Zen and the Art of Marathon Maintenance
My life is divided into two revolving states. During one, I eat healthily, run almost every day and don’t drink. I call this ‘Zen’. The other state is a debauched hedonism, barely human. I call this ‘normal’.
During one particularly large session of normal, I was gripped by a sudden and terrible madness. A mate named Gobbo bet me $100 that I couldn’t run a marathon in less than 3 hours 30 minutes. Not knowing exactly what that meant, I immediately said yes.
Given it cost me $120 to enter the Christchurch Marathon, I accept this challenge lacked a certain level of economic rationality. And as I hit the streets day after day, a negative 20 percent return was not what one would consider a motivating factor.
Like any bet, however, the winning and not the reward was important. Although, if it was about pride, things took a pretty serious dip for the worse on the day I was caught short of a toilet and had to drop my pants huddling on the side of the Sumner causeway. It may well be the most exposed piece of geography on earth.
Anybody who has been idiotic enough to enter a marathon will know the training is pretty much a part time job, and it was a job I did like any other: rather half arsed. When the big day came, I was a vague approximation of ready.
Before the race I knew it would be painful toward the end. Everybody me told me that. Therefore I expected pain and repeated a mantra to just power through it. Half an hour’s pain for an almost imperceptible amount of glory seemed, at that point, worth it. This health-kick had dropped me into the middle of a cruel and despicable insanity.
The first 20-odd kilometers were fine. No real worries barring a tightness in my calves. I had promised myself that whatever happened I wasn’t allowed to feel any discomfort until at least the 30km mark. So for most of that time I dutifully ignored the fact that my legs were really beginning to hurt. Now here’s an obvious fact of evolution. Pain is impossible to ignore. By the time I hit 35kms I was suffering. At 38km I was making involuntary yelps. I thought about the good old days when my only concern was having to shit on the Sumner causeway. One of the greatest humiliations of my life suddenly manifest itself as a good time. The madness was complete.
But here’s where it gets interesting. Just as I truly thought I would have to stop, an angel in a Nike singlet came along. An angel dripping with sweat, made of little more than sinew. An angel who, if I’m honest, looked close to death.
Recognising my obvious state, the angel urged me on. Between breaths that appeared to be part of a long slow cardiac arrest, the angel told me he’d run five marathons and that I could do it. Despite this idiot angel having put himself through hell on four other occasions, I followed him into the battle that was the finish line.
As I began to make utterances that appeared to be new forms of swear words, the angel urged me on. I did not know if the angel was my Sherpa Tenzing or my Captain Oates but I knew one thing, I was having a terrible fucking time.
At the start of the race I was ticking off milestones in 10km blocks, then 1km, and now – I kid you not – every lamp post was a goal. Each felt like a long, painful journey between concrete edifices to Edison. Every step was an agony as I crossed the finish line.
I looked at the time. 3 hours 28 minutes. I had done it! It is difficult to describe just how little satisfaction that brought me. I veered off the road, found some grass, lay down and hoped I’d never get up. I paused only to have a quick look around for my angel, I wanted to thank him but I never saw him again. I lay back down and waited for death.
A funny thing happened in the days following the marathon. The full bruises that completely covered the calf muscles on both legs began to die down and the hobble of my walk found a way to return to normality, a sense of achievement began to kick in. An inner satisfaction overtook all else. One must marvel at the unique element of the human condition that constantly suppresses bad memories and focuses on the good ones. The whole experience took on a virtuous glow: something maintained to this day.
Yesterday, I got asked if I’d like to do another marathon. As quick as a flash, without even thinking, I reached a heartwarming answer. No fuckin’ way.