“I got beaten by a fairy,” I said to David, the New York City Marathon finish line director, after I crossed the finish mats, wondering if I was going to puke. A worker put a medal around my neck. I talked instead of puking.
“I ran as hard as I could but the fairy beat me,” I said, and peeled off to the celebrity exit. I felt like weeping. I always do after a marathon, good or bad – it’s a flood, the emotion, the stuff you’ve kept pent up for a few hours because you’re concentrating on running, that stuff takes the easy way out, which is release by weeping. With David I didn’t worry about weeping or not making sense, because he’s seen a good half million marathoners finish and must have talked to a thousand of them. Or listened to them. Or danced away from their puke.
So he didn’t bite on the fairy thing. “Good job,” he said, “Good job. Looks like you’re in under five.”
“It sucks,” I said, drawing my mylar blanket around me, “I blew up. Groin. Groin blew up. Yesterday I told you hamstrings, but it was the groin. And I got beaten by a fairy.”
“Go up to the celebrity tent.”
He led me to a gap in the fence, where orange-jacketed workers checked out my secret stickers, and let me through. I had only had a couple of hundred feet to go and lots of attendants, because I was a celebrity, and we got special treatment before the race and after it, even though what happened during it was up to us. The other celebrities were real celebrities, like P Diddy, or they were friends of the sponsors, or they were like me, one of the guys in the racing business, getting what amounted to professional courtesy. Celebrity status at this race covered a lot of ground, and although I liked what it promised, I had been ambivalent about it because most of the other celebrities were not serious runners. Evidently I wasn’t either, because I’d just been beaten by a fairy.
At the moment, though, I felt like a celebrity. Someone offered me water. A man draped my arm over his shoulder and walked me away from the gate. Another person clipped my timing chip off and thanked me. A woman walked me up the path, looked at me carefully and asked if I was all right. I knew she meant was I physically all right, so I said I was fine and didn’t need anything. At the tent a young woman led me to the bags and found mine for me.
“Can I take anything out of it for you?” she said while handing it to me.
“No, I’m fine. But thank you.”
I wasn’t fine. What I meant was that I wasn’t going to faint, I wasn’t going to puke, my blisters and sore toes were nothing, and my groin didn’t hurt now that I’d stopped running. So I was fine except for the cramps that I knew would be along pretty soon, but in the meantime I could flop down on the Central Park celebrity grass and have some Poland Spring and hope that nobody I knew would find me for a while, wouldn’t out me and my dogshit time, because I wasn’t ready to talk about how much of an idiot I’d been, how I’d forgotten what I knew how to do, that I’d run stupidly and had been beaten by a fairy. Probably.
By this time I was thinking more clearly and wondering if the fairy had really beaten me. Maybe I’d beaten her. I didn’t know for sure, even though when I charged up the last little hill to the finish line, I’d thought that the fairy had been ahead of me, even though I couldn’t see her. The last time I’d seen the fairy she was ahead of me and moving away, but that didn’t mean she’d stayed there. The fairy and I had swapped positions eight or ten times since the 59th Street Bridge, and the last time I’d seen her moving away from me had been back on Central Park South, which had felt a hell of a lot longer at the end of the race than it had when I’d walked down it the night before to get to my free celebrity room in the Sheraton. I’d bet there were a thousand people on that stretch of road, so it was possible that I’d passed the fairy for the last time and hadn’t known it. But in my heart I was sure the fairy had beaten me.
It wasn’t that I wanted to beat the fairy. I wasn’t racing against fairies, or against women in their twenties, which is what I judged her to be. It was more that I didn’t want to be beaten by a fairy. At the time these seemed very different ideas to me, and after it was all over they still seemed different, but I couldn’t have said why. Logically they were identical. Either I beat the fairy or the fairy beat me, or we tied, which I knew hadn’t happened and couldn’t have happened because if I’d gotten into an all-out sprint with the fairy I felt sure I would have kicked her fairy ass, groin or no groin. I wasn’t sure I’d have had the balls to given the fairy an elbow or knocked her into – well, of course not. What had the fairy ever done to me? Nothing.
At least the fairy who beat me was an international fairy – English, because of the Union Jack stitched onto the top of her white fairy costume. I fell in with her on the 59th Street Bridge, just about the time my groin blew up for real. Back on the Pulaski Bridge it had started to go but it hadn’t gone bad until the big bridge. I’d been monitoring it carefully since the halfway point and it’d been deteriorating since then, which was bad because I had 10 miles to go, and had already fallen off the pace, because of the groin. I don’t even like the sound of groin, it’s blunt and ugly. Plus it’s all those little tiny muscles I can’t even remember the names of, little ones so you say, well, who cares about those little guys? Look after your quads and hamstrings and the rest’ll take care of themselves. Except nope.
Too fast, too fast, I couldn’t stop saying to myself, you took it out too fast, you idiot. How could I? Being old and out of racing form and reentering marathoning after twenty years out wasn’t any excuse because I’d known all those things and had meant to be cautious. And I’d even run the race the year before. But, almost unbelievably, I’d started my watch at the gun, and all the way walking and then jogging the 13 minutes it took to get to the actual starting line I hadn’t stopped and reset my watch so I could start it at the line. Me! The professional timer guy, timer of more than a thousand races, of nearly a million runners, making an idiotic mistake trying to time himself. Not starting my watch properly meant I couldn’t judge my pace from the mile markers all along the course.
