Calgary Marathon Recap: A quick trip into America’s hat for the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon. A reunion & 72 hours of irresponsible poutine consumption. As per the usual, I’m thrown into an identity funk when swallowed so completely by the sea of uber-polite, well groomed, considerate humans that live up North. Exposed, as if everyone can read me & judge my disdain for social pageantry, non-essential niceties. My propensity to “What.” in place of “Yes?”, “Huh?” rather than “Pardon?”, and “Sorry” only when I have intentionally hurt someone, rather than taking the poor word in vain, adding extra O’s and inserting it at any time, to mean absolutely anything. “Sooory is not a greeting,” I mumble to myself, imagining it on a t-shirt.
Jake and I approach the starting line, the common departure for three different races: The Canadian Half Marathon Championships, The Calgary Marathon, and the Canadian 50K National Championships. A short warmup. A hug from sis Amy. A discrete drop to one knee to feign a prayer as I wretch out all of my breakfast. Then an odd last minute restroom scuffle with a Kenyan runner.
I’m tired. I sense an irritable lens. I push it back and reposition the positive one. It squirms, but I will it into place and explain that I’ll only need it for the next two hours. After that, the nostalgic, melancholic lens can return to relieve it. I’m flanked by Jake to my right, and a line of spry East Africans, and national caliber Canadians to my left. In my head, the lyrics to the Gregory Isakov’s song “Liar” begin to play. I think of Jake, and the line of Kenyans we’re set to do battle with.
“You take the big one. I’ll take his brother. Let’s get this over with. Cause I’m late for work.”
A mourning for the innocence of our childhood begins to build.
I grieve but look straight ahead.
“Do you remember when we were young? The swing sets, the costumes, the dirt in the sun. I sold all my baseball cards to buy me some clothes. That’s how it goes.”
I exhale and push back tears. A deep breath. Glazed over eyes. The storm builds and hangs there in the air. The gun fires. A charging forward. A giant swell of vulnerable, emotionally fragile humanity.
I gather myself and feel comfort as I recognize the breath of my older brother at my side.
My back up.
My shot gun.
In an instant, I remember.
“Dammit!” I shoot a panicked look at Jake.
“I didn’t look at the bibs. I have no Idea who is in what race.”
Jake says nothing, but his eyes confirm the same. I make a rash push to my left up to the front of the pack, glancing as I pass each runner, memorizing the backs of my competitors. I peel off and rejoin my brother.
We roll. Assessing our own senses to establish exertion thresholds, while blocking out as much sensory noise as possible.
The sun is up. The wind is hot and dry. I sense the elevation. A drop from Flagstaff to 3,500 ft. Not enough to suffocate you like in the mountains, but enough that if you don’t respect it, it will come back later as your resources diminish, and it will crush you.
I lose sight of a few Kenyans marathoners as they get lost in the mixed lead pack. The course snakes around buildings of downtown. Sharp turns. Abrupt climbs and descents. Like a cross country race but on asphalt. The pack strings out. Altitude knocks again and gently chokes away the amusement. It jostles my positive lens. I will it back, but the irritation builds and persuades its way into view.
“No,” I respond. “Focus.”
I see nothing in front of me but an empty road.
The course splits. Half Marathon continues forward. Full turns left. I strain my tired eyes for my competition. I have no idea what place I’m in or how far behind I might be.
I came here to win. I won’t pretend otherwise. There is a $3,500 check for first place. I fully intend for my name to be on it. But right now it might be on someone else’s pocket, and I can’t see him.
I begin to get anxious. I increase my speed but feel the elevation choke back. The course continues to snake.
I pass a police officer and calmly ask what place I’m in.
“3rd place! They’re about 10 minutes ahead!”
“Thank you,” I respond, but my mind begins to scream. “3rd? Dammit. 10 minutes? How?!”
I frantically calculate splits. I know the officer’s estimation is wrong, but that I’ve clearly lost contact. Barring disaster, the likelihood of reeling in that check is slim.
I reassess and bridle my emotions. “Calm yourself.”
My positive lens continues to slip. I can’t seem to keep it pinned. The irritable lens pushes forward. Colors change.
Just then, I hear a faint patter of feet behind me. I glance back at the next corner. I recognize the runner. He’s a compact Kenyan. The same one who pushed his way in front of me at the restroom. I had brushed it off as a misunderstanding and blamed it on culture. I assumed it was a one- time thing.
I hear his footsteps getting closer. He’s pressing hard.
He catches me a half mile later. I’m not thrilled at the prospect of dropping back into 4th place, knowing that I didn’t come here to lose, and purse pays only three deep. I focus to not fall into a “damage control” race strategy, but I’m tired. It’s hot. And I have somehow managed to miss my first bottle of fluids.
“Nice work man,” I say as I glance in his direction. He says nothing.
