Short story: The Hysteria of the Long Distance Runner

Here’s a short story I wrote inspired about my recent half-marathon:

The Hysteria of a Long-Distance Runner in 13.1 Parts
By Nikesh Shukla

1.

A heady mixture of bravado and fear see us trample through discarded hoodies, beanies and t-shirts. I spot some fashion do’s and wonder if they’ll still be there in 2-3 hours. I wonder if I’ll be here in 2-3 hours. Slight twinges in my stomach (porridge-related), my knees (age-related) and feet (fight or flight-related) carry us down the road. The atmosphere is lively. Well-wishers line the long streets coercing their way through this small city. Dense hulks of runners with small pockets of space. We exchange banter with fellow pacers, admire everyone’s smiling faces pre-sweat and try and take our minds off the task ahead. The running is stop-start with pace as we run in and out of congestion, contort our bodies to push past hilarious costumes and gaggles of running clubs. We are making good pace. I note to my running partner Jim that I’ve been training 2 times a week on a treadmill and using an American app and so I don’t think I have any concept of a mile left. My brain measures everything in kilometres. ‘This is going to be longer than I thought,’ I say. He nods.

2.

The square is tingling with excited watchers. A samba band throbs, offering rhythms of support, riling up the crowd into furious celebrations of our efforts. A slight hill gives us our first slight test as does a sheer right-angle turn out of historic Bath and into the burbs where the houses line an A road of curry houses, pubs, newsagents – all with vices I could do with, sweets, beer, a magazine to sit in the sun and read and a nice spicy chicken jalfrezi with paratha. Why am I thinking about food? I ask. Jim replies, because I probably didn’t have enough for breakfast. I had porridge, I reply, with golden syrup. And an energy bar they were giving out in the runner’s village. He laughs. I had pasta, he replies, a massive bowl. Let’s hope you don’t shit yourself.

3.

We are doing two loops of the city. Every half mile there is a marker for what stage we’re at during our second lap, which draws the whole process out because I know I’m going to be doing this again. We’re in a running competition with an American footballer, a fairy and a pair of boobs. The American footballer runs with a ball. The fairy bestows wishes on fellow runners. Despite their self-inflicted costume impediments they remain fluid in their movements. The boobs, fashioned as bouncing backpacks to advertise a charity, squelch on the sweaty backs of the runners, sending shivers down my spine. I’m burning up but I like my long-sleeve top too much to discard it. Plus I’d have to take my Run Dem t-shirt off to take it off and no one wants to see my belly bounce like that. I take off my peaked green khaki. Memories of hip hop gigs float away with it as I watch it land on a child’s handlebars and he point in confusion.

4.

The hill. There’s a hill. Look, there’s a hill. There’s a hill. It’s a hill. Don’t worry, you’ve done hills before. Don’t lose your pace though. It’ll require more effort but don’t slow down but don’t take it too fast. It’s a hill though. Look it’s a hill though. Oh my god, it’s a hill. Stupid hill. Damn hill.

Oh wait. We’ve done it. Excellent.

Wait, there’s another hill. Look there’s another hill. There’s another hill. It’s a hill. Don’t worry, you’ve just done a hill, you’ve be fine. Don’t stop, don’t take it too slowly. You’ll be fine.

Oh look, we’ve done it. Excellent.

5.

We’re being lapped. There, look, we’re being lapped. Look, we’re being lapped. They’re lapping us. They’ve lapped us. Don’t worry, you’ve been lapped before. You knew it was going to happen. Don’t try and run at their pace. You’ll burn out. Seriously, they’re still lapping us. Look, there’s a Mcdonalds. No focus, they’re lapping us. Could I just step over and pretend I’m in their lap? Would anyone notice? There’s loads of people here. Surely no one would notice. Nah, no one’s going to notice. I could be done quicker and have a beer, some sweets, a magazine to read in the sun and a nice spicy chicken jalfrezi with paratha.

6.

