Sweaty limbs thrashed against each other. My arm pressed into his neck as my face crushed up against his head. His hair – matted and sweaty – filled my mouth as his arms flailed around my waist, desperate for something to grab onto. Teeth gritted, I shunted forward as best I could, moving more of my weight onto my forearm to try and crush his windpipe.
The roar of the spectators grew, and I tightened my legs around his waist to keep him on position, continuing my relentless assault.
Eventually, I heard a gasp as his hand slapped the mat.
“I’m out, I’m done! I’m finished!”
Before I had a chance to release, a pair of arms snapped around my back and wrenched me backwards, throwing me to the back of the mat. I landed square on my butt; bruised, bleeding…and victorious.
Cameron struggled to his knees opposite me, his headguard twisted across his face, and spat his gumshield onto the gym mats. Sweat and saliva dripped from his lips as we sat crumpled on our knees, desperate to catch breath.
The longest five minutes of my life.
It was just an exhibition bout to see who went through to finals, but I’d be damned if it hadn’t been the most challenging one since I’d started.
After all, there’s no-one else who knows how to hand you a beating like your brother.
The ref helped us both up to our feet, forcing us into a hug. There was no need for it, though. A moment before, we were fighting for our spot on the team, no holds barred. He’d bitten my ear; I’d had my revenge with a punch to the groin. We’d scrapped relentlessly for five whole minutes, our parents and a few dozen others watching us up in the stands. Now though, that was all over.
Mom had never been fond of me wrestling, but Dad had won her over.
“Cam’ll take care of him!” he’d said, clapping me on the shoulder. I was nine at the time, Cameron a veteran at ten. “Plus, if Billy doesn’t figure out how to fight now, who’s going to look after him when Cam goes to middle school?”
And so, six years ago, I’d followed in my brother’s footsteps. It was the nineties in semi-rural Ohio, so proper rules were overlooked. The only thing the refs were worried about was eye-gouging, and both Cam and I knew if either one of us ended up with an eyepatch we’d be getting a hell of a worse beating than we’d get on the mats.
“Ladies and Gentlemen! The winner of tonight’s bout – William Baker!”
Cameron didn’t even look disappointed as the ref pulled my arm up to a smattering of applause. He clapped along with them and shot me a small smile and a thumbs up.
The sad truth was that by now, he was used to it. When I was pre-pubescent and he was getting his first smatterings of armpit hair, he could drag me around the floor like a rag doll. But I’d started to get the better of him a few years back. It was never a whitewash, and but each fight we’d had over the last six months had ended up the same. He was still my best match, the only one who could compete with me. Neither of us were the biggest on the team; there were kids two years older, and much bigger, but we were both recklessly competitive.
I was undefeated for a year and a half in my age bracket. And the only fights Cam had ever lost were against me.
Mom had repeatedly tried to get me to quit ever. She’d always say that she’d seen too many head injuries at the hospital. But now I was a bit older, I was noticing that while Dad always appeared by my side, she would ran over to Cam.
She wasn’t worried Cam was going to hurt me. She was worried I’d hurt him.
I graduated at the beginning of summer. Cam was there at my commencement. So were Mom and Dad, but they were at the back. Cam had the front row seat, his mop of brown hair fluttering in the wind. He was hooting and hollering as I walked up on stage and shook hands with the Principal and had my photo taken.
This was his commencement, too. We were a year apart, but inseparable. He didn’t want to go to college without me, so after a shattering fight with our parents they’d finally et him take a year off. He’d been working in the local liquor store, and had his shifts organised so that he’d be home when I came back from school. Then, we’d go train together. I’d given up wrestling after he left school; being on the team by myself just wasn’t the same. But he had refused to let me get fat, so we’d joined a gym in town together.
That evening was the same as any other. After a hurried dinner with our parents where Mom gushed about how my world was opening up, Cameron flashed me his wrist wraps and raised his eyebrows.
Can we get out of here yet?
It was like he lived in my head sometimes.
Our splits were the same as they’d been for the last six months, and that day – Friday – was deadlifts. The gym was plain and unadorned; no trophies in the cabinets like at school, just piles of weights and bars. The lights buzzed and flickered, and on winter nights, a cold wind whipped through underneath the roller door. The weights were rusty and misshapen. Every time Cam dropped them on the concrete, I thought they’d shatter.
Our little slice of heaven.
It wouldn’t have been the same if I was there myself, but I never was. We always worked together, and together we grew stronger. Six months later, we both started at Ohio State University, just half an hour away, and drove in together most mornings. For a time, we rented an apartment on campus, but we still went to that same gym. It was our gym after all.
