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Fiction: Excellence, and the Problem with Deals with the Devil

What if you had the chance to redress nature’s imbalance, change the luck of the genetic draw, level the playing field. What would you do?


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If there’s a rule about deals with the devil, it’s that you don’t realize you’re making one at the time. Especially when the devil in question walks with a cane and looks more like Kris Kringle than Beelzebub. He said his name was August Knox and that he was a researcher working to beat Lou Gehrig’s disease and all the other muscle-wasting disorders the world has ever known. Maybe he was. Or maybe he was just out to make a buck. He was peddling a dream, and you don’t look a gift horse too strongly in the mouth. 

You remember BALCO, right? The ones who, back at the turn of the century, supplied drugs to a whole generation of track stars? Perfect, undetectable drugs — at least until someone blew it and alerted the authorities. 

Well, suppose BALCO visited you at age forty-two and asked if you wanted to be a guinea pig for a new product. Kringle/Knox wasn’t with BALCO, obviously — they’d been out of business for years — but that’s what he was pedaling. Test samples of a new product, guaranteed undetectable by conventional blood or urine tests, that would tune up your muscle efficiency not just by enough to roll your performance back to age thirty, but to match you with the best of them. 

Could you win an Olympic medal? No guarantee there, but you’d be in the hunt. There’s only one catch: there wasn’t any guarantee the process was safe, either. If humans were like rats, you’d peak in a year and stay there for eighteen months. Two years, if you were lucky. After that? Well, once the rats had started to decline they’d done so rather precipitously. 

I’d seen an old movie about that when I was a kid, though I think it was a mouse. I don’t think it had a happy ending, but going from forty-two to forty-three to forty-four stuck in a more slowly declining body wasn’t exactly a happy ending, either. 

“Would I still be able to run?” 

“Probably not.” 

“Hike?” 

“Define hike.” 

I told him about my favorite place in the world, a viewpoint called Angel’s Rest, 1,500 feet above the river. I go there at least once a month to stare into the afternoon sun and think about life. There are never any answers, but the sun and the staring are what really matter. 

“Is it wheelchair accessible?” 

So, what would you do? Go for glory at the expense of a fast burnout? Or be decliningly ordinary for however many years remain? 

Me, I chose the flame and die. My name’s Jefferson Morgan, and ordinary has never been my goal.

When I was twelve, I wanted to be a rock star: not just any rock star, but the next John Lennon — the one against whom all others would be measured. Then my voice changed and I realized not everyone got to sing lead. 

A few other things changed too. At twelve, I was a skinny Goth — at a time when Goths were becoming Tweakers, but before Tweakers became Quillheads. By the time I was ready to enter college, I was still nerdy and skinny, but I’d grown a new skill: I could run. A lot faster than average, it turned out. 

It paid for college. 

I was good, but not spectacular — just like my grades. And then, I was out, with no real idea what to do next. 

And that had pretty much been the story. I kicked around for two decades: tending bar, parking cars, even mopping a few floors. I linked up with a shoe-store-sponsored running team where, again, I was good, but not spectacular. Plenty of free shoes, but no free rent. Then age started to eat at my speed, until Beelzebub/Kringle hobbled up to me at track practice one day with his cane and beaming, beady eyes. 

Of course, I had to reinvent myself and lie about my age. Nobody’s going to believe a middle-aged guy who suddenly runs like a kid. Luckily, I’ve always looked young (maybe that’s part of why Kringle picked me) and a bit of hair dye and Botox made me younger yet. Not all that young, but lots of runners are pre maturely aged by the sun. The college kids fall into two camps: those who worry about skin cancer, and those who are too macho to let on, even if they do. I’d been in the first camp. Now I looked like I was in the second. 

Kringle/Knox had a pocketful of fake IDs, so I picked one from Vegas — a great choice for someone who wants to be anonymous. I even went there a time or two and practiced squinting into the sun. And of course, any runner worth anything who’s from such a climate leaves it the first time he gets a chance, so there wasn’t anything odd about the fact that nobody would remember me. That and the Botox were the perfect cover. 

