On the morning of The Marathon, you, The Runner, should wake three to four hours before the start of The Race, so that you may consume a light breakfast of three to five hundred calories, consisting principally of simple carbohydrates and liquids, and subsequently void your bowels before leaving your temporary residence. You should arrive at The Race sixty to seventy-nine minutes early such that you have time to locate the starting corral, relieve your bladder one to three more times, and perform a warm-up routine of jogging and light calisthenics. It is recommended that you run slowly for seven to twelve-and-two-thirds minutes, and then engage in dynamic and static stretches, including that one where you lie on your stomach and, pressing down with your hands, try to raise your torso off the ground. You should ignore what Katie has said about this stretch in the past, and feel assured that it is only yoga if you choose to call it yoga, else, you are simply elongating the myofibrils of your transverse abdominis.
As you look around at your competitors, you might find yourself wondering things: Why is no one else stretching? What does everyone else know about standing in circles and taking pictures? Why are those guys wearing trash bags? Why is that girl dressed as Tinker Bell? These are natural concerns. It is recommended that you do not let them distract you from the task at hand, with one notable exception. Rule #0: Never let a costumed runner beat you.
At mile one, you will find that you have to pee. Your anger—despite the three Gatorades you chugged and the Port-A-Potty lines you forwent because what if they decided to start The Race twenty minutes early—is natural. It is recommended that you hold it for now. Rule #1: It is not watering their plants, you are peeing in their bushes.
At mile two, you will notice a shirtless runner about thirty seconds ahead of you. You will think to yourself, “Everyone else is wearing a shirt. Who does he think he’s impressing?” You will note that he’s not even in great shape, a little bouncy around the edges. You will note that none of his muscles pop like those little ones on the backs of your arms do, the ones you’ve been coaxing out with your dad’s old dumbbells in the garage when Katie’s not around. You might choose to start repeating a mantra at this point. Something positive. “He’ll never last,” is one possibility. The shirtless guy, that is. Your dad will be fine. Rule #2: Build your confidence at anyone’s expense.
At mile three, people will cheer for you. They will even know your name. Often, the fans of local road races will Google the slower competitors as to better understand the complex dynamics of this phase of the race. That your name is printed on your race bib should be ignored; recall Rule #2. You will feel like you’re cruising, straight down the middle of the yellow lines where the road is the flattest, outsmarting those engineers who can never seem to design a road that doesn’t slant. It is recommended that you smile at that girl over there. And that one. And that old lady who will have just called you handsome. Rule #3: Smile. It freaks out your competition.
At mile four, you will skip the first water stop. You will not be thirsty yet. But this will remind you that you still have to pee. It is recommended that you don’t stop. That you consider every second to be gold. Do take a moment to notice the sky though, which, this early on a November morning, will also be gold, the sun just barely topping the spiky pine trees, its light frosting their needles. Or is that actual frost? Note that Shirtless Guy will still be in front of you. You might find yourself wondering, “Where’s he from, Alaska? Canada?” Your confusion is natural. It is indeed a long flight from either of those places to the beaches of North Carolina. You will find yourself wondering, “Did he bring family this far? Is this their summer vacation? Spring break? What month is it? What hemisphere am I in?” It is recommended that you take a deep breath, as you have more than twenty miles still to run and it is far too early to lose it. Be aware that when watching Shirtless Guy run, your knit gloves will feel contrived, no matter how many of the Fast Guys were wearing them at the start. Rule #4: Learn to recognize a Fast Guy—black hat sans tassel, compression sleeves sans leopard print, short shorts sans shame.
At mile five, it will be time. You will dash into a Port-A-Potty. Note the usage of the word “dash.” Do not touch your watch. Time does not stop for you. Faster. Faster. Go. You have some leeway (see Rule #5). Rule #5: The liner of your shorts can absorb 2.76 fluid ounces.
At mile six, you will regret Rule #5. Rule #6: Don’t round up.
