The Stress of Running All Night Can Be the Doorway to Otherness
It was hard to say which was worse: the ache in my legs, the pulled muscle throbbing in my back, the headache, the nausea, or fighting constantly to stay awake as I weaved from side to side on the gravel road. I’d run plenty of long races before but this first try at a hundred miles was killing me. I’d spent all day crossing the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas baking in the sun and fighting a stiff headwind, which the locals jokingly called “Kansas mountains.” Now the night and sheer exhaustion were doing me in.
The floodlamp cast a garish light over the aid station at Matfield Green. The camp chairs lined up next to the aid table there threw an ominous row of shadows across the road. A pair of crumpled runners covered with blankets filled two of the chairs. Neither was moving. They looked done, along with another guy stretched out on a cot behind them. It bucked me up a little that at least I was still on my feet.
The aid table was littered with cups, sticky chunks of watermelon and cantaloupe, and some cut up peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. None of it looked edible with my iffy stomach. The cut up sports bars, just the thing for failing runners, looked particularly bad. I couldn’t touch them.
I collapsed into a chair beyond the table as far away from the spent runners as I could get.
“Well, blow me down,” my sister said standing over me with a sandwich in one hand and a cup of soup in the other. “Aren’t you a sight. You need a blanket? It’s gettin’ cold out here.”
She had on a thick jacket and a wool cap. I was still in just a shirt and running shorts, the same clothes I’d had on since early morning. The exertion was keeping me warm even in the cool night air.
“I’ll put on my warmer shirt,” I said, “but no blanket. If I get too comfortable, I’m finished.”
She handed me the soup. I tried a sip. It was potato soup, thick and salty. I set the cup down in the dust at my feet and rested my head in my hands. The harsh light made everything look slightly unreal, like I was watching a movie. The noisy throbbing of the generator powering the light merged with my headache. Somewhere up the road some idiot was laughing.
“How much farther?” I asked.
“About twenty miles,” she said. “You’re almost there.”
I half laughed, half snorted. Twenty miles was still a very long way. I drank a little more soup and waved the sandwich away. My stomach was dead set against anything solid. My sister had fished a shirt out of my bag, so I struggled into it. After a while, I stood back up. I felt dizzy. I closed my eyes and hoped the dizziness would pass.
“Here’re your bottles,” she said. “Sports drink in one, water in the other.” She shoved them into the pockets in my running belt. “Take care of yourself out there.”
I started off.
“Wait!” someone yelled, “Did you get fresh batteries?” A tug at my arm stopped me cold. I handed my flashlight over. This was a disaster averted but it hardly registered on me. I could have been stuck out in the dark with no light, miles from anywhere.
“Thanks,” I said. The new batteries made a big difference. Instead of a dim spot of light barely showing me where my feet were about to hit, the road was all lit up. Crisp, jagged shadows bounced around my legs as I moved forward. The fringe of bluestem grass that covered this part of the Kansas prairie hung over the side of the road and glowed silver in the light.
“I can do this,” I mumbled to myself.
I hadn’t gone far when I heard footsteps behind me. Or did I? Was it just the full water bottles bouncing up and down in the pockets on my belt?
Someone pulled up beside me. I half turned and got the shock of my life. “Dad!? My God, what are you doing out here?”
He ducked his head and smiled, happy that his little surprise had worked out. He reached over and patted me on the back. Just like my Dad to spring this on me. He knew how tough this was going to be for me and decided to help. But this was a miracle, for him to recover enough from his stroke to be out here in the middle of the night running. I had no idea he’d made such progress. It looked like the paralysis on his right side was gone except for maybe a little hitch in his step.
“Is this safe for you?” I asked him. “It’s great you’re here but I can make it alone if I have to.”
He shrugged and plugged along, stubborn as always. I wasn’t going to talk him out of something he’d decided to do. I looked over at him. His gray hair stuck out from under his cap. Deep wrinkles creased his face. And yet the old spark was there. I saw it in the tilt of his head, the determined way he was keeping up with me. It reminded me of the summers when I used to shag golf balls for him. He’d hit a hundred balls without a break except to switch clubs. And then if he wasn’t happy with his swing, he’d hit a hundred more. I’d stand there with my baseball glove catching the balls in the web until he got to his long irons. Then they’d be coming in too hot to handle. I’d take them on the bounce. By the time he got to his two iron, he’d be just a little figure way off over the long stretch of grass. I’d see his motion through the ball and then after a long pause I’d hear a nice solid “thwock.” The ball would rise up and come straight toward me like it was shot from a gun. I’d hardly have to move a foot left or right to snag it.
Since he wasn’t saying anything, I assumed he still wasn’t talking. I asked him.
He looked over at me, shook his head. No luck there. After the stroke, he’d worked with a speech therapist for months but never got beyond just a few words.
