My alarm goes off, but I was already awake. While it was beeping, I tried to recollect how many hours, if any, I slept. All night I was flipping around under my covers, convinced I was either freezing to the core from blasts of icy wind penetrating from the corners of my blanket, or boiling in a soup of my own sweat.
My bed is soaked from sweat and nose plugged and dripping. I clear my sinuses and begin digging through my drawers for ibuprofen. Empty box, Immodium, antihistamines, aminomax BCAA energy supplements… I pop one of the red pills and a menthol lozenge to clear my sinuses. I need a shower.
A quick battle with the temperature gauge ends with me shivering and sweating as I towel off, check the bags under my eyes in the mirror and get dressed with trembling hands.
Today is the Taipei Marathon, where I’m going to run the 21k distance. It has been seven days since my last race, which was plagued with pain, exaustion, black toenails, broken shoes and broken spirits.
Right now it’s 4:50 a.m. and what I should be doing at this exact moment is putting my bag down, going to the far end of that bed (away from the sweaty spot) and sleeping. But I’m not going to do that. What I’m going to do is prove once again how much of an idiot you can become when you have a sport that you love this much.
The cab driver there, audibly sucking betel nut saliva through his teeth over the blasting sounds of Chinese love songs, manages to break 120 kph down the empty city roads. The city is still asleep. My head is just lolling back and forth, watching the buildings fly past.
When I arrive, I remember how badly I need some ibuprofen. I need to get this fever down and the shooting aches all over my body gone before I can run. I check the medical tent, but nobody speaks English and they seem awfully interested in me, so I decide to leave.
Pushing through the 27,000 fellow racers, I felt like an extra in a zombie movie.
Two different convenience stores, both of them have at least 5 different types of ginseng and ginger root extract juices to help “alleviate pain” and nothing in the way of little white pills that real doctors make. I notice that I’m visibly sweating while looking at drugs at a convenience store, and people seem awfully interested in me, so I decide to leave.
Pushing back through the crowds, I consider coughing on people as a weapon.
The race starts in 10 minutes. I’m here. I paid. There’s a tracking chip on my foot that was a total pain in the ass to put on, and is probably just as hard to take off, so I might as well run in the race.
I’m in the “A” group, in the front of the pack, so I have to shove through thousands of people taking selfies, posing for pictures, and checking their instagram.
I see my foreigner friends, standing a head higher than the rest of the crowd. Orrin, the kind soul he is, heard I’m sick and packed some pain killers for me, which he dutifully pulls out of his fanny pack, and pops one into my hand. Rob offers kind words, and Amber takes a selfie of us. I don’t work up the courage to ask Orrin for 3 or 5 more pills, and give my best grin for the camera.
My clammy, shaking hands manage to drop my water bottle, and then while offering them some Energy Power Candy, I manage to drop that too.
6:30 a.m. 0 km
The horns go off, the tape drops, and off we go. My mission: get back to this finish line and don’t puke where anyone sees me and can kick me out of the race.
I start with a nice rolling jog. Easy does it. Just get to the finish. It takes until the end of the block when I notice that in fact, my legs feel great. I’m a bit warm and my stomach has a small stitch, but everything else is okay. I quickly catch back up with my friends and pass most of them. Current pace, a solid 6:30 min/mile.
6:45 a.m. 3 km
Just 3k in, my bladder is suddenly haywire. We skipped the yellow light “you should pee-pee soon” and jumped right to flashing neon red lights screaming “stop now or pee like a broken fire hydrant.” I duck off to the side and relieve myself of heavy, dark yellow urine. I swear I chugged a full bottle of water and an orange juice before starting. I set a mental post-it to hit the next water station hard. Coming back out of the bushes, I pick up my 6:40 min/mile. I still see Rob ahead in the distance.
7:00 a.m. 9 km
The twinges of pain all over my legs and body have subsided, and I’m feeling okay except for a rush of exhaustion. My body says right there on the grass is a perfect place to sleep.
