Science Fiction running athletics marathon

That He Might Yet Find the Unknown

By James Van Pelt
Mar 22, 2019 · 8,867 words · 33 minutes

Trail running

Photo by Jenny Hill via Unsplash.

From the author: Epic athletic achievements are the stuff of legend, starting with Pheidippides running from the Battle of Marathon to announce the Greek victory over the Persians. Since then, athletes have pushed harder and harder to break records and stand on top the awards podium. In the future, with technology's help, the records will become breathtaking, but the contest will still be within, and the athletes will still compete for themselves.

And he set off running as if the devil possessed him, hoping that he might yet find the unknown, whose slow pace could not have carried him far.

-Alexandre Dumas

Spiridon Loues of Greece won the first marathon of the modern Olympics in 1896, completing the twenty-six and two-tenth miles course in two hours, fifty-eight minutes and fifty seconds.  He averaged six minutes and forty-nine seconds per mile.

Time is distance to a runner, thought Waldemar as he sat in the company shuttle, waiting for his escort into Genotech.  I've been here for twenty minutes.  For me, that's more than four miles.

Creighton, the company man, opened the shuttle's door.  "Sorry I'm late.  We have to go through kind of a gauntlet here."

A line of protesters shouted as Waldemar walked through Genotech's front gates.  "Humanity for humans!" one screamed, his young face twisted in hate.  Another yelled, "Give God's genes a chance!"  Waldemar glanced over his shoulder at the waving placards.  He thought it ironic that a few of the protesters were clearly enhanced, their lengthened or shortened limbs, their thickened or attenuated torsos reflecting manipulated genes. 

But his eyes were drawn to softly rolling hills behind the crowd, velvet green with spring grass, lapsing one upon the other to the mountains beyond.  He imagined himself training on their gentle slopes, the ground a cushion beneath his feet, each breath an infusion of sweetness and strength.  The gate closed behind him.

"Idiots," murmured Creighton, palming an access reader next to the door.  "Noboby's thought to look for rabble rouser DNA yet, but I bet if we analyzed a few of those Humans First folks we'd find one."  He smiled at Waldemar, as if to assure him it was a joke, his bland face purely unreadable, and his grey eyes a closed book.

"Aren't they dangerous?"

"After that nastiness in France and the bombing at DeoxyRibo Industries last year, we've beefed up security.  They're a nuisance, nothing else.  The athletic department is this way."  Creighton set a brisk pace down the wide, white hall.  Lighting was indirect and discreet.  After the freshness of spring out doors, the air inside smelled processed and waxy.  Not bad, but institutional.  They passed door after door, numbered but otherwise unlabeled, each with its own palm panel. 

"You'll find the latest in training facilities on the campus.  We own over a thousand acres behind this facility, plus we have sole access to several hundred square miles of federal land beyond that.  Our people tell me there are more than five hundred miles of Duratrack trails for long distance training, plus, of course, the indoor and outdoor tracks.  You'll find at Genotech we're serious about our enhanced marathoners."  His voice fell into the sing-song of a tour guide.  "When our athletes are not training, we provide the best in-house education possible.  Euthlos 4, for example, is completing an advanced program in Information Systems Engineering just as if he were in a real college on the outside.  Of course, when he wins the Olympics he'll have no time to work.  Like our last champion, Euthlos 3, he'll be touring as our goodwill ambassador."

Creighton turned into a branching hallway, indistinguishable from the first.  His beautifully polished dress shoes clicked rhythmically.  Waldemar's running flats made no noise at all.  Creighton continued, "Most of this building is devoted to Business and Administration."  They walked up a short flight of stairs to a double wide door.  Creighton palmed for access and they entered a room lined with vid-screens.  A technician looked up from his display and nodded to them.  "From here, we can monitor the trails to the edge of the training area, exactly fifty miles from here."

He touched a button and a large screen revealed a small, grey brick building.  "That's Research and Development just down the hill behind us.  All our athletes start there.  The glass pyramid to its left . . ."  He panned the view to the side.  " . . . is Housing and Training, where you'll be working, and the last building there contains the Med Labs."

"When can I meet Euthlos 4?" asked Waldemar.  Genotech had hidden the identity of their runner, like an industrial secret, as they did all of their athletes.  They only competed once, at the Olympics, and they did very well.

"He doesn't like the number.  Remember that.  Where is he?" said Creighton to the technician, who touched a button on the console in front of him.  The screen flicked to a forest.  A well-maintained trail wove through the trees and a long legged runner toiled up the path toward them.  Waldemar had a glimpse of blonde hair and a determined look before the runner passed under the camera.  The technician made an adjustment, and the vid revealed the back side of the runner winding his way out of sight.

"Six minutes and four seconds a mile right now," said the tech.  A row of numbers scrolled down the left side of the screen too fast for Waldemar to follow.  The tech said, "He's loafing again."

Creighton took a pen out of his jacket and clicked it several times, then returned it without having written on anything.  "Well," he said, "I need to give you a tighter focus on your job with us."  He took the pen out again and clicked it once, as if in thought, then, decisively, jammed it back into his pocket.  "I understand you're fast."

Waldemar blushed.  "On, no, no.  Not like Euthlos fast.  I'm unenhanced."

"You're modest.  They tell me that you hold the world record for unenhanced runners."

"Yes, but who would know it?  It's minor league."

"But you're fast enough for training purposes.  You can keep up at everything short of his race pace?"

Waldemar realized that Creighton was nervous about something, just like the minor Genotech administrator who'd contacted him a week ago with an offer of a two-month contract for more med-chits than he could earn in ten years.  They dickered, and Waldemar signed for a life-time med package with all the gene enhanced therapies included, something only highly placed executives received.  Since then, he'd been waiting for the down side.  There had to be a gimmick.  "I've done some running.  What are you getting at?"