We’re out of the city now and people are becoming disgusting. The pavements flow freely with the ablutions of men. Men are disgusting runners. They can’t hold it. I’m holding in some porridge, some water and a lucozade. Why can’t they? The running rhythm is shaking up my insides. I can imagine the water sloshing about. The porridge lolling about forcing its way dangerously down towards my bowels. We turn a corner down into the homestretch towards the city and our second lap. I can see clearly into a field. A farmer is ushering runners in to wee everywhere. Free fertiliser I suppose. But from this angle, all the swinging weeing dicks are making me feel ill. I look down at the road and focus on my clip-clop rhythm.

7.

Jim tells me a story about an ex-girlfriend of his who once wanted him to lose weight because she was feeling unattracted to him. While he was at the gym working out, he fell in love with a girl who always used the treadmill at the same time as him. Most of the girls at this gym, he said, turned up in push-up bra’s and those hotpants where folds of their bottoms were hanging out. It was just the type of gym and the area in which he lived, rather than an all-girls-are-on-the-lookout-at-the-gym thing. But this girl, she wore a big black HIP HOP IS DEAD t-shirt, had wild natty curls, never broke a sweat and watched Arrested Development on an iPad precariously balanced on the treadmill. He needed to make her his. When he finally plucked up the courage to talk to her, she looked at him and pulled a face. He had just come off the treadmill and was looking sweaty. He went straight home to his girlfriend and she dumped him because now he’d got too thin for her, she felt inferior to him. I ask him the point of the story… you’re running this thing for yourself not anyone else. If you do it for anyone else, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

8.

I’m sweating, my calves feel stretched and contorted, my sides throb from bouncing and I’m hungry. We’re coming up to the point where we turn right round and do this all over again. We start to turn and I hear my name. It’s my dad, beaming at me, and my wife and they’re both smiling wildly, I grimace back, trying to not let them know how wonderful it is to see them. Every inch of me wants to disappear into a cuddle with my loved ones.

9.

We’re running this thing again. We’re here again. I recognise these trees, these houses, these supporters, that band, those banners, those runners, those discarded clothes, those shops. Come on, you recognise it because you’re at the end. Come on. Keep talking to Jim. Except he’s starting to tire too and his sweat-filmed face is looking scared of this long road ahead. Maybe it’s because we both know what’s coming next.

10.

The hill. There’s a hill. Look, there’s a hill. There’s a hill. It’s a hill. Don’t worry, you’ve done hills before. Don’t lose your pace though. It’ll require more effort but don’t slow down but don’t take it too fast. It’s a hill though. Look it’s a hill though. Oh my god, it’s a hill. Stupid hill. Damn hill.

Oh wait. We’ve done it. Excellent.

Wait, there’s another hill. Look there’s another hill. There’s another hill. It’s a hill. Don’t worry, you’ve just done a hill, you’ve be fine. Don’t stop, don’t take it too slowly. You’ll be fine.

Oh look, we’ve done it. Excellent.

11.

I can’t do this anymore. I’ve grabbed a second bottle of water. I need to stop. Why am I doing this? I’ve run this road before? I’m here voluntarily, I don’t need to be here again. Seriously. Just stop. Why carry on? You’ve proved enough. You’ve done 11 miles. That’s more than you’ve ever done before. Just stop. Stop. You could just stop. What’s propelling you forward? Nothing. Inertia. Your body wants to stop. Your mind wants to stop. What’s keeping you going? Jim can see I’m weakening and starts off a chorus of ‘Come on dude.’ We pass the marker that indicates we’re halfway through this mile. That’s it. I give up. I run into a portaloo. Jim shouts to ask what I’m doing. I don’t listen. Inside the portaloo, I wee. It’s a relief. My calves say no. No more. No, stop, that’s it. You’re out of the race. You should not have stopped. Why did you stop? Too late, cos you stopped so that’s it. Stop. I turn around to face myself in the window of the door of the portaloo. This is my movie moment. Come on, just finish it, you’ve come this far. Come on man. Stop being a dick. My calves hurt. Doesn’t matter. Just get out there. My brain hurts. Doesn’t matter. Just get out there. My stomach is empty. Stop making excuses. Remember when we first joined Run Dem Crew? Stop wasting time. I push out of the portaloo. I see Jim and smile. He smiles back. My right calf has seized up. I start running.

