We hit the track at around 6 p.m. Thai time. We weren’t exactly running under the most favourable of conditions: I had just finished eating, and Chris had just finished a Leo beer; hardly a couple of contenders for the 2012 Olympic Games. Still, we were there, and that was what mattered the most. We had gotten it into our heads that we were going to run the Bangkok marathon or the half marathon if we realised that 42 kilometres of blood sweat and tears was going to send us to an early grave.
We warmed up briefly before starting our run, stretching a few limbs and engaging in small talk. The sun was just sinking below the horizon, the last orange rays intensified, as if hanging onto their last moments of usefulness on this side of the globe. High above, the crescent moon was shining brightly, and a lone star, or perhaps it was a satellite, hung below it. There were plenty of people at the running track. A group of footballers sat on the edge of the playing field, perhaps waiting for the floodlights to come on. One or two runners were making their way slowly around the track.
“So, how was your run on Sunday?” asked Chris, he was secretly envious that I had been going running more regularly than him.
“Ah, it was alright,” I said in my usual self-effacing way. “Did about fifteen laps.”
“Is that all?” said Chris; he always had a way of undermining everything everyone did.
“Yeah. Still, it’s an improvement on last week. I only did twelve then.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“It’s way off my target, though,” I said.
“What’s that?” asked Chris. You weren’t blessed with common sense, were you?
We set off jogging in sync, and the conversation stopped; we had to save our breath for the run. We ran in step, quickly outpacing the Thai runners, who did everything with a half-hearted kind of laziness. Even the ones who looked athletic could only run one or two quick laps then they would walk around the track and talk to each other. We easily completed the first lap and I was feeling strong.
So far so good.
About the fourth lap Chris suddenly began gaining speed and left me behind. I tried to keep up with him, but I knew I would use up my energy too quickly if I increased my speed. I decided to keep running at my natural pace. The Tortoise and the Hare came to mind. I was on my own now, with only the sounds of the night and the bats flying above my head to keep me company. The sun had already dropped below the horizon, and the sky was that murky black colour that comes just after sundown. I thought about how far I’d come in my life; running in Thailand seemed like a positive thing to be doing.
Seven years earlier I must have been one of the loneliest losers on the planet. But a series of events had changed my life for the better. From picking up the guitar in my late teens, discovering Buddhism in my early twenties, studying music and meeting new friends in my mid-twenties, to finally travelling around the world. Here I was now, three years of living in Thailand, running in the night. I felt privileged, I have to say. Perhaps you think I’m easily satisfied. Perhaps I am.
Chris was now way ahead of me and I thought of something a friend had told me about race horses. He said that race horses practiced with lame horses to boost their ego and make them feel better than they really were. I felt like the lame horse right at that moment as Chris continued to gain ground on me. And then, something I hadn’t expected happened: at the end of his fifth lap, he stopped to buy water from the vendor stationed right next to the running track. The dehydration of the Leo must have been catching up with him. Things had just taken a turn for the better, on my part.
I steamed ahead into my sixth lap, still feeling energetic. Suddenly I felt good. I was no longer the lame horse, but the ego boosted race horse, feeling like I might just make a winner. As I came to the end of my sixth lap, Chris came back onto the track and joined me for my seventh – his sixth.
“What lap are we on?”Chris asked.
“Seventh. For me.” I did occasionally like playing him at his own game.
We ran on together, once again in sync. At my ninth lap, Chris suddenly took off again. He may have had to stop, but he still wanted to prove that he was a better runner than me. I increased my pace as I came to the end of the ninth, knowing that I had only one more to go before I reached my target of ten. I was getting a stitch because of the food I’d eaten before running, and I’d decided ten was enough for a night run. I pushed on harder, but I was feeling the strain on my chest by now; I’d messed that up with ten years of smoking from my teens to mid-twenties.
Chris stopped again on his ninth lap, and I came in behind him not long after. He didn’t say anything about the fact that I’d run more than him, nor that I’d done it without stopping. We gulped down our water, leaning over on our knees until we regained our breath.
“You wanna walk round for one?” asked Chris.
“Yeah, why not,” I said, not really feeling up to it. Walking was a good way to warm down after the exertion of the run, and it gave us an opportunity to talk.
“What are we doing at school tomorrow?” asked Chris. It was the last day of teaching before we broke for a very short New Year’s holiday, and there was still a lot of uncertainty about what we were expected to do on this day.
“Well, we’ve got parties with our students in the morning, then there’s the football match at two, which I’ll be staying clear of, then the party in the evening with some kind of stupid show we’re expected to do.”
“Are you going to the party?” Chris asked.