Quickly the mood begins to change.
We take a sharp right, and he steps right in front of me. I put my hand on his back to keep from tripping. Another turn and he jostles me again. I excuse it as a misunderstanding, but my irritable lens is not fostering patience. We approach another aid station. I assume he will skip it as I swing close and he stays off to my side. I point at one of the volunteers who sees my finger and makes eye contact. I nod and move toward the eyes. But then in the last second, the Kenyan runner lunges in front of me and knocks down the very two cups I had planned to grab. The positive lens is one. The irritable shifts into rage. There is a basic level of etiquette that is expected even in all out races where a paycheck is on the line. It’s missing here.
The scenario repeats over the next three aid stations. I position myself. He stays to the side. At the last minute, he steps in front of me and in his frantic attempts to grab fluids, knocks the cups out of the volunteer’s hands.
The 5th time it happens with an aid station located to our right. He steps in front of me and lunges with his right arm. I see blood. I place both palms on his right side and lift him off the ground as I throw him out of my way to the other side of the road. He regains his stride in a coordinated recovery as he shoots me a glare. I raise my hands and shrug my shoulders as I glare back. Just then I catch sight of one of my pre-prepared bottles full of equal parts Red Bull and First Endurance. He had caused me to miss my first bottle as well as all the water to this point. It’s been almost an hour since I’ve gotten anything into my system. I grab the bottle and take a long series of drinks. I look down the road and harness my wasted emotional energy.
The Kenyan runner moves towards me and reaches out his hand, motioning with his head at my 20-ounce bottle, the expression on his face more of a demand than a request that I share. I take one more drink while returning my gaze towards his, then without breaking eye contact, I throw the more than half full bottle off to the side of the road in the opposite direction continuing to stare until he breaks eye contact. He begins to distance himself from me as we both move down the road, the fury from the last hour keeping pace as it hovers in the air around us.
My rage builds. I wonder how far ahead the other two runners are at this point.
I move in the direction of the Kenyan runner, forcing him to lead. He senses my move and in a burst of energy darts to the left side of the road. It’s a move that is more common in road cycling than running, but one that was used successfully by the winner of the Marathon at the London Olympics in his final breakaway to the finish line. The gold medalist, however, only did it once.
I wait a couple of seconds, then move slowly towards him in a gentle tangent. Before I even make it to the middle of the road, he senses me and darts again across two full lanes to the far right side of the highway.
“This could be fun,” I mumble, reminding myself of equations that make up basic geometry.
This time I don’t wait for him to settle. As soon as he reaches the far side of the road, I gently move back towards the right. Again he senses me and darts across two lanes to the far left. Again, I gently move a couple of feet in his direction, and again he responds.
“Seriously?” I mumble to myself.
The game continues for the next 6 miles, the Kenyan runner darting back and forth across two full lanes as I run down the middle of the road and gently lean back and forth in his constantly shifting direction. My rage doesn’t dissipate but morphs into vindictive spite as I watch my adversary run twice the distance he needs to, wasting his energy out of a poor understanding of basic geometry.
Rather than even the playing field by staying on my own side of the road, I provoke him.
I watch and wait until he runs himself into ruin.
It finally happens.
We’re forced next to each other as we squeeze into the turn around, our shoulders bumping and elbows jostling into one another, awkwardly trying to both avoid any contact from sheer disdain while simultaneously attempting to be as discretely violent as possible – like fighting siblings whose mother punishes them into the same corner, but orders them not to lay a finger on one another.
As we turn back in the opposite direction, I sense that the frantic attempts to drop me have done their damage as he no longer attempts to break contact.
I tuck behind him and get as close as I possibly can.
I settle into his rhythm and begin to sing into his ear.
For the next 5 miles, I repeat the lyrics from the same Gregory Isakov song that danced during the warmup, blaming the Kenyan runner for everything I have felt over the last two hours.
“I sold all my clothes to buy me this land. I’m sorta happy, most of the time. Most of the time.”
He glances over his shoulder and glares. Irritated and confused by the strange tactic of the stocky American.
I get closer and sing louder.
He bumps me with his elbow.
I keep singing, voicing the words of the song, but communicating an unmistakable message.
“You want to play games? Let’s play games. I can do this all, f***ing, day.”
With 4 miles to go, I pull up onto his right shoulder.
He glances at me and glares.
I glare back, then attack dropping down well below 5 min mile pace.
He responds and goes right with me, matching me stride for stride. 40 seconds into the attack I stop, dead in my tracks and begin to walk. He rushes past me confused and glances over his shoulder in my direction. He then slows back to his original pace, and I tuck behind him again, getting as close to his body as I can. As soon as he gets back into a rhythm, I attack again, and just like before he covers my move. I go for 40 seconds then stop abruptly and walk. He slows, and again I tuck in behind him, this time his elbow bumping my side as I get close. He glares at me again, eyes wide, confused. I stare back then execute a third attack just like before.
