I stand amongst gaunt bodies in a corral on Staten Island. The air smells of car exhaust and spandex. Music plays from loud speakers punctuated by brief fits of extraterrestrial radio crackle. The morning’s run will take us through all five New York City boroughs and conclude in Manhattan's Central Park—a stool-loosening 26.2 miles attempted annually by some 50,000 people on this, the first Sunday of November. My body has been free of illicit substances for 147 days.
A man holds a microphone to his mouth as his voice's timbre rises and falls in a way I believe he thinks to be crowd-pleasing. He thanks United Airlines and Whole Foods for sponsoring the day’s race, the latter explaining the cluster of anthropomorphic vegetables dancing and posing for pictures with the starting line spectators. Even now—pushing into month five of untarnished sobriety—jarring sensory experiences like the kind produced by life-sized Antron Fleece mascots can trigger horrible bouts of debilitating anxiety. I look to the ground and keep my breaths measured. There is a palpable surge of group excitement as the amplified voice announces the race’s imminent start. I feel a fluttering in my chest’s interior, a sensation similar to the ritualized moments immediately preceding drug ingestion, when the substance and necessary paraphernalia are arranged just so and the whole world is about to happen.
Seconds are counting down now. The voice is bouncy and cartoonish—a bad Johnny Carson that has no business in a public forum. I watch a woman on a podium raise a starter’s pistol in the air. Her visible security detail and hunched tweed shoulders suggest someone of both extraordinary importance and cripplingly advanced age. The pistol stays pointed for a prolonged moment, then quivers and dips, sending her handlers lunging forward to push her aim skyward. The man with the microphone counts from 10 to 1 and a great roar goes up from the crowd. The woman lowers her arm and fires the pistol—a direct head shot. There is the clunk of a live mic dropping; the man’s body crumbles. An anthropomorphic vegetable rushes forward and begins first aid as a wave of runners surge over the starting line.
As a former hard drug user, I possess certain characteristics well-suited to the rigours of distance running. Most visually immediate is my emaciated frame, stripped of all but essential body fats and ideal for traveling heavy mileage with minimal wear on joints and muscles. Less obvious is the habit-drive personality of both substance enthusiast and committed runners, and the reliance on a heavy dopamine rush and euphoric high soon after ingestion or exertion. There is also the mental fortitude built up by riding out bad drug experiences or, depending on the circumstances, stopping the substance and battling through withdrawal and the pretty much daily urge to relapse, and if a relapse does occur, either starting the detox process over again, or sliding back into heavy usage at which point another bad trip, and the need to ride it out, is all but guaranteed.
I run the opening mile at a modest pace and keep the race's leaders—a collection of scrawny East Africans with rhythmic and unhurried strides—in view. Most runners have gone to the trouble of tethering a personal drone to their race watch, producing unremitting overhead humming and streamed viewing for family members and anonymous Internet voyeurs. This issue of drone usage is contentious in certain running circles and there has been a push for serious marathons to ban them outright, with concerned parties citing the logistical, noise, safety, privacy, and security concerns of motorized vehicles cluttering the sky above large-scale running environments. For my part, I possess only a Garmin race watch to monitor per-mile pace, and a head-bolted POV camera rigged on rods extending up and forward from my head, allowing 30fps documentation of my face over the entirety of the run. Both were obtained gratis during a smash and grab operation while coked to the nines during the overlap between my running and drug habits. I view this smallest of legal transgressions as a legacy of my not-to-be-forgotten past and an essential tool for my future's sustainability. Today's winning runner gets $100,000—an extra $50,000 if certain time bonuses are hit. A victory would mean the first honest income I've earned in almost five years. I am ready to make something of myself.
My Garmin is stuck deep inside an unfamiliar digital menu system. I squint and depress the exterior push button—a web browser pops opens, then flashes and blinks, then loads Domino's Pizza's mobile website. I smile down the barrel of my POV cam as we move across the Verrazano–Narrows Bridge. My mother and sister both received invitations to live stream the marathon. We have not spoken in person since my sobriety began, but will do so just as soon as I get serious about restitution and reconciliation, and start making amends to persons I have harmed. I slam my palm against the Garmin's screen. The web browser flickers and disappears, replaced by a pace tracker. I speed up.
The course's first hydration station comes into view. Clumps of cheering volunteers line two tables along the right side of the road and hand out triangular paper cups filled with water. The line of runners bottlenecks as bodies jostle with one another for favourable position. I make eye contact with a round-faced woman in front of the second table and reach for her outstretched hand. The water tastes stale, as if poured from a gas station faucet and left to sit in the sun for days. I let the cup fall to the ground and continue running forward. The race's leaders remain in view.