Over the months, I watched as Cam’s chest ballooned outwards and his arms bulged, becoming more vascular with every rep. We fought silently, each pushing the other to their limits, trying to reach greater heights. He’d stand over me, roaring encouragement from above as my chest threatened to give way under the bench press, and those words never failed to help me get the steel back in the rack. He broke 225lbs on the bench first, about six months after we started going; and I followed the very next week. A month later, I watched as he pulled a monstrous 300lb deadlift, moments after I did, inching the weights off the floor, scraping them up his shins.
I’ve got to go heavier.
I took my spot behind the bar.
And pulled 305.
My ears rang. My head was light, like I was floating. My legs quaked under the pressure, threatening to give way any second as my back moved more than it ever had the right to, but finally I straightened and stared him down with my lips snarling and nostrils flaring until he whooped and clapped and I could let go.
The weights clattered with an almighty crash and I collapsed on a dusty mat in the corner.
“You got it, Cam.”
But an extra five pounds was too much for him.
He pulled once, twice, three times—but that was it. He was done. It was after midnight, the summer warmth still smothering us, and he crashed down next to me on the mat, beaten and bruised.
“I’m out, I’m done,” he gasped. “I’m finished.”
The weights were still affixed to the bar. A mountain that he couldn’t climb just yet.
“Well done, Billy. Well done.”
And then one night, as we tore through icy streets, seeking solace in our iron oasis, the gym was closed.
“Health and safety violations.” He slapped at the cardboard that had been taped to the roller door. “Crock of shit. We never got hurt.”
But that hurt. He drove us home, irritable and antsy, his hand twitching on the gearshift. My leg wouldn’t stop shaking. Neither of us had missed a session in two years. Mom and Dad made jokes about it.
“Are you allergic to going to parties?” they’d ask. “You know, back in our day, we used to take weekends off!”
And we did enjoy our parties up at college. Naturally, we always went together. I think he enjoyed it more than I did, but he was never dragging me along. I enjoyed seeing him enjoy himself. After all, he deserved it; he spent most of his time babysitting me. I’d take a back seat most of the time; fix him a drink by the bar while he danced and made moves on some of the older girls. I was his wingman, his permanent fixture.
But on that fateful night where the gates to heaven were locked, the last thing either of us wanted to do were party. And after we got home, hugged goodnight and locked ourselves in our rooms, the urge overcame me, and I did something I’d never done before.
I knocked on his door before I left, of course. Just to let him know I wasn’t getting myself into trouble. He was already tucked up with the lights off.
“I’m going for a run,” I said.
“Now? It’s like, nine, though? And it’s freezing out.”
“Yeah, but I need to get out. I just…I don’t know, a little—”
“Yeah, me too,” he grunted. He paused. “Want me to come?”
Frankly, I would’ve loved him to. But I wasn’t going to ask that of him. He looked so damn cosy.
“It’s fine. I’ll go it alone. Won’t be too long.”
I closed the door, leaving him to dream, and ducked out into the cold.
I wasn’t much of a runner. We’d do some cardio on the single rickety rowing machine in the gym, but only on the rare occasions where old man Davis was hogging a squat rack and we couldn’t rep side by side.
The road was hard and unforgiving through my thin sneakers. A wind whipped through my shirt and caught under my armpits, and I shivered. I may have been underdressed, but I was over-motivated, so I let my feet lead. For maybe twenty minutes I panted puffs of cold air and listened to the rattle of the house key in my pocket as I ran laps of the parkway out the front of our house. A stitch eventually pinched in my side, and I slowed down as I passed home for the third time.
Foorsteps behind me. Much faster than my own.
Cameron appeared up beside me, looking worse than I felt, breathless and gasping.
“I’ve been chasing you for the last mile.”
We ran on together. No words exchanged, just nods of encouragement and frequent thumbs-ups.
For the first month or so, it wasn’t about the running. It was just a nice way to spend time together. Somewhere we couldn’t be denied entry, where there was no set schedule. Self-improvement on our own terms. We thundered through streets and down boulevards, our journeys getting longer and slower and faster and more brutal. Some days he was faster, other days I edged him out going into the last mile.
But then, it was all about the running.
We ran, and we ran, and we ran.
We ran in the day, we ran at night. In the sun, and in the rain. We ran through college. We ran through our Masters programs. We ran the night before his wedding, and the morning before mine. We ran in secret; the second morning of my honeymoon, meeting up on the beach outside our hotel at just before five in the morning. I was done before sunrise, sneaking back into bed before Becky – my wife – woke up to catch me neglecting my husbandly duties of backrubs and sex.