Kringle helped too, by planting a few old race results and helping me create a bio. No college, no high-school track. If asked, I was a late bloomer who for years had been more interested in training than racing. Every track’s got a couple of those guys, and nobody remembers their names. But if I did hit it big, dozens of folks would be sure they remembered me. “Oh, yeah,” they’d say. “He was the quiet guy who kept to himself. Fast, though. I should have known he’d make it someday.” The rumor mill would flesh out my new history better than I ever could. Same with “my” old jobs. Who remembers bellhops, anyway? 

It was only after I’d started the treatment that it crossed my mind that with all those fake identities, Knox/Beelzebub probably didn’t intend me to be his only product tester. I just hoped I was the only 10,000-meter runner. He’d insisted I pick one event and stick to it, so he probably had other guys doing other distances, and maybe entirely different sports, as well. 

Eventually, I decided there couldn’t be more than a few of us in each event. He could probably get away with having his folks go gold-silver-bronze — if I got a medal, I wasn’t going to complain a lot about its color — but if there were a whole phalanx of us chasing the same three spots, you could bet your sweaty jockstrap that half of us would be screaming to the press, willing to wreck what little was left of our lives for a shot at bringing down the guy who promised us all the same thing. 

Or maybe the treatment wasn’t as good as advertised, and there wasn’t that much chance of a Kringle-fest finish. When you get down to it, even deals with the devil are founded on trust. 

The treatment took the form of shots. Lots of shots. It was based on gene therapy designed for muscular dystrophy patients, Knox told me as he stabbed enough needles into my quads to make me feel like an inside-out cactus. If he had colleagues, I never met them. For that matter, if he had a lab, I never saw it. He just came to my apartment once a week, with vials of amber fluid and a pocketful of syringes. 

For the first few weeks, all the shots did was make me weak. 

“It’s the virus,” he said, having moved from my quads to my hamstrings and then my calves. “It inserts the genes into your muscle cells, and your body sees it as a mild infection. Don’t worry, it’ll pass.” 

That’s part of what makes it undetectable, he added. The virus was a common one, like flu or West Nile or some such thing, so while I’d show antibodies for it on a blood test, that didn’t mean anything unless the authorities were prepared to reject anyone who’d ever been sneezed on or bitten by a mosquito. But the gene changes could only occur within a few centimeters of the injection sites, which was why he was turning me into a pincushion. “There won’t be anything in your blood to show you’ve been altered,” he explained between jabs, “and nobody’s going to start requiring muscle biopsies in the near future. That’s just way too invasive.” 

He paused. “Though if someone does ask for one, it might be good to refuse. I don’t think the genes we’re working on would show up unless they knew what to look for, but there’s no reason to chance it.” 

Meanwhile, I started to train. Part of being great is having a good coach, and while Knox hadn’t been able to retain the services of the best in the business, the one he found was no slouch. He was just what a talented dark horse like me was supposed to be able to find: good, hungry for victory, but not too good. 

I wasn’t sure what, if anything, he knew, but Knox made it clear I wasn’t supposed to talk to him about the treatments, so I doubted it was much. 

Knox was a bit chary on specifics, but no athlete allows that many injections without asking questions. Basically, I was being subjected to two types of gene changes. One altered my ratio of muscle fibers. There are two types. Sprinters tend to be born with a lot of “fast-twitch” fibers — the human equivalent of the white meat in turkeys. These are good for short bursts, such as (for turkeys) getting air borne, back before we bred them to be incapable of escape. Distance runners are heavier in “slow-twitch” fibers, the equivalent of poultry’s red meat, which can go forever (or close to it) at a slower speed. The only difference from turkeys, other than who eats whom at Thanksgiving, is that in humans the red and white are all mixed up, higgledy-piggledy. 

Before starting treatment, Knox had biopsied me (it really does hurt) and told me I was 77 percent slow twitch. 