At mile seven, you will wonder where you’re going to see Katie. You will have asked her to meet you somewhere between miles eight and ten to give you your blue Gatorade. It is concurred that your eyes being blue and your shoes having some blue on them is a good way to choose the wavelength of light which your sports drink refracts. It is also concurred that you should be prepared for Katie to show up anywhere along the course that she finds a good parking spot, and that you should be prepared for her not to toss you the Gatorade bottle like you practiced in the driveway last week, but to just have it sitting there on the ground next to her feet, or in her purse. It is recommended that you consider she may not make it to the course in time at all—the roads are blocked off by lines of fleshy orange cones and crowded with people sitting in beach chairs and banging cowbells and waving homemade pasteboard signs. Note, for your personal records, the common theme of a name sandwiched between the words “Run!” or “Go!” Note that that sign about zombies is from the Internet. Look around for Katie. Ask yourself how prepared you really are. Rule #7: Never ask yourself how prepared you really are.
At mile eight, you will find yourself wondering, “How the hell is Shirtless Guy keeping up that kind of stride? Is he trying to punch holes in the asphalt? Is he trying to drill piles? Is he trying to cripple our infrastructure?” It is natural to find yourself wondering if he is a Canadian spy. It is natural to find yourself thinking, when he swerves away from the rest of the runners, that he’s a cheat. That he’s making a break for it. You knew you didn’t like him. You knew he’d cut the course. Note how he slows down, stops, leans over a fence, hugs a woman. Note the little girl the woman passes to him, her thin brown locks, the gigantic smile blooming across her face, her freckles. It is natural to find yourself thinking, “Aww!” and then picking up the pace. It is concurred that this is still a race. Rule #8: Show no mercy.
At mile nine, you’ll notice That Old Damn Twinge in your shin. We recommend assessing upon which section of the road you’re running. You’ll realize that you’re on the edge, near the curb. You’ll realize the yellow lines are gone. You’ll wonder what else you’ve missed. The pain will intensify. Your WebMD diagnosis of That Old Damn Twinge as an inflamed anterior tibialis can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by this guide at this time. Your decision not to tape it because you didn’t want to restrict blood flow to your feet, or something, and wow, that black stretchy tape those volleyball players wore at the Olympics a couple years ago is really expensive, can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by this guide at this time. That your painstakingly developed mid-foot strike—coupled with four billion years of natural selection, coupled with your shoes that, for their price, had to have been hand sewn in the kind of vacuum-sealed box NASA uses to play with moon rocks—renders you invincible to injury can be neither confirmed nor disconfirmed by this guide at this time. It can be confirmed, however, that you should chill out. Look around and feel the breeze on your skin and convince yourself you can smell the salt in the air. Breath deep; free electrolytes. Rule #9: Please enjoy Rule #2 responsibly.
At mile ten, you will be halfway to halfway done. It is not recommended that you check the math. You will wonder where Katie is. You will try to ignore your dry throat. You will try to ignore the tightness of your quads. Rule #10: Your focus has the survival instinct of a soap bubble.
You will ignore miles eleven through thirteen and the rules that follow.
At mile fourteen, the bubble will pop. You will think, for the first time, explicitly, in words, that this isn’t fun anymore. You’ll think that you’re ready to be done. You’ll think that you still have twelve miles to go. The sign reminding you that’s “Less than halfway!” will be in no way comforting and while you’ll want to dump your cup of water on the small child holding that sign, it is recommended that you abstain, not out of a sense of ethics but because you should covet the contents of that green paper cup like it’s the last of something on earth. You will take a swig, choke, cough. It is recommended henceforth that you sip whatever water remains outside of your nasal passage more slowly. Rule #14: Sneeze looking backwards over your shoulder for a boost in momentum and to dissuade drafting.