Creighton's hand crept up toward his pen again, but it stopped before actually entering the coat.  He studied the vid screen.  "The Enhanced Olympics are a big deal for the Companies, but you have no idea how financially crucial they are.  It's more than just the pride of victory.  Not just bragging rights.  A victory in the Enhanced Olympics marathon will mean the difference in millions in new orders in the next four years.  When a Genotech runner crosses that line first, it says to our customers that we are the cutting edge in genetic manipulation.  The point is that industrial  gene enhanced workers are at a premium, and the competition is cutthroat.  Perception is everything.  If the industries think we're winners, that our technology is top of the heap, then we'll get the contracts, millions and millions in long term contracts.  The second they think we're not the setting the standard . . ."  He paused.  "Well, we are the industrial leader.  We have the edge.  Euthlos is faster over distance than any man who ever lived . . . Faster than Euthlos 3."

Waldemar leaned toward him.  "Is it true?  The rumors about sub four minute pace?  Can he break an hour-forty?"

"Possibly."  Creighton's hand crept into his jacket, and the pen clicked twice but didn't come out.  "On paper.  We haven't seen his best yet.  That’s your job.  We've designed the ultimate running body.  Euthlos' musculature, his tendon connections, his oxygen intake and lactic acid tolerance levels are off the chart.  His body converts food into usable energy at the theoretical limit.  He's a beautiful machine.  But his head's not there yet.  Lately he's been . . . well, uncooperative."

"Doesn't he train with Euthlos 5?  He'd be younger, but they must be nearly the same speed."

"No," said Creighton tersely.  "We don't want Euthlos 4's attitude rubbing off."

Waldemar nodded.  "You need a stable pony.  That's why you offered me so much.  No one else can do it."

"Oh, exactly."  Creighton looked relieved.  "You come to the point readily.  Euthlos requires someone to renew his enthusiasm.  Someone who's not Genotech.  We want you to settle the boy down, to get his head right so at the games in . . ."  He consulted his watch.  ". . . two months, he'll do us proud."

"And all that time, I'll just get to run with him?"  On the vid, the empty trail stretched away into the trees.  Already Waldemar could feel the Duratrack's perfect cushion beneath his shoes and the undiscovered twists and turns of the paths.

"Yes, and be his friend.  You know, push him in the right direction.  One way or another, he's got to be fast enough on race day.  Maybe with you here, it will help.  Maybe it's true, what they say, about the loneliness of the long distance runner."

In 1920, Hannes  Kolehmainen of Finland lowered the Olympic marathon record to two hours, thirty-two minutes and thirty-five seconds.  He averaged five minutes and forty-nine seconds per mile. 

Fifteen miles into the session, Euthlos finally slowed enough for Waldemar to run at his shoulder.  For the past hour and eighteen minutes he'd clicked off five minute and fifteen second miles one after another, slowing for the uphill sections, but making up lost time going downhill.  He'd not spoken when Waldemar met him at the trailhead, just as he hadn't during their runs for the last week, and they'd set off together on the workout designed by the trainers.  Every day Waldemar struggled to keep up with the silent man who poured through the distance, moving smoothly as a speed skater, his head never turning, never bobbing; his ground gobbling stride swallowing miles.

Waldemar checked the glowing heads-up display that appeared suspended before him showing their pulses, respiration, hydration, pace, distance and estimated efficiency.  With an eye-blink, Waldemar could switch to a new set of read-outs.  Superimposing the orange numbers and letters on the terrain, the training visor was the best he'd ever worn,  providing more monitoring and feedback than he believed possible.  When he switched off, they were fine sunglasses.  He blinked the display away and ran beside Euthlos.

Euthlos said, "Is this too fast for you?"

It was the first time he'd asked about Waldemar in any way.  For the previous week, they'd eaten meals together, gone to physical therapy sessions together, been poked and prodded by the trainers who constantly wanted another blood, urine or saliva sample, and the only conversations from Euthlos were one word replies to Waldemar's questions:  "How are you doing?"--"Fine"--"What would you like to talk about"--"Nothing"--"What are you thinking about?"--"Running."  Waldemar thought it was like talking to a sullen teenager, but Euthlos was twenty-two years old and he didn't appear sullen, only uninterested. 

When Creighton had introduced them, Waldemar was first struck by the young man's legs, the only visible manifestation of his enhancement: He had the legs of a man who might be six-and-a-half feet tall but Euthlos was no taller than Waldemar, about five-foot-eight.  Clearly his legs were disproportionate to the rest of his body.  When Waldemar finally took his attention off the man's legs, he met Euthlos' sky-blue eyes and unlined face, the skin soft looking and unmarked.  A child's face.  The man didn't smile.

"It's fast," gasped Waldemar.  "We're not too far from race pace for me."

Euthlos slowed even more.  A quick check in the visor showed that they dropped to a minute slower per mile.  "How's this?" the young man asked.

"Cruising."  The trail flattened in front of them.  Waldemar knew they'd be running through an aspen valley for the next few minutes.

Euthlos ran easily and seemed to be sightseeing now.  He looked up, where the sun flickered through the branches, and then scanned the woods to both sides, ignoring the trail.

"You're the Waldemar, aren't you?" said Euthlos.

