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The lunacy of the long distance runner

Trading one compulsion for another, I ran 12 marathons in a year through a country in shambles.

"I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know how I’d pull it off." The author runs along a dilapidated street in Maracaibo.Ernesto Perez

MARACAIBO, Venezuela —

Picture this: You’re a kid propelled by equal parts boredom and curiosity to open random doors without having any idea what’s behind them. And even though most are just portals to the unremarkable, once in a while you discover something worth remembering — something good enough that you keep opening doors.

Well, I still do that. About a year ago, I tried the handle on a mysterious little door in my mind, and when I stepped through it, I started running. And kept running. I ran 12 marathons this past year. This is not necessarily something I would recommend, particularly if your course wends through some of the most crime-riddled neighborhoods in all of Venezuela. But I’m glad I did it anyway.

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Running past an abandoned building on Maracaibo's 4th Avenue.Ernesto Perez

Running in Maracaibo

On Jan. 17 at 4:42 in the morning, I set out from my home in Maracaibo, a seaside city of over 1.5 million people in western Venezuela, to run 26 miles. The city is hot and very humid all year long — not ideal for a long-distance run.

I’d been running for only a little over a year and didn’t know anything, really, about marathons. I didn’t belong to any running clubs. I had no running friends. I had not done any research whatsoever. I just went for it — and took with me a Garmin device to log my distance.

That first time, I was so uninformed that I left home without water. I just didn’t know. Twenty miles in, I had the character GOB from “Arrested Development” on a loop in my head: I’ve made a huge mistake. I was passing by a bakery near my home and screamed “Gatorade!” at a security guard who was kind enough to hook me up while I ran in circles in the parking lot.

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I finished the run in 3 hours and 55 minutes.

A few days later, I said to myself, Let’s see if I can do this once a month for the whole year.

Ah, the bliss of ignorance.

I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know how I’d pull it off. It was an impulse that would become something like a compulsion. I’d been down that metaphorical road before: I was addicted to heroin for almost 20 years. Five and a half years into my sobriety, though, I still live my life like The Pogues lyric “any which way the wind may be blowing.” I couldn’t say why that is. I’m not big on introspection.

Running uphill, a metaphor for the entire half-baked plan to run 12 marathons in as many months.Ernesto Perez

Blame the Queen of England

On February 14 at 5:11 a.m., I started my second marathon. That time was a bit harder, but I again finished in 3 hours and 55 minutes.

Then, the stuff of nightmares: I waited for the Garmin app to award me points for finishing that run (meaningless, I know), but the damn thing wouldn’t do it. I investigated and learned that the official length of a marathon is 26.22 miles, and I, trying to match the time of my January run, had stopped the watch at the 26.11-mile mark. Ignorance worked against me. Who would have thought?

I was irate. I had to find out why the exact length was so specific yet so arbitrary. I learned that until the Olympic Games in 1908, a marathon was 25 miles, give or take. But at the Games in London, Queen Alexandra requested that the race start on the lawn of Windsor Castle — so the littlest royals could watch from the window of their nursery — and finish in front of the royal box at the Olympic stadium. Like so many whim-driven orders from the top, this one stuck.

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So just because everyone had to accommodate a queen more than a century ago, my effort didn’t count? Nope. I’m counting this one, I said to myself. Two down, 10 to go.

Maracaibo's defunct Granada Hotel, rumored to be haunted by the ghost of French-born Argentine crooner Carlos Gardel, who stayed there in 1935. Ernesto Perez

Beware the Ides of March

In the middle of March, I attempted my third marathon. I didn’t make it. At the 23.30-mile mark, I had to stop. Several months later a friend told me that I could have walked the rest of the way and it would have counted. I can’t believe I didn’t think of that at the moment. Ignorance dealt me a bad hand — again.

To keep to my schedule, I ran two marathons in April. I realized by that point that my time was nowhere close to breaking any world records, so I could pace myself.

I started to see that the heroin-addict mentality was working in my favor. On the day before each run, and even more so about 19 miles into each run, my mind took over. That old familiar sense of I need this powered my beat-up body in exactly the same way it once fueled my craving for dope.

Psychiatrists are fond of comparing the endorphin flood of heroin to that of running. To them and all the medical community, I want to say, categorically and unequivocally: Stop. Don’t repeat that. It is not the same at all. I get that on a theoretical level there may be similarities between the two kinds of rushes, but trust me, they are not the same. Until you start seeing folks pawning their grandmother’s jewels in order to be able to run the Boston Marathon, do not compare the highs.