“There’s probably a distance for which that’s perfect,” he said. “But it’s not in the Olympics. I’d rather see you somewhere be tween eighty-five and ninety.” 

Three weeks of injections later, and a month of low-grade flu-like symptoms, a repeat biopsy showed my legs to be 87 percent slow-twitch. 

Knox beamed his most Kringlesque smile. “Magnificent. Time for phase two.” That turned out to have something to do with satellite cells, which are kind of like stem cells in your muscles. Under the right conditions, they fuse with muscle cells to make them bigger and stronger. They also help you recover from races and hard workouts. The problem is that they can only do this so many times. After that? Well, that’s part of the reason Kringle’s treatment isn’t permanent. Most likely, I’d bounce from being a “good” 42-year old to a great pseudo-thirty-year-old, then back to 42 and on to 52, 62, or worse. 

And that, I suppose, is half of why I knew I’d made a deal with the devil. 

The other half was that during the treatment stage, it was hard to pretend I wasn’t cheating. Not just to the world at large, which was easy because I didn’t want to get caught, but to myself. 

Most dopers simply tell themselves every one else does it. Whether that’s true or not doesn’t matter, because that makes it the other guy’s fault. But as far as I knew, nobody had ever before done what I was doing. Within a few weeks, though, I’d made my peace with it. The first time I was young — back when it was purely natural — the only thing that had kept me from being among the best was the (poor) luck of the genetic draw. I’d always had the discipline, the toughness, the competitive drive. Knox/Kringle had merely redressed nature’s imbalance — equalized the playing field, and all that. Back in my rock-star days, if some one had offered to improve my vocal cords, would I have turned ’em down?

Then I quit worrying at all, because once the injections ceased, I started to improve. I ran a road race and hit a time I’d have loved to see when I really had been thirty. Then my new coach went to work on me. Twelve weeks later, I ran the best 10K of my life, by a full fifteen seconds per mile. In case running isn’t your sport, let me assure you: that’s a lot

Knox, I decided, was a genius. My coach wasn’t much worse. And, whatever else you might think, I’d never worked harder in my life.

Kringle had merely redressed nature’s imbalance. What I did with that was up to me. 

What I did next was to stress-fracture my tibia. 

My coach was stunned. “Why didn’t you tell me you were prone to these?” he demanded. “We weren’t even working you all that hard yet.” 

But the fact was that I wasn’t injury-prone. I’d never before lost more than a few days to injuries, and never to anything as major as a cracked bone. 

“We’ve seen this in a couple of others,” Kringle said the next time I saw him, confirm ing my suspicion I wasn’t his only Olympic hopeful. “The drugs make your muscles stronger, but not your tendons, ligaments, and bones. They’re still your original age, and need time to adapt.” 

I had to think about that for a while. Not the muscles, bones, tendons, and ligaments bit. That made sense. It was the parts of me not all being the same age that was disconcerting. 

It was the first time I’d ever truly felt my years. I don’t know about you, but I’d always felt pretty much the same person at forty-two (soon to be forty-three) that I’d been at thirty. Or twenty. I have friends who say they feel like radically different people than even a few years ago. I’ve never understood that. Whoever I was at twenty: that’s me now. Pre-Kringle, post-Kringle—makes no difference. Oh, I’ve learned things, done things, wished I hadn’t done things . . . But I’ve always been the same me. 

Now, my muscles were thirty, my bones forty-two, and the essential me still felt like that long-gone twenty-year-old. 

There’s a famous statue by Rodin, which shows the soul of a young woman striving to break free of the flesh of an old crone. Kringle had simply made it possible—not just with a rejuvenated body, but with the one I’d always wanted (other than the bones). I just couldn’t figure out if I was the young person, or the older one, or both at once. 

Luckily, physical therapy was the perfect antidote to doubts. That’s because it kept me too busy to think. 

