Play Nice

By Rich Elliott

Minutes before the race Shannon the Bitch prances by me. We nod at each other, smiling falsely, and I look away before her sweetness, her girl-next-door act messes with my contempt. Not to worry. I’ve already seen her blazing sponsor-logos and her high-tech racing flats. Her cameraman filming her as she does her perfect jumping jacks. This restores my hatred. Good.

I have my own pre-race show, my signature thing. Get out of my fucking way, I shout, people clear space for me, and that’s when me and my crew, my Daffies, do our little ritual. Pretending we’re samurai warriors, we stage a poignant battle, with four Daffies encircling me, preparing to attack. We bow to each other, then we grip our imaginary swords in the ready-pose. Now we have the crowd’s attention. In the middle of the circle, I turn slowly, evil-eyeing my “opponents,” who are slightly crouching, glowering, threatening with their swords. In one lightning motion, I leap forward, flashing my weapon, then spin in a beautiful arc, my sword finding and slicing all four rivals, who, brilliantly, remain upright for one beat before toppling over.

The pantomime is sick, and the crowd cheers like crazy. To cap it off, I run over and leap into the waiting arms of my Daffies. The screaming girls are all punked out, wearing ripped tutus and garish tights, their heads shaved like mine. They toss me in the air, and they go into their chant—“Daphne, Daphne, Daphne!” We laugh hysterically.

I thank my fan club—they’re a small group, but mighty— and then I bounce away to the starting line only to be intercepted by that lying, hound dog reporter who pushes a mic in my face and wants to know, Do you really think you can beat her today? What will you do different this time? I scowl at him and bare my crooked teeth. Out of my way, asshole.

I take my position in the front row with all the nice-smelling fillies and their boney midriffs, the crowd gets louder in anticipation, the cameras are whirring, and me and the girls are doing that fake smile thing again, like, Oh gee, hi, good luck, I will disembowel you in the second half.

I take three deep breaths like Sensei taught, and then all is peaceful, I am at peace, alone with my thoughts. Alone, the way I like it.

 

Alone. Shall we take an inventory?

Coaches: Zero. I’ve had four, not counting my high school coaches Dumb and Dumber. My first college coach was Old Yeller. Yelling coaches get you angry, get you fired up, the hysteria works for a while, and then it gets old, you start to ignore it, and finally you get pissed, which is full circle, except now you run bad just to spite him.

At my next college, there was Coach Walgreens. Every week a new pill. Red ones, blue ones, pink ones, purple ones. Then came the shots. In the morning when I looked in the mirror, I never knew who I’d see, whether it’d be red-eyed me, anorexic me, or mustache me. When I finally Googled the shit I was taking, I smashed everything in my dorm room.

I spent my last year of college in Japan at a small Catholic school. I know, me in with the Catholics, right? Sensei Phil had me choose a one-word mantra. “Kill” had a nice sound to it. Sensei told me to sit and stare at a hill on our cross-country course. I would meditate: Breathe in, breathe out, think of nothing, breathe. Have you ever tried this? It is very boring. After three months of contemplation and no running, I was slow and fat, so I dumped Sensei Phil.

But I did complete my degree in Women’s Studies. I know, I don’t strike you as bookish. That’s your problem.

My last coach was famous. He was from a famous sports company. Coach Handsy knew everything there was to know about running. He wrote books, he had a blog. Skinny thoroughbreds flocked to him. I immediately got a lot faster. Coach Handsy was a big hugger, and he always held you too long.

I got this lingering injury at the top of my quad. I mean, way up high, near my you-know-what. Coach spent a lot of time massaging my leg, saying the tightness was really deep, and afterwards, he’d walk funny. We kept having these massage sessions long after my leg felt fine. I finally said, Enough is enough, and so, yeah, I was out of there.

I know. You’re thinking, Surely Daphne has someone. Family? Boyfriend?

