Left, right. Left, right. Left, right.
The words echoed through my mind. They had lost all their meaning by now, but the rhythm was what mattered, the cadence. Each “left” or “right” corresponed to a slap as the soles of my running shoes met pavement. I wasn’t about to lose track of my steps twenty-five-and-a-half miles into a marathon.
And especially not when I was winning.
How in the world I was winning I had no idea. Yeah, I trained, but so did everyone else. As the race went on, though, I noticed more and more people behind me, and ahead grew emptier with every step. The people handing out cups of water were cheering me on excitedly, but I didn’t know if they were doing that for everyone. Maybe there was a pack of a hundred people ahead of me who’d finished already.
Or maybe I shouldn’t be looking a gift horse in the mouth.
That prize money would be the ticket out of my dead-end office job. Film school, here I come! Goodbye, outdated WordPerfect 12! So long, smelly subway commute! Arrivederci, perpetually absent boss! And, most of all, good riddance to bad Rachel. She and her wastefully expensive antics would not be missed.
A rustling from the bushes to my left forced me to pay attention to the material world again.
“Well, Louise! Fancy meeting you here!” a voice shouted disdainfully.
Speak of the devil.
Rachel’s head bobbed above the top of the bushes, her dyed-blond princess curls bouncing accordingly with every step. She was wearing her usual self-satisfied smirk, and she seemed surprisingly fresh for having run as much as I had. Whether it was due to genetics or cheating, I hated her equally.
Also, when did she get so tall? Her head should be bobbing at about the same height as mine.
“Is this really the best time you could antagonize me?” I called back with as much breath as I could spare.
She put on an offended look. “Antagonize? My, my. Someone has a high opinion of herself. I’m just here to run a race. Physical health is of paramount importance, you know.”
“You don’t seem like the type to put in the training necessary to win a race,” I said, trying to sound casual, rather than suspicious.
“Training isn’t necessary to win a race,” she scoffed. Then she yelled, “Hey!”
“What?!” I yelled in return.
“Not you!” She whacked at something beneath her and jerked her thumb toward me.
Three muscular men burst through the bushes. The sun glinted off of their oiled chests and their shiny brass helmets and shields. But their faces were blotchy and red from exertion. Rachel was perched royally, sitting on the shoulders of the middle of the three men.
I nearly stumbled from the surprise. “That’s cheating!”
“Is it?” She tucked strands of hair back behind her ears. “I’ve merely found a more efficient way to achieve my goals. These three men—”
“Why three?” I asked.
Her eyes narrowed in puzzlement. “Why three what?”
“Why three men?” I repeated more slowly, between breaths. “You’re only riding one.”
She looked down sharply, as though she had just noticed that there were, in fact, three men.
“Bodyguards,” she eventually decided, waving a hand dismissively. “Yes. I’m a very valuable person—because of all my money, you know—”
“As I am constantly reminded.”
“—so it’s worth it to make sure my body is well protected. Physical health is of fundamental importance, you know.”
“Paramount means highest and fundamental means lowest,” I said, shaking my head. “You can’t have it both ways.”
I eyed the men carefully. Was that real brass? That’s got to be super heavy. “That all does look awfully expensive, though.”
“Has that ever stopped me before?” she asked. “Spoiler alert: No.”
All this talking was wasting valuable oxygen. How much race did I have left?
“Hm? Don’t have any response to that, do you?” she challenged.
“Just trying to catch my breath,” I said. “What’s with the shields and helmets?”
“Well, they’re Greek. Obviously.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “And here I thought you’d know, with your fancy college education. But I guess it was a public college.”
I let the slight pass.
“A marathon,” she continued, “is a race of Greek origin. And the ancient Greeks would run it in this armor. So I’m being thematic. Here endeth the lesson.”
“Wow, that’s really wrong,” I said.
“What about it is wrong?” she asked angrily. The face of man she was sitting on contorted as his neck was squeezed tighter.
“You’re conflating the marathon and another race,” I explained. “It’s called the Hoplitodromos. It dates back to 520 BC, and it was the last foot race to be added to the Ancient Olympics. The runners would wear a helmet and carry a shield because it was meant to represent soldiers charging archers while they restrung their bows. That kind of soldier was called a Hoplite, which is where the name comes from. Actually, they originally wore greaves, as well, but those were abandoned around 450 BC.
“Also, the length of the race was only about 400 meters. It was doubled at some point, but it was never as long as a marathon. Marathons are 26.2 miles! No one would ever run that far in armor; it would be insane… Oh.”
The men accompanying Rachel traded looks with one another, all clearly upset. That was her usual modus operandi, though: Rope people in under false pretenses, then compensate them later with cold, hard cash.
I don’t know if money solves all problems, but it certainly seemed to solve all of her problems.
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” she said. “They’re all doing fine, and I’m going to win this race! I don’t even need the money, I’m just—Ahh!”
The middle of the three men lifted Rachel off of his shoulders and dumped her headfirst into the bushes. She kicked desperately and screamed incomprehensibly, but I think the only thing hurt was her dignity.
I had to turn and run backwards to be able to witness this (oh-so-memorable) spectacle. Unfortunately, that made my legs hurt in new, exciting ways. I think the men could sense my discomfort. They lined up, raised their shields, and saluted. All with military precision; where did she find these guys?
I turned back around and continued running. I still had a marathon to finish. All things considered, I was glad that I could do it in running shoes and a sports bra, rather than any amount of armor. After all, film school was waiting for me on the other side of the finish line.
But… only after I sat down for a while.