He told her he never missed a run: not when he had the flu, not the day of his father’s wedding, not the day after he graduated from law school. But he couldn’t get up.
“Want to hear something funny?” she had whispered over his shoulder.
“I’m training for a marathon.”
He had turned his head to look at her. “What’s funny about that?” One of her pale eyebrows had disappeared into her hairline then. “Seriously, marathons are mostly about the determination to finish, no matter what. You’ve already got that. The only thing between you and a marathon is practice.” He rolled onto his back. “What marathon do you want to run?”
She hadn’t wanted just any marathon. She wanted the Western Mass Marathon, known locally as the Lesbianville Widowmaker. The route seemed deliberately to seek out all the largest hills in the Pioneer Valley, up and across their little mountain and back down again.
Training with Fran on the mountain – this mountain, he thought, as he inhaled and glanced at the sharp incline now before him – had saved him. Training with Fran had given him something to hope for. Something to live for.
And on the day, he had had no doubt she’d finish.
She seeded herself near the back of the pack, he near the front, so he finished hours ahead of her, even though he took it easy. After a rest and water, he’d taken off his number and backtracked, finding her five miles from the finish, in the middle of the descent past the Eyrie House ruins. If she pushed really hard, he had realized, she’d have a time under five hours. She’d started with the goal of finishing in under six.
So he had trotted along beside her, cracking jokes to distract her from the pain. When that didn’t work anymore, he had run backwards in front of her, taunting her, telling her she should just give up, just go home and eat a cheesecake, and she cried and laughed at the same time. “Oh fuck you, Mick.”
And then that last mile. You can see the finish line as you round the bend into the last flat, straight mile. When Fran saw it, everything inside her changed. He watched her realize that she was going to finish, she was definitely, definitely going to finish. She looked stunned for just a moment, then flashed him a smile and said, “Race ya,” and shot off like she had a jetpack.
When he realized what she meant, he gave her five seconds and then chased after her, chased hard. She was sprinting, fired up, burning, wanting to beat him for real in this last mile. So he chased her for real, though his legs were rubbery from the 36 miles he’d run that day. When he had nearly caught her up – what made him do it, he’ll never know – he let out a banshee wail, and she turned to see him gaining on her, and she yelled too, and ran even faster. They ran and screamed and the crowd near the finish line must have thought they were a couple of lunatics. He just barely caught her at the finish line, crossing beside her, both of them screaming and gasping and laughing, and then crying and she kept saying, “I won! I won!” So he said it too: “You won! You won!” And they bounced and skipped, exhausted and supercharged and high like he had never been, not in a dozen marathons. She was his fizz and his float.
And that had been it, he realized now as he crested the peak and saw the horizon expand around him. That moment when they’d crossed that finish line together, hollering like a pair of charging soldiers, like a pair of teenagers in a horror movie, like the good guys at the end of an adventure movie. That’s when he had fallen in love.
“I’m an idiot,” he said, and he stopped. He had crossed the ridge and begun the switchbacking descent, and was standing now amidst the stoney ruins the Eyrie House hotel.
“Well,” he panted, his hands on his hips. There was really only one thing to do. He started running again. He had a long run ahead of him, but at least he was going home.