Runner’s Low by Christian Harrington

Runner’s Low

Christian Harrington

In the final days leading up to the Jackson Hole Marathon, I started having dreams about the finish line. I saw a little boy with binoculars standing atop a wobbly ladder. He’d be the one to spot me on a distant field, running alongside a band of galloping horses that had joined me out of curiosity and admiration. After staring in disbelief at the sight of a man outpacing stallions, the boy would yell down to the race organizers that they better unroll the checkered tape. “That’s impossible; it’s too early!” the curmudgeonly mayor would reply. His next protest would be drowned out by the collective roar of the townspeople as they saw me storming over the hill. The women would cheer as the men whistled through their fingers and tossed their caps.

Sadly, there is no checkered tape when you finish two and a half hours behind the winner.

Instead of adoring fans, I was greeted by dance music blaring at a volume the speaker couldn’t handle and a man on a microphone mispronouncing the names of finishing runners.

Even though the crowd was small, and absolutely zero of the fifty-or-so spectators were watching me, I pounded my feet on the electronic finish pad like I was the first to do so.

Johnny, my older brother, crossed the invisible line just a few minutes behind me. Some have argued that Johnny clocked the more impressive time since he’s eight years my senior. It looked like I would beat him by a greater margin until I hit a physical—and spiritual—wall at mile 23 and began walking backward. Besides, he ran the race with music in his ears and coconut oil on his nipples. I, on the other hand, ran the race with no playlist and completely unprotected nipples. As the old saying goes, “Youth is no antidote for silence and chaffing.”

We embraced to commemorate the biggest shared accomplishment of our life. I would like to say that we celebrated but celebrate seems like the wrong word to describe two exhausted men collapsing into one another as they both dry heave.

Standing on the right side of that finish line, I was—dare I say it—proud of myself.

Though Johnny and I had already run a few half-marathons together, a full marathon seemed ridiculous when we signed up for it. The half-marathons were challenging enough and, if the organizers did it right, the full marathon would be twice as long.

Johnny’s reason for running was clear. He was building up endurance so that he could climb up and then ski down the Grand Teton, the very mountain we were running below. I, on the other hand, was preparing to study creative writing in an MFA program that would start a few days after the race. While the connection between distance running and writing output was not obvious, training for the marathon served as a wonderful distraction from worrying about the program, which I feared would expose my utter lack of talent and do so at a very high cost.

I was still catching my breath when Katherine, a fellow race finisher and new friend, grabbed my brother’s phone and positioned us for a photo with the majestic Grand Teton in the background. We met Katherine around mile twelve when our lungs were full and our spirits high. After a pleasant, breathy chat about it being our first marathon, we concluded that Katherine’s pace was a little too slow for us and left her in the dust. As I said, at that point, the lungs were full, spirits high—we were cocky.

Twelve miles later, in a cruel reenactment of the tortoise and the hare, Katherine ran by us. Unlike the smug tortoise in the story, who kept trucking past his foe, Katherine did something much worse—she slowed down and ran alongside. She even pep-talked me into sprinting the final fifty yards.

After snapping our triumphant photo and exchanging some sloppy high-fives, Katherine told us to grab hydration and find her on the patio. She wanted us to meet her friend Tom.

Thinking Katherine was somewhere in her early forties, I assumed Tom would be roughly the same age. I also expected him to be fit, but the frail kind of fit you saw in older runners. The outstanding aerobic capacity may make them feel twenty years younger, but their gaunt faces and lean legs make for a body that looks fueled by nothing but pea soup.

Given that informed speculation, I decided the man I saw sitting next to Katherine couldn’t be Tom. He had the good looks and chiseled frame of a star quarterback—a star college quarterback. I figured Tom must have gone off looking for a restroom.

“Guys, this is Tom!” Katherine said while looking in the direction of the quarterback.

Even with the post-race endorphin high, I had a bad feeling about sitting down with this Tom character.

“How’d it go for you?” I asked Tom.

“Oh, not my best race, but thanks,” he said.

Time would tell if it was the Hugh Grant self-deprecation I liked or the professional-athlete-interview humblebragging I loathed.

“Did you hit your goal?”

“Yes and no. I did finish in under three hours, but I didn’t break 2:45.”

In other words, he could have completed the race and watched most of Chariots of Fire before we finished. What an overachieving bastard.

I gritted my teeth as if to say, “Tough break.”

“Tom is doing a pretty crazy thing this year,” Katherine said.

Judging by the physique of the man in front of me, I figured it was going to be running-related. Still, I held out hope that it would be something offbeat like, “He’s learning how to juggle twelve balls!” or pathetic such as, “He’s going on a Disney cruise by himself!”

 “It’s a silly thing. I’m running fifty-two marathons this year to mark my fifty-second birthday,” Tom said.

Deep down, I knew it was going to be running-related. Johnny chuckled. We all chuckled. I hated Tom.

At that moment, I would have given anything to be at a table with one of the poor souls who didn’t finish. I wanted to find an ambulance with a dehydrated runner on a stretcher who could praise my grit, maybe even ask with tear-filled eyes how I made it all the way to the very, very end. Tom would provide none of the hero worship I craved.

And why should he? Marathons were quotidian affairs for him. While I spent three months grinding out runs around town, Tom was already in the kind of shape where—barring a social conflict—he could run 26.2 miles at the drop of a hat. He wasn’t being modest about his time; he was being honest. That morning’s race, a journey of immense pain and significance for me, was three hours of mere humdrum routine for Tom. Hell, this race was just one of fifty-two. My runner’s high was fading fast.

