THE STAR SPANGLED Banner finished and the crowd now heard, “Runners, on your mark.”
The cannon’s booming crack sent hundreds of men and women bolting across the startup line. Old, young, streamlined, even portly, running outfits’ casual or to the nines, they ran. Each one displayed a prominent identifying number.
On West Street they put on a show, gathering cheers for favorites and listening to heady, frantic calls from the crowd. Some smiled and hammed it up. Others carried looks designed to impress the crowd about how serious they were.
On their podium, a platform on a flatbed truck covered with brightly covered streamers, the judges and other race officials kept up a generally excited patter to spur the huge group on. They made light of their labors and the seven long miles remaining in this grueling race.
All too soon the vast array of numbered runners went out of sight. The great crowd entertained itself. People took out sodas or beer or wine and reached into coolers for wrapped sandwiches. They carried on animated conversations with their neighbors. Friends who hadn’t seen each other for perhaps an entire year smiled and laughed and chatted while idly watching the little people’s races that followed the main event; the filler.
First the four and five year olds ran from one end of the street to the other amidst the cheers and exhortations of Moms and Dad’s on the sidelines. Then the six to eight group ran and finally the nine to twelve year olds. That group ran a mile. Time passed. The crowd thoroughly enjoyed itself. At the thirty minutes mark, people at the head of the street began to look for the first runner from the big race. Who would it be?
The runners had left the crowd rapidly behind. All of them concentrated on their pace while watching their neighbors. They pretended to be friendly when the only thing in life lay ahead of every runner, the finish line. Everyone, man and woman alike, wanted to win this event, to be the big kahuna, to stand in the limelight, to be the winner. This story is about the winner. This sad, sad story is about the winner. How I hate to tell it! Yet, I must.
The winning runner started in the middle of the pack. No street in this or any town could contain all the hundreds of runners on one broad line. They left in a bunch with barely enough room to avoid tripping each other. Content to run with his fellows at first, the Runner paced along.
Inevitably the field began to stretch out and room to gain on the leaders came to each athlete who owned a need to win. Finally he made his move, slowly passing one runner after another. Twenty minutes and more than half a race later he approached the turn onto Gallows Lane.
He had the lead!
Sweat running freely; a dark patch had made its way down the back of the Runner’s blue cotton shirt. The moisture didn’t cool him. It didn’t help at all in this too hot day. Deeply tanned back muscles rippled between his pumping shoulder blades. His shirt moved with them, but the front stuck to him like contact paper. Arm and leg muscles driving hard, he tried to put out of his mind the horrible ache in his side. He had the lead, but at what price? Now the Runner made a sharp turn and faced the hill.
A black, glistening shimmer from the macadam surface sent waves of stifling heat into his face and up his nose. It sapped the Runner’s energy. Hot, hot, hot! Ninety-five degrees hot! He alertly kept watch for shiny spots that indicated melted tar. They would be tacky or slippery. They must be as seriously avoided as a hole in the road. Nothing must slow him down!
He reviewed the map in his head. Less than two miles to go! He checked his systems. Arms—legs—stamina—okay. Mental attitude—okay. Tired, yes, but could he make it? Absolutely! He recited his litany again, Like the little train that could, I can do this…I think I can…I think I can…I think I can!
He rushed the low end of the killer hill. They called it Gallows Lane. Bad history, but so what! He had run it in a practice session and he could do it again. He would do it again!
The heat gave no relief.
He checked behind, a quick over-the-shoulder look, never breaking stride. Another runner behind him! Only fifteen steps back. Where did he come from? He thought he’d left the field far behind. The Runner couldn’t be sure in that quick glance, but the man seemed to be flagging. The guy ran, open-mouthed, and his breath came in ragged gulps. No one else in sight. Good! Him and me, then.
A packet of energy he didn’t think he had began to surge upward and his body began to function more brightly. This is so good, he thought. Then a worry crossed his mind. What about the kick? Will this last until the kick? That’s when I’ll need it. He put this nagging worry down in the euphoria of his new rush.
Halfway up the hill he glanced back again. A tinge of fear crowded his mind. The guy behind him was closer, definitely closer. The runner didn’t want to, but he stepped up his pace. Now his breath came in ragged gulps. At the top the road made a long curve to the left. His legs scissored rapidly. Every sinew spoke to him.
Ignore! Ignore! No time for pain!
Sweat ran into his eyes and clouded the scene, but up ahead he could see one more turn. He ran full steam. He blinked to clear his eyes without changing his gait. As he rounded the turn, in the distance he could see fuzzy images of upturned faces. The distance shortened. The faces began to move and show excitement. He shook his head and tasted salt.
The Runner got ready for his kick. He made the final turn!
Elation! Hundreds lined the street on both sides. What an audience to play to!
Three hundred yards to go! Under a thousand feet! Two hundred! A sound caused him to look back. My God! Fear welled up! The contender ran three paces behind him now. How could that be?
Am I slowing down, he thought?
He took a chance and glanced at his watch. No! He was ahead of his best time! What kind of a machine could run him down like he’d stopped to chat with a bystander?
At that moment the man drew abreast of him. Can’t be! The runner started his kick. I can’t lose now! My very first win, ever! I have to find more inside; I just have to! The contender ran alongside the Runner without acknowledging him, eyes straight and glazed. He started to pull ahead.
No, man, I can’t lose this! I can’t!
It began to look like he could. One glance: Number 666 in big, red numerals. Who…?
One hundred yards! The runner reached inside for his dregs of energy and literally pulled them out of his exhausted body. The contender moved a step ahead, running like a robot, the sound of his breath the vocal equivalent of a man running out of total fright, as if something huge and ugly pursued him. But when the man looked over at him, on his face the Runner saw a huge open-mouthed rictus grin.
I think I can…I think I can…I think I can…
He gave it his all. No, more than his all! The Runner caught up with the contender, his own breath coming in whooping, tattered gasps. Twenty yards, God, a few more seconds! His eyes blinked salty runoff from his overheated face! He saw the yellow ribbon across the road! It was the only thing in life. He stuck out his chest and “Snap!” the line parted. He had won…he had won!
His energy reserve gave out. The Runner’s chest tightened and a fist formed under his rib cage. His feet carried him to a halt and he stood there, suddenly more frightened than ever before in his young life. From his open mouth came a sound that wasn’t a word and the Runner sank to the road. He heard shouts from those nearby.
“Hey, runner’s down! Get an EMT over here, pronto.”
The shouts faded. Dimly, as darkness engulfed him, over the loudspeaker he heard, “Unbelievable! Fastest time ever for this event! A new course record!”
And near his shoulder, yet from far, far away, the Runner heard, “Ran like something huge and ugly was chasing him. At least three minutes ahead of the nearest contender. He could have loafed in and still got the record. Somebody charge up the defib! We could lose this guy.”
The Runner’s body jerked as they hit him with electric shock. They tried to bring him back, but it didn’t work. As the closest contender crossed the line and headed for the refreshment tent, two somber EMT’s prepared to move the Runner onto a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance.
When it drove off, the siren’s wail briefly merged with the doleful sound that came from a pretty little widow being helped into the car that followed.