My family is odd. I don’t like to talk about it. Mom ran off with a terrorist group and died in a bombing. Dad, I haven’t seen in years. We’re way too much alike. My kid brother has been standoffish ever since I set fire to all his toys in our front yard—long story. But he rang me up last year when I won that prize money at Peachtree.

Boyfriends? They don’t stay long. I’m a handful, I admit it. Moody. Messy. Mean. I can go without sex for long stretches, like a camel goes without water. One boyfriend said I was bipolar. He may be right. In the end, boyfriends resent my running. It’s true, I’m always either training or sleeping.

 

I float through the early miles, waking up briefly at the water stations. I grab my water bottle, suck, toss it. From the first stop, you gotta take your fluids whether you’re thirsty or not, whether it’s hot or not. Your body will thank you later.

A marathon is like what they say about warfare: Long stretches of boredom broken by a few minutes of sheer terror. No one can race an entire marathon, it is way too long, so the racing starts in the second half. In the first half you gotta go into hibernation—it’s all about patience and conserving energy. You draft along and let the nervous Nellies pull you.

I check out my opponents dispassionately, like an anthropologist. You got your snowflakes, your nice hometown girls, their ponytails bobbing and their cheekbones sharpened. You got your African girls, tiny, steely assassins that will pop you if you let them. You got your Russians, their blue eyes like frozen lakes. You got some outlanders, the Asian girls, darting around like wind-up toys.

And, of course, there’s the Bitch. I run close behind her and to her right. I know she’s slightly deaf on that side. The Bitch’s stride is so beautiful it almost takes your breath away. Her rhythm is majestic, her expression angelic.

She is loathe to acknowledge me, like I’m her evil twin. We have a history. You already guessed that.

 

I’m pretty sure the Bitch caused me to lose the big sponsors. For a couple years I was nicely set up, then I got dropped. A rumor spread that I was doping. Which, of course, I was, like I said. Just for a while. I’m clean now, mostly.

The Bitch has all the greatest sponsors. The shoe company alone brings in tons of money. So she has the best stuff. She races all over the world.

I finally was able to get a sponsor again, if you can call it that. Outside Woman Inc. wants to expand their brand and make it “edgier.” They kind of suck, but our relationship is mutually beneficial.

I wear their red cap with the OW on it. I explain that OW refers to the pain I inflict. The hats sell like hotcakes. I also wear their T-shirt—it has the logo of a punky woman climber wearing a ripped tutu. Pretty funny actually.

Outside Woman has a tiny marketing budget, so I don’t get paid much, but don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, right? They made me some custom racing flats, adapted from their Razor Climbing Shoe. These flats are not very good, but I have to wear them.

 

Now the damn Razor flats have become a problem. The rubber soles are coming off. I try to shove this distraction to the back of my brain, but soon my Razors are ripping and tearing and falling apart. I finally kick them off and run barefooted. I’ll worry about broken metatarsals tomorrow.

We pass Mile 13. It’s time to begin my destruction of the Bitch.

The first card up my sleeve is a familiar strategy—a series of surges. These function like body blows. The pain inflicted softens your opponent, instills doubt, makes her vulnerable in the later miles. But my surge scheme is novel, my Psycho Surges are insane. In intensity and duration, they are random in the extreme—a half-mile explosion at withering pace, followed by sixty yards of jogging, then a dead sprint for a reckless moment, then a slew of peppery 100-yard jolts, then a serpentine, curb-to-curb maneuver.

The girls have no idea what I’m doing. They think they better stay close, but panic flashes through the group. They’re thinking, Daphne has gone crazy, completely nuts, and she will take us down with her.

But me, I’m feeling pretty good, I’ve trained exactly for this. I’m just cruising along, chopping wood.

One by one, the girls slip off the back of the pack. Ultimately, their fear and their fitness betray them. The broken girls, their faces are always so fatalistic, like a dog right before getting put down. They float away.

All except one, the immaculate pro, the bulletproof heroine. The Bitch.

