Mile 1: Cold morning in the mountains, the trail cushioned and redolent with decaying leaves. My heart’s racing with anticipation, hands jittery — but feeling good. I’m doing this, doing this.
Wish I could squeeze Brad’s hand, drink encouragement from that cocky smile of his, but he’s on the mend today. Runner’s injury.
Mile 2: Technical terrain. Little opportunity to take in the blue hills beyond. Need to watch for every rock, every snagging root. The pack has begun thinning out, most of them leaving me in the dust.
Up ahead looms water station one.
Mile 6: Finally round a bend into the warm sunlight. Approaching water station three. Grab a cup and down it without breaking pace: ice cold.
Mile 7: A woman in gray leggings and the ass of a millennial passes, offering a half-smirk. Maybe it’s the adrenaline, my overworked heart, but my mouth fills with venom as I watch her disappear ahead.
I’ll catch her later.
Mile 10: Water station five. Grab another cup. Splash my face. The woods have heated up over the past hour, the sun high. When I crane my neck, flickers of October light blast my eyes, striking in a pattern between the brittle leaves — a subliminal message.
Mile 12: Sixth water station. I go for a cup but find instead of the sun-dappled, reflective surfaces of one hundred blessings of water, an array of knives.
I slow, panting, brow furrowed.
“Quick,” the man behind the booth urges. “You’re losing time.”
I pick up a knife. Double-edged, rubber-gripped — for hand-to-hand combat.
Mile 15: Over halfway. No turning back. I’m doing this, doing this.
I’ve tucked the knife into my armband. Every stride reminds me of its rigid presence. I spot my first corpse splayed out in the brambles of the trailside, clutching to her bosom the crooked mauve worm of her intestines — an abomination of a newborn.
When the road switchbacks upslope, I see him — an older man trotting thirty yards or so behind me. He’s armed, too.
Mile 16: Missed water station eight. No time to stop, Silver Fox right on my heels. Can hear him huffing, smell the sweaty stink of him. Focusing on the grotesque soundtrack of his running, I’m ready when he releases a burst of speed. He yells out at the last minute, ape-wild. I duck, roll off the path, watching him pinwheel past, then pop up and plant the knife in his right kidney. He gasps and staggers, and I extract the blade, blood gushing onto the musty leaf-matted ground. He slumps, groaning, against a birch tree, the white bark a startling contrast to all the red. His hand marks the bole with a smeared print. “Here I was,” it says. “Here I ran.”
Mile 18: Water station nine. Hydration, raisins, and knives, knives, knives. Knives for slashing, slicing and cutting, for gutting and jabbing, sticking and skewering — for stabbing in the back. The attendant eyes my blood-spattered arm approvingly.
I snatch up another blade. And another. What the hell.
Mile 21: Something whizzes past my face. The sting comes seconds later, the hot gushing from my split ear.
I spot a burst of gaudy color from a runner’s outfit behind me. Dash on ahead, rounding a bend, passing two bodies feeding a giant conjoined blood pool. The path straightens out, no cover on any side. Soon he lopes into view — Gym Rat, the beast that just hurled a knife at my head, hanging back, not pushing himself, waiting for my pace to flag.
Mile 23: I’m panting, at my limit, up against “the wall,” the psychophysiological barrier that rears up at novices and seasoned pros alike towards the end of the race. Gym Ratis seconds behind me. Slowing just a fraction of a second would spur on the end. Dig deep into my psyche, into the tortured, taut strands of my musculature, no stopping, no stopping, no.
Why am I doing this, why am I doing this?
The mountains level out, the woods opening into a field littered with the bodies of fallen runners, the ground thick with blood, jagged and treacherous with discarded knives. People are groaning, clawing along the race path or towards a quiet place to die, painting calligraphic strokes of red on the earth. Beyond all this I glimpse those gray leggings, those banana-yellow shoes: Millennial Butt.
She’s limping, clutching her shredded thigh with one hand and an instrument of murder with the other. I angle towards her, quick-stepping across a tangled carpet of the dead.
She sees me too late, seconds before I bull-rush her, knocking her down, an irresistible enticement for Gym Rat. Maybe time enough for me to escape.
Mile 26: We’ve wended round towards the end, towards the beginning. Can see the finish line in the distance. The parked cars glinting through the foliage. Gym Rat saved himself for the last mile, a handful of magic sprinting dust. The bastard. Glance back every second, catching blurred frames of his inexorable approach.
Sprinting, gasping, heart thundering, screaming, my body is a shuddering rack of agony, a jot away from falling to pieces. Maybe it’ll be suicide by stroke before he—
I hear an oomph and notice the pounding of feet are solely my own. He stumbled, snagged by a root, his knife lying several feet out of his reach. Halfway between him and me. I stop, turn. Our eyes shift from the knife to each other.
He spits leaves. “You don’t have to.”
But, really, I do.
Finish: I toss my blood-stained weapons into the giant used-knife bin, stirring up a thickness of flies with the nauseating funk of blood and fear. Too close is the table of orange slices and brownies and energy drink. I vomit and weep on my knees along with the others.
Brad, in jeans and a fleece, hobbles over, helps me up, and hands me my bumper sticker and t-shirt. Says, “I knew you had it in you.”
Tim Boiteau lives near Detroit with his wife and son. He is a Writers of the Future Contest winner, with fiction appearing in Deep Magic, Dream of Shadows, and other pieces at EDF. He enjoys running, but is hesitant to try a marathon. For obvious reasons.