"Whatever that means."  Waldemar tried not to sound annoyed.  Eventually his reputation caught up to him, and people either thought him an idiot for it, or a hero.  It started when he'd organized the "First, Unofficial Rerunning of the Historic Boston Marathon."  It meant charting the course as closely as possible to the original one.  Much was on intercity beltways, where pedestrians were forbidden, or through toll-trails a runner could hardly stop to pay for.  The whole thing was a lark.  Fourteen other distance fanatics participated, and they were all arrested for trespass and careless self endangerment.  Only he had finished the race, and the word had spread in the small running community.  Since then, he'd staged several other "unofficial" runs on historic courses, all of which, of course, were illegal and often dangerous.  It was hard to imagine a time when thousands of participants crowded the starting lines for these races.

All in all, he thought, it was a stupid hobby, running the historic courses, akin to parachuting off tall buildings or bungee jumping from bridges, but the romance of the courses and the challenge of avoiding arrest added spice.

"Why do you do it?" said Euthlos.



Waldemar didn't answer for a moment.  First, he was supposed to be preparing Euthlos for the Olympics, and he wasn't sure what answer would be helpful.  Secondly, he thought about their pace.  The head's up display showed that he was running at 65 percent efficiency, while Euthlos was running at only 52 percent.  But at their best pace on the run today, Euthlos hadn't broken 80 percent.  He never broke 80 percent.  Creighton would be waiting for them at the end of the run to review the readouts.  It would send him into an apoplexy (only in Waldemar's presence; in front of Euthlos he was quiet and understanding).  But the answer to the question seemed obvious.  There was no reason to shade it.

"I run for the joy  To run faster than I have before."  He thought a bit more.  The trail angled up the valley and they crossed two small wooden bridges that spanned snow-melt creeks rushing down hill.  "To compete with myself."

"I've read about you," said Euthlos.  "I saw your time at Boston last month."

Waldemar laughed.  "You must have done some real searching.  We don't publish bandit race results.  Most of the organizers and runners were caught and fined."  He remembered the long run up the series of rises called Heartbreak Hill.  He'd lost the lead pack miles before and ran alone over the two-hundred years old course.  The last official Boston Marathon had been thirty years earlier.  There were very few citizen road races anymore.  Not enough trails that weren't crossed by the beltways or owned by industry.  Too much liability.  Besides, most people argued, let the enhanced compete.  They're better at it anyway.  Traffic whined by on his left.  People stared as they sped past, but he didn't care.  Inside his head, the clock ticked.  Time ran and so did he; they raced to the finish.

Euthlos said, "Two hours, three minutes and fifteen seconds.  I know about the other bandit runs too.  There's quite a bit about you tucked away for those who know where to look.  I found four New York Marathon times, where you were never arrested, and I saw how you got picked up on the Bay to Breakers course twice.  You're no Genotech toady, like that bike racer they roomed with me last year.  You're the real thing.  This Boston was your best though, wasn't it?"  The admiration and curiosity in his voice were obvious.

"If I'd known it would have got your attention this way, I'd have told you a week ago.  But it's no big deal; you've had a dozen training runs faster."

"So, why do you do it?"

Waldemar took a deep breath.  Since they'd dropped the pace, he felt comfortable and strong.  He'd reached that point in a run where he felt he could conquer any distance.  He thought about running hard, mile after mile and how the pain goes away.  It was as if he'd become a god.  Time and distance dissolve, leaving just the effort, and effort alone could transcend.  And always, just beyond his fingertips, at a pace a second or two faster than what he was going, waited a great unknown.  He ran for that, but there was no way to say it to be understood.  Waldemar repeated, finally, as if it were a further explanation,  "Because I love it.  What about you?"

Euthlos snorted.  "It's in my genes."

"Why do you hold back?"

Euthlos leaned into a turn, and for a second, Waldemar was afraid he wouldn't answer.  Then Euthlos said, "Give me a reason to run all out, and I'll show you running."

Waldemar didn't know how to respond to that.  The young man's voice was so bitter, so venom steeped, that Waldemar wished he hadn't asked.

"You know what I think of?" asked Euthlos.  "I think of those other enhanced runners pounding out mileage all over the world, and their trainers and doctors and coaches measuring their progress.  And I think about the Olympics, all the enhanced ones running packed together--because we're practically the same anyway-- a thousand vid-eyes pointed at us, millions wagering on the outcome, all those company scientists waiting to see what they accomplished, and right at a key point in the race, we jump off the course and run away."  Euthlos laughed.  "And you know why I'm telling you this?"

Waldemar shook his head.

"Because you're the first real runner I've met."

"What do you mean?"

Above them, the line of aspen broke at the edge of a rock field, and as they reached it, the trees fell behind.  The trail held the line of the ridge.  To their left, the valley dropped to the creek that glinted diamond bright through trees, and to their right, rocky outcrops and granite bluffs leaned protectively over them.

"I know about running," Euthlos said.  "What's your goal?"

Waldemar didn't hesitate.  "Two hours."

"Good goal.  St. George?"

"Yes."  The October St. George run in Utah attracted sixty or seventy unenhanced marathoners each year because it was legal, and the course was fast. 

They ran silently for several minutes.  Talking to Euthlos, who might be capable of a race twenty minutes faster than Waldemar's best, Waldemar thought about the futility of his own quest for a sub two hour marathon.  The enhanced world record over that distance was already thirteen minutes faster, nearly thirty seconds quicker per mile.  Running all out, on a track, rested and psyched, he knew he could barely run one mile at that speed.  He shook his head ruefully.  Breaking two hours in a marathon reminded him of a cartoon he'd seen once of a disconsolate little boy with a baseball bat over one shoulder and his glove dangling from the end of it talking to his dad.  Dad said, "So how'd you do today?"  And the boy said, "I had a no hitter going until the big kids got out of school." 

The trail broke away from the ridge onto the flat plateau that marked the end of their run.  From here, Genotech was four miles distant and generally down hill.