 

A year ago I went to the woods because I wanted to live single-mindedly. I wanted to get faster, my way. I needed to shed all distractions and live like Thoreau and strip things down to the essential.

Which is to say, the training. To focus on training 24/7. It’s the athlete’s fondest fantasy. Her true passion is not for the contest. It is for the training.

On a tip from one of Mom’s former associates, I found the storage container at the end of a logging road in the Colorado Rockies. The metal box measures eight by twenty. I could make it work.

At the base of the mountain road, there’s a town consisting of a gas station/convenience store, hardware store, and post office/library. I bought tools, duct tape, caulk, goggles, gloves, a wood-burning stove with pipe venting, a window frame, and pane of glass. I also bought a welder and angle grinder. Total cost, $811.

I scavenged for an old table, chair, and bed. I got seeds for a small garden. Cost, $89.

At the library, I checked out stacks of classics.

On the ridge near my container, I tapped into a power line (thanks, YouTube). Using the welder and angle grinder, I installed my stove and window.

From a running magazine (cost, $12) I ripped out a photo of the Bitch and taped it to one wall.

My Little House in the Woods was almost complete.

I made one concession to modern training: On Craigslist, I bought a used Edmond Hillary XZ for $700. This marvelous gadget transformed my home into a low-oxygen chamber.

I loved it! You could really crank it up. I pushed the dial way past the red line. My breaths came in long, raspy pulls. My dreams were amazing. On the third day of low oxygen, I awoke gasping for air, like one having an asthma attack. I was a frightening shade of blue. After that, I dialed back the Hillary.

My training was something of a religious experience. In the morning, a long, meandering thirty-mile run on Glory Trail crossing five creeks and the Divide. Hours of running through the strobing flicker of forest light put me in a near-hallucinatory state.

My afternoon workout was even better. I found a wide trail with a 10% grade, a pine-needle surface that went for a thousand yards. My sprints up and down my Gutcheck Trail were heaven! Afterwards, I’d drag myself home all swollen with endorphins.

My third workout of the day kept me alive. To survive winter on my mountain, you need ten cords of wood, so I spent a lot of time chopping wood. Have you ever chopped wood? Oh man, the rhythm, the exactness, the sweat! Just wonderful!

While my rivals were seeing their witch doctors, their podiatrists, masseurs, acupuncturists, chiros, and shrinks, I’d sit in a mountain creek with the freezing water shocking my muscle cells back to life. When the creek froze, I’d sit in the snow. Or I’d sneak off to my secret hot spring and lounge in the bubbles, my eyes barely above the water, like one of those snow-headed monkeys you see in National Geographic.

 

The Bitch and I pass Mile 18, and the real racing has begun. We are flying, our pace dropping each of the last three miles.

Have my surges had any effect? Doubtful. Her face is composed, her breathing is even. The Bitch looks beautiful still.

Time for the second card up my sleeve. Hateful Harassment.

If you can unsettle your rival, get into her head, get her off her game, then half your battle is won. I have no compunction about this. It’s no different than what happens on a basketball court. Well, OK, it’s worse.

We’re coming up to a right turn. I slice across, cutting her off badly. She stutter-steps. “Hey!” she cries, “Watch out!” I see a crease forming on the Bitch’s forehead.

I run up close to the Bitch, so close our arms are brushing. Which, of course, is cuckoo because we have the wide avenue all to ourselves. She gives me a curious look. Then, as her elbow comes back, I tick it with my fingers, causing her arm to flay out. I do this several times, then she moves ahead by a stride. I got her thinking now.

Game on!

I go again to her right side, I’m a half-stride back. I watch her right foot coming back, her back-kick, and I time it where my left foot nicks her right, pushing her foot inward so that it tangles with her left foot, causing her to trip. I’m good at this! It always looks like an accident. The Bitch staggers forward and regains her balance, flashes an angry look at me. Oh, gee, I tell her, so sorry!