I keep pace with a fit-looking guy with an obnoxious green and orange shirt wearing bright pink socks and shoes, and decide I’m just going to roll with him at 6:45 min/mile until I get the chance to take a breather at the next water station.
Amazingly, despite the ancient gate of 景福門 on our left, I was the only one in this guy’s photo set that he caught looking at it.
At the water station, I grab a cup and walk for a second. Getting my legs to start cranking again is hard. I try a jog, but pain is shooting up and down my calves and hamstrings. I feel like I’ve already ran a half marathon, but we’re only past 9k in.
I alternate between walking and jogging to get the engine rolling again as bodies blow by.
This is my swan song.
I look at the medical staff scooters, totally prepared to carry me home. Totally prepared to put me on a stretcher. I can feel the plastic coating on the bed as they wheel me into the ambulance and stick the cold IV in my arm.
Fuck it, let’s go to the next aid station.
7:35 a.m. 14 km
I caught back up to green and orange shirt guy. In fact, after 3 cups of water, a sports drink and an energy gel, I’m feeling… okay. Maybe I was just dehydrated?
The KM markers seem to be coming and going without my willing them to pass me. In fact, I pass green and orange shirt guy, find someone with an equally obnoxious shirt and pass him as well.
The marathon runners duck off to the side and I pass their 3:00 pacer.
That can’t be right.
That would mean I’m on pace for a 1:30 half marathon. My PR in competition is a 1:31.
7:45 a.m. 16.5k
The exaustion is back. That was pretty short-lived. I try to suck down extra sports drink to maybe work it’s magic again. Nothing. My legs are crushed, my muscles are cramped and twitching.
Never mind. I can keep this pace. It hurts, but your form is good, and the pain isn’t too serious yet. Just roll through to the finish.
8:00 a.m. 19.5k
At this point, I don’t care about time. I have dropped to a 7:40 min/mile pace and am just taking the punches like Rocky.
We cross the bridge over the Keelung river, then immediately dip under a tunnel into darkness. Ahead, I can see the light. It’s so… symbolic.
I’m surprised by the number of people walking with less than a km to go. My body is screaming like Navi in Ocarina of Time: “Hey! Listen! That looks like a fantastic idea! See! You can tuck in behind them, you won’t even lose any spots in ranking!” I can hear people cheering in the distance.
The light coming down from the end of the tunnel showers over us as we climb back up to street level. Two more poeple are walking, and I trot by.
The crowd overpowers the sound in my headphones. They overpower the voice in my head telling me to stop. They are screaming, literally screaming, at the top of their lungs. Who are they screaming for? There’s nobody here but me and these 4 guys.
And then, like a lighthouse beacon in the storm, I see the goddess herself, Ruth Croft (top female finisher at Ultra Trail Mont Du Blanc, podium finisher at the North Face 100, and international celebrity of running), leaning over the barrier.
“Cory!” she yells.
“Well look who it is.” I tell her. As we high-five, I feel the power of twin unicorns rearing in twilight as lightning crashes to the sound of guitar solos.
We don’t have time to chat, though. Ahead, Taipei 101 towers over us, meaning the finish is just around the corner.
I pass a few more runners, then me and another man overtake each other again and again, leapfrogging down the final two blocks. I’m amazed how far a block can feel. It’s like I’ve been running here all day. I could use another Ruth high-five.
We both hit the line nearly the same time, but a photo-finish shows my foot tapping in just before him.
8:05 a.m. 21.0975 km
I watch the clock tick past 1:33 and just barely into 1:34 as my chip beeps onto the finishing pad, signifying the end of the run. I have a hard time stopping. I have been running for so long, that walking feels wrong.
After a towel and a medal are tossed over my head, I try donating my chip to charity (each chip has a deposit, which can be claimed or donated), falling down on the ground while I untie my laces. They offer me free candy, and my stomach churns.
