The sun rises; the cool, humid air surrounds us. 24,000 of us shuffle restlessly together at the starting line. We are a gathering marked with a distinctive, festival atmosphere, a nervous, anticipatory energy. The emcee bawls cheerfully into the microphone; his rich, basso voice is familiar from a half-dozen other similar events, his cheerfulness and affability carefully cultivated and laid out upon the script that rests before him. He acknowledges sponsors. He calls shout-outs to regulars on the running circuit. People stretch; people chat. Music thumps.
The balance between hydration and urination is a carefully orchestrated affair. Bottles of water, bottles of sports drinks, carefully mixed concoctions of powders, liquids, and gels, are quaffed. Lines form at the port-o-pots; the slamming of plastic doors punctuates the hum of conversation. The nervous move directly from the port-o-pots to the end of the lines again until at last the emcee calls us all to the starting line.
And now, not too close to the front or to the back, I anxiously adjust my hat, my headphones, and I think, “I should stretch.” I lift one leg, then the other. I shuffle from foot to foot. I bounce a few times, showing off, perhaps, or maybe relieving a little tension.
“I’m not a runner,” I tell myself at these moments. “Why am I doing this?”
“Yes, I am,” I answer back. “What is a runner but someone who runs?”
“No,” I say. “I’m a fat man, an asthmatic. This is silly.”
“And yet,” I reply, “here I am. Again.”
The emcee begins the countdown to the starting gun, and I think back to the million years of evolution that has produced me, this man, this body, this collection of tissues and chemicals. I try to imagine myself, the Neanderthal, the warrior of a thousand ancient tribes, the hunter chasing down his prey, spear in hand. I summon the strength and speed and desire of the caveman from whom I am barely an eye-blink removed.