The first wave of runners started finishing around the two and a half hour mark. There weren’t many of them – just a handful of lean-muscled, heaving gazelles. The winner was a stringy man from Spain who broke the tape at 2:31:34 and looked liked he could have kept right on running past the fanfare that greeted him. I knew she wouldn’t be there for hours, but I couldn’t help looking for her in the tired faces, expecting – I don’t know – maybe a miracle. It was the kind of thing you would have teased me about. I found a man selling coffee from a cart near the finishers’ festival. It smelled awful, and the cold had started creeping in and it was warm in my hands. It was November, and all of the leaves were down for the season.
Her first letter to me was from the hospital. The handwriting was thin and sloppy, and you could tell she wasn’t all the way recovered from the anesthesia when she started writing. She told me how she used to run track, winning meet after meet by a mile. Her bedroom had been lined in ribbons and a bulletin board was covered with newspaper clippings of her smiling triumphantly with medals and trophies. She said her legs never got tired, and she felt invincible when she turned onto the homestretch and caught a gear most girls her age didn’t have. Then she told me about the sickness and the weeks of uncertainty between her first collapse and the morning they figured out what was wrong with her. She told me she cried every day until the tears stopped coming and there was just terror. She told me how much she thought of you.
The festival was mainly vendors selling food and running merchandise; some had activities for bored children, while others were offering free massages to the runners who had already finished. I wandered up and down the rows of booths, stopping occasionally to fiddle with a display or flip through a brochure. At the end of one row, a man was roasting almonds in a large copper cauldron, caking them will cinnamon and sugar that smelled incredible in the cold air. I bought a bagful and returned to the finish line to wait for her. A large digital clock under the announcer’s perch ticked its way past the four hour mark while I munched away.
The letters kept coming as she got stronger; she must have written dozens – maybe even a hundred. She rambled a lot in the early ones, jumping from thought to thought and always asking about you. I replied to them as best as I could, but her pace was overwhelming. I’d stamp a new letter and walk it to the mailbox, and there would be two more from her waiting for me. That’s the way it seemed, anyhow. I told her about our first date to the Central Park Zoo and how I met you that night at the subway station that had penguins on the wall. She liked that. Then, I told her about our first night as newlyweds, when your dress got caught in the elevator and the maintenance man had to cut you out of it. I left out how embarrassed you were walking to the room in your underwear, wrapped in my jacket with a trash bag around your waist, even though that is my favorite part of the story.
At the five hour mark, I began to worry. She’d only sent me the race flyer a few weeks before as a surprise; I didn’t know how long she’d been training or if she should even be attempting such a thing. I listened anxiously as the announcer gave race updates every quarter-hour. Would they announce something terrible? Six hours in, the worry trickled away, replaced with a slowly-building anger. The operation was only a year ago, surely not enough time to try something this foolish. How could she be so reckless…so stupid? I cursed myself for not stopping it, for eating almonds while she was wasting something so precious.
Her hat was the first thing I noticed – bright purple wool with a neon green pompom on the top that bounced along with her stride; you would have loved it. Her face was red from exhaustion, and the clouds of breath in front of her face were coming in sharp bursts. Her small steps brought her closer by only inches, but were defiant and steady. I shouted her name from the crowd, waving my arms until she saw me; there were tears in her eyes but a tired smile beamed back.
At 6:12:47, she crossed the finish line as your heart thundered in her chest.