Last Month Carly-Rae Jepsen Saved My Life
1) A marathon is a lot of running. And if your first thought on reading that is “They certainly did tell him that – everyone knows a marathon is a lot of running” then you’d be right, in a sense, but you’d also be wrong. Because obviously the realisation does not hit you on the day of, at kilometre one (“Another forty-one of these?!”). But the full apprehension is not something you can know, like a fact: that, actually, is the reason you train, so your body can build a sense of familiarity with the terrible thing you are proposing to do to it, in three months’ two months’ one month’s one week’s time. And the way you build that familiarity with the terrible thing is to microdose with terrible things, pushing pain into your muscle memory in the way you learned to catch or play a cover drive, so that when the time comes, continuing is not even a question, it is simply what you do. And this is important, because…
2) Willpower is a finite resource. Think of it like a giant barrel with a tiny-gauge hole in the bottom. You can do things to drastically decrease the amount of water in the barrel – you can only come to it and draw deep a certain number of times – but even if you do none of these things, even if you eke out your usage into the smallest possible increments, in the background, out of sight, beyond your control, the water level will always be declining, imperceptibly.
So imagine you are thirsty. It is the hottest day of the year; you are gasping for a drink. You have no other source of liquid but that ancient, untouched barrel of water set on a cool cellar-floor, and if you had liquid enough in you, you would salivate as you made your way downstairs to quench your thirst. You pull the lid off the barrel, and before you look in your mind is filled with the thoughts of all the amazing, immodest things you will be able to do with the water in the barrel. You could dunk your head in there, you could draw the liquid out and shower it over yourself in great cascading arcs, you could sit, drinking, to your heart’s content. Your tongue is thick and heavy in your mouth; your body is prickly with discomfort, but none of that matters now, because in a moment all that water will be yours. And then you pull back the lid and the barrel is empty.
That is what it is like to hit the bottom. Hopped up on adrenaline and complex carbohydrates, you are past the half-marathon distance before you feel even the most minor discomfort, but slowly – agonizingly slowly – the pacesetters seem to be pulling further and further away. At first, this is no problem: you simply go back to the barrel, take another sip, resume with your thirst quenched. Until suddenly, you simply cannot: there is none. It really is very Gerard Manley Hopkins: the mind, you discover, really does have mountains, cliffs of fall, and you become intimately familiar with their topography. At this point in the run there is no pleasure at all – it really is a unique, perverse, purely miserable sensation, the knowledge that the only way to make the pain abate is to push through more pain.
To be clear: I am not trying to claim some Hemingway-esque alpha male pissing contest points here. There is nothing noble about enduring pain. It is not weakness leaving the body, like that guy on the rugby team told you. Etymologically (Latin: poena), it is literally punishment, the sort of thing forced on people for their transgressions. Moreover, it is all-encompassing. The astonishing stupidity of that Lance Armstrong quote about pain being temporary but quitting lasting forever is that, beyond a certain threshold, pain transcends this sort of linearity, erases the possibility of its apprehension. It’s a central thread of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, which, in its subtitle (The Making and Unmaking of the World) captures the totality of the painful / pain-full experience, its ability to undo the careful work that has gone into our self-construction, the bricks and mortar of our pain-free lives: intense pain does not simply resist language but actively unmakes it, taking us back to a state anterior to language; intense pain is not life-altering: it is world-destroying.
3) A marathon is a surprisingly auditory affair. You have to keep your eyes open, for sure – even after the pack thins out, people are still liable to do stupid shit like cut across your path – and the scenery around you does evolve, slowly. But your primary changing stimulus is sounds: the cries of the crowd; the odd, random exhalations and self-admonishments of the other runners; the extraordinary, impossible-to-describe sound of ten thousand pairs of trainers making contact with the pavement at the same time. And, if you’re me, after about 20 minutes and until kilometre 40, the sound of the music coming through your headphones.
The playlist had been through a few incarnations, but since late 2015 there had been one song that kept emerging at the most opportune, important moments. It was the soundtrack to a series of gorgeous, punishing January runs in the shadow of Table Mountain, it came on during a 15k weeks later in icy Fontainebleau, it popped up unbidden at the back end of a ragged 35k to Melun and back. The song is called ‘Run Away With Me’ and it is by Carly Rae Jepsen.
It opens with an instrument no mortal hands have ever held, playing a riff that is equal parts air-raid siren and clarion call. Then it abates, drops into an easy rhythm as Carly intones some deeply felt nonsense about you being stuck in her head, stuck in her heart, stuck in her body but how all she wants to do is go, get out of here, she’s sick of the party. And you think “Bring back the alto-sax-kazoo monster from the start of the song!”, but you know it’s got to be coming back, you don’t invest a small nation’s GDP on music R&D, create a sound like that, and then only play it once, so you stick with it, and you feel the atmosphere mounting, and another set of slightly more excitable drums kick in, and then you’re at something that feels like a bridge – you sense your pulse quicken – and it’s coming it’s coming it’s coming and no matter how many times you’ve heard the song what happens next continues to astonish you. The kazoo-monster comes back – of course it does – but the drums it is now on top of are huge, elemental, propulsive, evolved in a lab, the sound of the best night of your life and your first four minute mile and walking out to a standing ovation and they’re still fucking going and then it’s back into a verse for about five seconds and then you’re back in that bridge bit and Carly Rae builds and builds and drops exactly the same fucking beat and Banjo-Kazooie are back AGAIN and you’re just beaming with joy and for four minutes and eleven seconds you forget everything about the world except you and Carly Rae Jepsen and this fucking song, man.
And the funny thing is that you’re listening to your playlist for minimum three hours as you slog through the Barcelona heat, and not once does ‘Run Away With Me’ play. But you don’t need it to. You imagine the thousands of footsteps you have taken since starting to train – those necessary footsteps, preparing you for exactly this eventuality, building pain into your routine and couching its memory deep in your musculature – and it is definitely the extreme dehydration talking but you realise in a moment of transcendent clarity that it is now, as you leave one set of footsteps in the sandy Barceloneta asphalt, that Carly Rae Jepsen is carrying you.
4) Eventually, it is over. And you sort of hear the sound of people cheering, and all the tracks you have been listening to sort of blur into one, and the pain does not stop once you stop, but actually gets worse, before diminishing over the next fortnight. But really the only thing you remember is the sound of sobbing; great, childlike, embarrassing, body-wracking sobs that encapsulate a relief that surpasses all understanding, that it takes you a moment to realise are not someone else’s but your own.