Becky was our number one fan. She supported me through every moment. She had the pace, she had the fitness – we’d met at a running club – and occasionally, she’d come with us. Other times, when Cam and Stacey came over for dinner, they could tell when our feet were itching. They’d dismiss us with shakes of the heads as they busted out the Chardonnay, and the two of us would vanish for hours.
We ran half-marathons, then marathons. Always together, as a team, finishing within footsteps of each other. In Chicago, he practically dragged me across the finish line, and I returned the favour when we headed down to Santiago on our first international. The girls came with us, cheering for us from the sidelines with banners.
Slowly, the two of us made a name for ourselves. We climbed up through the ranks, tearing up the finishing spots in any local marathon we could find. Medal collections expanded, and the thoughts of wrestling or weightlifting were distant memories. We had our paychecks, we had our vibrant families that lived on each others’ doorsteps, and we had each other.
And with each other, we had running.
One afternoon, I came home to find Cam sitting at the kitchen table, a rare beer in his hand.
“I need a challenge, Billy,” he grunted. “We need a challenge.”
For anyone who isn’t a runner, it sounds absurd to say that marathons are only the tip of the iceberg. But we knew what lurked beneath the surface. Iron mans were the next step up, and then ultramarathons – officially, anything longer than a marathon, but unofficially, anything over fifty miles.
The true ultramarathons were a lot longer than that.
He sipped at his beer.
“I want to do it,” he said. “The race to the top of the world.”
Cold didn’t even begin to describe what I had felt over the last ten days. We weren’t in contention to win, not by a long shot. There were people who had put themselves through this hell before, time and time again.
Three hundred and eighty miles.
We were running in Canada, through the Arctic Circle. The sun was warm and the snow was bright, but my bones were cold. I’d had a scare of frostbite on the third day, and my nose was patched up as best as it could be. Race rules prohibited any support vehicles, so we had our food and our tent on our backs, which made for even slower going.
This was the 6633 Arctic Ultra – “The Race to the Top of the World.”
People had scaled Everest and failed to complete 6633. The world record was a whopping 180 hours by an Australian some years before, and coming in with just under a mile to go until the finish line in Tuktoyaktuk, we were closer to 300 than we were to 180.
I glanced at Cam beside me, weighed down by his pack. Overall, I think he’d had a smoother run that I did, but that wasn’t saying much. His lips and eyelids were thin slits covered by sleet, his skin weathered by the frosty winds.
We were sunburnt to hell, hadn’t showered in days, and our feet were lead weights on the end of our legs. We were out of food, out of breath, and given the storms we’d seen, shit out of luck. But we had almost finished.
We had almost made it…to the top of the world.
Silently, we shuffled onwards. There was nothing left to say, and it was too hard to talk with the wind roaring in our ears.
A red finish line, up ahead.
Cam spotted it first. I saw him perk up insistently, feet crunching through the snow ever so slightly quicker.
Then he stopped.
“I can’t make it, Billy. I’m not going to make it.”
The wind howled in my ears. Up ahead I could see tents, a caravan. Toilets, please let there be toilets.
“I’m out,” he said. “I’m done. I’m finished.”
He’s not done. He’s not close to done. He can see the damn finish line! What’s he playing at?!
And then—I realised.
He was sitting in the snow, legs crossed, hunched forward as he tried to protect himself from the wind.
“You go on,” he croaked. “I…I can catch up.”
I had realised that this wasn’t about him not being able to do it. It never had been.
This was about not wanting to do it.
This was his love…for me.
He was my courage, my strength, my one true challenger on this earth, and I was his. Whether it was wrestling or running, we drove each other to heights further than either of us was ever capable of reaching by ourselves.
The only thing that truly drove me was beating my equal, and he knew that.
And he was willing to take the loss, so that I might fly higher.
I squatted down beside him.
“I have a question, Cam.”
He glanced up, quaking from the cold, then avoided my eyes, as though he was afraid that I’d figured out his master plan.
“Do you think I am so desperate to beat you that I would rather cross the finishing line alone, rather than with you by my side?”
The wind howled a response in my ears. He shook his head tentatively, and I hauled him to his feet.
“Don’t let me win. Make me earn it.”
Our hands clasped together, we struggled towards the finishing line.
He let go of my arm as the tents came fully into view, and took off, sprinting the last thirty yards, his backpack bouncing in his wake.
He was the thirtieth finisher.
He’d earned it.