“Guess I’ll have to do the talking,” I said. “Actually, I’m glad you’re here. I sort of have some stuff I’d like to get off my chest.” He glanced at me. “I mean when you had your stroke, it was such a shock. One day you were there and I was just a kid in high school, and then, bang, you’re in the hospital. I didn’t know what to do. I never had to deal with anything like that before. And I just…I don’t know…looking back I just couldn’t face up to it. I guess I didn’t want to give up the life I had. It probably looked to you like I didn’t care much or something.”
He reached over and put his hand on my shoulder, gave it a squeeze to show me he understood.
“And I know I wasn’t any picnic back then. You couldn’t tell me anything. I always thought I was right. But now I know I was just stubborn. I guess that apple didn’t fall far from the tree, did it?”
Dad smiled at that. He’d never hidden the fact that he took a lot of persuading himself.
“I wish it had been different, Dad, that we could have talked more once I grew up. About your service and what not. I remember when we were little kids you used to say, ‘Hit the deck’ to get us out of bed, or you’d say, ‘All ashore that’s goin’ ashore,’ or ‘Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em,’ all that Navy stuff. God. ‘Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.’ I didn’t even know what that meant.”
I stopped talking. I thought I might be embarrassing him. The noise of the gravel crunching under our feet filled up the silence.
“The fact is I wish I’d been a better son. You were so brave facing up to that stroke. I realize that now. You couldn’t talk to me about what was going on in my life but actually you were showing me the way the whole time.”
He looked at me and nodded to show me he’d understood. Then he threw a playful punch at my shoulder, sort of a signal that I should lighten up some. “Okay,” I said. “That’s it. I’m done. Enough said.”
I went back to focusing on moving forward. There were all sorts of odd little noises coming out of the prairie around us: whirrs, buzzes, muffled screeches, low screams, howls, hisses, clicks, groans. The dark grasslands all around us looked perfectly still, but it sounded like there were animals everywhere. “Hear all that?” I said. He nodded. He hunched up his shoulders and made a face as if he were scared.
That made me laugh. Just then a bright line streaked across the sky in front of us causing us both to look up, a shooting star. “Unbelievable, isn’t it?” I said looking at the stars. Out here there was nothing to block the sky: no trees, no ridges, no mountains, no buildings, nothing. The stars stretched overhead and came right down to the flat horizons all around us. The Milky Way was as clear and distinct as a highway. Miles away there were a few scattered lights just above the horizon: the blinking red lights of a radio tower, a bright light bobbing up and down on an oil derrick, a pair of white lights marking a grain silo, and twenty miles away a faint dome of light over Emporia.
We settled into a rhythm. Whenever the road sloped up, we fell into a brisk walk. When the road sloped down, we went back to a slow jog. On the flat parts, we did whatever I could manage, some running, a lot of walking. From time to time rabbits would appear on the side of the road. They seemed strangely unafraid, like they were used to people running by in the middle of the night. A coyote started to howl, then a whole chorus of them joined in. It made goosebumps stand up on my arms.
“I’m glad you’re here,” I said. “I’d hate to be alone with that going on.”
After what seemed an eternity we saw some lights up ahead. Slowly the canopy of an aid station formed up in my confused vision. At first it looked like several people standing around in front of it, but as we got closer and the light got stronger, the group resolved into just two people.
We pulled up and the guy standing there said, “Have a seat, Old Timer.”
I shot a glance at dad. I knew being called that would rankle him. He gestured for me to take the chair instead.
“Where’s your friend?” I asked.
“I’m alone out here, buddy,” he said. “Nobody else was crazy enough to be out here in the middle of the night.”
I realized my eyes were playing tricks on me. There hadn’t been anyone else, but I had a vivid impression of a girl with the hood of her sweatshirt pulled up over a baseball cap.
“You okay?” the aid station guy asked.
“Gettin’ through,” I said. “Thanks to my Dad.”
“Okay,” he said. “Try to eat something. There’s soup. The cookies are good. Don’t hurry. You’ve got lots of time.” The guy checked his watch. “You’ve got hours and it’s only just a little over ten miles to the finish. You’ll make it. Just stay upright and mobile.”
I nodded. Dad pushed a cookie in my direction. “Feed your stock before you feed yourself?” I asked him, smiling.
“What’s that?” the aid station guy asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just something my Dad always used to say.”
I tried to bite into the cookie. I still couldn’t eat. It felt like it would just come back up. I waited awhile and then got up. If I couldn’t eat, there wasn’t much point in staying. “Better move along. Don’t want to get stuck in this chair.”
The aid station guy helped me with my water bottles. Take care,” he said. “You sure you don’t want some soup?”
After we’d gotten out of earshot of the aid station, I said, “Nice guy but I didn’t like his cookie.” We chuckled together. Making the joke seemed to lift a burden off my shoulders. I felt the exhaustion and soreness recede just a bit.