Rob hones in on me. My head swims as he chatters away at me about the course layout, the elevation profile, his gastric distress… He pulled off a 1:30, which is quite a bit slower than his time last year, but his spirits seem high. I try to be sociable, but tell him I need some water.
I get one sip into my stomach and immediately my abdomen feels sour. I tell him I need to lie down, and dump the rest of the cup on the ground.
As I rest on a park bench–Rob chatting away while stretching, me feeling the depths of hell washing over me–I begin feeling colder and colder. We had agreed to wait for the others, then head out together to have a beer and lunch, but at the moment, I’m just trying to figure out what way leads to my bed with the least amount of movement. I put on my coat. I’m freezing. Rob looks at me like I’m crazy when I tell him I’m cold.
“Maybe you should get some rest,” he suggests.
With quick hello and goodbyes to friends on my way out, I head to the subway. The after-party sounded awesome, but I need to go home. I’m impressed that the subway stations have their TVs programmed to a live feed, tracking from arial views and media cars.
I line up and watch the top women coming into the finish.
That’s when the white starts to wash over. A high pitched ringing gets louder in my ears, and my vision goes pale as I grab the barrier to the train, just as my train pulls into the station. I look at the waving bodies hurling back and forth while the train makes an abrupt stop and decide there is no way my body is getting into that.
I sit on a bench. My head tumbles.
I lay on the bench. My vision gets weaker, and eventually I close my eyes as the sounds of the station fade away.
I come back to the sound of my train pulling into the station again.
I recognize enough of those words to know this one is mine.
Feeling okay, I get onto the train. I try to sleep. Maybe I’ll wake up at my stop and be able to walk home.
My eyes flip open to the blinding light of the train.
Not throwing up is not a possibility.
The train lurches into Longshan Temple Station. I’ve only made it 4 stops.
The doors alarm that they are closing and I grab my bag and rush out before they snap shut. I look for signs for the bathroom and remember where I am.
A few months ago, Ali and I went for a bike ride here. I really had to pee and the nearest bathroom was out of the station, down the street and inside the market.
I clutch the wall, mentally calculating every step that will land me on the nearest bench. As my body hits the bench, cold washes over me again and the lights turn out.
What the fuck.
“HELLO. NO SLEEP HERE! NO SLEEP! HELLO!”
A subway worker is shaking my shoulder. I apologize and sit up. He walks away and comes right back, asking something in Chinese. I make motions that I am sick and he leaves and comes back with a bag.
Grabbing my head, I wait for the next train to take me home. When I see it pull in, I again watch the bodies waving back and forth like tentacles of anemone, whipping in the current.
I can’t get back on there.
Just then, someone they clearly hunted down just because of her English capabilities tells me in her most polite voice that I need to leave the station. I ask for directions to a bathroom, and she tells me what I feared. “Go down the road, take a left, down the escalator two floors, on your left.”
I taste my sports drink coming up again.
I wobble out of the station to the sun shining. The air smells like a warm spring day. It is too perfect, like out of a movie.
Like a beacon of hope, a ray of sunshine, there is a small park across the road with long benches. I am home.
I make the aching steps to the benches and flip onto one of them in slow motion like a Sealy Perfect Mattress commercial. My equillibrium drops and sleep washes over me.
I didn’t notice until I woke up, but I left my bag around 10 feet away from me. I must have dropped it on my way. I realized I still haven’t puked. I try, but nothing comes up.
I call a cab and ride home, googling doctor’s offices and considering asking to be dropped at the nearest hospital. But it’s Sunday, and the emergency room doesn’t sound like a fun place to be right now. I don’t want to answer questions about running in the race, how much water I drank, do I have allergies… The driver drops me at my place and I climb the 6 floors to my house. I crawl into bed and everything disappears.
I wake up.
I eat a bowl of spicy Japanese ramen.
I go to the mall, watch Star Wars and cry at the end for no reason.
6 days, 8 hours and 15 minutes until the next race. Time to start training.