The starter pistol exploded, and Gideon Young took off at a jog. No need to push myself right off the bat, still 26 miles to go.
The midday Sun beat down on the runners, a great herd of muscles under cover of nylon and neoprene, as they left the starting point behind. Young could already feel the sweat running down his forehead, the back of his neck, the now bare place where his sideburns used to be. He resisted the urge to reach up and wipe it away. There would be much more where that came from and he couldn’t afford precious energy on the constant wiping. Better to focus on the task at hand.
Finish the marathon, Gid, then you can bathe in ice.
He had actually detested the nickname “Gid” his whole life. That is until he met Maggie. From the very beginning he’d been taken in by her bright smile and not-quite green eyes. Her curvy body and penchant for spontaneous dancing certainly didn’t hurt things. She’d called him Gid on the first date. He meant to correct her, to explain to her that his neglectful, drunk father had called him “Gid” with derision and he wished never to hear it uttered again; but he was already under her spell.
They sat in a coffee-house in the collegiate part of town, quietly sipping their coffees when some obscure album track by the now-forgotten Live came on the radio. Maggie stood up from her chair and began to dance, slowly, sensually. It was part belly dance, part middle-age hippie sway; and the very introspective Gideon found it a little embarrassing in a 19 year-old coed. He also found it amazingly erotic and despite himself rose from his chair and danced next to her; coming up beside her and singing quietly in her ear, “Talk to me now, oh vicious crowd…”
Not the most romantic song, but you don’t always get to pick your first dance’s anthem.
Nine years, a doctorate, and two masters later, they married. It was a night to remember. There was wine and song, more food than their 104 guests could possibly have finished; and to end the evening the couple took to the floor and slow-danced to Mother Earth Is A Vicious Crowd, much to the confusion of all in attendance.
The first muscle cramp came at around the three-mile mark. It was in his abdomen, a sharp pain that soon spread through his whole midsection. He felt his pace slowing, and struggled to pick it back up. A woman half his age passed on the right, then back tracked to keep pace with him. “Are you alright, sir?”
“Yes,” a sharp gasp, “I’m fine.”
“I’ll tell you what,” she seemed to have no trouble keeping pace and conversing with him, he envied her, “My name is Meredith, Meri if you like. I’m not in this to set any records, I’m just raising money for a friend. I’ll try not to leave you too far behind. OK?”
He didn’t answer her. He was focused on the task at hand.
“Alright, well if you need anything, I’m a doctor, and I’ll be in earshot.” With that she pulled ahead; far enough to give Gideon his space, but within sight.
He allowed himself a glance down at his aching gut, and the number pinned to his t-shirt. He was runner number 344. And in the upper right-hand corner a smaller number on a piece of note paper. It was his youngest daughter’s handwriting: #1. He smiled despite the pain, remembering who he was doing this for.
After five miles he grabbed a bottle of water from an outstretched hand. It was cold and refreshing, yet burned in his chest as he swallowed. He coughed, sputtered, nearly tripped over himself. Meredith was listening closer than he’d thought and slowed her pace until she was neck-and-neck with him. “You ok?”
He gave her a thumbs up, then as she sped back up, he flipped her the bird. I’m doing this for my little girls. I don’t need your help.
It was two years ago that Gideon had come home from the doctor’s office and collapsed on the couch. Maggie ran to him, running her fingers through his dark, curly hair. “What is it, baby?”
When the doctor had told him, in his oh-so-clinical fashion that it was cancer, Gideon reacted stoically. “Oh, I see.”
“The placement, more so than the size of the tumor makes you a poor candidate for surgery. I’d like to start you on radiation therapy as soon as possible.”
“Oh, I see.”
It was only with his head cradled in the lap of his beloved Maggie that he’d allowed himself to cry. It was a hard, body-shaking cry, full of fear and pain and anger.
They decided, after much discussion, to tell their daughters about the cancer. They kept no secrets from the girls.
Christine, the youngest, patted his hand gently, “Don’t be scared, Daddy. You’re strong.”
At fifteen miles Gideon could barely see straight. His muscle cramps had spread throughout his entire thorax. His shoulders burned, his arms ached. He was more than certain that several blisters had formed on his feet and subsequently burst. His right shoe filled with blood, squishing between his toes as he continued to jog.
He congratulated himself for not having slowed much since the beginning. He had discovered a previous unknown tolerance for pain when he started the radiation therapy, and it served him well now. He reached out for another bottle of water, and noticed that the spectators were fewer. The running herd had thinned out considerably, as well. The sun had moved across the sky and was beginning to disappear behind the taller buildings. Streetlights began popping on. Gideon powered on.
At twenty miles his legs gave out and he tumbled forward. The concrete bit into the thin flesh around his knees and he left a piece of himself behind for the crows. For an agonizing minute he thought he might not make it back to his feet, and that body shaking cry began to creep back up his spine.
No, you bastard, shake it off. Shake! It! Off!
He lifted himself up halfway to standing, his legs shaking under his weight and his short time. He was about to collapse again, when a pair of hands caught him under one arm. “Come on, man, don’t give up on me now.”
Meredith helped him the rest of the way to his feet and looked at his knees. “You’ve got some nasty abrasions, but you’ll live. Are you going to keep going?”
I’m sorry for flipping you the bird. “Yes,” he pointed to the handwritten number on his chest, “I’m number one.”
He started up again, barely faster than a walking pace, but he was moving.
“I’m right behind you, sir. Don’t worry, I won’t let you quit.”
It was almost midnight when Gideon crossed the finish line. The officials had almost all left, just a hefty woman with reddish hair taking note of finishers; and of course, his family. They stood to the right of the finish line, half asleep, but there. His older girl and Maggie held up a banner he hadn’t known about. It read: YAY DADDY! YOU’RE OUR #1!