“Yeah, I have to. I’m already in the boss’s bad books, so I’d better try and appease her by showing up and donning a silly Santa outfit.”
“Nice one. I thought I was gunna be the only one there.” said Chris.
“Nah, there’ll be a few of us there. Most of the teachers are whizzing off to the islands or some other destination, but the rest of us have the honour of spending our Friday night at school, dancing in some silly show, which we haven’t rehearsed, and listening to a drivelling speech by the CEO.”
We continued on in silence for a while, each lost in our own thoughts, and occasionally sipping our water.
“How are you feeling for the marathon,” I asked, breaking the silence.
“We haven’t left ourselves much time to train,” said Chris. We’d discovered the marathon two months before it was due to start and decided to train for it at a whim. I was feeling unusually enthusiastic when I had the idea. Still, it was good to have a goal to work towards.
“I actually think we’d be better off trying the half marathon first,” I said. “We can’t just come out of nowhere and expect to complete a marathon.”
“Expect!” said Chris incredulously. “You don’t expect. You train damn hard every day to reach your goal.” I had to admit, he had a point.
“Still,” I said, “I’m probably going to do the half marathon. There’s always next year.”
“We could do the half . . .”
“I’m doing it, Chris. We have to be realistic. I know you think a half marathon doesn’t have the same ring to it as a full marathon, but it’s still something. It’s still an achievement.” He had some macho idea about doing the full marathon, a bit like those guys who will only drink pints because they think half pints are for girls. “There’s always next year,” I said. “Then we’ll have plenty of time to train.”
“We could do it one month,” he said. “But we’d have to run every morning and every night.”
“Yeah? And are you going to get up at 4:30 a.m.? cos I sure as hell can’t do it.”
Chris, the math teacher, began explaining to me exactly what time we’d have to wake up, when we’d have to leave the house, how long we’d have to run for, and what time we’d be back home to hit the shower then head off to work. I had the sneaky feeling that in reality it wouldn’t run so smoothly. Something unexpected always happens. Life is like a scattering of autumn leaves in the wind; random and unpredictable. This ideal scenario that he was suggesting only happened in the abstract world of theories.
We walked on in silence again, sensing the void that had opened up between us since we first became friends. In fact, it had only been about six months since Chris turned up on my doorstep with some Thai teachers from the school, asking me if I knew of a house for rent. His girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and they wanted somewhere more stable for when the baby arrived. Eventually, they had moved into a fully furnished house just around the corner from where I live. We were neighbours now.
I had befriended Chris as a sign of hospitality. I knew what he was going through, being a new father myself. But he soon proved to be selfish, and my reservations about him continued to grow. Still, he was a friend, and I wanted to stand by him. He was young and inexperienced and had become a father seemingly by accident. He wasn’t ready for it. The night his baby was due to be born, he complained to me that he had planned a trip to the cinema with some friends from work. In the end, he still went. His girlfriend was in the hospital having a baby, and he was in a bar getting blind drunk and chatting up girls. Perhaps that’s normal, but I couldn’t have done it that way.
He also saw the negative in everything. Everything was “gay” to him. I was going through something of an epiphany in my life, and I wanted to embrace things with an open mind. But every time I met up with him, it seemed like we ended up complaining about something, or gossiping about people. I didn’t really want that; I was looking on the sunny side of things.
He also didn’t really get along with another good friend of mine, which further compounded my reservations about him. It was as if he wanted to create angst with this other friend; a friend I highly valued and saw as positive and good natured. Still, I wasn’t the type to be unfriendly with him, and so I tried to maintain the relationship.
That was what had brought us together for night running. He had asked if I wanted to go, and I did. But somehow I just didn’t feel easy with him, he seemed to take everything the wrong way, and the fact that I’d gone running without him on the previous Sunday had left a chip on his shoulder. He somehow felt I was working against him, and yet, I just felt free to do my own thing; I hate being bound to contractual-like agreements between friends. I may see you on Sunday, but I may not. This is the way I have learnt to be, but then, I am at least nine years older than Chris. It’s understandable that he still has the school-boy mentality.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is this: we’re all running, all the time. You’re not running just when you’re moving your legs faster than normal. We have to learn to run to our own rhythm, not to feel obliged to keep up with, or slow down for anybody. Life is one big run, and the destination is the great beyond, the unknown void. Make sure you run well, and most of all, enjoy it! Chris may have had a bad experience of night running that night, but I enjoyed myself. I was thankful for the crescent moon high over head, the bats fleeting through the sky, the sound of the cicadas in the trees. I was thankful for running under a tropical sky, I was thankful for friends, but most of all, I was thankful for the short life I have to experience. Too short to complain!