At mile fifteen, Shirtless Guy will stop again, throw his momentum to the wolves and hug the same woman and take the same little girl in his arms and kiss her same forehead and hold her to his slick, shiny chest. Doesn’t he know he’s losing golden seconds? You’ll check—he’s not even wearing a watch. You’ll notice the woman’s Detroit Lions sweatshirt. You’ll wonder why a Canadian would support the Lions. You’ll wonder why anyone would support the Lions. Could Detroit be where they met? Could he have been there on business (espionage) and decided to catch a game? Did he start up a conversation with the woman standing in front of him in the bathroom line about how long the bathroom line was? Or perhaps Shirtless Guy and his wife were granted, by some computing mishap, mutual proprietorship of a single seat in the stadium? Had he been so coy as to offer her his lap? Had it been raining? Had he pointed her to the seat and stood over her with his jacket open? Would a man like him even notice the rain? Had he ever even heard of the word “umbrella?” You’ll wonder if he works as a logger in his free time, or as a welder, or some profession that requires swinging a pick axe against stone, shirtless, in Canada, where the word for rain is “snow.” Or maybe this woman isn’t his wife. Maybe the little girl isn’t his daughter, is actually a product of the woman’s first marriage to a ski instructor who was slain by an avalanche on the back of the mountain and who, in the last instant of his life, as the snow flung him against a tree and his skull flexed inward, thought of this little girl, of her face and her laugh and her diapery waddle, whose synaptic lightning was just fast enough to ferry to the neurotransmitters in the muscles of his cheeks the impulse to smile before shards of bone pierced his brain. Or maybe Shirtless Guy is having an affair with this woman—she was the one who offered him her lap at the game, and he was enamored by her shrewdness, his wife back home wouldn’t watch football, not even on TV, because it wasn’t dignified, it would clash with her discernment of the energy of the universe, “You never know when destiny might call, perhaps the very moment I finish peeling this rutabaga. Will you open that can of garbanzo beans?” And so Shirtless Guy falls for the woman in the Detroit Lions sweatshirt because she’s shrewd and wears sweatshirts and doesn’t know you had to peel rutabagas and would never, ever make cookie dough out of garbanzo beans. Rule #15: At no point during The Race should you think about garbanzo beans.
At mile sixteen, a girl in a UNC singlet will pass you. You’ll look over and she’ll look over and you’ll nod and she’ll nod and neither of you will smile. You’ll draft off of her. You’ll pass her. She’ll pass you back. You’ll develop a nodding relationship. You’ll wonder if you’ll run the rest of the race together. You’ll wonder if, right at the end, just before the finish line, she’ll take your hand and you’ll cross together, strangers bound inextricably by mutual tribulation. If, at that moment, she’ll finally smile, a wide-eyed beaten and bruised and glorious smile, the kind of smile you never knew you lived for. The two of you can laugh about Shirtless Guy—“You saw him too?”—and how the mandarin orange energy gels tasted like pineapple and Windex and how many people you saw puking off the bridge. Things Katie wouldn’t notice, wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t ever experience. You’ll wonder if you should run away with this girl. You’ll smile at your pun. What would Shirtless Guy do? Carolina Girl will start to pull away. You’ll coax your thickening thighs forward. You’ll realize there is yet a two-digit number of miles between you and this conversation that is, at best, hypothetical. You’ll stop smiling. Rule #16: Rules are meant to be broken.
You will not remember mile seventeen. Rule #17:
You will curse out loud for the first time at mile eighteen. Katie, Gatorade, WebMD. No one will be safe. You’ll compose couplets, jingles, ballads, until you run out of phrases that rhyme with “damn electrolytes,” which won’t take long. Carolina Girl will have switched sides of the road. You won’t even be able to see Shirtless Guy anymore. “Oh Ca-na-da.” You won’t be sure if you sing this in your head or out loud. Rule #18: Always learn more than the first two words of a song.
At mile nineteen, you’ll notice for the first time how straight the trunks of the pine trees are. How tall. Like the legs of a giant bird, standing perfectly still, hunting. You, perhaps. Or a giant fish in the ocean, glimmering beneath the skin of the waves that crest and smash into fizz and foam. You’ll realize you’re running in sand on the shoulder of the road. You’ll wish you were in a car so that the rumble strip would’ve warned you you were out of your lane. You’ll wish you were in a car for a number of reasons. Rule #19: Do not think about cars or buses or trucks or motorcycles, airplanes, jet skis, bicycles, unicycles, skateboards, regular skis, ice skates, roller blades, snowshoes, toboggans, pogo sticks or those shoes with the wheels in the heels—they don’t make those in your size anyway.
