I’m staring at myself in the mirror. Despite it being far too early I look okay. Hair cropped closely, trimmed along the ears and the back, sort of spikey in a playful just got out of bed kind of way. I take a deep breath, dip my hand into the jar of Vaseline, and proceed to smother the crack of my ass with it. I pull up my shorts and walk into the room and I’m greeted by 3 other guys.
“This is going to hurt me today.” I smile.
“You knew what you were getting into when you agreed to come along.”
“Yeah, I know.” And with that declaration, so began the God-awful process of running my first marathon.
The process actually started several weeks (okay, 3) before. I had found out that a couple of guys on my football (soccer) team were going to run the Peach City Marathon in Penticton, British Columbia. Dave and Neil were two of my closest friends on the team and when I found out I wanted to join them. I thought their arguments that the race was less than a month away were unfounded and I registered for the race, paid the entry fee, and decided to try my hand at long distance running. I play forward on the football field; therefore my game revolves around speed. Put the ball behind the last defender and I’ll get to it before he does. I’m that confident. As a football player I did have good endurance, but good enough to run for 26.2 miles? And the .2 miles are the most important. I’ll explain later.
The Saturday before the race Neil and I go out and run the equivalent of a half marathon around the river valley in Edmonton. Neil has been training regularly, even joined a running program, and while he will never break the 3 hour mark for a marathon, he is fit, capable, and looking forward to it. Or so he thinks. The half marathon distance doesn’t seem too bad for us, and while we are tired, we are not devastated and dragging our sorry carcasses around afterwards. Just as well too.
That Sunday and Tuesday we have practices. We have a game on Thursday night, two nights before we leave, against our biggest rival for first place and a team that we honestly hate; Portuguese FC. Trust me; the feeling is mutual. The worst thing about playing any kind of organized sport in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada is that the City, those wonderful people in charge of taking care of the sports fields, are notoriously bad at it. Most fields are dodgy at best. And very few of them are flat. During practice I step wrong and sort of tweak my ankle. But I’m a trooper and keep on keeping on.
Thursday night comes and it is a stellar evening. Blue sky abounds, a slight breeze, and for some reason I’m feeling very alive. This feeling is probably brought on because I had scored three times the last time I played my Portuguese bitches on the other side of the field. I’ve played against some of these guys for years, and the only thing I enjoy more than scoring against them is insulting them. I often tell people that if you were to meet me for the first time on a football field you would leave thinking you have just met the biggest asshole and prick you’ll ever meet. I’m mouthy, arrogant, confident beyond mythical proportions, and downright mean with my verbal abuse at times. Well, I was back then. We’re talking about nearly 15 years ago now.
Armed with the knowledge that we beat them 3-2 last time and a certain number 7 scored all three goals against them, they decided to play the game a little differently. Everywhere I went, 2 players followed. Every time I touched the ball, provided I was far enough away from their goal, I was kicked over. And I fucking loved it. It’s the way the game is meant to be played. You didn’t see me rolling around like a fanny. I didn’t flop and dive like your South Americans or Italians and Portuguese players. I picked myself up, insulted them, and kept going. And when I scored just before half time to give us the lead I felt justified. Told ya, few players could match me for speed.
I knew my ankle was starting to hurt but wasn’t bothered. Our coach (also Neil who played) decided to start the second half with Dave, himself, and me on the sidelines resting us up for our marathon less than 2 full days away. When they scored to tie up the game about half way through the second half and were dominating play, it was only a matter of time before we’d be going back on. And funnily enough, it was a stroke of genius that did it. Neil, stepping into his role in the center of the defense calmly stopped an attack and turned the ball forward to Dave. Dave, his shape completely defying his fitness, skipped past one tackle, looked up, and played a hopeful ball through the gap beyond the last defender. The rest was easy. I knew where the ball was going and knew Dave would actually pass it at the right time. I don’t want to say I left the defender for dead but I did. The goalie hesitated briefly, probably not knowing whether to shit or blink, and when I noticed that I could have started my celebration. As he moved forward, leaving enough space at the far post for Stevie Wonder to see, the only decision I had to make was to stroke the ball in or belt it. I opted for the subtle approach and wheeled away as the cheers came. Now, I should have been content with that but I wasn’t. I raced by their bench, stopped in front of it, bowed, and blew a kiss at one of their girlfriends. As I said, I was arrogant. I don’t recall much after that.
We start our ten-hour drive to Penticton at 5 am on Saturday. Neil and I are joined by Nick and Marty who will be running the half marathon in Penticton. We’re in Nick’s Audi, built to pull women, not sit comfortably, but we don’t mind. We reach Vernon, about an hour away from Penticton at 3, just in time for our 4 pm tee time at the new course that just opened, Predator Ridge. We play 18 holes, have some beverages, and end the round in the restaurant having some pasta. Before you say “smart boys, pasta”, it was made with a cajun sauce. We pulled into Penticton and our hotel at around 11 and were in bed by midnight. The perfect day of preparation to run nearly 42 kilometers.
I really didn’t know what to expect or think on race morning. I think deep down I knew I wasn’t ready to run a marathon; but there was no turning back now. After applying Vaseline to all the vital spots where chaffing occurs – the inside of the thighs, the buttocks, the little Penguin area, and the nipples, I was ready to go.
We soon got over the realization that we’d all been sharing the same tub of Vaseline and there was probably some double dipping going on with reference to crack coverage. Not a pleasant thought before breakfast; but since I wasn’t having a real breakfast it was no big deal. Armed with some power bars and a bottle of Gatorade we marched down the street for the race.
184 runners were taking part in the 2000 Peach City Marathon, and around 250 for the half marathon. Knowing that we were going to be pedantic at best, Neil and I found a spot in the middle of the pack and when the gun went off to start the day, roughly around 8 am, we leapt away at a comfortable pace.
