
“Son of a bitch,” I said. “I never thought of that.”
“Four, avoid taking beer from the spectators at all costs. And finally, don’t try to get a finisher’s medal … if you even finish, that is! Good luck, kid. You can run, but you can’t hide! Ha, ha!” And like that, the creep disappeared into the crowd, though I continued to hear his laughter, which sounded like a half-mad bird. The race had begun, and it suddenly seemed like a terrible idea. What was I doing here? I’m a climber, not a runner. My life, normally a planned, well-thought-out venture on routes below my limit, felt as if it was about to get very weird. How had something like a desire to improve my climbing caused me to think I could, or should, run a 26-mile race?
It’s a question that is broader and deeper than anyone might imagine. The notion of 26 miles for fun has caught on with many rich Westerners. Amidst all the modern fluff of the day, people have really gotten into running. This obsolete gig, however, should’ve died out back when we outsmarted every other predator (beside ourselves) and therefore had no reason to run. Yet, this pastime refuses to die, like cockroaches and Grateful Dead songs, and people are even training extensively for it. But why? Winning is out of the question for all but a handful of body-nazis. These people are just not right.
Even worse were the spectators, because they were here for one purpose: to watch over 22,000 suffer. Rome returns with Gladiators Gone Miles.
Just then, the pack started moving, and so did Amy, the only person in the sea of capitalists that I could trust. I jumped over the fence, and crashed right into someone wearing a ridiculous contraption on his nose to keep it from bleeding.
“Watch it, you bastard!” he shouted. “Hey, get this kid out of here!”
I elbowed him again, just for his own good, and hurried into the center of the pack as a fat guard with a rape-whistle hollered angrily at me. I caught up with Amy, and together, running elbow to elbow, we made it past the start line. There was no turning back.
I had originally intended to win the marathon. You heard me. While envisioning the whole thing in my head, I figured that I could rile myself up into such a frenzy that I would hit the 10-mile mark at 30 minutes. My hell-spawned pace would slap everyone in the face, and the field would be overcome by despair as they watched some kid who believes that climbing is the most difficult thing in the world, and that, with enough will power, anything else is doable, even winning a marathon, in worn out sneakers and a Hawaiian shirt crack these sacred standards like eggs.
True to my plan, I sprinted the first six miles. Running on idealism, coffee and toast, I moved as fast as I could … which happened to be an even pace with Amy and apparently anyone else with a middling number.
“Balls!” I thought. “This is hell! I’m done and I’m not even there yet. No way!”
I stopped at the first watering hole, ignoring the third rule of that bald fuck, while Amy continued on comfortably sans her incomprehensible partner. A woman in a nurse’s visor approached me.
“You can’t have this,” she said. “This is Gatorade, and it’s for the real runners. Here, have some water … if you must.”
“Listen, lady, someone stole my number already,” I said. “Look for the bum in the Sox hat. He ripped the damn thing right off my shirt!”
She shrugged, and continued tending to the real runners. I decided then and there that the rest of the way would not be easy, and that could be worth something. Maybe that was the reason I was here. The mirage of having something worthwhile to do in modern society, and the lack of outlets to fulfill our primal need to test ourselves. It’s why we climb, right? Never mind. I could see the city skyline on the horizon, so I continued staggering toward the heart of historic Boston like a sick dog.
This is my last coherent memory for the remaining 20 miles. Some say there’s this thing called hitting the wall, a state of atrophy where your body reaches a critical point of malfunction. In France and Canada and other countries proud of their pacifism it’s known as “bonking.” For me, it was more like falling through the wall … a wall made of thumping Maori war clubs. It was a blurry, out-of-body experience that was punctuated with frequent moments of cruelty and rare bits of compassion.
The outskirts of Boston were mostly inhabited by drunks and poisonous frogs. They saw my Hawaiian shirt, and felt it gave them a free pass to spit sticky gobs of venomous obscenities at me.
“Get a feckin’ numbaah, qweeah!” I heard, often.
“Hey, Donnie … looks like a wicked pissah! How’s about a beeah,” another would say as I ducked the frequent, careening cups of Samuel Adams. The miserable sots laughed like monkeys throwing shit.
Did you know that all marathons sound like human suffering? Close your eyes, and imagine a maddening rain of feet slapping pavement, a cacophony of wheezing and groaning. Hearing so many in a state of frailty did something to the spectators’ brains, and verbal brutality was often the result. Insults were shouted at anyone, or no one, because, after all, this was a race, and the runners just didn’t think to stop.