"You know what else I think of?" Euthlos asked.  Without waiting for a reply, he said, "It's exactly fifty miles from Genotech to the end of the Duratrack.  Almost two marathons, one right after the other."

"That'd be a long training run," said Waldemar.  "Too long for marathon speed."

"Maybe.  You ready to pick it up a bit?" said Euthlos, and he pulled in front.


Euthlos' long legs pumped effortlessly toward the finish.  Waldemar tried to catch his rhythm, which he couldn't really do because their footfalls were so far apart, but he could mimic the flow of Euthlos' stride, the frictionless slide down the trail, as efficient and powerful as a gazelle. 

Not until they were almost done did Waldemar think about the training visor.  By then his thighs flamed from the pace, and his lungs ripped air in giant gulps.  He put everything into keeping up with Euthlos.  At the end, even the extra effort of blinking the heads up display into existence would have been too much.  They crossed the finish line together.

As they had in the days before, they ate dinner together, but now Euthlos was irrepressible.  "What's a restaurant like?" he asked.  "How was school?"  "What do you spend money on?"  "Have you ever been in a fight?"  "What is it like to be in a crowd?" 

Euthlos kept him talking until a trainer finally had to send them to their beds.

The Ethiopian, Abebe Bikila won both the 1964 and 1968 Olympic marathons.  In 1964 he ran a bare-footed two hours, fifteen minutes and sixteen-second race.  Four years later he lowered the record to two hours and twelve minutes.  He averaged five minutes and two seconds per mile.

Modern training included not only the sessions on the Duratrack trails, but also extensive monitoring of their metabolisms, perfectly designed meals and nutrient supplements, and long sessions in the Race-Imaging Egg, an eight feet by four feet shiny black plastic shell, hinged in the middle, where  Waldemar or Euthlos would be strapped for virtual marathons.  The attaching of straps, electrodes, bio-feedback sensors and motor-response stimulators took almost an hour, and by the time the egg closed, trapping Waldemar within its dark and pressing interior, he felt panicky and claustrophobic.  Then the program would start, transporting him virtually to any marathon course to mentally rehearse winning efforts.

Once he realized the potential, he'd simulated runs on not only the historic Boston course but also every Olympic marathon.  He'd simulated a run on Mars, and one on the moon, but the lowered gravities were too realistic and nauseated him.

In his fifth session in the egg, he asked the technician to set up a two-man race from the 490 BC battlefield of Marathon to Athens.  The technician, an older man whom Euthlos had introduced affectionately as "Dr. Pops," looked up the parameters of the program and said, "It's not quite twenty-three miles.  Real hot too."

"I know," said Waldemar, "and I don't want to win the race.  I just want to run with him."

When the egg closed, Waldemar wiggled more comfortably into the harness.  Then, the familiar sensory confusion as the program kicked it, and soon, he was running down a dusty trail, following a young Greek, no more than sixteen, wearing nothing but a belt.  The Greek boy started too fast in the afternoon heat, clearly overjoyed.  Behind him, Waldemar knew, the Athenians were celebrating their victory over the Persians.  From his studies, Waldemar knew not only was the messenger carrying news of the Greek victory, he also carried a warning, which explained his haste.  The Persians would be coming.  One loss would not deter the Persian king, Darius I.  No, the Greek runner had motivation to hurry.

They passed a well.  On the hills around them, olive trees drooped dispiritedly, but Waldemar knew there would be irrigation water.  "Hydrate!" he wanted to shout.  However, the program didn't respond to words, and Pheidippides, the first marathoner, was doomed to run the distance without a drink, to die at the end after announcing, "Rejoice!  We conquer!"

Waldemar ran the whole way with him, marveling at the determination, feeling incredibly parched himself, even though a part of him knew his thirst was simulated.  In the last miles, the boy staggered, weaving from side to side; falling down, but pushing himself up and back into a broken stride that stumbled into a run.  As the sad ending played itself out, Waldemar found himself crying.  Athen’s stone walls faded away.  He was back in the egg, sobbing.

When the egg cracked open, Euthlos, looking concerned, stood beside Dr. Pops.  "You did the Greek one, didn't you?" Euthlos asked.

Waldemar could only nod.  Euthlos put his hand on Waldemar's arm and gave it an understanding squeeze as he helped the technician extract Waldemar from the egg.

Carlos Lopes of Portugal set the Olympic record with a two hour, nine minute and twenty-one second marathon in 1984.  He averaged four minutes and fifty-six seconds per mile.

A week later, Creighton sat behind his solid black desk, scowling at the papers in his hands.

"He's going too damn slow.  The designers say he's capable of three-fifty-two miles anytime he wants to pop one, and that he can sustain a pace eight to twelve seconds slower than that indefinitely."  He slapped the papers down.  "You're supposed to get him to perform, but I don't see it in this.  A little bit at the end.  That's all."

Waldemar sat in the barely padded chair in front of the desk.  His legs felt pleasantly wooden after the day's workout.  Six miles from where the Genotech copter had dropped them on the far edge of the training area, where the hills were particularly steep and good for strength work, Euthlos had veered off the Duratrack pathway, then took a half mile long trail that ended on a rocky bend in a tiny stream.  They'd taken their shoes off and soaked their feet in the iron cold water for twenty minutes.  "No vid-eyes here," said Euthlos after the water had turned Waldemar's feet numb.  "They watch me all the time, you know.  Not just while I'm training.  In my room.  During classes.  They monitor my communications in and out."

"So what do you do?"  The reminder of the vids made Waldemar uncomfortable.  Creighton irritated him, and he felt no loyalty to him or Genotech, but Creighton would know they'd broken the training routine, vid or no vid, and any deviation would come up in their daily debriefing.