I do the same thing, three more times.
On the 7th attack, I no longer sense him on my shoulder covering my move. I turn my body completely around so that I can make eye contact with both eyes.
“Are we done?” I ask, shrugging my shoulders and furrowing my brow.
He doesn’t respond, verbally, but his eyes communicate his unmistakable hostility.
His pace slows.
I turn back around and direct my focus towards the finish.
My rage turns inward and morphs into disgust. One of the voices in my head begins to speak. A familiar demon, although she looks like an angel. She speaks truth almost incessantly but in sarcastic tones, leaving me with feelings of shame.
She reminds me of the last hour.
She lifts a mirror, and I see my reflection.
The smoke is gone.
I am naked.
All that is left is my character and the glaring deficiencies that have been exposed by this ordeal.
She shows me who I really am.
“You’re a fraud.” She whispers. “You’re a self-righteous bastard. Your criticism of foreign policy, politics. Your mockery of the talking heads. Your implications that you could that you would be better.”
“You speak of rights,” she continues, “Of basic human needs. And yet, given the opportunity, you deny this man of needed resources as he attempts to feed his family.”
This is different. This is a race. I respond.
“How is it different?” She counters.
He started it. He cut me off, multiple times.
“He started it? That’s really your response? How old are you, like…6?”
I have a family to feed as well.
“So your family and their needs are more important than his? Is that what you’re saying?”
No, but that’s not my fault. I’m not the one who chose where I was born or orchestrated this whole mortal mess.
“So you could do better? You have the answers?”
No, I just…
“Knowest thou the meaning of all things?”
“You heard me.”
No. But I know I love my children.
“More than he loves his?”
Of course not.
“So you agree?”
“That the answers aren’t that simple.”
And this my fault?
My life hasn’t always been easy.
“My child you know nothing of strife. You speak from a high horse, but your saddle reeks of privilege.”
I’ve been hungry. And poor. And scared.
“Yes, but you ultimately chose that. You’ve always had someone to bail you out. And fear? What do you know of fear?”
I’ve lived among war. I’ve stepped over bodies with the backs of their heads blown off.
“I know. I was there remember? You were so focused on the words you were preparing for your sermon that you missed the entire message contained in the book you were reading.”
I had a meeting to be ready for.
“And yet your only real concern was how you were going to get the blood off of your shiny dress shoes.”
Are you getting at something or just trying to make me feel like shit?
What then? I’m trying to race.
What are you talking about?
“The exalted city.”
“It is not a politically motivated, military-backed movement. It is not a national park with paved trails. It is not sponsored by reggae music. The mascot is not a lion. It is not a place at all but a state of mind. A condition in which your needs and the needs of your family are as important as his needs and the needs of his family.”
I know that.
“And yet you denied him resources you didn’t need, in his very time of need?”
Yes. It was wrong. The guy pissed me off though, what was I supposed to do?
“You are responsible for your own emotions, and still you respond by denying his resources? And then just in case, he has any doubt who is in charge, you taunt him? You do realize that people use the exact same rationale to justify war, and genocide, and the starvation of millions of innocent people?”
I didn’t kill anybody.
“Yes, but you still don’t get it.”
“Where your needs and the love you have for your children are as important as his needs and the love he has for his children.”
It was just a water bottle.
“No, see that’s what you don’t get. Your heart. Your world. Your entire cosmos was at war. You alone control that. And yet you felt justified in your actions.”
I’m just trying to race. I didn’t have to ask you to come here.
“Yes you did….One heart. One mind. No poor….Remember?”
Her words linger.
I’m left alone.
Gregory’s symphony begins to build, and the demon’s voice is drowned out.
I cross the finish line. Disgusted with myself.
“Congrats!” a reporter chimes. “56 seconds behind 2nd place!”
The voice of another familiar demon begins to taunt. One which looks and sounds like me.
“You’re a real piece of work. You know that right?”
Go away, man.
“Steph is at home drowning in kids, and bills, and life. Your girls are at home without a dad so that you can come here and race.”
“You piss away $3,500 because some kid from a farm outside of Eldoret, who doesn’t even know basic geometry, get under your skin? Steph puts her career on hold and stays at home while you play petty, little games? You. You and your f***ing hubris.”
I know. Stop talking to me like I’m a child.
“Then stop acting like one.”
I walk from the finish, exhausted. Not physically, but from shame.
A glimpse; a reflection of true self; a microcosmic perspective of what lies beneath all the pageantry of a sheltered world.
I hear applause and watch as my brother Jake crosses the finish with Amy.
I hug them both.
“Sooory,” I say.
For more from the mind of Tommy Rivers Puzey, please visit here.