It wasn’t all bad. In the town of Wellesley, home to the prestigious all-female university, I took up an offer from a girl with a “Free Kisses” sign. I approached this nymph a broken man, and when she plucked my cheek with her lips, I felt as if a goddess had restored me.
A meager two or three miles from the finish, I passed by Fenway Park, home to the Red Sox [Ed. note: this was before the Red Sox won a World Series and broke the infamous Curse of the Bambino]
. Here, I fell into a semi-lucid state that I now appreciate as one of those rare moments that only happens to the lucky.
I wondered if I’d ever get to see the Sox break their dismal losing streak and actually win a Series. And if so, would that be a good thing for Boston? Of course, outright, it would be good—and if it ever did happen, Boston would make the L.A. riots look like a pillow fight. But in a weird way, I thought, the Curse of the Bambino might be the best thing to ever happen to Boston. It creates an identity, a broad sense of purpose, a raison d’etre. Maybe a curse isn’t a curse because it’s hard to break, but because breaking it would destroy any remaining sense of purpose and decency.
Suddenly, I saw the world as a place where we are all cursed—running toward these finish lines and goals that somehow attain so much importance in our minds, like winning the World Series, redpointing some grade, climbing El Cap … or even completing a marathon. I had been training for 22 weeks, including this Day of Depletion that was truly living up to its name … for what? To reach one of my climbing goals, sure, but after that happens, what next? Would I lose my raison d’etre—the very thing that had me in training, dreaming of success, giving my life meaning … and even running a marathon, which I’d never have done if not for climbing?
A mile from the end, I stopped … just for a minute. The unbearable fatigue of having run so far pressed down upon me. My calves were numb and my hamstrings were recoiling like Styrofoam in a campfire. A frat boy on the sidelines saw my Hawaiian shirt and waved me down. Against the admonition of the creep’s fourth tenet, I accepted a beer, just because I hate rules. They’ve never kept me safe, or helped me learn anything I couldn’t figure out myself. I chugged half the beer and immediately vomited. The frat-head laughed at me, and I kept running. Maybe some rules are worth the dog’s balls.
There’s a lot of talk about how it’s the process that’s important, not the goal. Alpinists now say they don’t need to reach the summit because it’s the experience on the mountain that matters. Sport climbers talk about the process of working a route, and the sadness in seeing the effort end with the redpoint. Bullshit. I considered my current state—excruciating pain—and wondered if this present moment was something I could love. Um, no. I wanted this damn thing over with ASAP. I was going to reach the finish line, or I was going to die, and either one was fine with me.
I used to think that a person is defined by his or her actions. That the finish lines you reach and the goals you accomplish are synonymous with who you are. Unfortunately, those things don’t matter in the end. Our bodies will morph into something strange and unrecognizable, no matter who you are or what you do. And then we die. We pick a finish line to run toward, try to cross it for god knows what reason and think that makes us into something special. And all the while, there’s only one finish line that matters—the big one, with gold-plated tickertape and accordion music, at the entrance to hell.
Near the end, I reconsidered my opinion. Sure, I thought, it’s lame to turn events into trophies by running toward the end and missing out on life. To be someone who runs a marathon just to be able to say so, or doesn’t bother visiting new areas cause he’s stuck gunning for that first 5.14.
But it’s also lame to reach that final finish line with nothing to show. People are not solely defined by what they do, but at the same time, what’s amazing are the movers and shakers who reach their finish lines, despite all the pain and sadness, and then, for some reason, keep running. That’s why climbing is so great. It’s one of the few things in this crappy world with no limits (unless you’re into aid climbing, which tops out at A5). In climbing, there’s always a reason to keep running.
There’s no logical reason that explains why we do any of the things we do, whether it’s climbing a mountain, spending a month trying to link the first two moves of a sit-start, or running 26 miles. The only truth is that we will one day die—and with a certain timeline like that, there’s raison d’etre for us all.
At that point, I decided my brain wasn’t working … or maybe it was. There was puke on my shirt, so I took it off for the home stretch. I had completed the race in somewhere around I-have-no-idea hours and fuck-you minutes. When I crossed the line, I began crying uncontrollably. Perhaps it was because I knew the pain was finally over; perhaps it was something bigger, the kind of thing that makes you think you’re playing a role in a Jimmy Stewart movie.
Either way, my goal of trying to get better at climbing had failed because I couldn’t walk for a month. I spent my “peak” period watching climbing videos, waywardly constructing a list of future projects, and getting so psyched to really start training that I couldn’t sit still.
Since entering the Boston marathon four years ago, Andrew Bisharat hasn’t run, jogged or even walked fast on a paved road.