Euthlos smiled like a little kid.  Waldemar was struck again by how boyish the man seemed sometimes, and it was hard to remember that he was twenty-two.  "Oh, they aren't as diligent as they think.  Right now, the trainers see us on the trail rapping out some five-twenties."

"You jimmied the system."

"A man needs a hobby.  I know something about vids, yes.  It's electronic sleight of hand, like this."  He picked a rock out of the stream and shook the water off it.  "Watch," he said, and he wrapped his fingers around it and turned the hand over.  Then he brought his other hand beside it so he held two fists, knuckles up to Waldemar.  "Which hand is it in?"

Waldemar blinked.  "You haven't moved it.  It's there."  He pointed. 

Euthlos grinned and said, "Are you sure?"  He turned the fist over and opened it.  Water dampened his palm, but the rock was gone.  "See, sleight of hand."

Euthlos glanced at his watch.  "Come on.  I've got an appointment."

Waldemar put on his shoes and followed the long-legged runner back to the course.  They ran for a few minutes, then Euthlos cut off the Duratrack again and led them to the edge of a small clearing.  Pines towered around it sighing in the morning breeze.

"Stay here," he said, and trotted on alone into the middle.  From the shadows on the other side, something stirred.  A young woman wearing camouflage pants and a tan jacket stepped into the sun, where the slanting light set her short blonde hair aglow, like a halo.  She smiled.  Euthlos covered the distance in three lengthy strides and embraced her.

For a long time they stood, wrapped in each other, until, embarrassed, Waldemar retreated up the trail to the Duratrack.  Finally, Euthlos joined him, out of breath and happy.

"There's lots of things Genotech doesn't know about me," he said, and they resumed the workout.

After a few minutes, Waldemar asked, "Who is she?"

"She's pretty, don't you think?"

"Yes, but who is she?"

"I started corresponding with her two years ago.  She's from Humans First."

Waldemar sucked in a breath.  "Ouch.  They're terrorists!  They hate gene manipulation.  This doesn't seem like a match made in heaven."

Euthlos laughed sardonically.  "They don’t blame the enhanced for being enhanced.  Some of Humans First are enhanced.  Besides, it’s much more than hate.  What makes you think I'm a gene-change patriot?" 

They followed the track around a weathered mound of granite, and then climbed sharply for a quarter of a mile.  Euthlos said, "Tell you what.  Let's try something different.  I'll take the right fork ahead, and you take the left.  They both end at our pick up point, but my course is about a mile longer.  You'll have four miles left and I'll have a little over five.  First one to the copter buys the other one a beer."

"They won't let you have one."

"Well, a spicy vegetable drink then."

"You're on."

The trail forked.  Waldemar blinked on his visor and picked up the pace.  The orange readout showed his first mile at four-thirty, while Euthlos clocked a four-seventeen.  If they held that average, Waldemar would beat him by more than eight seconds.  Euthlos' readouts flickered, then went blank.  He was out of the visor’s range, and Waldemar concentrated too much on the curves in the path to pay attention any longer. 

Soon, the visor’s weight on his nose bothered him, and he dragged it off his face to hang from his neck.  Wind cooled his eyes and the trail wound on.  Waldemar pumped his arms; his legs glowed beneath him, and at the end he could almost feel it: the stretch of unknown self that waited at the reach of his pace.  But, as always, the finish came and he could give no more.  The last two hundred yards hung before him, shimmering in an oxygen strained haze, and waiting by the copter stood Euthlos, not even panting.

Creighton picked the papers up again and glowered.  His pen clicked angrily, twice.  "And what about this?" he said.  He touched something out of sight behind the desk, and the vid screen behind him lit up with an image of Euthlos and Waldemar on the Duratrack.  "We have too much invested in him to have it all crumble in the last few weeks." 

The runners on the vid approached the part of the trail where the two of them had turned off.  Waldemar held his breath.  Euthlos said they wouldn't be seen, but was he that good?  Could he fool his keepers?  The runners flowed smoothly past and the view panned to stay with them.  Just before they jumped off the Duratrack, the vid image split; on the left, the two continued the workout, and with sinking heart Waldemar watched on the right as they turned into the woods.

Creighton said, "It's a game we play.  He thinks that he can pull fast ones with vid imagery, and we let him think so.  The psych crew tells us that it's a good release for him, and we should leave him alone.  It wasn't my recommendation, I can tell you that."

The vid switched to a long shot of them sitting by the stream.  Creighton drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair.  Waldemar thought about the next place they had stopped and the young woman in the glen.

"He's just a regular guy, you know," said Waldemar.  "You can't expect him to behave like a puppet."

Creighton rotated his chair around, facing Waldemar squarely, his face flaring red.  "Oh, I can't?  I can't?  What rights do you think he has in this?  What rights at all?  We own him from the DNA up.  We own his patents.  His technology is proprietary.  There is no part of him that we don't own.  He can't clip his fingernails that we don't own it.  He can't get a hair cut, that we don't sweep up his leaving.  He goes to the bathroom, and it's ours.  You'd better understand, he's not human, like you or me.  He's product.  He's a laboratory demonstration.  He will never be 'just a regular guy.'  So don't tell me we can't make him jump our way."

On the vid, the runners put on their shoes and ran back up the trail.  Waldemar watched silently.  The story unfolded, jumping from view point to view point as they passed each vid-eye.  Creighton raged on about Waldemar's job with Euthlos, about the importance of the work, about loyalty and professionalism.  The runners approached the second detour.  What would Genotech do about the young romance?  Had they already picked up the woman?  Did Euthlos know?  Waldemar swallowed dryly.  Then, the runners reached the detour; Waldemar could see the rough trail faintly in the underbrush, but they passed it.  The vid-eye panned and the two athletes continued on the Duratrack course.  Amazed, Waldemar saw them reach the fork where they had split up.

