Then the improbable happened. Was that a groan? I looked around. No one else in sight. Just me and my hero. There it was again: a groan of Promethean suffering. That tortured sound had come out of my adversary. He was hurting. There was a chink in his armor; here was a god who bled. Whether the universe had gone topsy-turvy or not, I was going to make the most of it. With the changing winds of fortune at my back, I spent the next 20 minutes running my adversary ragged. I was transformed. It wasn’t my adversary I was imitating now. I was Dick Beardsley. My adversary was Alberto Salazar. We were locking horns in our own private Duel in the Sun. But for us, there were no cameras, no cheering throngs, just the occasional volunteer showing two age-group competitors the road to a plastic statuette.
And when all was said and done . . .
There were no apes manning the finishing chute. The world hadn’t gone to the meek or to the dogs. And I was—predictably—in my adversary’s rear view mirror. In the final 100 meters of the race, I didn’t even rate as a cheap knock-off of my adversary. I was a second-rate tribute act at best; he was the Beatles and I was BritBeat. Reality had kicked in—and what a kick it had held in reserve for me!
Were you expecting a happier ending—one where the underdog takes the day, where human will triumphs over a titanic VO2max, where Wylie Coyote’s investment in Acme scams finally gets him a drumstick. Now, that would be surreal. No, this was reality, and it was sweet enough. All was right with the world—really right. I—I!–had been within 100 feet of a finish line and still able to read the list of sponsors off the back of my hero’s t-shirt. Spent to the point of stumbling, I took my place behind—immediately behind!–my hero in the finishing chute. And what was that on my face? Shame? Humiliation? Disappointment? No. Just the silly smile.
Several running logs have been filled and shelved since that race, and I’ve never again come within a stone’s throw of my hero. There’s no going from strength to strength in this story. My hero’s always up there in some unattainable echelon. Maybe my derring-do was reckless, maybe even suicidal. Whatever it was, it haunted me, the way I’ve heard run-ins with death haunt one. I had briefly gone over to the other side, flirted with a place where one’s feet never touch the earth. But my place wasn’t there. It was back on terra firma, bound to race among mortals.
(Epilogue: In 2014, in the same race, I again came close to beating my hero…close but no cigar. Apparently there’s something about this course that plays to my strengths. Good to know that the years have been equally kind to each of us and that we’ve held our own relative to the other. Maybe in 2015 I can do something about that.)