A little farther down the road, some dark shapes loomed out of the night in front of us. I flashed my light over and caught the broad placid face of a cow staring back at me. There was no fence here so the cattle were scattered right across the road. We slowed to a walk and tiptoed through the middle of them.
After that things went downhill fast. Both my ankles started hurting. I loaded up on painkillers but they were having no effect. I couldn’t run anymore. Each step I took was torture, even at a walk. We had left behind the rolling terrain of the Flint Hills now and were on straight flat roads that led back to the little town where the race had begun. An endless barbed wire fence lined both sides of the road. I wasn’t seeing any of the markers for the course anymore, no chalk, no ribbons. Dad was looking out for them, too, but they just weren’t there. Plus we hadn’t seen any other runners for a very long time, maybe hours. I began to think that we’d taken a wrong turn and were off on some random road going nowhere. Every light I saw in the distance I would imagine were the lights of the town, but we’d get closer and I’d see that it was just a single light hung on a barn burning over an empty farmyard.
“I don’t think I’m going to make it, Dad,” I groaned. “I’m falling asleep on my feet. I think I need to sit down for awhile.”
The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the road. Maybe I’d fallen down. Dad was tugging on my arm, trying to help me up, but I felt totally beat. “Just go on,” I said. But Dad kept pulling. I looked up at him. He looked desperate to say something, but of course he couldn’t.
But then he did anyway. His voice creaked like an old hinge. “No!” he said. “No, no, no!”
The sound of his voice shocked me. It reached me like nothing else could have. I struggled to turn over onto my hands and feet. My head was swooning, but I managed to push myself back up to my feet. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll try.”
The night seemed at its darkest and coldest. Moving forward was like pushing through a thick wall. I was desperate to find some sign that we were at least still on the right road. My light had dimmed, so again there was just a weak pool of light dancing over the gravel in front of me. The road went on and on. The pain in my ankles was relentless.
I’d lost all hope and was ready to beg Dad to let me stop when we came to a turn. There was a white arrow on the road clearly marking the turn onto a blacktop road. I couldn’t believe it.
“This is it,” I said. “The only blacktop we ran on was right at the beginning of the race. We’re almost there.” I looked up and could see a few lights ahead and more lights scattered along the road further up. It was the edge of the town.
For the first time in hours, I broke into a jog. I forgot all about the pain in my ankles. “We made, Dad.” I was saying. “I would have quit way back there but we made it.” Way off on the horizon I could see the first faint glow of dawn dimming the stars in the east.
“C’mon, Dad,” I yelled, “c’mon.” I felt like I was flying now though I was probably barely moving. I saw people up ahead gathered in the road. I went by someone who called out my race number. “Lookin’ good,” the person yelled after me. Then people were reaching out to stop me. Several green glowsticks tied to a post marked the finish. I was done.
My sister ran up and gave me a big hug. When she let go, I almost fell. She had to prop me up with her hip. “Good job,” she said.
“Can you believe it?” I said. “What a night.”
She shook her head. “Running all night at your age, I declare!”
“Well, having dad sure helped…” I started to say but then I stopped. I focused on my sister. It was like I was seeing her for the first time after a long, long separation. She had the same hairstyle she’d always worn but her hair had gone gray. Her mouth had widened and turned down. Her skin was wrinkled and splotched. “What the…”
I gasped and turned to look back down the road. There he was. I’d left him behind when I rushed to the finish line but he was still coming. Only he was different. He was dressed differently. His running clothes were gone. He wore the striped pajamas my mother had bought for him when he first came home from the hospital. There was a cane in his left hand. His useless right arm hung down his side and jerked as he moved. The fingers on his dead hand were splayed out over his right thigh. He stepped forward carefully with his left leg and then swung his right leg forward. A brace attached to his right shoe kept his foot straight and his toe up. He was looking at me and smiling, although now the right side of his face drooped so that only one corner of his mouth rose.
“Sorry, it’s just me here,” my sister was saying. “The kids sure wanted to watch grandpa finish but they only lasted until a little after midnight. Everyone’s back at the motel asleep.”
A young woman standing next to us had overheard, “Grandpa? Awesome! I bet you’re the only grandpa out here. What in the world made you want to run a hundred miles?”
I looked back up the road again. The light was growing fast. There were wide fields on either side of the road filled with the stubble from a harvested corn crop. I could see all the way back to where we had made the last turn onto the blacktop road. And the road was empty. No one was there.
I bent over and put my hands on my knees to support myself and burst into tears.
My sister patted me on the back. “Let’s get back to the car. You need to get to the motel and get into bed.” I kept crying as she led me away.
“Well, you big baby,” she said. “You finished the race. It ain’t nothin’ to cry about.”