As I ground around the curve into the industrial corner of downtown, just me and dozens of my closest strangers, the gas in my tank started to burble and burp down to fumes, and my legs began to grow little crystals in them that within the half hour would harden into pain diamonds and grow branches. Ten kilometres to go, thirty-two gone. The air going in and out of my lungs started to acquire a weight. Three hours running, three hours ten, three hours twenty. My legs contracted were forgetting how to expand, expanded were forgetting how to contract. Hit the wall? What wall? There was no wall, just a tall-grass glade growing knives and glass. The elevated freeway was above me, and I was carrying it on my shoulders. I turned the corner and I knew. I knew I was in so much pain a sensible person would stop and hail a passing ambulance. And therefore the only thing I could do was run. I had been running three and a half hours, and had run through fresh cool air down into an uncertain valley and now was in a dense cloud forest of stings and burns. I could not not finish. My legs wept, begged, pleaded to walk, to stop, to be folded up and stuffed into the nearest garbage bin. I could not walk. If I walked I would never run again. I needed this to be over. As soon as possible. And the only way to do that was to run. Run up that slow hill for twenty minutes more, run while the crowds cheered, run while other runners streamed past me, run while everything that moved trailed smearing lines of blood and mud and coloured smoke, run up and around the park, run down into that funneling gate and at last, delirious, soaked in the endorphins that come to make war with pain, stop, stumble stop, walk like a rusted robot. Lean the head and receive the finisher’s medal. Delirious, eat a banana. Five minutes after swearing I had never suffered so much, work out when I might do it again.
Gruelling? Yes, that’s a good word for the last ten kilometres of your first marathon.
Gruelling because cruel. Gruelling because gruesome. Gruelling because lingering. Gruelling because grinding. Gruelling because reducing reality to a thin strained gruel. Gruelling because hard like a rule. Gruelling because punishing.
Gruelling. The word grips, grabs, grasps, grunts. The lips purse into a moue: “oo.” The tongue licks and retreats to the velum.
And yet gruelling is glorifying. Glorifying suffering, punishment, overwork: a gruelling schedule or a gruelling workout is something to be admired, to be aspired to. To endure something gruelling is a true test of character. To last a marathon. To endure through the muggy hot night of my first 30-kilometre race a month and a half earlier, stumbling dehydrated along a path, mouthing “help” in desperation, then knowing that help could be had only two kilometres further on at the finish, and making it there so soaked in sweat that I could have been dunked in the Dead Sea, and absorbing two litres of water and sports beverage just to return to normal. And the next year going back, Jack, and doing it again. Gruelling is doing sprint intervals until your body rings the same alarms you feel when you’ve held your breath for two minutes. Gruelling is doing hill repeats until your lungs burn like a furnace for firing ceramics. Gruelling is pain endured at length. Does pain make you a better person? I don’t know, but coming through it makes you feel like a better one.
Watch the Olympics. There are many amazing feats of strength, skill, and danger. Every second of it earns respect. All of those people have endured gruelling training, torture designed with scientific precision, far more than I have ever endured. But do you know what I like watching the best? The finish lines of the long-distance cross-country ski races. Three metres past the red line, the skiers simply fall into the snow and lie there panting, spent like a twenty at a Saturday sale, letting the cool of the snow soothe the salamander flames of their muscles. Gruelling.
What has such punishing exertion to do with gruel? Gruel (from Old French, from medieval Latin grutellum, from a Germanic root for fine flour) was a light liquid food fed to invalids. From that, the phrase get your gruel came to mean ‘receive punishment’ or ‘be killed’. And so the verb gruel came to mean ‘punish’ or ‘exhaust’ or ‘disable’, and from that came gruelling, also spelled grueling. It is not related to gruesome, which comes from grue ‘shudder in horror, shrink away in terror, tremble’. Well, it is not etymologically related. The sound similarity may or may not have a phonaesthetic basis. I feel quite sure that our modern usage of gruelling is conditioned by what it sounds and feels like.
Not everyone likes a gruelling workout. I can come up with only one explanation for this: those who do not like it have not discovered the thrill and mastery of inflicting pain. On themselves.