We approach the next water station. The bottles for us elites are waiting. They have distinctive markings. My bottle has big red, white, and blue stripes, you can’t miss it if you tried, but I ignore it and grab the one with a bright pink bow. The Bitch yells, but I’ve already taken a big gulp (strawberry flavor—not bad!), and tossed her bottle to the curb.

“Hey!” she shouts between breaths, “that was mine!”

“Oh, sorry,” I shout back. “My bad.”

The Bitch purses her lips, sets her chin in a pout. I love that look!

A minute later a crazy person leaps over a barricade and flies right at us screaming something barbaric. Bald head, yellow tutu, red tights—she’s one of my lovely Daffies! She even has the snake tattoo like mine! I just about shit because I’ve forgotten I asked her (in exchange for a selfie) to “create a little havoc.”

My Daffie is jumping and waving her arms and screaming like a banshee. “Kill her!” she yells, “kill her!”

The Bitch stumbles as she swerves sharply to get away from the nutcase.

A policeman grabs my Daffie and drags her off, but the damage is already done. The Bitch spends the next half mile rubbing her hamstring.

Hilarious! Score Mile 19 for moi.

 

The thousand injuries of the Bitch I bore as I best could; but when she ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. Ha! Don’t you just love Poe?

The Bitch and I were recruited to MU at the same time, she getting a full ride and me a partial. We actually roomed together that first semester, a big mistake by Coach because we were oil and water from day one when the Bitch arrived with her Kate Spade luggage and me with my stuff in laundry baskets. I remember how she arched her perfect eyebrows.

To the Bitch, everything I did was somewhat crude.

“Daphne, what is that? Is that beef jerky you’re eating? Can you take it outside the room? It smells terrible.”

“Daphne, are you going out like that? Do you want to wear something of mine?”

“Daphne, say that again with your funny accent!”

“Daphne, the girls on the team are saying mean things about you. But I told them you couldn’t help it.”

The girls on the team loved the Bitch. How could you not? Everything about her was cute. Her pink Nikes. Her blond ponytail. Her T-shirts with the koalas. Even her voice was cute.

“Daphne, you’d get faster right away if you wouldn’t eat so much.”

“Daphne, you always run farther than Coach asks. Don’t be such a brown-noser.”

“Daphne, why are you only into creepy guys?”

“Daphne, the girls on the team find you threatening.”

Weeks of this, and I found myself kind of shriveling and getting harder, like a raisin. I swear I was an inch shorter.

I finally swallowed my pride and went to talk to Coach.

“I think Shannon is turning the team against me,” I told him.

“That’s interesting,” said Coach. “Because Shannon says you’re causing dissension on the team. And she says you don’t do the full workouts.”

Coach poured himself more coffee. “Try to play nice, Daphne.”

The Bitch was relentless, I’ll give her that.

“Daphne, who taught you about makeup?”

“Daphne, I hope you didn’t mind me putting that picture of you on Facebook. You just looked so funny.”

“Daphne, I told the girls to be nice to you. Because of your family and all.”

Maybe it was me. Maybe I was being too sensitive. Maybe I wasn’t adjusting to college. I never had sisters. I never had a bunch of girlfriends. Maybe this was the norm.

Second semester I moved out of the dorm. I bought an old milk truck for a hundred dollars, and I lived in the back of it at the KOA. It was cozy and tight in there, and I didn’t have a roommate whispering in my ear. At semester’s end I decided to leave MU and get a new start somewhere else. On my last day, I went to the stadium to collect my stuff, and I found the note taped to my locker. “Good riddance, trailer trash.” So I knew I made the right decision.

 

Mile 20. “The Wall.” Is it real? It is bullshit.

Not to say you don’t feel awful. The buildup of fatigue is horrendous, your glycogen stores are gone. Yes! But, duh, that is what you’ve trained for. Everything in your training has prepared you for the last six miles. If you’ve trained rabidly, methodically, then 20 is just another mile marker.