Befuddled now, Waldemar watched.  How could Creighton see through one set of false images, but not the other?  Who is playing games with whom here? thought Waldemar.

"I'll give you credit for this," said Creighton.  "That was a good idea to race him to the copter."  The contest unfolded on the vid screens.  Waldemar's image ripped the visor from his eyes and pounded through the last mile.  Although he'd studied the old films of the great runners, Frank Shorter, Joan Benoit, Hwang Young-Cho, and his own name sake, Waldemar Cierpinski, and even watched himself occasionally, he'd never seen himself run like this, thin legs flashing, head slightly tilted, his eyes locked on some unseen thing forever in front of him.  Waldemar nodded.  Good form.  Very economical.  Training two weeks with Euthlos had affected him.  He didn't think Euthlos ran any better for having trained with him, but Waldemar thought he certainly looked faster for the time he'd spent running next to Euthlos.

On the other side of the vid, Euthlos opened up his stride.  Waldemar shifted his attention.  The young man stretched into a pace that Waldemar could barely imagine.  A small read-out at the bottom of the screen tracked the enhanced runner's speed.  Four-zero-one, three-fifty-four, three-fifty,  and then a mind staggering last mile in three minutes and twenty-eight seconds.  Waldemar's jaw dropped.  Euthlos had beat him to the copter by over a minute and a half.

"Now that last couple of miles was pretty good.  Best we've seen, really," said Creighton.  "But I don't want it to be too little, too late."

Later, after a solitary dinner and a session with the athletic trainer to replenish his electrolyte levels and wash the lactic acids out of his system (he'd never recovered from efforts like today's as quickly before he'd come here), Waldemar rested on his bed, thinking.  If Creighton had record of their first detour off the trail, but not the second, that meant Euthlos wanted Creighton to know about the first.  What was the young man's purpose in that?  It also meant Euthlos knew they knew he could manipulate their surveillance equipment.  So, what was going on here?  Did any of it have anything to do with the woman in the woods and Humans First?  Was she using Euthlos to get at Genotech? 

Wheels within wheels.  It made him dizzy. 

Corporate sponsorship of the Olympics led to corporate control of its rules, but even before the first enhanced games, the ideals of amateur athletics had long since vanished.  The first genetically enhanced marathoner, Zatopec 1, running for Transubishi, won the classic distance in one hour, fifty-seven minutes and fifty-nine seconds for an average pace of four minutes and thirty seconds per mile.  The first unenhanced runner finished twenty-second.  For two Olympics there was an unenhanced division; then the division itself was dropped.

During their morning run the next day, an easy, flat seven miler that paralleled the old highway, Euthlos seemed preoccupied.  "Did you ever see my predecessor, Euthlos 3?" he finally asked.

Euthlos 3's win at the last Enhanced Olympics, in Alberta, was legendary.  Six runners from the Indonesia-Pac Industries broke away from the main group at mile nine, holding a blistering four-ten pace for five miles, opening up what looked like an insurmountable two minute lead.  The Indonesia-Pac design involved enhanced energy consumption and slippery joints in the ankles, knees and hips.  For two Olympics in a row, however, the I.P. models looked good early in the race, then dropped out because of dislocations or heat exhaustion.  This time, though, it looked as if they’d licked the problem.  At mile fifteen, Euthlos 3 staged a lone charge from the trailing group.  Each mile, by himself, for the next ten miles he ate into their lead, picking them off one by one.  He passed the last two in the Olympic stadium itself, breaking the tape a scant half-stride in front of the second place runner.

A likeness of the finish became a part of the Genotech logo in stylized black and red lines.

"Sure.  Who hasn't?" said Waldemar.

"Have you ever spoken to him?"

They reached half-way and began the loop back.  This morning, Waldemar knew, Euthlos was scheduled for a session in the Race Imaging Egg.  Waldemar had a meeting with Creighton; then he thought he'd go down to the pool and relax.

"No, I haven't.  I saw him on a panel discussion last year on trends in heredity engineering.  He didn't talk.  I think he was there for his symbolic value."

Euthlos said, "He never spoke much--not after the race, anyway.  He was pretty friendly before that.  I only saw him once afterwards.  He acted like he didn't know me, and we'd done a lot of training together.  I thought of him as a big brother in some ways."

"That's too bad.  Why did you ask?"

Euthlos shrugged his shoulders, an odd movement in his eerily rock steady running motion.  "He died last week.  I just found out."

Waldemar staggered a little bit, then caught himself.  "God, no.  I'm sorry to hear that."

"You know what's funny?  I can't find anything about his physiology after the Olympics."


"That's all they do here it seems, at Genotech, is take recordings of physiology.  They're measuring me when I get up, when I eat, when I run.  Always, just about.  My records would fill a library if they printed them out.  So would his, except for the day of the race and the ten days after."

"What do you think it means?"

"I'm not sure, but I think they did something special for race day.  I've looked at his training records.  He was a maniac on the trails.  He didn't train like I do; they haven't seen my best since I was twelve.  One-hundred percent from him whenever they called for it.  I know what he was capable of, and he couldn't have done what he did on race day."

"They drugged him?  What would that do?"

"Not drugs.  Something else.  Something special they developed, but I think it killed him.  I think it killed part of his brain, and it took his body nearly four years to figure out he was dead."

"I can't believe . . ."  Waldemar stopped himself.  He remembered something Creighton had said during his introductory tour:  "One way or another, he's got to be fast enough on race day."