My coach proved well connected and got a sports medicine lab to let me use an AlterG, an odd device that suspends you above a treadmill while you walk, then run, with only a fraction of your weight hitting the ground. The result was that eight weeks later, when the docs pronounced the fracture healed, I was in nearly as good shape as I’d been in before it happened: and I still had more than six months before the Olympic Trials — plus ten more weeks until the games themselves. 

You’re probably expecting a tale of cheating caught and bad behavior redeemed. It didn’t quite work that way. Once we’d gotten over the old-bones surprise, Kringle obviously knew what he was doing. So did my coach. And, as luck would have it, we caught the treatment’s lead-time nearly perfectly. It would have sucked to peak for the Trials, only to be in decline for the big event. Instead, the Trials found me still on the upswing. Maybe a bit too early, actually. I was fourth, which isn’t quite good enough to make the team but does make you an alternate who can go live in Olympic Village. Once, I’d have sold my soul simply for that. Now, it felt like a defeat. What it really meant, though, was that my body was still reacting to the treatments. And, there’s a reason there are Olympic alternates. The third-place finisher developed a gimpy Achilles tendon—I don’t think Kringle/Beelzebub had anything to do with it—and suddenly, I was in. 

The twenty-year-old me, the one who’d never changed, was ecstatic. The forty-three-year old me, the one in my bones, and brains, tried (at least briefly) to feel sorry for the guy who’d had to drop out. But the ageless competitor in my guts didn’t care. I had reached the spot where, if nature had been fair, I’d have been a generation ago. I could handle that. As I said, this isn’t a tale of cheating caught and bad behavior redeemed. 

The 10,000-meters is run in a single heat. There were twenty-seven of us, and I was so nervous two days beforehand that I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t just that my entire future de pended on this: if the rat tests were right, I had no future. This was everything: truly the be-all and end-all of my life. 

That’s when my coach blindsided me. That’s not what coaches are supposed to do. They’re supposed to build you up, calm you down, focus you, and point you in the direction of victory. And that’s what he thought he was doing. 

He did it by telling me a story. 

“When I was young,” he said, “I was all piss and vinegar, like you.” (I’ve never met a coach who didn’t talk in clichés. Maybe everything’s been said so many times the non-clichés were used up, long ago.) “Then, my wife developed multiple sclerosis.” His voice cracked, then steadied. “Usually, they give you at least a dozen good years. She only got five. But until the very end, she insisted that I run, and came to all of my meets, even when it had to be in a wheelchair, strapped in to keep her from falling out.” 

He paused, while I wondered what this could possibly have to do with me. “This,” he said, gesturing to the track, “isn’t life. A wise man and great athlete once said that. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and I love every minute of it, but in the big scheme of things”—he pursed his lips and blew out a sound, like pffft—“it’s nothing.” 

He turned from the track to me. “Trust your training. Nobody out there is better prepared. If the gods smile, you’ll run well. If they don’t—well, it’s just a race.” He patted me on the back. He wasn’t really all that much older than me, but he didn’t know it, so I couldn’t tell him how odd that felt. Or what I thought of this entire speech. “So, relax. Have fun. And realize that if you don’t feel you have to win, you’ll run better. And if by some chance you have a bad day . . . well, you’ve got a whole life yet ahead of you. This is only a small piece of it.” 

As a guy who’d barely made it into the race, I wasn’t expected to be a contender. That made it easy to maintain my thirty-year-old identity because nobody did any of those little spotlight profiles on me that the TV folks love to plug into their coverage to mask the fact that whatever they may or may not think of their audience’s intelligence, they themselves don’t have the attention span to cover a long race from start to finish. 

Only Kringle, my coach, and I knew how much I’d improved since the Trials. I wondered if Kringle had timed it that way deliberately—though having me come up as an alternate, rather than number three on the team, was cutting it a bit fine. If I won, I’d be the unknown who burst onto the scene: far better than the favorite who lives up to his promise. He’d never be able to go public with that—but in selling his wares to the next generation of do-anything hopefuls? He’d make sure they knew. 

