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At Least He Never Walked

Once when I was around sixteen and nobody else was home, I stripped naked, stood in front of a large mirror in our house, and checked out my body from top to bottom. As I did this I made a mental list of all the deficiencies—or what, to me at least, appeared to be deficiencies. For instance (and these are just instances), my eyebrows were too thick, or my fingernails were shaped funny—that sort of thing. As I recall, when I got to twenty-seven items, I got sick of it and gave up. And this is what I thought: If there are this many visible parts of my body that are worse than normal people’s, then if I start considering other aspects—personality, brains, athleticism, things of this sort—the list will be endless.

Sixteen is an intensely troublesome age. You worry about little things, can’t pinpoint where you are in any objective way, become really proficient at strange, pointless skills, and are held in thrall by inexplicable complexes. As you get older, though, through trial and error you learn to get what you need, and throw out what should be discarded. And you start to recognize (or be resigned to the fact) that since your faults and deficiencies are well nigh infinite, you’d best figure out your good points and learn to get by with what you have.

But this wretched sort of feeling I had as I stood in front of the mirror at sixteen, listing all my physical shortcomings, is still a sort of touchstone for me even now. The sad spreadsheet of my life that reveals how much my debts far outweigh my assets.

Now, some forty years later, as I stand at the seashore in a black swimsuit, goggles on top of my head, waiting for the start of the triathlon, this memory of so long ago suddenly comes back to me. And once more I’m struck by how pitiful and pointless this little container called me is, what a lame, shabby being I am. I feel like everything I’ve ever done in life has been a total waste. In a few minutes I’m going to swim .93 miles, ride a bike 24.8 miles, then run a final 6.2 miles. And what’s all that supposed to prove? How is this any different from pouring water in an old pan with a tiny hole in the bottom?

Well, at least it’s a beautiful, perfect day—perfect weather for a triathlon. No wind, not a wave in the sea. The sun’s bathing the ground in warmth, the temperature at about 73 degrees. The water is ideal. This is the fourth time I’ve taken part in the triathlon in Murakami City in Niigata Prefecture, and all the previous years the conditions have been atrocious. Once the sea was too rough, as the Japan Sea in the fall is apt to be, so we had to substitute a beach run for the swimming portion. Even when conditions weren’t so drastic, I’d have all kinds of awful experiences: it would rain, or the waves would be so high I couldn’t breathe well when I did the crawl, or else it’d be so cold I’d freeze on the bike. In fact, whenever I drive the 217 miles to Niigata for this triathlon I’m always expecting the worst in terms of weather, convinced that something terrible’s going to happen. It might as well be a sort of image training for me. Even this time, when I first saw the placid, warm sea, I felt like someone was trying to pull a fast one. Don’t fall for it, I warned myself. This was just make-believe; there had to be a trap lying in wait. Maybe a school of vicious, poisonous jellyfish. Or a pre-hibernation, ravenous bear would charge at my bike. Or an unfortunate bolt of lightning would zap me right in the head. Or maybe I’d be attacked by a swarm of angry bees. Maybe my wife, waiting for me at the finish line, was going to have discovered some awful secrets about me (I suddenly felt like there might actually be some). Needless to say, I always view this meet, the Murakami International Triathlon, with a bit of trepidation. I never have any idea what will happen.

No doubt about it now, though, today the weather’s great. As I stand here in my rubber suit, I’m actually starting to get warm.

Around me are people dressed the same way, all fidgeting as they wait for the race to start. A weird scene, if you think about it. We’re like a bunch of pitiful dolphins washed up on the shore, waiting for the tide to come in. Everyone else looks more upbeat about the race than I am. Or maybe it just looks that way. Anyway, I’ve decided to keep my mind clear of the extraneous. I’ve traveled all this way, and now I have to do my best to get through the race. For three hours all I need to do is keep my mind blank and just swim, ride a bike, and run.

When are we going to start? I check my watch. But it’s only a short time after the last time I checked it. Once the race begins I won’t, ideally, have any time to think…

Up to this point I’ve been in six triathlons of various lengths, though for four years, from 2001 to 2004, I didn’t participate in any. The blank in my record exists because during the 2000 Murakami Triathlon I suddenly found myself unable to swim and was disqualified. It’s taken some time to get over the shock and regain my composure. It wasn’t at all clear to me why I couldn’t swim. I mulled over various possibilities in my mind, and as I did so my confidence took a nosedive. I’d been in many races, but this was the first time I’d ever been on the Disqualified roster.

