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Online editor Michael John Oliver ran the Auckland Marathon on Sunday October 28. So he thought he'd write a letter to his 22-year-old self.
Dear 22-year-old Michael John Oliver.
Here’s the skinny—and I’m not making an oblique reference to your current physical state. Yes, I’m conscious of the fact an autoimmune disease has stripped you of 20kg, but I want you to take heed.
You’re destined to do something quite extraordinary in five years time.
It will begin in April 2012, with a baffling spur-of-the-moment decision that will shape the course of the year. Having completed the Auckland Quarter Marathon in 2011, you’ll indulge your ego and sign up for the full shebang in 2012.
You’ll also sign up with a hint of spite. In 2010, your doctors, noble and learned though they may be, will tell you to “take things easy”. But you’re nothing if not stubborn.
It starts on the shores of Devonport overlooking the Waitamata Harbour. You’ll mix and mingle with nimble-limbed athletes.
There will be queues for portaloos 20 people long, and a myriad of middle aged men drinking coffee. The latter of which will make no sense to you whatsoever.
As you cower at the start line, the florid tones of Michael Bolton’s “I Can Go The Distance” will sound out over the course. This doesn’t make much sense either.
And then, the run begins. You’ll be bored after about ten minutes. North Shore suburbia doesn’t lend itself to excitement, and each house looks the same. But there are peeks of coastline sticking out from in between houses and streets.
Grown men will rush behind trees and people’s fences to urinate. The dignity is overwhelming.
You’ve been told the opening 21km is a hellish climb the likes of which Dante lacked the scope to describe. Though this seems daunting, it proves an exaggeration. In fact, you’ll find the first half a delightful jaunt.
You’ll cheer the half-marathon leaders as they glide on by, and hope a tight race is the crowd’s reward.
Your music choices are inspired, and you’ll self-high-five when Nissun Dorma plays when you arrive at the foot of the Harbour Bridge. Auckland city will shine like a national guitar. Runners will stop to take photos.
You’ll be surprised by how little you’re hurting. In fact, you’re in remarkably good shape. It’s a slow first half, but you know it’s left you in good stead to complete the second stretch.
And then tragedy hits.
As you round the Wynard Quarter, someone will knock your shoulder, breaking your stride. You land awkwardly on your left leg, and a sharp pang akin to cramp will rocket up your hamstring. You hobble to a stop, confronted by the fact this idiot’s recklessness may strip you of the right to finish.
But, of course, you’re stubborn. You’re living with four diseases. You take seven pills a day to make it from sunrise to sunset. This race is more than the sum of its kilometers—it’s destiny.
So you hobble. You hobble past the sign that directs half marathoners to the finish line, and full marathoners towards the waterfront. Your hamstring is gnawing at your nerves. Then your iPod dies.
The Auckland Marathon simultaneously sucks and blows at this point.
The hobble-walk combo sees you through the 21-26km marks. The track is flat, and the waterfront shimmers. There is a turn at St Helliers which marks the final 12km. But each beach looks the same, and what feels like the end is a never-ending series of corners and turns. Plenty of people stride past you.
A race official on a Suzuki motorbike asks you if you’re alright. You’ll lie to him several times by way of a thumbs up, but you’re most certainly not alright. You are in excruciating pain, but the indignity of failure will keep you moving.
Paramedics tend to four or five people who’ve collapsed on the other side of the road. A golf buggy shoots by with a spindly runner draped across the back.
Hobble, walk, hobble, hobble, walk.
St Helliers arrives. We stragglers are ordered onto the footpaths as men in BMWs towing boats wait patiently for the roads to open. Cafes bustle, people mill about, and what seems like a race has transfigured into a training run.
It takes away some of the sheen. But the finish line will wait.
You’ll befriend Karina from Christchurch, who is treating this race as a training exercise for the San Francisco Marathon. She’ll keep you company through to the 37km mark, before jetting off with “You will finish this.”
By now, your left leg has gone numb. “You’ve come up with some harebrained schemes in your time, Oliver, but this takes the cake,” you’ll say out loud.
The streets have opened up. But that doesn’t stop people from offering words and claps of encouragement. It’s one of the most heartwarming things you’ll encounter.
With the city in sight, you’ll collapse against a tree and try to stretch your leg. Bending has become one the many things your body simply can’t do anymore.
Suddenly, you’re struck by a memory of something a doctor said to you when you were 24. You had been diagnosed with your fourth disease, and your doctor was walking you through what life will be like from now on. The word “difficult” will be repeated ad-nausem. You remember the rain pelting against the windowpane.
Your leg hurts. The city moves. You breathe.
And you run.
My god do you run.
Your teeth clench, but that fails to mask the cries. You’ll need some kind of medical attention, surely. An amputation, probably. But who cares? You’ll run.
The buildings become more condensed and the lap of the city welcomes you in. You run.
Crowds of people go about their business. Still, you run.
Teamsters pack away crowd barriers. And still, you run.
Around a corner, around the bend. Your leg has given up—you’re stumbling. But you’re moving. The finish line beckons.
No one’s there… you’re not there either, really. It’s a spectre of the person who set out 41km ago.
They announce your full name. You punch the air. The line is crossed.
And suddenly, moving is impossible. Walking is impossible. Breathing is torturous (a slight step up on the other two).
You’ll be given a medal. The sun bears down on you. Everything is packing up, but you’re coloured by the fact that your life isn’t.
The sun shines. You’ll learn to walk among the living again.