It's at the 6 mile mark along Brooklyn's Fourth Avenue that I hear raucous shouting and hollering. A group of a dozen men and women rush past me, grunting and calling out to one another, their enormous muscled frames bulging under bright spandex and sleeveless shirts. Their pace is unsustainably fast, and they pull up minutes later, taking in enormous pulls of air and yelling that they've hit the wall. One woman vomits. A man drops to his knees and performs fellatio on the most muscular of the group. The rest take phone pictures and manually stimulate one another while cheering and high-fiving. I look down at my Garmin. I have run the opening 6 miles in 36 minutes—a fast clip for a hobbyist but significantly slower than what is necessary for victory.
My fondness for running developed during the tail end of the drug days, when I would snort or shoot up and take off with whomever happened to be around. We would run nowhere in particular until we came down from our altered states, sniff out drugs wherever we ended up, then turn around and run back home. The experience of drug-aided physical exertion, with nerve cells firing and sensory stimuli tickling synapses was extraordinary—a manic state fit for a degenerate Forrest Gump that continued without purpose until a Sunday afternoon near the Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel when I did blow and went running with a man named Don Willerton. Don claimed to be an old track coach at a West Coast college. He said my form and stamina were excellent, and that I had a shot at being an elite distance athlete if I'd consider putting in the proper training. We become quick substance buddies, going on longer and harder drug runs, pushing each other and having an extraordinary time of it right up until Don keeled over and started convulsing on a sidewalk halfway between Newark and Hoboken. I flagged someone down to call for an ambulance and gave Don first aid as best as I could. Paramedics carted him off without a pulse . I haven't touched the stuff since. Not once. Not one slip-up.
An old combustion engine is audible over the noise of airborne drones and many pairs of pounding feet. I see a rusted Honda Civic swerve through incoming runners and pull a U-turn on 20th Street. My pace is steady as a pimpled teenager rolls down the window and shouts that he has my pizza. I stare blankly and say that there must be some mistake. The boy gestures at the bib pinned to my chest and says a credit card with my name has already been charged for an order originating from a device tracked to this very GPS location, and did I want the goddamn double cheese and pepperoni pizza or not? I think to my childhood, and my mother’s pathological insistence that food never go to waste; I take the white cardboard box. Tires squeal. The Civic honks twice and accelerates, nearly hitting a woman ahead of me and catching air as it hops an embankment and jets toward Prospect Avenue. I make a mental note to wean myself off the stolen credit cards I've become shamefully reliant on and open the lid; steam tickles my cheeks and nostrils. I balance the box in the palm of my left hand and lift a slice. The experience is a gustatory delight. I've soon eaten the whole pizza and flung the box to the side of the road. The taste of cheese and cured meat lingers as I increase my pace. Focus is unwavering, the sort of thing Csikszentmihalyi might call flow. My limbs feel light and powerful. I push and run. I run and I run.
There's boisterous clapping and cheering as I approach the race's halfway point. Most of the gathered crowd is young. Many hold out phones mounted to extension poles and take pictures. Sponsors’ banners snap and billow in the wind. This is—as was explained to me by Don Willerton shortly before his death—the most dangerous part of the inexperienced marathoner's day. An enthusiastic crowd and easy opening 13.1 miles can wreak havoc on a runner's pace and derail concentration for the work still left to do. I focus on my leg's movements and work to stay unaffected as a man's amplified voice reads split times. My gaze wanders toward the crowd and I do a double take: A woman bearing an impossible resemblance to my little sister leans up against the metal spectator barricade. I feel a burst of arrhythmia. I cough and take in a sharp inhale of breath, then three more deep breaths; my heart rate settles. I keep moving forward. The woman has disappeared, replaced by a midget on stilts in heavy conversation with an anthropomorphic carrot. I blink slowly. Heavy static pierces my auditory space.
I cross the race's half-way point at 1 hour and 13 minutes. I will need to run a significant negative split—a second-half time faster than the first half—to have any chance at victory. I keep my breathing steady and take catalogue of the situation. My calves are strong. My thighs and groin are free of chafing. I have no urge to use the washroom, no chest cramps, and my feet have no blisters. My energy stores are high. I look into my head-mounted camera and smile.
My pace increases up as I move over the Queensboro Bridge. The structure's scale and technical beauty, free today of all vehicular traffic, is extraordinary. Drones weave through iron trusses. Some smack hard metal and fall to the asphalt or clip a wing and careen into the East River, sending owners vaulting over the guardrail in vain hopes of recovery. Quick mental math says there are 10 miles left to run. I focus on my movements: Stride, strike, kickback, leg bend, knee lift, push forward. I stumble. Fatigue is sudden and surprising in its onset. My body droops and drags as my skin begins to crawl. Steam blows out my ears and my face turns tomato red. Fatigue is full-body as I push down the road, one foot in front of another foot in front of another foot in front of another foot. The remaining distance looms hopelessly as exhaustion punches my calves and quadriceps. A long dormant and immediately familiar burning builds in the nethermost regions of my consciousness, snaking forward devilishly and unrelentingly. Now, more than any time in the last 147 days, I long for the escape of substance intoxication.