Of course, the last six miles is always a test of will. It is the most terrible part of the race and also the most interesting because you always learn something. For example, I will learn things about the Bitch. I will learn what effect my earlier tactics have had, if any, and I will learn if my final gambit works.

I begin my Rope-a-dope. From 21 to 22, I flail at her side, I let my feet slap, I breathe hard, I grunt. She looks at me with a glimmer of a smile. In tiny increments I start to slow, I’m one stride back, then three. The Bitch’s head swivels. I can almost feel her thrill. She runs a little straighter, her confidence in full flower. I will deflower her shortly.

Soon I’m fifty yards behind her. I’ve lost contact. By all conventions of distance running, she will win because once you lose contact this late in the race, you never catch up, the psychological gap is too big, the pace too hard to regain, your opponent too inspired to let you back in it.

Unless your slowing up is intentional and has been trained for.

At 23 miles, I start to reel her in. It’s like I’ve unveiled a secret race car. I cut big chunks from her lead. The Bitch’s head swivels again. I can hear the commentators on the press truck shouting into their mics. I race past a swarm of Daffies, they’re leaping in the air, howling freakishly.

I throttle forward. I’m burning fuel like a maniac. The gap foreshortens rapidly, like a Hitchcock sequence. I’m twenty yards back, ten, and now I’m right with the Bitch.

We look at each other, and now I’m the one smiling. I can read her thoughts: “Not you again! Trailer Trash! Don’t you ever give up?”

I surge hard, twisting the knife. I am all in, fully committed. And now she’s the one flailing. Her beautiful princess castle is collapsing. I have twenty yards on her, then thirty. Then she is broken.

God, I swear, it’s like an orgasm!

A thousand years from now people will still play sports because of this feeling—the culmination of your effort, the domination of your opponent, the realization of your passion.

I have nothing in my tank now except momentum and joy, and I need nothing more because the Bitch is back there staggering. I can enjoy the final mile. My heart is full. I wave to the crowd. They are screaming louder and louder, such is their adoration.

I see my Daffies again. What have they cooked up now? They are all pointing, hitting their foreheads, full-on screeching and writhing in pain.

That’s when I glance over my right shoulder and see the bobbing ponytail. The Bitch has materialized, like some unkillable monster in a horror film.

I should have known. The Bitch also knows the Rope-a-dope. And she has deployed it to perfection.

I have nothing left. She owns me now.

A quarter mile ahead the giant finish banner looms before us. All my dreams are annihilated. I can’t even hear her at first.

“What?” I yell.

“We don’t,” she’s breathing hard, “we don’t have to lose.”

“What?”

“We can tie. We can hold hands coming in. Neither one of us has to lose.”

As her proposition sinks in, I feel this unwelcome thing. My heart feels funny, like it’s molting a hard shell.

She is reaching out her skinny arm like an olive branch, extending her fingertips to mine. Tenderly, I move to touch her hand.

That’s when she jerks her hand away. Her mouth is a cold sneer, her eyes are gleaming ahead. She is bolting away, and then she is leaping across the finish line.

The Bitch raises her arms exultantly. Her head is back, she is roaring. Me, I’m down on my hands and knees, blinking at the pavement, gulping at air.

The Bitch is carried off to the victory stand, and I can hear the commentators saying, “Well, we’ve never seen anything like that before.”

I pick myself up, I move absentmindedly through the crowd, my weeping Daffies are giving me space.

But it’s OK, really it is. I already have my sweats on, I’m jogging, I’m warming down. My heart is already at work, growing something new and tougher. I’m OK. I have learned essential things. I am already forming a plan.

Rich Elliott has been a gravedigger, English teacher, dishwasher, textbook writer, construction gofer, video producer, and track coach.  He is the author of The Competitive Edge: Mental Preparation for Distance Running; the anthology Runners on Running: The Best Nonfiction of Distance Running; and the fiction collection Duck and Cover: Eleven Short Stories. He and his wife live in Valparaiso, Indiana.

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