PREFACE – This is a short story I wrote in college. A shorter, censored version was published in the student newspaper, The Western Herald. This is the full, uncensored version. Please be advised, there is strong language in this story that I refuse to omit. You run 13 miles and not have f-bombs in your head.
How to Kill Almost 3 Hours (If You’re Up for It)
Benjamin J Cornett
It’s Saturday, April 24, 2010. The clock shows that it’s just a little after 1:00 AM. I lay in bed, looking up at the ceiling. Restless. My girlfriend is sound asleep to the right of my uncomfortably conscious body. Meanwhile, three of my friends are supposedly sleeping in the living room. Are they asleep? If I called out to one of them, would they be able to hear me?
I feel as if Insomnia has taken control of my mind and body and not allowing me to sleep, a sort of anti-sleep paralysis. Then I realize what it is that’s been keeping me awake – in less than five hours, I have to be awake, well rested, and ready to run my first half-marathon. My nerves are winning the battle against the part of my brain that is desperately reaching for sleep. And of course, my nerves are playing that game with my brain where we all start thinking about embarrassing moments from the past that we clearly can’t fix, but those thoughts are about as soothing as a warm cup of glass shards. Every little detail comes to life and I question every motive and move that I make. I try not to toss and turn in my warm, cozy bed. The air in the room was even the way that I can get perfect sleep: it’s cold in the room and I’ve got warm blankets on top of me. It’s this perfect balance that can normally put me to sleep easily, but tonight, my brain and body were having none of it.
I threw the pale lime covers from my glistening body. I wasn’t in a complete sweat, but enough that the cold air hitting my skin instantly chilled me. I stepped into my bathroom and paced back and forth between the toilet and the sink. Now I’ve moved on to this will they or won’t they kind of thing that is common in most sitcoms between two central romantic characters. Only this time wasn’t sexual tension, it was the gut-wrenching sensation of vomiting.
I reached my hand to the freshly cleaned chrome water faucet. I watched the water pour into the sink. It mesmerized me for a moment, enough so that I could wonder how it was that I got to this exact point. How did I get to being restlessly awake, mere hours from running 13.1 miles? More importantly, why was I doing this? I knew that I had the entire support of my friends that were probably comfortably asleep in my living room, nowhere near as nervous as I was, but then again, this wasn’t their first half-marathon.
Bringing my hand to touch the cold water from the tap triggered a memory. It’s dark, and cold. I can hear myself breathing steadily, my Brooks hitting wet, slushy pavement. It was a hard training season that started roughly around January. Those bitter cold Kalamazoo mornings and evenings made sure that when I was out running, I had my thermal layers on. Much like my sleep preference though, I did prefer to be running when it was cold outside.
Balancing my full-time student life and my part-time work with this raining regiment was a chore. The lazy person that used to be running in the show that is my life was not forced to the background, and I know there were plenty of days that I threw my hands up in forfeit, telling myself that all I was going to do was lay in bed all day or just read books or even watch TV. All to the let the lazy guy win. But I didn’t.
Coming out of my memory trance, I find myself hunched over the sink in my bathroom, still staring at the cold water running from the tap. I pulled a paper cup from the countertop and let it sit under the faucet. The emptiness inside the cup began to displace with the chilled water flowing from the tap, and that’s when it hit me: You can do this. It might not be the best 13.1 ever ran, but it’s my first half – so there’s no personal record for me yet. I took a swig of the water from the cup, the faucet still running like my own private Niagara, and I looked at myself in the mirror. For the first time, I gazed at my cooling body with confidence that I could run a half marathon. I stopped long enough to admire myself in the mirror. Getting to this day, I dropped nearly 175 pounds. I was looking fit, standing a steady 6 foot 4 inches and now weighing in at 220. I felt good. I reached for the faucet turning it off and returned to bed.
THE NEXT MORNING – EARLY
The brief sleep that I did get was relaxing. I was also just imagining how much more amazing the sleep was going to be after the race, because nothing beats sleep after a really, really, good workout.
The race I was preparing to run is an annual race in Kalamazoo put on by the Borgess Hospital and Clinics. The Borgess Half-Marathon takes the runner from Gull road through a good portion of downtown Kalamazoo and the surrounding area, just sketching the outside of Western Michigan University’s campus. As far as scenery goes, it’s nothing to brag home about. Kalamazoo isn’t a dirty city or anything, but it’s just a typical Michigan city in my eyes. I’ve looked at pictures from the Bay Shore half marathon and that race looks beautiful and peaceful. Conversely, if you wanted to see historic Detroit and skirmish through Canada, then the Detroit Free Press Marathon takes you through both types of scenery.