You will forget why mile twenty is significant. But don’t worry, you’ll remember soon enough. Rule #20: See Rule #6.
At mile twenty-one, the seagulls on the railing of the bridge will look like dollops of sour cream. You’ll wonder why you keep thinking about birds. Is it because you wish you could fly? You’ll hope it doesn’t get worse. Rule #21: The night is darkest before the dawn but did you set your watch back for daylight savings?
At mile twenty-three, you will be at mile twenty-two. Nice try. Rule #22: Reality counts.
At mile twenty-three, you’ll round a corner and see Shirtless Guy again. He won’t be running. His daughter and wife will not be with him. He’ll lean over. Grab his ankle. Fall. You’ll reach out as you shuffle toward him, your hamstrings taut as bridge cables, your ankles and shins and calves burning. You’ll pass. Your neck will pop like a firecracker as you look over your shoulder. Shirtless Guy will be on his hands and knees, staring at the asphalt, heaving. He’ll rise. Stumble. Limp, hand on the right side of his chest. You’ll try to remember which side his heart is on. You’ll keeping running. He wouldn’t have wanted you to stop, would’ve waved you on, said, “Go,” said, “You run with an entire nation on your shoulders now, eh?” said, “Go.” Rule #23: Honor last requests.
At mile twenty-four, there will be a hill. You’ll add to your queue of cursing the race director. He could’ve avoided it. No one comes to the beach for its hills. There will be a pressure in your bladder, an accumulation of thick, dark urine, but you won’t notice. Your trajectory will begin to wobble, swaying sideways from the gutter pan toward the double yellow line. You’ll kick over an orange cone. You wouldn’t be able straighten your arms enough to pick it up if you tried. Rule #24: Don’t go the extra mile.
At mile twenty-five, you’ll see the flamingos on the sidewalk. You’ll hear the clack of their talons on the concrete as they scuttle toward you and you’ll be afraid at first but then you’ll realize—bless him—the race director will have taught them to dance! You were wrong about him, the race director, you’ll have to thank him at the finish line, shake his hand and refrain from vomiting on his shoes, though can anyone really say how well-trained they are, and how big are flamingo talons anyway, and can they smell fear? You’ll wonder if you’d have the strength to apply the pressure required to stop the bleeding if one were to maul you. You’ll be distracted by someone yelling through a microwave, a microphone, the thing that makes you loud, megaphone! A girl or woman or female flamingo will boom out words about being only a mile away, about being so close to bananas and beer and the finish line camera, so don’t forget to smile! But you won’t be listening, you’ll have to know if the flamingos are as soft as they look, will reach out your hand and run your fingertops, fingertops, fingertips down the pink back of one, and it will feel hard and inorganic and plastic and you’ll realize they were never actually dancing, that was just the earth careening under your feet. Rule #25: Do not feed the birds.
At mile twenty-six, you will see, in the distance, two-tenths of a mile ahead, a white banner hanging from a white inflatable arch, and on that banner you will see, printed in red, the most beautiful word in this or any language. If your body possessed the necessary moisture, you might be moved to tears. The crowd will grow more viscous. People will clap, people will cheer. You’ll want to slow down, your legs and lungs and lymph nodes will beg it, but it will be at this point that you will have to stop relying on logic, on your brain and the signals it sends, on any conception of reality at all, and dig down as deep as you must dig to strike that core of passion you’ve earned through your months of training and dedication. Run on that passion. On that hunger. Run on heart. Run like a hero, because who ever really gets to be a hero? And if that doesn’t work, you might note that that girl you saw at the start, the one dressed as Tinker Bell, the one passing you now, is not a girl, but a man, dressed as Tinker Bell, passing you. Maybe that will do the trick.
Rule #26: Never let a costumed runner beat you.