He wished he could be in control of his own destiny.
But Jürgen May, one of the fastest men in the world, was utterly powerless. His life in the hands of a guy he barely knew. Wedged L shaped into the hollowed out cavity of a ludicrous American car. Preying that the border guards wouldn’t find him.
That they wouldn’t hear the ticking of his watch or the beating of his heart.
He could shut everything out when he was running. All of the pressure would just evaporate away with the metronomic movements. It was like he was tripping, there was an almost meditative state that he entered when he started putting foot in front of foot. Trainer in front of trainer.
Three stripes on either side.
But not now. As he tried to ignore the cramping of muscles ill-attuned to inaction like this, his heart was all he could hear. It was booming like artillery fire.
Just months before, in the Summer of 1965, May was the toast of the DDR. He was named Sportsman of the Year. He’d broken the world record in the 1,000 metres, then flown to Wellington, New Zealand, to face Kipchoge Keino over a mile. Apart from the marathon, the most storied distance of them all.
Keino was the first in a seemingly endless parade of great Kenyan middle and long distance runners. Keino would win the Olympic 1,500 metres in Mexico a couple of years later by the largest ever margin.
And May had left him for dead. He ran it in three minutes, fifty-three point eight seconds. Everything clicked. And when everything clicked he could fly.
But he’d still missed out on the world record by a couple of tenths of a second.
A runner knows about margins this fine. He knows about the butterfly effect.
That, just as a race can be won and lost by a gulp of air in the wrong place. Or the slightest, minutest of mis-steps, the consequences of earlier actions become only apparent later on. The vicissitudes of life can swing on a decision, an argument, a piece of poor timing at some point, somewhere way back down the road.
Now, running is supposed to be solitary, but Jürgen May hadn’t been allowed to run on his own for years.
For he had never wanted to let anyone down. The parents who had adopted him and his brother after his real mum and dad had died. The history teacher who saw him heaving a piece of rubble out of a muddy training ground and saw a young athlete in the way his movements were laconic and graceful, yet inherently powerful.
Or his coach, Ewald Mertens, who he loved like a father. Who had run the 800 metres for Germany in the ’36 Olympics. Who had taught him about the mechanics of running, about posture and timing.
And who had died just before everything started to go so well. Which came just before everything, suddenly, started to go so badly.
He could carry them all, though. Even the expectations of a state whose focus on sporting success bordered on the pathological at times. He would be okay as long as he could run.
But a butterfly had flapped its wings for Jürgen May a generation earlier in a different part of what was now a different country. A fraternal fight between Adi and Rudi Dassler had lead to the founding of two rival firms, Puma and Adidas. The DDR’s sportsmen wore three stripes, but their rivals wanted in.
May had accepted a free pair of Pumas with five hundred dollars tucked inside for the trouble of wearing them in the European Championships 5,000 metres final.
The trainers were good, but they can’t have been that good.
For this was in defiance of the state. He was banned for life from doing the thing he loved most of all, the thing he was best at. And all for wearing shoes without three stripes on the sides.
For five hundred fucking dollars.
His Sportsman of the year title was struck from the record. He became, as he said later, an un-person.
And now here he was six months later, running again, but doing so inside the hollowed out body of this metaphor on wheels, with its audacious feminine curves and its bombastic macho gait.
A runner’s muscles retain oxygen better than most of ours. This may have helped him keep still and silent, wedged in there. For an hour and a half he waited as the Hungarian border guards checked everything out about this ostentatious, ridiculous car and its owner, and its intended path straight through a pinprick in the Iron Curtain.
But more likely his only solace was that he knew they weren’t as well kitted out as their comrades on the German border.
And all he could hear was the beating of his heart, going faster, it seemed, than it ever did during a race when he was nearing fifteen miles an hour, attacking the final curve, leaning into it, his fists clenched, biceps pumping like industrial revolution era pistons.
The fastest man in Germany had never moved as slowly as he did across the border control to Austria. Though he passed through safely in the end, he’d rather have been able to take matters into his own hands like he always had.
He’d rather have been able just to run.
Image: By Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-B0831-0012-003 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5360522