I scan the scattered clumps of spectators and spot a man with the distinctive grizzled features and stoic resignation of a long-recovered addict. He looks physically strong, with limbs proportionate to his frame and a stability in his sobriety that no doubt masks horrible anecdotes of how far addicts will go to locate a substance of choice. Beside him stands a skittish man, his build scrawny and fit to run if he could just focus his attention long enough to do so. I alter my course. The skittish man's face contorts into a big smile; his teeth are little nubs that cause his lips to sink inward grotesquely. He holds out a car key brimming with white powder. I feel my heart pushing up against my throat, beating and pounding in anticipatory excitement of a rediscovered high. I hold out a hand and my body tingles. The grizzled recovery veteran points directly at me and smacks the skittish man upside the head, jolting his arm and sending substance sprinkling uselessly over the sidewalk. My eyes go saucer-like and I whimper .
There are moments when nostalgia distorts how terrible a cycle of dependence can be. Waking up after a bad binge is a special kind of hell—head throbbing and splitting, mouth dry, senses hyper-tuned and burnt-out, present location maybe familiar or maybe unknown—that relegates the sufferer to a state of total non-functioning. I remember instances of painful clarity when I wanted to stop using but continued to ingest, wobbly headed and woozy and uncertain what it all meant. Now I’m out to make amends. I want to go to college and study computer science or engineering—my story of rock bottom redemption is just the sort of thing admission boards pride themselves on rewarding. The $100,000 race purse will cover tuition and living expenses for a four year degree, assuming I return to Wisconsin for the relative sanity of in-state tuition. My mother will be happy to have me home. She’ll sidestep discussion of where exactly I’ve been for the last half-decade and resist all comparisons to my sister—three years younger and an overachiever since her earliest days of childhood. After that I may do a Master’s degree, and then maybe a PhD. I’ve lectured on street corners plenty of times—leading a classroom will be no sweat.
Hydration stations are becoming noticeably more confrontational. At 18 miles, a woman holding a semi-automatic rifle flat against her chest stands by a table and shouts that runners are welcome to drink as much as they want, provided they bring their own Dixie cups and don’t infringe on the rights of others to do the same. A second table is filled with volunteers and entirely cleaned out of water, with an apologetic bearded man explaining they didn’t budget properly, got thirsty, and drank every last drop before runners arrived. My mouth tastes of stale saliva. I focus on the kinetic mechanics of each stride, fighting off boredom and growing physical exhaustion, and emptying my mind of all naysaying distraction.
My legs sear and tingle as we enter Harlem. All fun and pleasure is gone. I feel lightheaded and nauseated as brownstones spin around me. Spectators yell that I’m within striking distance of the leader and tell me to keep pushing. The calibre of today’s competition is extraordinary compared to even the most seasoned of drug-running compatriots. I look into my POV camera and think of my mother and sister. I confess that I'm extraordinarily tired—maybe more tired than I’ve ever been—but that I'm going to keep pushing for anyone who might be watching.
We enter Central Park at 24 miles and I seriously consider quitting. I fear for my physical well-being and worry recovery will be impossible. A cameraman with a rig bouncing off his shoulder runs full tilt as a frantic boom operator hurries behind him. Crowds cheer. A life-sized halved avocado shoots romance eyes in my direction. The race's leader bobs in front of me; I push and I push and keep my legs moving. Slowly, painfully, I get to within slapping distance. Anthropomorphic vegetables are everywhere. I twist my neck and steal a glance behind me. The sky is full of drones. I run and I run and I run. The finish line is in view.
I hear an unfamiliar electronic beeping. A red light blinks on the side of my POV cam. I feel a surge of panic; my streaming connection is lost.
“Stop!” My voice echoes through the gathered finish line spectators. Silence is immediate. I come to a standstill and rip my POV cam from its rig. Several members of the crowd rush forward and offer assistance. The race's leader turns and jogs toward me. He mutters through broken English that he’s had a similar problem, and a hard reset will give me a good shot at re-establishing connectivity. My hands are sweaty and shake. I hold down the camera’s power button. There are 10 long seconds of silence. The crowd is still. A cool breeze hits my face. The camera's red light blinks three times and turns solid. Relief pumps through my body. I wave to the crowd. The halved avocado gives me a big kiss on the cheek and says if I play my cards right there’s plenty more where that came from. She raises her hand and counts down from 5 to 1. A great roar goes up from the crowd and everyone takes off running. I push harder than I’ve ever pushed. The finish is tantalizingly near.