As you run out of town you start to notice the herd thinning. The good runners hit their stride early and are miles ahead at such an early stage. The half marathoners, their pace faster than the marathoners, seem to be sprinting at this point. Neil and I are at a pace that is comfortable enough so if we have to talk we can. We make a pact to finish the race together. If one guy has to stop; we’ll both stop. Friendship is beautiful.
But not as beautiful as the spandex clad butt of the girl running in front of us for about 4 miles. I focus directly on the up and down movement of her cheeks and the miles just peel away. I don’t even feel like I have moved an inch to be honest. And when we reach the 8 mile mark, and the half marathoners get to turn back down the highway so they can end their race at the edge of Lake Okanogan, I am gutted when she turns and heads for home. I only have 18 miles to go.
Neil, during his training, was told that first time marathoners find it easier to survive if they run the first 10 miles, walk the next one, and repeat the process. This sounds like solid logic. It isn’t. We hit the 10-mile mark, slightly on an upslope, and proceed to bring it down a gear and walk. What follows, is 15 miles of the most pain and misery I have ever been in. Every muscle in my body tightens and it takes every ounce of manliness I have not to cry with each stride. My ankle, sprained from the Thursday night game, is throbbing with every measured step. Quitting would be wise. Quitting would be the right thing to do. But only the marathoners that finish get the jacket that is included in your race fee. I want that jacket. And my brother-in-law said if I ran a marathon he’d buy me one of those “special” massages you get from parlours with names like “Sinderellas” or “Touch of Heaven”. For the record… I’m still waiting on that massage. I’ll take the cash instead I think.
Neil is struggling with me. We hit the halfway point at just over 2 hours. The world record for the full marathon is about 2 hours and 4 minutes but our time isn’t terrible. And as we wind our way back through vineyards and orchards, the low range mountains of the Okanogan Valley framing our way, you realize you are in one of the prettiest places in the world – and you’re being a complete fuckwad by not enjoying it because you’re doing one of the most miserable things you’ve ever done. Still, we push forward.
We hit the 17-mile mark and find ourselves at the base of a hill. Seven miles back, we were passed by a guy who scoffed at us and told us “if you have to walk you shouldn’t have run a marathon.” As we jog past him while he’s walking up the hill I can’t resist a comment of my own, “if you have to be an asshole know-it-all, you better have an idea about what you’re talking about.” Thankfully, miraculously, he is one of the few people I beat across the finish line. You crest the hill at 19 miles, and begin the more tedious part of jogging down it. As much as going up sucks, going down, something I normally take great pleasure in – nudge nudge, wink wink – is even worse. You have to hold back with all your might to stop from sprinting down the hill. By now I’m limping pretty badly. Neil is as well. The first aid van is driving behind us telling us there is no shame in stopping. I get them to wrap my ankle and Neil has plasters placed on the inch long blisters on his feet. We run on.
We struggle down the road, beside the beautiful Skaha Lake, past rows of houses along the path, each one with people cheering us on. Dave, Marty, and Nick drive by, telling us to keep going. It is well past noon now, the sun torturous, the pavement hotter than a Scarlett Johansson/Kate Beckinsale sex scene. Every two miles water and Gatorade stations are set up and we’re told that we have reached the last one. In less than 2 miles we’ll be done. In just over 20 minutes it will be all over.
As we wind down the road, the orange cones directing us, oddly similar to the defence of Portuguese FC in their speed, we finally get a glimpse of the park where will be finishing. And then the stride lengthens, the lungs expand, and the pain subsides. As we hit the final corner, turning into the park, directly ahead of us, some 200 meters away, or .2 miles if you want to get picky, is the finish line. A tall frame with a timer hanging over it, a metal stand on each side like some doorway to freedom, is waiting for us at the end. A guy with binoculars whispers something to the guy standing next to him in the tower and over the PA system we hear, “coming down the stretch is runner Neil Anderson from Edmonton, Alberta and runner Geraint Isitt, from Edmonton, Alberta.” At most, there was probably only a couple of hundred lining the straightaway to the finish line, but it seemed like thousands. And even though we came in more than 2 hours after the first runners, no one cared; least of all us. We picked up the pace, wincing through the pain, and managed to smile as we crossed the finish line the cameras snapping our photos as we did. The time registered at 5:28:21, very very slow. But you know what? We did it. The free of charge rub down was probably the greatest feeling I’ve ever had as the big burly dude hammered on my legs taking all the knots and bumps away.
We got a medal, some handshakes, and the jacket – which was a piece of shit really. It maybe cost them $15 and then they put a heat transfer logo on it. Didn’t even have the year or say finisher on it. Talk about a let-down. Kinda like taking that girl home from the bar and finding out she’s got two assholes and a penis. Okay, maybe not that bad.
A funny thing happens right after the race. The town empties. As we sat on a patio, cold beverages nearby, plates of food at the ready, all the other runners who weren’t local seemed to have left.
We all got right hammered. I mean steaming drunk. Not very hard considering the events of the day. The next day was Monday, and it meant it was time to drive home. The ten hour journey, four of us cramped into a little car, was murder to say the least. When we stopped for pizza, a mere three hours from home, the 50 step walk to the restaurant was excruciating. The pizza was good though.
So there you have it. Just another glimpse into the life of the Penguin. A life of wonder, of fun, of insanity. The marathon was, quite simply, the dumbest but most rewarding thing I have ever done. I actually ran a second one in Dubai 11 years later. My time was better; my preparation for it only more so. After that first marathon, I had a soccer practice that Tuesday, and a game that Thursday, and I went to them both. I even scored a goal on the Thursday. Yes, I was that good once. Not too bad for an idiot huh?