Waking up and getting ready to take on the morning’s challenge wasn’t really the tough part anymore. I had pretty much convinced myself that I was going to see this through, so there was no holding back once I got some rest, but I followed a normal morning routine after waking up again, now with about an hour to spare before race time. Steve, Andy, and his girlfriend Jenny as well as my supportive girlfriend, Emily, were all waking up as well. The morning shuffle, which felt like that running around the house scene in Home Alone, saw all of us preparing for the race day and packing up everything we needed to take to the race, such as water, snacks and beer. Yes, beer.
The chill of the air warmed my soul when I walked outside. It wasn’t going to be a warmer run that morning which pleased me. April can be unpredictable for weather in Michigan, and that morning was overcast and a little on the dreary side.
I reach for my phone and send a text to my friend Bryan.
Ben Cornett said: Morning, bud. Our kind of morning for a run. See you at the start line. We can do this!
Jenny noticed how tense I was, which anybody could probably tell how incredibly nervous I was. She offered me a stick of peppermint gum. I refused at first, knowing that I conquered my nerves during my restless night, but the butterflies that were briefly dormant in my stomach were now returning as time drew close to the start of the race. Jenny insisted telling me “the peppermint oil inside the gum calms upset stomachs and nerves.” And like Violet Beauregarde being offered any piece of gum, I unwrapped the small stick of Orbitz and began to chew.
The car ride to the parking lot wasn’t as bad as I was anticipating. I knew this was a popular race that drew a lot of runners from the West Michigan area and beyond. After going to cheer Andy and Jenny on for the Detroit Free Press Marathon and traffic being what it is in Detroit, I was ready for that kind of outcome. To my surprise, it was a rather smooth ride until hitting Gull road in Kalamazoo. For someone prone to heavily dislike driving, it was a rather comfortable ride.
After parking, we made our way to the check-in area and starting line. The time was drawing near for me and it was just weighing in on more than just my stomach now – my heart was starting to beat very fast now. Hopping into the bathroom I relieved myself with what would be one of three nervous pees before the race. Coming out from the bathroom, I couldn’t help but notice how many people were arriving. Runners, as most others will tell you, tend to be crazy – but we have a good time. Some runners arrive at these races ready to run wearing costumes, or arrive already sipping on beer. Some just have a lot of energy and are dancing or bouncing around. Of course, seeing all of this before my first half, I instantly thought these people were clinically insane and I was not in this clique.
Outside of the check-in area, the music was blasting some 80’s or early 90’s upbeat music. I tried to let the music flow into my brain, allowing it to attempt to soothe and pump me up at the same time. The lead commentator’s voice cut over top of the music and notified everyone that the race would be starting in less than 10 minutes and all runners needed to make their way to the starting line.
I find Bryan and we talk for a moment. Bryan was a floormate of mine the previous year and we hit it off. Mutual love for video games, good films, and 80s music, Bryan was a younger transfer student that was looking for someone he could trust. Oddly enough, he stuck it out with me and I somehow convinced him to run this race. Bryan was my training buddy through a lot of this.
Another announcement to head to the starting line. I try to lift my feet and try to walk, but they have suddenly become dead weights. I look at my friend, Andy. He catches the sudden worry in my eyes. Asking me what’s wrong, I respond to him, asking if he’ll hate me if I don’t finish the race. He reassures me that I will finish and that we will have a lot of fun afterwards.
“But what if I don’t finish in a good time?” I ask.
“Then you don’t finish in a good time, but you would still finish. That’s the goal today – to finish.”
And he was right. That was the goal for the day, just to finish what I started.
“But you won’t hate me?”
“Nope,” he said. Then continued “well, I’ll be disappointed if you don’t go out there and give it your best. But I won’t hate you, regardless.”
“Just disappointed,” I say, trying to find some way to mentally psyche myself up.
“Ben, stop thinking about what-ifs and start thinking about right now.”
He patted my shoulder and wished me luck then walked towards the front of the starting line. I knew going into this race that Andy, Steve, Jenny and I wouldn’t start or end together, so I chose to be more towards the back of the lineup, and that’s where I was starting to move towards.
I stood there, amongst the hundreds of people in a massive line, starting to become more comfortable with the thought of running almost three hours, until I realized I was running for almost three hours. I’ll say it again: Three. Hours. You can watch about 90% of the final Lord of the Rings movie in that time. You can watch three episodes of Castle in that time, or six episodes of South Park!
Clarity rushed back into my head as the announcer gave the all too familiar “On your marks, get set, go!” It’s started, I thought.
As I progressively put one foot in front of the other in the more rapid sense of walking, I realized I was getting nowhere fast. Anyone who has ever run a race knows that you can’t just start running – you’ll be right on someone’s ass before you know it. Unless you’re a jerk, then you start off running and push through, but that’s why generally the people who think they’re going to do that start at the front of the race line and we slow folk are towards the back.
