Oh, hell, Brenda thought, picking up the race paperwork at Fleet Feet downtown. Nobody ever said this was going to be one of those stupid costume runs.
It was the clown behind the registration table that made her think that. The clown wasn't taking registration fees or passing out bibs or Clif bars. No, it was just standing there, behind the women who were doing those things, just standing and staring. It looked friendly enough standing there -- Lord knew Sacramento had had its share of scary clown sightings as part of a nationwide frenzy -- but this one had a joyful grin on its face and big blue eyes and fluffy yellow hair.
Brenda double checked the paperwork in her hands. There was no indication that there would be costumes in this race or anything like that. This wasn't Bay-To-Breakers, for crying out loud, it was the Tower Run, a serious race for serious racers. It was also Brenda's first half-marathon in years and she wasn't going to let anyone, clown or no, ruin it for her.
The next day, the day of the race itself, she showed up at the starting line at Land Park. She didn't go to the rear end of the pack with the strollers and the walkers and the 5K-ers. She was going to run the whole thing, so she went straight to the front.
"Hi diddly ho!" cried a cheerful voice next to her.
Brenda glanced over. It was a clown, similar to the one she'd seen at Fleet Feet, but this one had blue hair instead of yellow, and a long necktie that looked like a rubber fish.
She did not respond to the greeting. The clown shrugged and looked away.
Brenda looked around. There were hundreds of people here, all ready for the half-marathon, or the 10K or the 5K or the one-mile "fun run". And there were dozens of clowns, milling through the crowd, just walking around. No one was interacting with them, or even acknowledging that they were there.
That was odd.
But Brenda didn't have time to think about it. The bell rang, and the race was on.
Half an hour into the half marathon, Brenda was feeling fine. Her feet didn't hurt, her legs felt strong and powerful, and her breathing was steady. But that was when she felt the spray of water on her face, and caught a glimpse of something red and bulbous to her left.
"What the hell?" she cried out, but she didn't break stride.
"Hoo diddly hi!" cried the clown that had come up next to her. It had sprayed her with a bottle of seltzer water and was laughing maniacally.
"Hoo hoo hoo!" laughed the clown, spraying her again. Then it bounded away on its ludicrously huge red rubber shoes, faster than Brenda was running, its wacky arms flopping and its wig jiggling.
"Oh no you don't," Brenda thought. She furrowed her brow in irritation, then picked up her speed. She had been a fast runner, once, but after all that time in the hospital, she had lost some of her conditioning. She was trying to pace herself, but she'd be damned if she was going to lose ground to this stupid character.
"HAHAHAHA!" shouted another clown from just behind her. "YOU'LL NEVER MAKE IT!"
"SHUT UP!" Brenda called back. Weren't clowns supposed to be jolly and fun? She was still chasing the one that had spritzed her.
But it wasn't long before her breath started to fail her. Her nose was dribbling, as it always did when she ran. She had some Kleenex in her pocket, but taking it out and wiping her face right now would be awkward. She had to slow down. There was a water station just ahead, and if she slowed down just a bit she could grab some water, maybe wipe her nose on a napkin.
Dammit, there was a clown at the water station. This one was bald, with a tiny beanie on its head and an absurdly oversized bowtie around its neck. It danced back and forth on its feet while holding up a bottle of water.
"Don't look at them," said another runner as he passed her. "If you look at them they'll catch you."
"The clowns?" Brenda asked, but the other runner, a trim man who looked to be in his fifties, had already passed by. "Wait!" she shouted at him. "What's going on?" She ran faster, caught up to him.
"I don't know," the man said, panting. "The clowns. I don't think they're human. They already caught my wife and son."
"What happens when they catch you?" It hurt to breathe and talk, but she was starting to get scared. "What do you mean?"
"I mean they just..."
And then the man stumbled. His foot caught on something on the pavement, something invisible, perhaps a pebble, and down he went. Immediately he was beset by the clowns, who descended on him, crowding him until Brenda could no longer see him. She slowed down, nearly came to a stop as she looked back.
"OH HO HO HOOOOO!" shouted a clown nearby. "READY TO PLAY WITH US?"
The man was gone. In his place was...
Brenda ran. She ran faster than she thought she could, given the condition of her body. She ran hard, avoiding the other runners who were being taken down by other clowns, avoiding the water stations, and breathing hard. A cramp in her left calf almost brought her down, but she ran through it.
12.0 read a sign.
Oh thank God, Brenda thought. Only 1.2 miles to go.
And that's when she stumbled.
"Awww," said a goofy voice. "And you were nearly halfway there."