They topped the last gentle rise and the Genotech complex splayed out before them.  The Housing and Training center’s glass pyramid glittered between the nondescript gray of the Med building and Research and Development.  In the background, the hulking bulk of Genotech's Administration offices blocked the view of the road and the never ending protestors.  Euthlos trotted part way down the trail leading to Housing and Training.

"They're pacing me for a sub hour-forty marathon in the egg," he said.  "Creighton thinks I have one in me.  If I win, I lose. If I lose, I lose."

The young man stood on the trail facing Waldemar, his improbably long legs locked at the knees, his little boy face looking sad and abandoned.

Waldemar choked back a word of comfort.  What could he say?  What was there to say?  Creighton was right.  The Olympics would be in six weeks, and Euthlos would run, whether he wanted to or not.

Finally he said, "You're better than they'll ever know."

Euthlos lifted his hand, as if to wave, but he turned suddenly and trotted toward his appointment in the egg.

In Creighton's office, looking over the last twenty-four hours of training results, Waldemar couldn't concentrate.  Creighton clicked his pen rhythmically.  Waldemar wanted to slap it to the floor.

"He's faster than this.  I know it!" said Creighton.

He was opening another folder of records when a dull whump shook the office.

"What the hell was that?" said Creighton.  Another thud rumbled through the floor, rattling the pictures on the wall.  In the hallway, an alarm shrieked, and a clatter of footsteps ran by their door.

Creighton punched a button and a voice said, "It's an explosion, sir, in the Training Center."

Waldemar sat up straight, "Where?" he said.  "Where is it?"

Creighton flicked the vid screen on and pulled up the Training Center view.  A dull orange light glowed through its glass side, and smoke poured from a huge hole near its doors.  A handful of people ran from the building.

"No, no, no!" squeaked Creighton, and he kept saying it under his breath as he watched the fire spread.

Waldemar stood, his hand covering his mouth, staring at the vid screen.  He took a step back, then sprung to the door.  In one motion, he pulled it open and would have dashed into the hall, but a security guard blocked his way.

"You can't come out, sir," he said, as he pushed the slender runner backwards.  "We have to assume it's an attack.  We need you two gentlemen to take shelter."

The guard pushed them toward the vid screen wall, all the while appearing to listen to another voice.  A tiny patch of white in his ear showed where the voice was coming from.  "It looks like this may be sabotage.  You may be in danger."

He pressed a spot on the wall, and a narrow panel, wide enough for them to squeeze through, opened up.  

"Fool!  No!  It has to be an accident!  Euthlos is in the Center.  We have to get him out!"

The security guard directed him toward the door.  Waldemar swirled to Creighton for support.

"He would have left with the others," whispered Creighton, more to himself, more it seemed in hope than anything.

Waldemar tried to dodge around the guard, but the man caught him by the waist and held him back.

"I can't, sir," he said.  "I can't let you go out there."

Waldemar strained again against the man's grip, then gave up.  He looked at the vid desperately.  "You don't understand," he said.  "Euthlos is in the egg.  He won't be able to unstrap himself."

Creighton said, his voice as hollow as a tomb, "I'm sure you're mistaken.  He'll get away.  He must."

"He's in the egg.  Look where the fire is."  Waldemar pointed to the vid.  "Look at where the explosion must have been.  He's right there!"

Then the vid screen winked out, and the lights in the room flickered.

The next hours passed like a nightmare.  The tight passageway led them down to a bunker under Genotech.  Other executives joined them in the spacious but windowless lounge, all of them edgy, upset and snapping at each other.  Creighton manned a communications station and grilled the security forces for news, and gradually a head count came in.  Eventually, all the athletes and trainers were accounted for except Euthlos and Dr. Pops.

"The bomb," said the head of security, "was in the Race Simulation facility.  It's too hot to get close.  We won't find enough to scrape up in there to fill an envelope."

Waldemar, sitting in the chair next to Creighton, hung his head and stared at his hands.  He thought, I should have told them about the girl in the woods.  And the more he considered it, the worse he felt until he could feel nothing at all.  The news passed around him and above him, but it didn't touch him.  He barely heard Creighton cursing for interior vid imagery.  "Why are we cut off this way?" he yelled.  "The explosion was in the Training Center!"  Everything in the world narrowed to what he could see of his own hands clasped in front of him, the tops of his shoes, and the image of Euthlos' face as he listened to the story of Waldemar's last bandit run.

Information came that Humans First claimed responsibility for the bombing.  A news vid showed a masked figure reading part of a manifesto decrying the use of "godless, gene technology."  Then the news anchor said, "Although damage was extensive, loss of life could have been much larger.  Genotech has announced that in the spirit of the Olympics, and because of their refusal to give into terrorism, they will still send their team to games.  Tragically, Euthlos 4, the much rumored and highly anticipated Genotech marathoner is feared to have perished in the explosion."  Then the screen showed the last ten seconds of Euthlos 3's victory from the previous Olympics.

Five hours after the explosion, Security announced that it was safe to go "topside," and Waldemar followed Creighton to his office.  The Training Center was barricaded off, while Genotech security and the police combed the building for clues, but the vids had switched themselves back on, and Waldemar watched dully as a hand held unit showed them the interior of the building.  The head of security had been right; the Race Imaging Egg room was as if it had been erased.  Nothing remained.

Creighton flicked the image to the records from before the explosion.  He ran it back far enough to watch Waldemar wave, and Euthlos enter the Training Center.  He slowed the images of people fleeing after the explosion, magnifying faces.  Finally, after five or six repetitions of vid from the beginning of the disaster to when the vids kicked off, Creighton said, "He never exited."

Looking at the screen, but washed out and exhausted, Waldemar said, "He was in the egg."