Truthfully, this wasn’t the first time I’d stumbled during the swimming portion of a triathlon. In the pool or in the ocean I’m able to do the crawl over a long distance without pushing it. Usually I can swim 1,500 meters (a swimmer’s mile) in about thirty-three minutes—not especially fast, but good enough for a triathlon. I grew up near the sea and am used to ocean swimming. Some people who practice only in pools find it hard, and frightening, to swim in the ocean, but not me. I actually find it easier because there’s so much space and you’re more buoyant.

For some reason, though, whenever it comes down to an actual race, I blow the swimming portion. Even when I entered the relatively short-distance Tinman competition, in Oahu, Hawaii, I couldn’t do the crawl very well. I got into the water, got ready to swim, and suddenly had trouble breathing. I’d lift my head to breathe, same as always, but the timing was off. And when I’m not breathing right, fear takes over and my muscles tense up. My chest starts pounding, and my arms and legs won’t move the way I want them to. I get scared to put my face in the water and start to panic.

In the Tinman competition, the swimming portion is shorter than usual, at only half a mile, so I was able to give up on the crawl and switch to the breaststroke. But in a regular 1,500-meter race you can’t get by swimming the breaststroke. It’s slower than the crawl, and at the end your legs are exhausted. So in the Murakami Triathlon in 2000 the only thing left for me was to tearfully be disqualified.

I got out and went up on shore, but felt so mad at myself that I got back in the water and tried swimming the course over again. The other participants had long since finished the swimming portion and had set off on their bikes, so I was swimming all alone. And this time I was able to do the crawl with no problem. I could breathe easily and move my body smoothly. So why couldn’t I swim like this during the race?

At the first triathlon I’d ever participated in there was a floating start, where all the participants lined up in the water. As we were waiting, the person next to me kicked me hard in the side several times. It’s a competition, so it’s to be expected—everybody’s trying to get ahead of others and take the shortest route. Getting hit in the elbow while you’re swimming, getting kicked, swallowing water, having your goggles fall off—it’s all par for the course. But for me, getting kicked hard like that in my first race was a shock, and that may have thrown my swimming off. Perhaps subconsciously that memory was coming back to me every time I started a race. I don’t want to think that way, but the mental side of a race is critical, so it’s very possible.

Another problem was that there was something wrong with the way I was swimming. My crawl was self-taught, and I’ve never had a coach. I could swim as long as I cared to, but nobody would ever have said I have an economical or beautiful form. Basically it was the kind of swimming where I just gave it all I had. For a long time I’d been thinking that if I was going to get serious about triathlons I’d have to do something to improve my swimming. Along with searching for what went wrong on the mental side, I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to work on my form. If I could improve the technical side of my swimming, other issues might come into sharper focus as well.

So I put my triathlon challenge on hold for four years. During that time I kept up my usual long-distance running and ran in one marathon per year. But somehow I just wasn’t happy. My failure in the triathlon accounted for part of this. Some day, I thought, I’m going to get revenge. When it comes to things like this, I’m pretty tenacious. If there’s something I can’t do but want to, I won’t relax until I’m able to do it.

I hired a few swimming coaches to help me improve my form, but none of them were what I was looking for. Lots of people know how to swim, but those who can efficiently teach how to swim are few and far between. That’s the feeling I get. It’s difficult to teach how to write novels (at least I know I couldn’t), but teaching swimming is just as hard. And this isn’t just confined to swimming and novels. Of course there are teachers who can teach a set subject, in a set order, using predetermined phrases, but there aren’t many who can adjust their teaching to the abilities and tendencies of their pupils and explain things in their own individual way. Maybe hardly any at all.

I wasted the first two years trying to find a good coach. Each new coach tinkered with my form just enough to mess up my swimming, sometimes to the point where I could hardly swim at all. Naturally, my confidence went down the drain. At this rate there was no way I could enter a triathlon.

Things started to improve around the time I realized that revolutionizing my form was probably impossible. My wife was the one who found me a good coach. She’d never been able to swim her whole life, but she happened to meet a young woman coach at the gym she’s a member of, and you wouldn’t believe how well she swims now. She recommended that I try this young woman as my coach too.