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Sunset on Bella Vista Avenue.Ernesto Perez

The wakeup call

Maracaibo is a somewhat dangerous city in a somewhat dangerous country. To run 26 miles in a place like this, you have to pass through some unsavory spots. I ran in torn-up gear, the better to deter shady characters. I knew these parts of the city from my previous life scoring hits in them.

On one of my predawn runs, when I sported a raggedy shirt and shorts, long hair, and a wild beard, a homeless man took a look at me and screamed with laughter. “Holy [expletive]! He’s running in diapers!”

Then there was the time that a man pulled a gun on me. I could see some commotion out of the corner of my eye as a man on a motorcycle pulled up alongside me, but I didn’t turn to look. I was doing my thing. An hour later I passed through the same spot and the security guards waved at me. I kept running in place while they said, “Didn’t you see the guy with a gun pointed at you? He asked why you were running so fast.” I honestly hadn’t realized. I asked if they had said something to him. One responded that he’d told him it was Sunday, “and Sunday is for sports.”

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All I could think was that “Sunday is for sports” would look great on a T-shirt.

On my next-to-last marathon, a kid chased me menacingly with his hand under his shirt, as if he had a weapon. I looked straight at him and kept going without accelerating my pace, calling his bluff. He grew tired of chasing me.

Mostly because of the intense heat and humidity, I started my runs earlier and earlier as the months went by, until 3:30 a.m. was my usual starting point. This gave me a chance to see two cities. During the first half of every marathon, I saw drug users, prostitutes, and homeless people. During the second half: runners and cyclists. Most of them gave me the same odd look. There’s something comforting about human consistency.

Just a few steps from Bella Vista Avenue, the surroundings are seedy.Ernesto Perez

Spite is a good reason, too

I ran more marathons from May to September and was on track to meet my goal of one every month. I was curious to know whether anyone else in Venezuela had attempted something similar. I called the Venezuelan Athletics Federation and ended up being added to a chat group of Venezuelan marathon runners. Turns out, there were others doing the same 12-in-12 thing.

If I’m being honest, it pissed me off a little. I said to myself, Oh yeah? Try this on for size. And in September, on consecutive Sundays, I ran two marathons, just out of spite.

By hanging out with other runners, I found out that I have very little in common with the type, aside from the obvious — our shared pastime. I have flat-out contempt for the overall positive vibe they exude. I know my reaction is unwarranted, because they were gracious with encouragement and advice. Advice that I almost completely disregarded.

Many suggested that I run the majors — Boston, New York, Tokyo — virtually. Let me get this straight, I thought, you want me to pay hundreds of dollars for doing something I’ve been doing for free, just to get a medal in the mail? You know you can buy medals at the store, right?

And let’s talk about the medals thing for just a second. Runners sure do love medals. They’re obsessed with them, actually. It is something they have in common with dictators. I can easily picture any runner exchanging medal stories with Mussolini for hours.

Thinking of The Pogues album "Love and Peace" while running past an abandoned hotel with graffiti that has those words in Spanish: "Amor y Paz."Ernesto Perez

Punk ethos, jazz pathos

In October and November, I completed the last two marathons. Through it all, I maintained my willful ignorance, fearing that being overly informed would get in the way of actually putting sneaker to asphalt. To make each run across familiar terrain feel unique and special, I tapped into a jazz improvisation mindset.

It has been said that recovered addicts and long-distance runners are among the most annoying people, so you can imagine how obnoxious I am. I just need to become a vegan to achieve a douche triple crown. Back in the day, my decisions were really grounded in desperation. There was very little planning or scheming — only surviving. The clear state of mind I have these days doesn’t involve planning, either. I ease into things, follow my instinct, and worry about thinking later — or not at all, if I’m lucky.

I really don’t know why I ran 12 marathons in a year or whether I learned anything from the whole deal. But I’m not searching for those answers. Even though I don’t live in a world where “the morals of despair,” as Dylan sang, prevail, I still don’t subscribe to anything other than being the architect of my own nothingness. When someone asked me why I went through all that effort and trouble, all I thought was, Because it seemed like the wrong thing to do.

Antonio Matheus is a writer in Venezuela. Follow him on Twitter @antomatheus.