12.

It’s stop-start. Jim keeps whispering ‘come on dude’ to me, it becomes our mantra, it starts to meet nothing but he reminds me of distances, points out things we’ve already passed once, tries to gee me on, I hate him but I love him but I hate him but I love him.

And then…

I see my dad again.

I see my wife again.

Every inch of me wants to stop. I want to cuddle them. It’s too much. I miss them. I need them. I want to cry. A tear escapes. I remember I’m doing this for mum, RIP and my dad is looking proud, a new advent for his face after 6 months of moping. He is beaming with fatherly pride and I want to cry and I want to cuddle him but I remember why I have to finish this race so it’s onwards. I run onwards. I keep going onwards. Then Jim says the sexiest thing he has ever said to me. ‘It’s only a mile to go…’

And 0.1 I remind him.

13.

A mile is a long way. It’s 1.6 km. It’s twice half a mile. We’re running into unfamiliar territory now. The last sprint towards the finish, where we haven’t trodden before. I’m crying and I still want to stop. I run for 100 metres then I walk for 25 then I run for 200 metres then I walk for 50 and we’re not making any progress. Jim is itching to finish now. He’s at the end of his motivational self and is reaching the end of his natural sportiness. Plus he really wants to catch the Liverpool vs Man U game, which has probably started now. Okay, Jim, for you, for the pub, for you. I run and we pass other runners burning out, hitting walls and we turn a corner and there’s a 500 metre dash towards the corner where the end is. I tell Jim to finish and I’ll walk. I stop. I walk and he say, no, don’t be an idiot, we ride together, we die together, echoing Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys. I hear him, so I run, we run, we pound, we fall into a rhythm, we peel, we pass, we grind, we move, we flow and then we turn the corner.

The clock says 2 hours 8 minutes.

Originally we had agreed to run in 2 hours. That was when we signed up. Then we trained and a mixture of gigs, book readings, DJ gigs, laziness, pub dates and spending time with wives meant we didn’t train as much as we thought so the day before we agreed to run at my pace and finish in 2 hours 30, that’d do for us. 2 hours 10 though? We can do this in 2 hours 10 minutes! We’ll have to hurry then.

13.1

That’s it. I run forward, propelled by the achievement, propelled by the end to my mental anguish, propelled by the spirit of my mum and the power of Run Dem Crew and the encouragement of Jim and we’re there, we’re nearly there, it’s a hare’s breath and we cross the finish line and the clock strikes our time and we’re done and we’re finished and my calves give up and I fall to the floor and a runner runs up to us and barks at me to get out of his way. I smile in the sun.

We’re done, I think. We did that.

We only bloody did it.

7 Comments

Filed under writing

7 responses to “Short story: The Hysteria of the Long Distance Runner

  1. First, let me say congratulations on completing the course (I assume this is autobiographical!). Secondly – Nice one. Very poetic. More of a ballad than a short story. I love the bit where you want to fall into a cuddle with your loved ones.

  2. Candie Brown

    This has just made my day. Im horrendously speechless which is a first.
    So eloquently written also.
    Do you mind if i share this?

  3. sarah

    this is great. i’ll be cheering people on at the marathon on sunday, i’ll enjoy wondering what’s on their minds. mostly wee and curry i guess.

    p.s. there’s a couple of instances where jim has replaced rob where it shouldn’t, eg pJimably :) sorry it’s the editor in me…

    • nikeshshukla

      thanks for telling me. last minute find and replace gone wrong! thought i got all of them.

      Thanks!

      Editor? Where?

  4. marc

    Just enjoyed reading this on a train journey funnilyenough just passing through bath spa , well done mate.next time the marathon xx

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