The first thing this coach did was check my overall swimming and ask what my goals were. “I want to participate in a triathlon,” I told her. “So you want to be able to do the crawl in the ocean and swim long distances?” she asked. “That’s right,” I replied. “I don’t need to sprint over short distances.” “Good,” she said. “I’m glad you have clear-cut goals. That makes it easier for me.”

So we began one-on-one lessons to reshape my form. Her approach wasn’t a slash-and-burn policy, totally dismissing the way I’ve been swimming up till now and rebuilding from the ground up. I imagine that for an instructor it’s much more difficult to reshape someone’s form who’s already able, after a fashion, to swim, than to start with a nonswimmer, a blank sheet. It isn’t easy to get rid of bad swimming habits, so my new coach didn’t try to forcefully do a total makeover. Instead, she revised very small movements I made, one by one, over an extended period of time.

What’s special about this woman’s teaching style is that she doesn’t teach you the textbook form at the beginning. Take body rotation, for instance. To get her pupil to learn the correct way, she starts out by teaching how to swim without any rotation. In other words, people who are self-taught in the crawl have a tendency to be overconscious of rotation. Because of this there’s too much resistance in the water and their speed goes down—plus, they waste energy. So in the beginning, she teaches you to swim like a flat board without any body rotation—in other words, completely the opposite of what the textbook says. Needless to say, when I swam that way I felt like an awful, awkward swimmer. As I practiced persistently, I could swim the way she told me to, in this awkward way, but I wasn’t convinced it was doing any good.

And then, ever so slowly, my coach started to add some rotation. Not emphasizing that we were practicing rotation, but just teaching a separate way of moving. The pupil has no idea what the real point of this sort of practice is. He merely does as he’s told, and keeps on moving that one part of his body. For example, if it’s how to turn your shoulders, you just repeat that endlessly. Sometimes you spend an entire session just turning your shoulders. You end up exhausted and spent, but later, in retrospect, you realize what it all was for. The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colors and shapes of the roofs of houses, which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus.

This might be similar to practicing drumming. You’re made to practice bass drum patterns only, day after day. Then you spend days on just the cymbals. Then just the tom tom…Monotonous and boring for sure, but once it all falls together you get a solid rhythm. In order to get there you have to stubbornly, rigorously, and very patiently tighten all the screws of each individual part. This takes time, of course, but sometimes taking time is actually a shortcut. This is the path I followed in swimming, and after a year and a half I was able to swim long distances far more gracefully and efficiently than ever before.

And while I was training for swimming, I made an important discovery. I had trouble breathing during a race because I’d been hyperventilating. The same exact thing happened when I was swimming in the pool with my coach, and it dawned on me: just before the start of the race I was breathing too deeply and quickly. Probably because I was tense before a race, I got too much oxygen all at once. This led to me breathing too fast when I started to swim, which in turn threw off the timing of my breathing.

It was a tremendous relief when I finally pinpointed the real problem. All I had to do now was make sure not to hyperventilate. Now before a race starts I get into the sea, swim a bit, and get my body and mind used to swimming in the ocean. I breathe moderately in order not to hyperventilate, and breathe with my hand over my mouth in order not to get too much oxygen. “I’m all set now,” I tell myself. “I’ve changed my form, and am no longer the swimmer I used to be.”

And so, in 2004, for the first time in four years, I again entered the Murakami Triathlon. A siren marked the start, everyone began swimming, and somebody kicked me in the side. Startled, I was afraid that once again I was going to mess up. I swallowed some water, and the thought crossed my mind that I should switch to the breaststroke for a while. But my courage returned, and I told myself that there was no need for that, that things would work out. My breathing calmed down, and I started the crawl again. I concentrated not on breathing in, but on breathing out in the water. And I heard that nice old sound of my exhalations bubbling underwater. I’m okay now, I told myself as I neatly rode the waves.

Happily, I was able to conquer my panic and finish the triathlon. I hadn’t been in one for so long, and hadn’t had time to do bicycle training, so my overall time wasn’t much to speak of. But I was able to achieve my first goal: wiping away the shame of being disqualified. As usual, my main feeling was one of relief.

