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And now I am in England, running against the clock, in a confined space, something that I know very little about. There is no set distance to get through today. It is whatever flesh and spirit can bear. Anything less will be a failure.
The 24-hour is one of the classics. Too many men and women I admired had done it for me to forgo the challenge. It has too perfect a shape and handle for me not to yearn to pick it up and use it to pry myself open to see what I am made of. In the first hour or two, all seems well. If anything, I am going a touch faster than I really want to. It is easy to dip below eight minutes a mile, but that is too fast. Every time I go by the starting line, I look at the digital clock with red numerals on display. Tiny things interest me as I approach the clock. First, I notice that it is powered by car batteries that some helpful soul has covered in thick plastic in case of rain. That took several laps to perceive. Soon I begin to wonder where I should avert my eyes to carry the memory of the time around with me so that I can calculate my per-lap time. A single stride changes my angle of vision on the sign and makes a difference of a second or two in my elapsed time.
I begin to lose interest in my lap times. I am running in what feels like neutral, just doing it, letting myself run, trying to stay as easy as I can. I hang behind a few knots of runners, content not to talk, preferring to feel whatever it is I am feeling. I am pleasantly detached and, for the moment, socially self-sufficient. Race chatter drags me down very quickly, so I save my few comments for my two handlers, friends from New York, Melanie Marcus and Joe Greene. Melanie has got our little site perked up with a stove, a brightly colored tent, a suitcase with my extra clothing and doodads and stacks of food and drinks. It is nice to have friends take care of you, nice not to have to worry.
I notice the other tents as I go by. There are big ones and little ones. The refreshment stewards who service all of us have a tent, too. Jack Bristol, the other American in the race, has slung his backpack near our site and runs in contentedly independent style. Jack and I have shared stretches of American roadway in other long races, but he is going much faster than I am, so we have limited social contact during the first few hours. He says things like "Huffa-puff!" when he glides by, lapping me again and again. I say, "Yes, sir!" a phrase I have absorbed from a running pal in New York. Then he goes round again and says, "Huffa-puff!" with the same easy relish. It is slightly mad and I wonder if our exchange will become unbearable after several dozen repetitions. Although we are all trying to run each other's guts out, we enjoy each other's company and chat at odd intervals like straphangers on the subway.
Darkness comes early. I am doing between 6� and seven miles an hour. I feel pleased at banging along so steadily and am only mildly grim when the huge electronic scoreboard at one end of the stadium lights up with our positions and distance covered. Out of 17, I am running next to last, but I had expected that. My strategy is simple. The world record is 161 miles, 545 yards. I will try to surpass it. I had looked into a mirror a few times the last day or so to see how rested I was and to see who it was who stared back. Was I a loon or a dark horse? I couldn't be sure. I would run steadily; let the speed boys run themselves out. The natural focus point for most people would be 100 miles, and then their psychological resistance would weaken. Very well. I would nurse myself along to 100 as easily as I could and then put the pressure on by remaining steady. I would stay aloof from dueling for position. Spill your limited energy too recklessly early on and the closing hours would be brutal. Go easy. Go relaxed. Save energy. Ignore the world. Forget the innate tendency to close up on the pair of heels in front. The 24-hour is a special monster. It required, I felt, obedience to special laws, or it would flatten one as indifferently as a hippo flopping down on a patch of grass. Those were the rules I had smoked out on long runs along the Hudson River. After seven or eight hours of pounding I would say to myself, "This is what the last eight will be like in London. Legs dying but keep the swing going. Keep going, you bastard, just easy now." And then when I had done what I had asked, I would ask a little more.
There is a problem at about three hours. I have managed until now to ignore its faint warning signals, but it is clearly not going to go away. In spite of the advice of a few friends to train as much as possible around a track, I didn't do much of it, and now my right leg, unaccustomed to pushing (we are running counterclockwise), begins to develop an acorn-sized area of throbbing on the inside of the upper thigh. It is nothing in terms of relative discomfort, but it casts a long shadow. It threatens the one thing I have most feared—not immense fatigue but a sudden giving out of muscle or tendon, something irremediable, some unforeseen hairline crack of vulnerability that will split the whole enterprise down the middle.
Part of my program is to stop every hour and 55 minutes and do five minutes of stretching on a foam rubber mat spread out on the grass. By eight in the evening it is chilly, and when I lie down on the mat, it is wet with condensation. Vapor swirls off my sweatsuit. I work my thighs as best I can to help them out. It is only when I start in again that I feel the incipient cramp. Soon the left thigh begins to mirror the pain as well. I have never had my thighs cramp so ridiculously early. Then I remember that everyone who does these things runs through difficulties that seem horrendous and then fade. Sometimes things just go away. It is the fear of not knowing the ultimate effect that is the worst, not the thing itself. I feel more cheerful.
Miles click by. What was this fantasy about a nightmare of monotony? The hours do not quite vanish effortlessly, especially when the face of the digital clock speaks so bluntly at every turn, but there is a certain pleasure in going round and round the little village of tents. There is the knowledge that high up in the press box one's achievement is being meticulously recorded. And there are the drinks every couple of laps. I squeeze the little bottle, swallow the squirt, catch breath, repeat, and suddenly the lap is gone.
Knippenberg, whose thin frame with the bony elbows has puttered past me with regularity, begins to relax. We get to know each other. There is just time for one exchange on every encounter. As he runs ahead out of earshot I call out a last phrase. Then we pick up the conversation again later on. Ritchie shoots past and asks how I'm doing. Startled that he has broken his silence, I call back that I am fine.
From the loudspeaker a voice with a British accent occasionally comments on developments. For a long while Ritchie appears to be on course to a 100-mile record. The rest of us urge him on and he gets encouragement from those watching.