So there we stood, a little past 8:00 on a windy but dry Tofino morning. Gathered around us was an ever thickening crowd of runners of all shapes and sizes and, no doubt, experience. Renata was nervous; she had done this the year before and knew what to expect from a marathon. As for me, I knew the odds of completion were fairly thin, so I was just out to see what the day would bring.
At 8:30 precisely the cheer went up and the runners surged forward under the bouncy castle style starting gate, each of us bearing an electronic tag in our shoelaces that would register to the second how fast we would complete the 42+ kilometre race. Renata and I started together, running the first few hundred metres side-by-side. But the pace at the back was far too slow for her and so I urged her on; “Push ahead,” I said, “I’ll see you at the finish”.
The numbers around me thinned quickly as we made our way southward out of town, cheered on by small groups of well-wishers out to enjoy the spectacle. The clouds were thinning too and before long we were running in the bright June sunshine, pushed along by a pleasant breeze in our backs.
A few clicks out of town we left the cycling trail running parallel to the highway and crossed the road to the right, toward the coast. Down a side street we made our way to Chesterman beach where, for about four kilometres, we ran to the rhythm of the pounding surf, squinting into the infinity of the Pacific Ocean. Renata was long gone in the ribbon of runners ahead and so it was here that I encountered my first pacer – someone whom I would share the road with because their pace matched mine, more or less. Ahead of me on the beach, at about 20 metres, was an elderly man with such a strange gait that at first I thought he must be cramping up. But then I realized that this diminutive figure, thin as a wire, was probably a victim of a stroke. And, as evidenced by his muscular legs, an experienced runner. I gave him the name “Manke Jan”.
Back on the road I determined to keep Manke Jan ahead of me by about 50 metres. “If gramps can do it, so can I,” I thought; and then it occurred to me that I was a “gramps” too. The group thinned further and before long it was quiet except for the pounding of our shoes on the pavement, the jingle of the safety-pins which fastened our number sheets, and the occasional passing car. Manke Jan was now paired more closely with another odd figure: a tall, lean man with a long, slow stride and a haircut that didn’t make sense. His hair, full and frizzy, fell to his shoulders. But up above his ears large chunks of it were missing, shorn to the skin. Curious, I increased my pace slightly and drew closer. Yes, a large swathe of hair had been clipped recently, and the reason was obvious on inspection: he had had some kind of surgery, the scar clearly visible as it stretched across his scalp.
“Great,” I concluded, “I run in the company of the lame and infirm.” Once a priest, always a priest. I decided to christen the second man “Geschoren Harry”.
Manke Jan, Geschoren Harry and I kept each others’ company until kilometre 14 (one third of the course!) when, for some reason, the other two began to lag a bit and I passed them by. Soon I found myself completely on my own, runners ahead by a few hundred meters and runners behind by the same. My legs were getting seriously tired now, evidence that I had not prepared for this race as I should have. The sun, whose warmth was so welcome just 90 minutes ago was now getting hot. Having passed the 1/3 mark, I set my sights on the half-way point: 21 kilometers.
When I reached it, running low on puff, I was greeted by a lone cheerleader, a pretty, sweet Siren who had – from all appearances – recently emerged from a refreshing shower at the Park Service employee quarters just off the road. “Well done!” she sang melodiously. “You’re half-way there, Marathon Man!” Oh how I longed to stop. But no, I must press on. I told myself that no self-respecting man would be content with half a marathon when two-thirds of one was a mere seven kilometres away.
Easier said than done. Soon after the half-way mark I began to pass increasing numbers of runners-turned-walkers. Like me, these were people who, in their training, had done what I had done: never run more than half of the full distance and somehow believed themselves when they said, “Anyone who can run a half marathon can run a full one….”.
At 28, facing a significant hill, someone called out from behind: “Passing on your right!” It was Manke Jan. I was at once saddened by my ineptitude and gladdened by his company. He passed me by, but I quickened my pace slightly to match his. Fortunately, not far ahead there was a water station. The stop was manned by a group from the local First Nations people, drums and all, and – more importantly from our point of view – they had taken the initiative to augment the standard water jars with an equal supply of energy drink. Manke Jan and I both stopped. We drank cup after cup of Gatorade as we thanked them profusely.
As we headed off again I asked Manke Jan if this was his first marathon, as it was mine. “Well,” he said, “the first one in Tofino. But it’s my 48th overall.”
Stunned, I watched as he reached his old awkward but steady pace again, a pace I could no longer match. For the next few kilometres he drew slowly away, until I could see him no more.
At 32 kilometres I had had enough. I began to walk more than run. The only consolation was that I was now in the “under 10 kilometres to go” phase. The Highway 4 turnoff to Port Alberni came and went and I was on the road to Ucluelet, a work of the devil as far as runners are concerned: a road over a seemingly endless series of moderate hills. Ahead of me now were two middle-aged women with large hips and thighs. I scolded myself that I was reduced to trying to keep pace with such un-athletic types. Up and down the hills we went, me ever so slowly drawing closer to them.
At the outskirts of the town, with about 3 kilometres to go, I finally drew even with the two women. They were chatty, wanted to know where I was from, had I ever done a marathon before, did I have family waiting at the finish, etc. etc. Before leaving them behind I asked if they had the time. “It’s one-thirty,” they said, meaning I had been on the road for 5 hours now. “But don’t think you are doing so bad,” they added as an afterthought, “we started an hour early!”.
Which was just the encouragement I needed to pick up my feet again. As I rounded the bend for the final downhill chug, the steward on the street grabbed his walkie-talkie and called out my number. Within seconds, as I turned the corner for the bouncy-castle finish, the loudspeakers blared out my name and place of residence, and one last encouraging cheer rose from the crowds gathered on the lawns.
There was Hanna, taking my picture; there was Renata, pulling me into an embrace. Done.