SI Vault
James E. Shapiro
July 28, 1980
...and we've run the whole night through. So reports the author, No. 18, emerging from the fog at London's Crystal Palace after enduring 15 hours of a grueling 24-hour race
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July 28, 1980

It's Seven O'clock In The Morning

...and we've run the whole night through. So reports the author, No. 18, emerging from the fog at London's Crystal Palace after enduring 15 hours of a grueling 24-hour race

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Nine hours into the race, I really begin to suffer. Perhaps because the initial excitement has worn off and I have discovered how keyed up I was, I have begun to pay the price. I cannot get comfortable, particularly my thighs. They have begun to really jam up now. There is a real bite in every stride. I make a last attempt to stretch, but when I get up from the yoga mat and start off, I am a victim of what I call "flash freeze"—when the muscles almost immediately give in to severe tightening. I hobble along until I can get into the swing again. Now what do I do? Plans are a bit shattered. Anything less than 130 miles will be a bitter disappointment. A vast depression engulfs me.

But I am not about to discuss it with Melanie or Joe or anyone else. It is one of the worst hours of running I have ever endured. In some odd way I am losing my nerve. But the familiar astringent thought comes along: these things happen and you get through them after a while.

The hour passes and other things happen. The horror fades and I notice an unusual problem for myself—blisters. This results from arrogance: I had decided not to put Vaseline on my toes. My feet are already tough enough, I had decided that morning. Now I sit down on a chair and pull off a shoe and a sock. I wince from the smell. Sure enough I find a blister the size of a grape between two toes. I tear at it to break the liquid, and Vaseline the toes. My friends on the track are not slowing down for my sake. I catch their glances as I sit. I know they are thinking about the yards they are picking up on me. I change socks, retie shoes, jump up and go at it again. My number in front is held on with four safety pins that pass through metal eyelets stamped into the cardboard. The weight of the paper number makes it bounce with an audible tit-tot kind of noise. When I notice the sound it seems detestable.

Newton runs past for the umpteenth time. He has closed on Bristol and taken over first place. Now I watch Newton running with an easy clip-clop style, not going at full tilt but all the same eating up the miles at an impressive rate. If he kept it up he could well get the world's record. He is too far ahead to worry about, so I can afford to be nice. "You're going well," I tell him frequently. He shakes his head and mutters darkly about not lasting much more. But he shows no external signs of wear. Bristol is beginning to slow down as he nears 90 miles, and now and then I get back a lap. All the same his running style, which is the most graceful and flowing on the track, might carry him out of my reach.

At 1 a.m. I have gone 66 miles and an hour later I am at 72 miles. I imagine I am on my March run between my Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan and my father's house 105 miles away in upstate New York. I have clicked off the familiar Hudson River valley towns. Croton-on-Hudson (31 miles); Peekskill, where the steep and forested hills rise straight up from the water (40 miles); the Dutchess County signpost on the right-hand side of the road (50-odd miles); and now the city limits of Poughkeepsie (73 miles). In two more hours I will go through Staatsburg and Hyde Park before reaching the stoplight in Rhinebeck, where I make a right-hand turn. Two hours to Rhinebeck. I think I can manage that. My thighs are suffering but stable. There will be no grand surges tonight. No triumphant march through the distant barriers of a world record. I smile and abandon that notion. I can be content with steadiness.

By 3 a.m. I have gone 78 miles, 200 yards, which is approximately what I had aimed for. For the first time I am in the top half of the field on the board. Newton, still in first, is at 92 miles, 400 yards. Bristol is at 89 miles, 400 yards and David Jones, an Englishman, is at 82 miles, 850 yards.

Then the board tells us we are at the halfway point, 12 hours gone. The rest is downhill from here, it assures us, and in my imagination I perceive an immense plain that tips down toward the edge of the sky. It is not such an absurdity for us to feel that "only 12 hours remain." And I am getting eager again. There is a pack of three or four men just a few minutes off, and I give in for a while to the urge to chase. More frequently now I begin to gain back a lap. I do math and realize that to gain even a few miles on someone running strongly is very hard indeed. I am running at between an 8:30 and 8:50 pace.

The feline fog of Carl Sandburg finally makes its long-delayed appearance. Beyond the sharp white light of our circle, the city has grown steadily more silent and remote. A radio that someone has put beside the track provides music from past and present. It is cheerful, if somewhat absurd, to hear Elvis or Stevie Wonder. One of the runners has gone off into deep space with earphones and some sort of radio hookup he has strapped to himself. Normally such devices elicit a snarl from me, but I am feeling charitable tonight and I go by without passing judgment. Then at 4 a.m. the radio falls silent except for a long crackle. On the next lap I hear crackle again and it nettles me.

The fog settles in with a vengeance. On the far side of the track the figures become dim, ghostly, and the flat brightness of the early evening becomes smokier. Reports come down from the officials' box that they are having trouble reading our numbers.

I see Newton talking to someone by the side of the track. Then he vanishes inside a tent. Word filters in whispers through our little community. He is out at 104 miles, 1,561 yards, and I feel a small wave of sorrow for him. At least he got a great 100-mile time from it: 13:09:15. That puts Bristol in first place.

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