Jerome Shea March 10, 2007 Weekend Wonk
I found that other essay, Dear Readers, and I count on your indulgence in letting me run it, for surely you do not want to leave me in ignominy at the hands—or rather the feet—of Ed Green, my nemesis from Devil’s Throne. -Shea
The Jemez Pueblo Half-Marathon is one of the prettiest footraces in the Southwest, a circuit starting and ending in the village itself, running out through the corn and chile and bean fields, and skirting the red buttes, all under an ice-blue New Mexico sky. But this year those skies had been dumping rain on the red clay roads for almost a month, and the humidity, that Sunday morning, felt more like New Jersey than New Mexico.
Mile three. The starting clump, such as it was, has stretched and thinned out and most of us have settled into a steady pace. Harvey Buchalter and I, the official Sons of Ditches Running Club, have decided to just “run for the shirt” together, not worrying about finish times. For a man who has had a very checkered training year, I feel nonetheless fairly good, comfortable. So far the mud puddles aren’t nearly so bad—so big, deep, or frequent—as I had feared. I envision the afternoon back in Albuquerque, my body pleasantly limber and sporting this year’s Jemez t-shirt.
Mile five. In spite of myself, I have got out ahead of Harvey by ten feet and then ten yards. But he’s wearing his Walkman, so I don’t feel obliged to stay with him as planned. If I can get a respectable finish time, I will feel better about the checkered year and my chances in the Duke City and the Tour.
Mile six. I have put three people behind me in the last mile, always a nice feeling—and then they are younger people, it’s a wonderful, shameful, vicious feeling. It’s hot. I rarely sweat like this. But my legs feel strong. Breathing is a chore, but my legs feel strong. That last puddle was a real loblolly, and mud is still flying off my shoes. I had better be careful on these muddy stretches: that stuff isn’t just yucky; it’s slippery, treacherous.
Mile seven. That looks like Ed Green, another veteran, up ahead. We can chat and pace each other for a while. “Lovely day for a brisk run, Brother Green!” “Indeed it is, Brother Shea!” Then we start to hedge our bets, because it is feeling like a sauna now and starting to be less fun by the yard. I wonder aloud just how fast a man of fifty-one can be expected to run on such a hellacious day; Ed bemoans the back surgery he had last year, saying that he hasn’t been the same since. All runners try to psyche each other out this way, poor-mouthing. The trick is to guess how much is the truth and how much a con.
Mile nine. That son of a gun Green is a good twenty yards ahead of me and I feel as if we’ve been running for days at the same mechanical, hopeless pace. The sun is a merciless glare, sweat is dripping into my eyes, and I’m thinking of everything that I’d like to be doing instead of flailing my legs in this godforsaken piece of real estate. Where, I wonder, is it written that one cannot just stop, quit? But I won’t quit. I can’t quit. In a curious, almost detached, way, I’m looking forward to how I’ll feel at the finish. My legs are tired. They don’t hurt as bad as they have in a marathon blow-up, thighs loaded with lactic acid. But they hurt. They want to stop. But I won’t let them, and I squint my eyes and grin. After all: no pain, no gain.
Mile eleven. I pass Ed, who’s getting wobbly. “Lookin’ good,” I croak out (the sweetest lie a runner ever hears). Poor Ed. I hope his back straightens out. Now every yard becomes sweeter. I am looking at just two miles and change, and then all the Gatorade I want, all the laughing and comparing notes with the finest people on the planet. So I may as well pick up the pace. Yes, I’ll pick up the pace. The harder it gets the easier it gets, I think, and I reflect that that is either the wisest or the dumbest thought I’ve ever had. Then I reflect that wise or dumb doesn’t make any difference. Then I know I’m getting metaphysically goofy.
Finish line. My time is nothing to brag about, but that is not why the climax is strangely anticlimactic and strangely saddening. It is a truism that pain and gain are somehow bound together. But today, at Jemez* Pueblo in a hot, mucky half-marathon, I realize that at the very deepest heart of the mystery pain and gain are the same thing. Go figger, as they say.
*For the curious, “Jemez” is pronounced sometimes “haymez” but perhaps more correctly “hemmes.” There, now you’re a native.
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