I remember thinking to myself, I’m going to marry this woman one day.
She had her dark hair pulled into a ponytail. The whole thing moved back and forth, back and forth, and just barely dusted each shoulder along its hypnotic arc. Her arms were built for distance. They were skinny but strong enough to carry a balanced stride. She moved on springbok legs that lifted her with intention and landed with certainty.
That was all I knew. That was all I could see, but it was enough to fall in love.
We were fated. We were two star-crossed runners, born into different corrals and fighting against the chaos of ten thousand sweaty bodies to just-so-happen upon each other. Some benevolent god had nudged the trajectory of her entire life to cross so nearly into my own and, in that moment, all I had to do was close the ten-foot gap that remained.
The problem was I’d gone too hard in the first fifteen miles. I always overdo it. I have a therapist and a trainer. One is always telling me, “you have to pace yourself” and the other says, “you have to stop falling in love with every woman. You have to focus.”
This woman, though. She wasn’t every woman. She was different.
Anyone who’s run a marathon will tell you that neighbors come and go. You fall out of your pack at the water stations or at the porta-potties, or maybe someone finally has to stop and walk for a minute. Sixty seconds is a lifetime when you’re running a marathon. One minute you’re surrounded by familiar faces— coworkers, young moms, kids from church who have grown up. You’re brimming with confidence for a while. Then, before you know it, you’re surrounded by strangers, remarkably alone and hurting like you’ve never hurt before.
Races are punishing. You’re always passing the guy who just passed you. You’re always seeing someone you kind-of recognize from the fringes of your tunnel vision. Sometimes they’re coming and sometimes they’re going.
And there I was, blessed by sixteen miles of synchronous proximity with an absolute muse. Her presence made me feel important. Her speed made me feel strong and fast. The subtleties of her beauty made me feel handsome. I couldn’t, or didn’t, or maybe wouldn’t remember the last time a woman made me that way.
I’ll sometimes fall in love with strangers. It happens at the airport. Not all the time, but sometimes. I’ll be on a work trip, out at dinner, and catch the eyes of some woman across the restaurant. I see cashiers and baristas and commuters and wonder what course our lives would trace together.
Are they tired of running alone? Would they like to run this with me? I wonder if we could walk the last few miles together. I wonder if we could be each others’ familiar faces. Maybe we could be more than that.
My trainer says I should pace myself. So does my therapist. They say my years of chasing tail are behind me. They say I should stop running around the way I do.
I go too hard. I get fixated.
Anyways. After about seventeen miles, I really started to wonder what this woman looked like. I wondered what the front of her looked like. Was she grimacing in pain or grimacing with grit and determination? Were her cheeks painted with freckles from training all summer? I could tell she kept her chin up, but was that a wide chin or a pointed chin?
The only faces I could see were the ones lining the streets. I saw significant others leaning against concrete Jersey barriers and toddlers peaking their heads through steel railings. Grandparents hoisted signs made out of torn-up Amazon boxes and some disaffected teenagers were clapping and some of these people even called my name as I shuffled down the road.
I saw these pale faces watching me from behind touques and hoodies and scarves. Watching us. They did not inspire me. I wanted my muse.
I was thinking, everyone else should just go home.
Around twenty miles is when I was getting ornery. Irritable. That’s when I really, really started to hurt. The engines of locomotion were tearing themselves apart inside my body. My knees were unrecognizably swollen. I was aware of bits and parts you only hear about in textbooks, like my fascia and my synovium and my bursa.
The cheering was too loud. Someone was playing Cake’s “Going the Distance” on a ten-foot-high stack of amplifiers at one of the water stations and I didn’t think that was very funny at all.
I focused on her again and I wondered, how’s she doing it? She was so effortlessly graceful. Her feet bounded and landed with clockwork precision, over and over and over. She wasn’t slouching or trudging or limping along. She just moved, and that beckoned me to move, too. We moved together. She moved and I followed.
The simplicity was nice, before I started thinking again.
Surely we have compatible lifestyles, I was thinking. She could learn to love me, just as I’d fallen in love with her over the course of a few hours. Someone who runs like her would have a great sense of humor and a taste for seafood but also enjoy vacations to the mountains. Someone who runs like her would enjoy Saturday afternoons and Thursday evenings and, naturally, it would fall on me to get her out of bed on Friday mornings.
Ha, she’s just like that, I thought, but that’s why I love her.
By the twenty-third mile, I’d done a lot of thinking. I reckoned she was single, but only because she was bothered by the notion of settling down. Tale as old as time.
I could tell this by the combination of brands she was wearing: Under Armor shirt, Nike shorts, and Asics shoes. She was wearing a metaphor. Her look was too mismatched to be anything but a perfect microcosm of her entire personality. She didn’t think she was ready for a spouse and kids, obviously.
That’s okay, I remember thinking. I wear black shoes and navy shorts, too. That has to mean something.
The sidewalks got dense with bodies and faces and more and more onlookers with brighter signs and more specific words of encouragement.
Go, Daddy, Go!
You Can Do It!
What’s Three More Miles?
We Love You!
My therapist is always telling me, I don’t need a muse. So is my trainer. They both say I need to appreciate myself and what I already have.
What I was thinking, with a frantic sort of urgency, was what’s going to happen when we finally cross the finish line? I thought maybe I should say something. Maybe my muse would look back at me and smile. Maybe we would disappear under one of those shiny mylar blankets they hand you after the race and we’d never be seen again.
I wanted to say something. I wanted to thank her. She deserved to know that she was important to me. She pulled me through this race.
And that’s when I lost my legs.
It wasn’t the last mile yet. It wasn’t a particularly challenging or crowded stretch. It was just a stupid thing that happened. My right toe dragged along the ground as my left leg continued pulling me forward. The solution to these opposing forces was me twisting and tumbling. One arm moved with instinct to shield my face, and the other moved with instinct outward, toward my muse.
My therapist is always telling me I should be more present. So is my trainer. So is my wife.