Eventually I crossed the starting line, the chip set that monitors my start and finish time placed on my shoe chirped as I stepped across the threshold. It was official – I was now in the first few seconds of my half marathon.
The start wasn’t that bad. Making it down the road that perhaps less than twenty minutes ago I had just been in bumper to bumper car traffic was now bumper to bumper with runners. If you’ve ever seen a 5k or race going on, it’s just a fascinating site to behold: hundreds of human bodies running down a road. It’s simple, but it’s unique.
My nerves tried to the get the better of me and my stomach was still in knots, even after crashing the starting line. Shortly after the 3rd mile marker there was a portable toilet area. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with nervous pee syndrome. I waited maybe about 3 minutes before gaining access to a portable toilet. Took another nervous pee, slapped some hand sanitizer on my hands and got my stride back on. Feeling much more relieved, I could see the path leading towards downtown.
Shortly after rounding out from the Downtown Kalamazoo strip, and hearing the 80’s power ballads blaring from Gazelle Sports that made me feel like I was in work-out montage, I grabbed a water cup and then someone put what looked like a ketchup packet in my hand, only this packet had the Gatorade logo. I ripped open the packet and emptied the contents into my mouth, as that’s what everyone else was doing.
Fun fact about me, I’m a texture person with food. The thought of putting something with the same consistency of toothpaste in my mouth that wasn’t on a toothbrush was troublesome to me. The power-gel barely touched my tongue before I started gagging and spitting it out all over the place.
“What the fuck is this?!” I yelled as I took a big swig of water and rinsed the slimy texture out of my mouth.
After the power ballads and near-death experience outside of Gazelle Sports, I was could still hear music, only it was from two women running with each other, each sharing an ear-bud from an iPod. Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take it.” Awesome, I think to myself. They’re totally rocking out and having a great time, which is what this event is about; promoting a healthy lifestyle. What’s healthier than running with a friend and jamming to some tunes?
When you start near the back of the race lineup, you know that you’ll finish towards the end, and I was content with that fact. I wasn’t out to win this race, or have a best time. I’ve never run a half before, so today’s time is my official best time for a half marathon. From about mile 6 onward, I ran next to an older gentleman. We finished close together – though I feel like a douche saying I beat him in a time set race. Why, you might ask? Because this old dude talked to me on the trail, told me that he’d run at least 40 marathons and this was his 65th half marathon.
There were two important lessons I learned from this: 1, if you can hold a conversation while running and not sounding terribly winded, you’re keeping yourself in check and your stamina will see you through the race. 2, this old dude is running his 65th half marathon? This guy beat everyone out there, if you ask me. The jaw dropper was when he told me he was 78. Bullshit, I thought. He looked the part, but didn’t move like it – he moved better than me, carried himself better than me. Then that concept stopped me mentally. How is it that this nearly 80 year-old is just out kicking ass? I can only hope to hit that age and be that amazingly active and in-shape someday.
“Name’s Cliff, what’s yours?” He asked.
“Ben,” I replied. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to be running out here today, Ben.”
Approaching mile nine, I was feeling it. The pain and hurt were increasing while the determination was slowly were fading. Kalamazoo is very hilly, and while I trained for the race, race day is always different. Mile 9 started a lot of hill work in a park.
You would think downhill is such a relief, but in truth, it wasn’t for me. Yeah, I could pull back a little off my stride, but it sucked when the path leveled out and you were running faster because of the decline. That started to push me faster and I could feel myself wearing down. My longest run out from my training was 10 miles, and I only peaked that once.
Between miles 9 and 10 was another hydration station. I sipped some Gatorade, in liquid form, and water. Every ounce of my being wanted to quit, but I kept myself moving somehow. Then I saw my shoelaces coming undone. I bent down, hesitant out of fear of losing my stride. I may have stopped to tie my shoes, but my body felt like it was still running.
Attempting to tie your shoes when you think you’re still moving is hard – especially when your hands don’t want to agree with what you’re doing. The lightheadedness going on in my head from lack of a substantial meal before the race paired with my nervousness made for a weird euphoric state of mind, you know, that drunk feeling of not feeling.
While I don’t remember exactly what I did to tie my laces back together, I can tell you that Emily and I both had a hell of a time untying them at home.
Mission accomplished. I got my shoes tied, and so I picked myself up and continued to push myself onward.
Some more people dancing while running and belting out songs were on my horizon. Not the same women from before, but they were jamming to Beyoncé and belting the lyrics to “Single Ladies,” complete with some dance moves. Passing them, I bobbed my head to the beat. It’s a good groove and I’d be lying if I said that “Single Ladies” isn’t on my running playlist on my iPod now. But I digress, back to the race.