So I’d run the first ten miles too fast. But I felt good, as I said to my son later, the plaintive cry of the runner who misjudged his fitness badly. When I was young I’d just say, well, I went out too fast so I’ll just have to hang on and maybe I’ll have a good one. Now that I’m old I say, I went out too fast, I’m fucked.
The Fifty-Ninth Street Bridge was the usual mixture of paces. Some runners were attacking it, some were walking, and the rest were passing people or being passed. I was passing people who were walking but about as many people were passing me. When I came up on the fairy I wasn’t too surprised. She wasn’t the only person in costume, although she was the only fairy I’d seen. You don’t really expect costumes in a marathon, because a marathon is serious business. You can get goofs in a marathon, people with stuff written all over their shirts, sometimes funny hats or socks, but not many costumes. But here was a fairy, white with silver trim. She looked good, too; her stride was short and controlled – just right for climbing. I passed her, slowly, wondering if I’d see her again, suspecting that I would.
Back in the pack the runners seem to be part of a giant phase-shifting experiment. We start in the same place, we end in the same place, but at every moment some of us are speeding up, some are slowing down. It’s almost fugal. I saw Nori, the Japanese guy, about every half hour. I came up on another Japanese guy and decided to say konnichi wa, good day, to him. I concentrated on my accent. He was surprised and, I think pleased. I never saw him again so maybe those words, the only words I said before I finished, magically took us so far out of phase that we never fell back in again.
The fairy never turned to look at me, and I never turned to her. I didn’t want to talk to her – it felt as though it would break some kind of spell. I almost did when I passed her in Harlem at the same time we both passed a chubby blue bug, well – something with antennae. I wanted to say, shaking my head, That blue bug is too much, isn’t she? In Harlem I still had hope for my 4:40 or 4:45, because I thought the groin might be easing and I’d be able to speed up even if I had to slow down on the long pull up Fifth Avenue.
The groin. Years ago when I was hanging with some medical guys who referred to people by their complaints.
“Got a toe to see you.”
“Is the tropical ulcer still out there?”
I wanted my groin to get better so I wouldn’t have to find the celebrity doctor, a thoracic surgeon doing volunteer duty. I imagined him calling out from his little tent, I’m ready for the groin.
I walked out to Central Park West to find my son. I was still thinking about the fairy and how I didn’t like being beaten by her. She was probably a fine fairy and on this Sunday she had been the better runner, but she was in costume. There’s a Richard Pryor routine about fighting a guy who knows karate, where he says Kick my ass if you can but don’t be hollerin’ at me while you doin’ it.
That’s how I felt about the fairy. You can clean my clock in a marathon but don’t be doing it in a costume. But is it really that simple? Is that really the problem? It’s not. It’s not really about the fairy. It’s about screwing up when I shouldn’t have, and not liking admitting it to myself.
When I finished, someone put a medal around my neck. I left it on when I went out to the street. I’ve never been one to wear a finisher medal. The year before I hadn’t worn mine, but later David gave me a hard time about it. Everybody wears their medals after this race, he told me, big-time executives wear their medals to work on Monday, with their Armani suits and silk ties, and it’s cool. So I wore mine and yes, everybody said Hey, congratulations. On the street they said it. At the restaurant where I went with my son they said it. At Jet Blue I wasn’t the only one in the lounge wearing one, and they all said it, and we the finishers exchanged glances. In the airplane my seat mates said it. What they all said was, Good job. If I’d run a smart race I’ve have loved it, but all I could think of was, I ran a bad race. I lost control. I was stupid.
I was married then. My wife picked me up at the airport and said, “You’re my hero.”
I said, “I got beaten by a fairy.”
And she looked at me like I was nuts, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said it again, “Don’t you get it? A fucking fairy beat me.”
She said, “Who cares? You’re sixty years old and you ran a marathon faster than a lot of other people did and I don’t know why you’re complaining. How many in your age group?”
I said, “I don’t know. P Diddy beat me, too.”
She said, “You’re old enough to be his father.”
“Christ,” I said, “you don’t understand.”
When we got back to the house I went to my workroom. I didn’t want to do anything childish like throw my medal in a drawer so I hung it on the window latch. The neighbors wouldn’t know what it was, so they wouldn’t tell me I’d done a good job. Then I went out on the net to check the stats. Had I really gotten under 5, as David said?
Shit! No – 5:00:16. Seventeen seconds faster and I’d have been there, not that a sub-5 was anything to brag about.
So much for the absolute time. What about place? Just over six hundred men 60 to 64, and I’d beaten nearly half of them. Not bad. But if I hadn’t been an idiot I could have beaten more of them.
How many runners finished behind me? 8,500. OK, not so bad. I can live with it. But more than twenty thousand finished ahead of me. Bad.
The fairy beat me. Bad. But she deserved the win. So, the truth? Not so bad.