“So, you’re doing one every weekend?” I asked, confident my math was correct.

“Well, some weekends don’t have a marathon, so I have to double up on a few,” Tom replied.

“Huh?” I heard what he said, but I didn’t understand it.

“I have a few weekends with back-to-backers,” he clarified.

I looked at my brother. His jaw was set firmly in the dropped position.

“Yeah, and the goal is to run them all under three hours,” he said, answering a question nobody asked.

Satisfied by my free post-race sodas and frustrated by Tom’s superhuman pursuit, we decided to part ways. Katherine proposed meeting up later for a drink. That sounded like a very reasonable proposition at the time, so we tentatively agreed to it.

Ninety minutes later, the plan seemed ridiculous. My brother and I were completely unprepared for the post-marathon hangover. It hit as soon as we made it back to the hotel room. We could do nothing more than lie in bed, chug Gatorade, and watch college football. Lacking the strength to form words, we offered up grunts for touchdowns and moans for just about everything else. I felt more hungover in that bed than I had ever been from a night of drinking, and that includes the night I drank a pitcher of beer, alcohol to which I’m allergic. Once we regained verbal abilities, our conversations regularly returned to Tom:

“He’s definitely on steroids.”

“I bet he’s not as tall as he wants to be.”

“I wonder if his wife knows he loves running more than he loves her.”

“How many innocent people would you murder to look like that at fifty-two?”

“Two marathons in a weekend? What an ostentatious jackass.”

“I hope he’s a crap father and his children resent him.”

“To be honest, he was really nice.”

“A really nice jackass.”

My health wasn’t turning a corner despite the healing power of football violence. I walked outside the hotel to catch some fresh air and maybe take a stroll to the local hospital. After sucking in a few deep breaths, I remembered that this was not the oxygen volume I was used to breathing back home in Massachusetts.

In terms of picking a spot for your first marathon, Jackson Hole was perhaps the dumbest. I had exclusively trained in a suburb outside Boston, at elevations ranging from a few feet below to 20 feet above sea level. In other words, I had trained to run at heights no higher than a good-but-not-great sledding hill. Unfortunately, Jackson Hole checks in at about 6,000 feet. I looked into buying a mask that mimics the effects of running at altitude. The science seemed questionable, while the embarrassment of running around town looking like a Batman villain was all but guaranteed.

We determined that the only way to avoid elevation sickness was to keep our bodies in the dark by showing up just a day before the race. That way, maybe our lungs wouldn’t notice the sharp drop in oxygen until the race was already over. Jogging at mile 22, I couldn’t believe our plan was working. Walking outside the hotel in a daze, I realized our plan hadn’t worked at all.

Mercifully, the fitness hangover subsided in time for us to accept Katherine’s text invitation for drinks. We could have stayed in bed without complaint, but we had to know more about this strange fitness duo.

Tom and Katherine were already on the patio with beers by the time we got to the bar. They looked rested, annoyingly so. For all we knew, they had just finished a triathlon that they stumbled across a few towns over. If we looked like two guys who had struggled to keep down half a burger at the hotel restaurant just a few hours before, that’s because we were.

The four of us got along fine. If you removed the completely unrelatable tales of fitness woe, like how Tom viewed himself as a failure because he never qualified for the IRONMAN World Championships in Hawaii, Tom and Katherine were wonderful people. At the end of the evening, we wished them good luck on their next respective races. They encouraged us not to quit running.

We flew back east the following morning. I couldn’t wait to transition every conversation with my friends to the marathon: “Terrible news about Matt’s grandmother in Chicago—I actually connected through O’Hare on my way to run a marathon last week.” In a simpler age, I would have been tempted to report a more impressive finish time. Sadly, race results are easily accessible online, so shaving two hours off my time was out of the question.

When you grow up near Boston, you know a lot of people who have run a marathon. It’s not that they were born with the running gene so much as one year they ran the Boston Marathon as part of an office fundraiser. That means they trained hard for a few months, ran it, and returned the next year to what Marathon Monday is about for a majority of the city: day drinking. Unlike my do-gooder friends, Johnny and I had no great purpose. We didn’t raise any money for charity; we didn’t run home to announce the result of a Greek battle; all we did was cover a long distance with nothing but our legs, water, and several packets of disgusting sugar gel called GU.

When I live that day over in my mind, I don’t think about the race or the finish line as much as I do Tom and those hours of gallows humor in the hotel-turned-hospice. As the sons of a man who jogs in khaki shorts, we were unlikely marathoners from the start. We set a big goal, and we suffered for it together. Raised Catholic, great suffering makes momentary joy almost feel permissible. I can thank Tom for keeping it so brief.

It’s been five years since Jackson Hole, and I haven’t run another full marathon. Overall, I’ve been satisfied with my completion of a few shorter races—you get the same free t-shirt at a fraction of the effort. And yet I want to run another, eventually. I worry that time will slip away as I continue to say, “I’ll start training next month, next year.” Then I remember Tom. Sure, I may resent him a bit for diminishing my accomplishment on the day, but I am grateful for the hope his physical fitness gives me. Going by Tom’s timeline, I still have at least twenty good years of marathon running in me. Who’s to say that in a couple decades, I won’t be on a fifty-two-marathon journey of my own? If I am, I won’t be passing on the nipple cream.

About the Author

Christian Harrington is a writer and teacher in the Boston area. After a brief public relations career in Los Angeles, he returned east to write material outside the press release genre. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College.