The last leg of the race was uphill.
That’s all that came to my head.
Screw the people who created this course and I’ll piss on your graves when I out who the fuck you are. I hope you die. Why would you make the last part uphill, you assholes?!
Fuck this race. Fuck you, guy in front of me. Fuck you, Ben for doing this. We could seriously be doing anything else and we’re out here running. Fucking-fuck you fuckwad.
MILE 12, CONTINUED
I trudged on, starting to drag my feet, attempting to beat the inner-rage that was starting to consume me. Every other thought was a F-bomb at this point. Conquering the hill and making it to 12, I could now see spectators packing up their folding chairs and heading to their cars. These people have already run the race or cheered their person on – but there’s nothing like getting cheered when you run by someone, especially running spectators that are strangers.
“Keep it up!”
“You’re doing great!”
“One more mile!”
“You can do this!”
The people on the sidelines were eerily starting to become my subconscious exposed, minus the vulgar language, because I’m certain that’s what I had been telling myself the entire time.
As I kept pushing myself I was now making eye contact with dozens of people back up by the starting line, which was opposite the finish line.
My bib still proudly shown, the commentator caught my number and announced, “Here’s Ben Cornett, 26 of Kalamazoo. Student at Western, and running his first half! Let’s hear some support for Mr. Cornett!” And the people surrounding the finish line were cheering. These people don’t know me, but that is one of the most amazing feelings ever. I didn’t even get that kind of reception on my first open-mic night.
I made eye contact with Andy, then, Jenny, Steve, and Bryan. They had all finished and were enjoying a post-race beer. I saw Andy pop the lid off another and started running next to me. I crossed the finish line, threw my hands up in victory because the most difficult almost three hours of my life were over.
Andy handed me a beer and without fail, Jenny was next to him with two in hand for herself and Andy. The three of us tapped our beers together and drank in the sweet victory of that morning’s labor. Bryan and Steve joined in a group hug.
Our moment was interrupted. As I turned to look back at the finish line that I had just crossed, the old man I ran next to had just crossed the finished line, but tripped over something. He was down. I handed Andy my beer and ran back to the old man. Andy saw this and handed our beers to Bryan and joined me in helping me out.
“Cliff!” I yelled, as if yelling that gave me some ability to claim this man. Apparently, it worked because people backed away from him. I knelt next to him. He was tired.
“Are you ok?” I asked
“Yeah, yeah, just took a tumble.” He said. “Give me a minute.”
Andy looked at me with this who is that look on his face.
I put my hand out for Cliff and he grabbed ahold of my hand. I pulled him up and put his arm over my shoulders.
“Andy, this is Cliff. He just completed his 65th half.” I stated. “Cliff, this is Andy, my friend and the person that convinced me to run this race.”
Cliff nodded his head at Andy.
“Cliff, would you like to have a beer with us?” I asked him.
“Oh, that’d be lovely,” he responded with a genuine warmth in his smile.
“Andy, Cliff would like a beer, please.”
Andy took Cliff’s other arm and we walked him over to where our circle was gathered. Emily cracked open a beer and we all toasted to our own victory.
Emily gave me my moment with my friends before she wrapped herself around me in a warm embracing hug that was completed with a kiss.
“I am so proud of you, Ben!”
“Thank you. I am too!”
She laughed. Then she noticed my shoes and the fact that it looked like a Parkinson’s patient tied my shoe laces together.
“Babe, what did you do?”
“Oh yeah – can you help me get these untied?”
Andy strode by and handed me another beer. We raised them high, tapped them again in celebration. I looked at the clock. 02:50:18. Ten minutes shy of three hours. I gave my best at 13.1 and finished. I beat three hours and felt great about it! More importantly, I completed my first half! Sure, Andy finished in 1:47:42, and Steve in 1:28:47, but I did it! Wait – Steve ran this in like 90 minutes? Show off.
Andy gave me hug.
“Hey, I know how much you hate hearing this…” he started
“Hearing what?” I asked.
“I told you so.”
I smiled at him.
“I suppose you were right. I was testing you to see how confident you really were in my ability to do this. I knew I’d do this.”
“Who are you trying to convince here, Ben?”
I released a light laugh and we both continued to sip our beers.
Bryan embraced me for a hug too. This was an important moment for both of us and there was a mutual respect to each other of the hard work we both had put in.
I’m sure you’re wondering about the beer. It’s simple – liquid carbs. And after a big race like that, you need to re-carb. Also, I wanted to not feel the horrible pain from after running a half, so bring on the alcohol.
I guess this now means that the next half marathon I run I should aim to beat my time of 2 hours and 50 minutes.
…so, what can you do in under 3 hours?