As I plodded around the final corner for the third time, plunging into the slow, miserable uphill toward the finish line, a red haze washed across my eyes.
I was going to die.
Not only was I going to die, but I was going to do it in a very public way, in front of cheering spectators lining both sides of the street, all of whom would continue braying whether I crossed the line, or just fell onto the pavement in a sodden, twitching mess.
Not that any of this mattered to the volunteers or police overseeing the course and directing the runners.
As other runners streamed past, they shouted words of encouragement: “You’re nearly there!” and, “Looking great.”
As I ran past, they offered similar phrases meant to motivate: “Give it up, buddy,” and “Slug boy!”
Up to this point I thought I’d run a pretty solid race, snapping my elbows into elderly walkers in order to gain a couple of spots; running a few young kids down and crushing their Olympic dreams; and making a big show of flying through the packed start/finish area before allowing the dry heaves to take hold again.
As I put my head down and laid it all out on the line, young women happily chatting to each other blithely jogged past me.
“Hey loser!” one shouted over. “My grandmother could kick your ass!”
I ignored their negative chatter.
I had this race in the bag.
I bore down.
A guy with a stroller swept past me. “Watch it, bud,” he called. “Slow people are supposed to stick to the right.”
I ignored his cheap race tactics. I knew how rough it could get out on the road, in the pack. I had my eyes trained on an 11-year-old. I was pretty certain I could reel him in.
I’m not actually sure how I found myself toeing the line with the best runners Nova Scotia has to offer. I must have drank myself into a stupor, somehow – squinty-eyed – navigated the Internet and blindly ended up at Atlantic Chip, where still insensate I managed to input enough information to find myself entered into a race.
Ever thrifty, I didn’t want to squander the race fee, so despite my tremendous reluctance and a temporary loss of consciousness, I found myself in downtown Dartmouth about an hour before the start of the annual six mile Natal Day race.
The course consists of three loops – normally in the burning sun, but today for variation in humidity roughly comparable to a sauna gone completely berserk – over rolling hills only slightly less challenging than ascending K2 without oxygen.
Skinny guys in shorts sneered at me as I went find my chip timing device.
Once I’d secured my chip and T-shirt (isn’t that the main reason everyone races, free clothing?), I began my warm-up.
As I began my routine, a young child pointed and said, “What’s the funny man doing?”
Just watch me, kiddo. Watch and learn. I’m going to set the course on fire.
Pretty soon we began to line up in the starting gate. The announcer cautioned people about ensuring they were properly seeded according to ability – for some odd reason giving me a pointed look.
I moved back one row from the front.
Then we were off!
What a thrilling moment that was, the runners streaming forward, the crowd cheering us on, men and women alike thrusting past me, shouldering me: “Get the fuck outta the way, ya jogger!”
I felt alive.
The race inflamed my nerves, set all of me a tingle, made me more conscious than ever of just how precious life is and what heights we are capable of, and of just how little I could barely gather even a single breath.
It was amazing. I felt like Pre, all of the Olympics and a decongestant wrapped up in one remarkable bundle. By the time I crossed the six mile finish line, triumphant, five hours later, everyone had gone home. But I knew I’d pushed myself to the limit – and beyond.
Limping to my car, bunching my tight muscles up in preparation to seating myself inside, I congratulated myself on a personal best and already began planning my next race.
Oh yeah, baby, some Kenyans better be watching their asses. Got nothing on me.