Steve Trew imagines what could happen if an athlete’s iron will pushed him too far


“Make the hurt go away” (Illustration: Peter Greenwood)

I am an athlete, this is what I do, this is what I am. Every breath in and out, every movement, every thought, every action, every molecule of my being, every move I make. This is what I do, this is what I am, an athlete.”

He felt that something was wrong. More than that, he knew that something was very wrong; could feel it seeping through his body, had felt it creeping through the final moisture-sapping miles of the run, the exhaustion heaping upon itself with the body maintaining equilibrium. Just.

The body – his body – was dry; so dry that he was no longer sweating, had stopped sweating three miles before, had felt any cohesive oiling of his joints disappear and had felt the jarring creep into the body – his body – so that now each successive step sent the shockwaves upwards through his legs into his body, his being, his very soul.

He could sense the fear in himself now, the fear that was always present yet just hidden beneath the surface almost daring the cogent mind to recognise that it was there. And, oh yes, it was there alright. And it surfaced when the mind feared more than the body, the fear that played upon itself and became the stronger because there was nothing physical, nothing recognisable other than it was fear itself, fear of the unknown that was about to happen.

He’d been there before of course. That horrible place just beyond human suffering, beyond human endurance. But he couldn’t remember it, not properly. That was the wonderful and awesome and yet scary thing about his and everybody else’s mind.

The mind couldn’t remember how bad it had been the last time that the body was pushed past the limits; couldn’t remember the searing, screaming nerve-endings pleading to stop doing it, stop pushing past the limits. How could any athlete do it otherwise? If the mind could remember exactly how bad it had been, then it would not be able to say, “Go on, do it again, hurt so much that you think you’re going to die, you know you’re going to die.”

His lips had drawn back now and were already fixed in that silent scream, not of pain but of anticipating pain. His mind started to remember what it had been like before and yet his body had to carry on, however bad the pain because he had chosen to do it. Again. It was only one step more and there it was; an old, hated friend.

His unseeing eyes were turning upwards and inwards now, getting ready for it and retreating from it. But it would find him out, oh yes; it always found him for there was never anywhere to hide within yourself.

His eyes, already fixed on an eternity of nothingness, started to seek for a way out. But there was none… or rather one way only. To do exactly what he had set out to do a hundred times before. To go beyond the human, self-imposed suffering into a clean, open space where only a few ever had the courage – or stupidity – to venture. He struggled and broke through – but this time it wasn’t there. The hurt and the pain and the suffering which was already impossible now became unbearable and the body – his body – started to break apart inside.

He sensed the grey shadow draw alongside him and knew, knew immediately who it was, without turning, without deviating. He felt the last dregs of power and sanity slowly draw away and transfer to the shadowed stranger who had no need of it. Why now? Why now? Please, please, please no. Don’t let him. Make it not true. His head lunged from side onto tortured side as he pleaded and bargained with the unseen, un-listening God.

“Make it go away, make the hurt go away,” he whispered, “and I won’t ever ask for anything again.”

But God wasn’t listening, or if he was, chose not to act upon the pleas. The grey shape was still there, it was… it was… of course he knew who it was… just give me a chance to think and I’ll tell you, it’s… the grey shape became two, became three, became an all-enveloping aura that gradually drew upon itself and descended upon him so that now he was fighting for breath – not just having difficulty breathing for the effort and pain that his body was feeling but actually having to fight to get the breath through his mouth and into his lungs, the impossibility of it was drowning him in a sea fog of unconsciousness as he started to slip into a deep nothingness.