The race came late in the day, a concession to August heat, but not the best thing on the nerves. One place where my fake identity and real life overlapped was that both of us had been mainly doing road races for the past several years. The real me because, at my one time age, there just isn’t much in the way of track racing out there. The new me because it was a lot easier that way to create a guise that avoided unwanted questions. If I won, it would be critical that nobody puncture my new identity. Not that anyone would be actively trying to do so, but it would be embarrassing if someone did it by accident. 

Road races tend to be run in the morning. Here, I had all day to fret. And to try to keep away from my coach before he gave me some bromide worse than, “You have all of your life ahead of you.” Yeah, right. At least now, I knew for sure he wasn’t a Kringle insider. 

But all endless waits eventually end, and at last we were called to the start. 

I’d like to tell you it was an exciting race: the most dramatic 10,000 in Olympic history. But it was probably pretty ordinary. Thirty year-old me had the ability to run with the best of them. And while the inner voice in my head might still be the college freshman who’d not yet realized he didn’t have world class speed, forty-three-year-old me had run a lot more races than anyone else on the track. I figured the experience would hold me in good stead now that I finally had the body my unaging inner voice always wanted. 

It started as one of those tactical duals that make the television crews happy they’ve got lots of those spotlight profiles in the can. Twenty of us ran in a big pack, where not stepping on someone and not getting stepped on are your biggest worries. Nobody wanted the lead, least of all me. 

Unfortunately, forty-three-year-old me didn’t know what to do in that situation. I’d never been fast enough to be caught up in such a thing. In big, important races, there’d always been someone streaking away uncatchably in front. Sometimes lots of someones. 

Now, I had the body to streak away—at least for a while, but I didn’t know when or whether to try it. So much for all that experience. It had been with a different body. 

The laps rolled by and nothing much happened except that a few people started drop ping out of the lead pack. Still, at the halfway mark, there were more than a dozen of us. My coach was screaming at me with each lap, but he wasn’t allowed on the field, and from the front row of the stands, I couldn’t tell if he was saying “good job” or “get going.” Some thing that started with a “G,” I think. For all I could tell, he might as well have been giving the weather report. 

Still, I had to do something. 

Before all of the injections, one thing I could do was kick. Sit back and pounce: that would have been my style. But now that most of my fast-twitch had been converted to slow twitch, I suspected that if there were still a dozen folks around at the start of the last lap, I had a better chance of coming in twelfth than first. 

If you’re in danger of being out-kicked, the way to win is to run the kick out of your opponents before they get a chance to use it. Or just run away from everyone, which is pretty much the same thing. 

I knew the theory just fine. What I didn’t know were the details. I waited another mile, then moved to the lead and sped up. Before the race, my coach and I had set a target pace, but the pack had been way slower than expected, so I knew I had to be faster now. The question was how much. 

Within a couple laps, I’d dumped half of the pack, but there were still five left. On the backstretch, I looked up at the big television screen at one end of the stadium and saw my self, closely shadowed by a Kenyan who’d won last year’s world championship and two other guys who’d been here before. I picked it up again with six laps to go, then again with four, and except for the world champion, the others started to drop off. Then, with two laps to go, the Kenyan start ed to push back. 

This was an old game, and I’d always been good at it. Not fast, but wily. Once I passed someone, they stayed passed. But now it did n’t work. The Kenyan pushed harder and when I tried to return the favor, nothing happened. I still managed to stave him off until the last lap, but then he went around me like I was standing still, followed shortly after by the other two. If anything, I was slowing down, frantically looking at the jumbo screen to see who next was coming up behind me. 

I finished totally spent . . . and fifth. Even at that, I’d barely held off number six. I was the top American, but that wasn’t what I’d want ed. 

My coach was livid. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” he asked. “First you let yourself get sucked into a slow, tactical duel that you can’t win, then you take off like a scared rabbit.” He drew a big, theatrical sigh, probably trying to remember his own advice about it just being a race. “Okay,” he said. “Live and learn. But you ran that thing like a damn teen-ager.” 