"Those Humans First bastards must have chickened out, or maybe it was premature.  I'll bet when the investigation is done, we'll find out that Dr. Pops had something to do with it.  I'll bet he planted the bomb, and it went early, taking him with it.  I never liked him," said Creighton.  "They must have had something else planned too, otherwise I don't understand the knocking out of our vid capability.  And why for that length of time?  Three-and-a-half hours?  That was a separate action.  We're lucky that we'd taken security precautions."

"Euthlos died."

"He was insured.  There’s always product loss," said Creighton, absently clicking his pen in thought.  He wrote something on a pad on his desk.  "We might even be able to turn this to our advantage."  He scribbled furiously for a second.  "There may be a sympathy angle here if we spin our press releases right."

Without saying anything, Waldemar left the room.  As far as he could tell, Creighton didn't see him leave.

Lopes 7, an enhanced Olympian entry from Indonesia-Pac Industries won the 2096 marathon with a time of one hour, forty-seven minutes and twelve seconds.  Much of the speculation centered on the potential time of Genotech's entry who was destroyed in a terrorist attack six weeks before the game.  Dedicated fans mourned the opportunity to see a repeat of the stirring, come from behind victory his predecessor, Euthlos 3, had staged in the previous Olympics.  Lopes 7 averaged four minutes and five seconds per mile.

Waldemar didn't watch the Olympics.  Instead, he continued training for the St. George marathon in October.  On the long runs, he found himself thinking about his weeks at Genotech, and gradually the mourning leaked away, a little bit on each mile, a little bit, workout by workout.  But the more Waldemar trained, the worse he felt.  Euthlos would run full speed, he had said, when he had a reason to run.  The vids turned off for three-and-a-half hours after the explosion.  If Euthlos had lived, it would have been time to run the fifty miles off the Genotech property.

Long runs give time to think.  Beneath him, his body whirred away, eating up the distance, striving to reach the pace, but he was always thinking about the things Euthlos had said to him, his boyish enthusiasms about the "outside" world, and his hobbies.  So the closer the race in St. George came, the emptier Waldemar became.  In the last few days, he felt as light as a wisp, hollow, a running device.

So the first twenty-five miles of the marathon unwound as if the race hadn't been the goal ever, as if it were a step toward something else.  He'd long ago left the pack behind and ran by himself, without even the sound of others' footsteps to remind him he was in a competition.  The Utah desert scrolled inexorably past, but he paid no attention; his inner eye focused in, feeling the pace, feeling the building rhythm of his feet on the road.  He ran in a zone, the effort somehow removed from him and remote, and he thought about Pheidippides rolling down the dusty trail toward Athens, a message of victory in his heart, the love of his city spurring his feet on.  Waldemar thought about Euthlos too.  "Give me a reason to run all out," he had said, "and I'll show you running."

Waldemar entered the finishing straight away.  At the end of the street, a half mile farther, a finish line banner hung above the pavement.  A small crowd waited, mostly family members and runners’ friends, and they cheered Waldemar's approach.

Time is distance, thought Waldemar.  A fantastic runner, given the motivation, a runner capable of holding four minute per mile pace, could cover fifty miles in less than three-and-a-half hours.  The distance from Genotech to the end of the vid surveillance was almost exactly fifty miles.  The idea boggled the mind.  It was preposterous. No one would believe such a thing was possible.  If Euthlos had lived, if he had started running when the vids went out, it could have been the greatest foot race of all time, unwitnessed and unrecorded.  Waldemar pictured a lone runner fleeing a burning building, knowing no one would see him go, stretching himself farther and farther.  If he made it, freedom.  He would have to make it.  What else was there?  In some races, losing is not a choice.  Pheidippides would be proud.

Waldemar crossed the finish line and the people cheered him, both the enhanced and unenhanced.  He didn’t ask for his finishing time; it didn’t matter.  He bent at the waist, bracing himself with his hands on his thighs.  People slapped him on the back; faces congratulated him.  Most he knew.  Friends.  Other runners.  Then, he saw a girl in camouflage pants, golden blonde hair, short cropped.  It was Euthlos’ Humans First girl friend.  What was she doing here?  And who was that standing behind her?  Was it Dr. Pops?  But he died in the explosion!

A familiar voice said, "You broke two hours.  You did it."

Waldemar began laughing.  Euthlos wrapped a blanket around him. The long-legged runner wore a tan jacket, like the girl, and his boyish smile was broad.

Weakness struck Waldemar’s legs.  He had to sit.  Someone pushed a water bottle into his hands, and he rolled its coolness against his forehead before taking a drink.  He'd broken two hours; he'd run into the unknown territory, and nothing was different.  Still, it was very, very good.  He shivered. 

Euthlos crouched down, draped a second blanket around Waldemar's shoulders and whispered in his ear, "No one could run the way you did today.  You're a legend."

Waldemar leaned into him.  Suddenly, none of his muscles seemed to have any strength.  Everything he had had gone into the race.

"You could," Waldemar said.  "You would have killed me."  He pulled the blankets closer.

"Who, me?"  said Euthlos.  "I'm no runner.  I'm nobody.  Just a fan.  Just a regular guy."  He grinned.

Waldmar saw it all.  Dr. Pops must have helped, and Euthlos jimmied the vids.  He only needed three-and-a-half hours to make a mythical run.

"Come on," said Euthlos.  "I’ll buy you a beer."

Note from the author:  Since this story was written, the world record for a marathon has been lowered at the Berlin Marathon to 2:01.39 by Kenya's Eliud Kipchoge in 2018.  He earlier participated in an event sponsored by Nike to break two hours on a closed track with pacers helping.  He missed by twenty-five seconds.  Clearly, a sub-two hour marathon is possible, which will be an example of the real world catching up to science fiction.  Waldemar would be proud.

This story originally appeared in Altair.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."