Nigel Baluster felt his heart rate and breathing quicken, the burning ache of his limbs fading away briefly, as he focused his eyes on the patch of road just beyond the finish line. Body straining, feet pounding on the old tarmac, he reached out with his will, attempting to pull himself and his destination together by sheer force of mind alone. For the last minute, he could see nothing but that patch of tarmac, as if it were at the end of a long lightless tunnel.
The tunnel exploded away from his vision with the adrenaline rush of crossing the line. As his foot slammed onto the spot he’d been focused on, he felt the same old release, the triumph, the ecstasy of achievement. A lifetime of marathon running, and the high was still just as sweet.
He jogged lightly on the spot, clad in a thermal blanket and sipping at rehydration fluids, and watched the stragglers coming in. It was satisfying to see he was still capable of beating a lot of people. But not all of them; not any more. Nowadays he was lucky to place in the first fifty percent, and through no fault of his own.
He looked over to the media scrum around Michael Gazel who, it appeared, had just won his fifth marathon of the season. Sports bloggers, ageing broadcast hacks and young runner-groupies clustered round him as he talked and waved his arms, his sweat-sheened face beaming with the joy of winning. Nigel looked away, tried to swill the bitter taste from his mouth with more rehydration. That had been him, four decades ago. And he’d done it honestly.
Lost in his thoughts, Nigel failed to notice the media swarm approach and engulf him as it followed Gazel. Sounding scarcely winded, Gazel’s strong baritone cut over the cacophony of voices as he clapped Nigel on the shoulder.
“You know, folks, this guy here is a great runner too. Used to win marathons all the time back in the noughties. He was a legend – a hero to me, as a kid.”
Nigel scowled. “A hero to you, was I, Gazel? Obviously not enough to keep you honest. Not enough to stop you cheating.”
Gasps from a few of the less intelligent young ladies in the crowd, and raised eyebrows from bloggers hoping for a scoop.
“I don’t cheat, Nigel,” said Gazel evenly, still wearing that infuriating smile. “I’ve never cheated. And there are records to prove it, too.”
“That’s the problem,” Nigel snapped. “The records are meaningless. The drugs you take, the drugs all you winners take these days, are all legal now. You win, but the winning means nothing, because there’s no challenge. It’s not about seeing which person can run the distance fastest any more. It’s about seeing whose coach has the best bag of tricks.”
“I still have to train, Nigel. I still have to work at it.”
“And I still have to train, Gazel! Every damn day. Every day for the last fifty years – the first ten in hope that someday I’d be good enough to place in the top hundred each time, the five after that to hold my position. And then another three and a half decades, the same daily routine, the blood and sweat and pain, just to watch you engineered freaks steal the only thing I ever loved enough to work for. Screw your training, Gazel. It means nothing.”
Some pasty-faced blogger with a camera-hat piped up. “If it means nothing, Mr Baluster, why do you still compete?”
Nigel started to reply, but the blogger had already started to turn away as Gazel and his entourage headed toward the podium for the prize-giving. Nigel watched the crowd recede away from him, their interest diverted once again by the trappings of success. He turned his back on the ceremony, and started walking toward the nearest Tube station. He’d need to get home and load up on carbohydrates while he’d still get the benefit.
[Another character sketch story, but I’m not exceptionally happy with it. However, I’ve not had the time to write anything else this week, and I’m keen to keep up the regime of putting something up weekly. So it goes.]