Knox appeared a moment later, and for once he wasn’t beaming. “That,” he said, “wasn’t my fault.” Then he turned on his good leg and clomped off. 

My coach stared at him, then at me. Belatedly, I wondered why Knox walked with a cane, and what, if anything my coach knew of it. Was Kringle making his own vicarious effort to redress nature’s inequities? Even the devil, I guess, has his reasons. 

A week later, my coach resigned. Kringle found me a new one, and the next year I took bronze at the Worlds, beating the Kenyan who’d bested me at the Olympics. But the Worlds just don’t have the same cachet, and while my nominal age of thirty-two wasn’t necessarily too old for a bid at the next Olympiad, I was already fading. Humans, rats—apparently we react similarly to Kringle’s ministrations. 

***

The trail to Angel’s Rest isn’t long, but someone had stretched it while I’d been away, and I nearly put it off too long.

At my prime, I could have popped up there in thirty minutes, barely breaking a sweat. This time it took two hours, and I’d never have made it without a walking stick.

But the summit was everything I remembered: a big flat slab of rock, capped in head-high brush and scraggly firs, looking straight down on the mile-wide river. Below, a freeway hugged the headland, the monotonous drone of trucks audible even from here. A train rumbled a deeper bass, while down stream, a barge plowed a V-wake through sun glinted water. Everywhere, it seemed, people were on the move, but my own moving days were over. 

Unlike the old days, when this was my private retreat, my brother had come up here with me, in case I needed assistance or (the unspoken fear) rescue. 

The only surviving member of my immediate family (we Morgans aren’t a long-lived tribe), he’d been the one part of my old life I’d insisted on retaining. But at Kringle’s insistence, I’d never let him far into my new life. Mostly, it was easy. He wasn’t much of a sports fan, and while I couldn’t hide my new appearance, I’d told him that it and my new name were because I’d tried to take up acting, only to be halted by a rare muscle disease. Not that it mattered: my brother is very much of the don’t-ask/don’t-tell persuasion. 

In my rock-star-dreaming days, he’d wanted to play bass to my lead. Two years older but twenty years more passive, he’d never claimed to resent our never-was stardom. Still, he’d remained in music, and was now a junior high school band teacher. 

I looked down on the cars, moving antlike: linear drones, everyone going where someone else had been. Follow-the-leader, from cradle to grave. I had stepped out of line. 

My brother was sitting on my favorite life pondering rock, staring into sunlight the color of the medal I’d given so much not to attain. “Are you happy?” I asked. 

He shot me a glance, then looked back to the late-afternoon distance. “Sure.” “No. I mean really, truly happy. Remember when we wanted to be rock stars?” This time he grinned. “Oh, yeah. After that, I wanted to be an astronaut.” His gaze was still on the river. “I grew up. On a ten-point scale, I’m an eight. I’ll take it. But you . . . you did live it there for a while, didn’t you? Were you happy?” 

It was my turn to stare into the eye-numbing goldness. I wondered how much he knew, how much he might have figured out. I wondered if it mattered. 

“Good thing it happened before you got sick,” he said a few minutes later. 

The sun was getting low, and walking down a steep trail isn’t as easy as people think. Luckily, we’d brought flashlights. Declining my brother’s offer of assistance, I heaved myself to my feet. Then, leaning heavily on my stick, I began the descent into twilight.

Richard A. Lovett is a coach and writer in Portland, Oregon. As a coach, he works with Team Red Lizard in Portland, Oregon, where he has trained recreational racers, national age-group champions, and competitors in the last three Olympic Trials marathons. He is also an award-winning science fiction writer and author of 10 books (four of them on running) and 3,500 magazine and newspaper articles. Before finding his career in journalism he studied astrophysics, got a law degree and a Ph.D. in economics, and taught law at the University of Minnesota—a diverse background that has led him to write about a wide array of topics. Find him on Facebook or visit his website.