It is 4:30 am and the elevation is 7,000 feet and one hundred people are gathered in the dark to go running. One guy has no shirt and he's beating his chest and shouting "It's cold!!" He is correct. It's 40 degrees Fahrenheit. I'm talking to my new friend Sharvil. He has a neat watch, and I want it, but I can't figure out how to get it off his wrist without him noticing.
We're next to a lake in Kodaikanal, a little town in the hills of southern India. During the day it's crowded and smelly, but here in the night it's quiet and smelly. The stars are blazing across the black sky and we all pour through the starting gate. I start in last place, but only cuz I want to. I could totally have started in first place if I'd have wanted to, I just didn't want to. Back off.
The first kilometer takes us through the outskirts of town. The world is asleep. The only sound is footfalls, some quiet conversation among runners, a few guys blowing big loogies. We are a happy pack passing in and out of circles of streetlamp light. Everyone is happy. This is because we've been running for less than five minutes and none of us yet want to be hit by a car to stop our suffering.
We begin gently climbing. The happy pack thins out, the town dwindles, the stars pulse. They glitter on the surface of the universe, and I watch them intently, and I trip on a speed bump, and I get back up, and I say something witty like, "Oops," and I run and watch the stars some more.
The climbing is relentless. The incline is merely moderate, but it goes on and on and up and up through the darkness. Everybody's walking. I set my pace at what I would describe as a trot -- less than a jog, more than a power hike, but enough to send the message to the walkers that I am a force to be reckoned with, or at least not insulted too loudly, or at the very least not pushed down after being loudly insulted. I pass a lot of people who look intimidated by my trot. Actually, I can't really see them because it's too dark, but I am almost certain they are intimidated by my trot, or possibly by my protruding belly, which is a result of my misshapen rib cage and not my being chubby, hopefully. Maybe. Probably not.
Soon I'm alone. The trees close overhead, it's completely dark except for my headlamp, and my radiant personality, which is actually more like infrared in that you can't see it without special equipment, such as poor character judgment.
The miles melt away. Dawn breaks. About two hours into the race, I pass a viewpoint. The orange sun is cresting the forested hills. I stop and watch the sunbeams reach through the misty air, like they're feeling their way toward me. I am one with the morning. And then the short lady I passed a half mile ago runs past and says something like, "Too slow, Joe!" except maybe it's in Tamil or something, because I don't actually understand, but I'm sure she's taunting me, or my mother, or my income tax bracket.
Thirteen miles in I hit the turnaround point. There are two guys leaning against a motorcycle, and one of them points down the road and says, "Blah blah blah 200 meters." So I keep running down the road. After about five minutes, the motorcycle pulls up beside me and the guy says, "No, the turnaround point was back there where you passed us!" I say, "OK, but why did you point down this road, and why did it take you five minutes to come get me?" He says, "Blah blah blah blah blah." And I'm like, Ugh, why is my life so hard.
The next seven miles are uphill. I pass the short lady who made fun of my hairy ears. I pass a couple of other people too. I'm to the point of an endurance race where you can't string together three coherent thoughts in a row, so you're reduced to thinking about whether birds would fly upside down into an upside down bird feeder, what could be a cool Blink-182 song to cover if you could play the piccolo, the best way to remove dried hair coloring solution from an emu's scalp, how far it is from Davenport to Rivendell (traveling strictly by narwhal), and words that rhyme with "omelette."
At the last aid station 10 miles from the finish, a monkey confronts me for my Snickers bar. A race volunteer chases the monkey away with a stick. "Bad monkey," I say, because I don't get to say "bad monkey" very much and I think you should take advantage of things like that. A dog tries to attack me at mile 28 while I'm passing through an awful village, but then the dog smells me and slinks away to die. My stench is flammable, so when somebody lights a match as I leave town, the whole village blows up behind me, like I'm Rambo, except more articulate.
I roll back into Kodaikanal, I circle the lake. It's mid-morning, the town is bursting with Indian tourists. I'm not sure I'm on the right route anymore. The traffic is insane, I'm cutting between cars in stop-and-go traffic. There are some runners who recently finished the 20k race, and they cheer for me and tell me they like my hairy ears, and they also give me directions. I see the finish line. Me and my misshapen rib cage are awesome! I think as I cross the finish line about 6 hours and 20 minutes and 30 miles after starting. No one's around, so I give myself a fist bump. Then I'm like, I think I need some pizza. Later, they post the results, and I finished in 11th place out of 96 finishers, and I'm like wuuuuuuuuut? Guess I showed that monkey.