I’d always thought I was sort of a brazen person, but this issue with hyperventilating made me realize a part of me was, unexpectedly, high strung. I had no idea how nervous I got at the start of a race. But it turns out I really was tense, just like everybody else. It doesn’t matter how old I get, but as long as I continue to live I’ll always discover something new about myself. No matter how long you stand there examining yourself naked before a mirror, you’ll never see reflected what’s inside.

And here I am again, at nine thirty a.m. on October 1, 2006, a sunny fall Sunday, standing once more on the shores of Murakami City in Niigata Prefecture, waiting for the triathlon to begin. A little nervous, but making sure not to hyperventilate. I go over my mental checklist one more time, just to be certain I haven’t forgotten anything. Computerized ankle bracelet—check. I’ve rubbed Vaseline all over my body so when I finish swimming I can easily get my wetsuit off. I’ve carefully done my stretching. I’ve drunk enough water. And used the toilet. Nothing left to do. I hope.

I’ve been in this race a few times, so I recognize a few of the other participants. As we wait for the race to start, we shake hands and chat. I’m not the type who gets along easily with others, but for some reason with other triathletes I have no problem. Those of us who participate in triathlons are unusual people. Think about it for a minute. Most all the participants have jobs and families, and on top of taking care of these, they swim and bike and run, training very hard, as part of their ordinary routine. Naturally this takes a lot of time and effort. The world, with its commonsensical viewpoint, thinks their lifestyle is peculiar. And it would be hard to argue with anyone who labeled them eccentrics and oddballs. But there’s something we share, not something as exaggerated as solidarity, perhaps, but at least a sort of warm emotion, like a vague, faintly colored mist over a late-spring peak. Of course, competition is part of the mix—it’s a race, after all—but for most of the people participating in a triathlon the competitive aspect is less important than the sense of a triathlon as a sort of ceremony by which we can affirm this shared bond.

In this sense, the Murakami Triathlon is a convenient race. There aren’t so many competitors (somewhere between three hundred and four hundred), and the race is run in a very low-key way. It’s a small, local, homemade type of triathlon. The people in the town warmly support us. There’s nothing gaudy or overdone about the race, and that quiet kind of atmosphere appeals to me. Apart from the race itself, there are wonderful hot springs nearby, the food is great, and the local sake (especially Shimehari Tsuru) is outstanding. Over the years that I’ve participated in the race, I’ve made some acquaintances in the area. There are even people who come all the way from Tokyo to cheer me on.

At 9:56 the start siren goes off, and everyone immediately begins the crawl. This is it—the most nerve-racking moment of all.

I plunge in and start kicking and plowing through the water with my arms. I try to clear my mind of everything extraneous and concentrate not on inhaling, but on exhaling. My heart’s pounding, and I can’t get the rhythm right. My body’s a bit stiff. And as you might expect, somebody kicks me in the shoulder again. Somebody else is leaning over me, getting on top of my back, like one turtle getting on top of another. I swallow some water, but not very much. Nothing to worry about, I tell myself. Don’t panic. I breathe in and out at a steady rhythm, and that’s the most critical thing right now. As I do, the tension drains away. Things are going to be okay. Just keep swimming like this. Once I get the rhythm down, all I have to do is maintain it.

But then—and with triathlons you almost expect this—some unforeseen trouble leaps out at me. As I’m doing the crawl I raise my head to check my direction and think What the…? My goggles are all fogged up, and I can’t see a thing…It’s like the whole world is cloudy and opaque. I stop swimming, tread water, and rub the goggles with my fingers to try to clear them up. But still I can’t see. What is going on? The goggles are a pair I use all the time, and I’ve done a lot of training with them so I can see where I’m going as I swim. So what in the world is happening? Then it hits me. After I rubbed my skin with Vaseline I didn’t wash my hands, so I wiped the goggles with oily fingers. What an asinine thing to do! At the start line I always wipe my goggles with saliva, which keeps the inside from fogging up. And this time I had to go and forget to do that.

During the whole 1,500-meter swim my foggy goggles bothered me. I was constantly off course, swimming in the wrong direction, and wasted a lot of time. Sometimes I had to stop, remove my goggles, tread water, and figure out where I should go. Imagine a blindfolded child trying to hit a piñata, and you get the idea.

If I’d thought about it, I could have swum without my goggles. I should have just taken them off. When I was swimming, however, I was kind of confused and didn’t have the presence of mind to figure that out. Thanks to this, the swimming part of the race was pretty disorderly, and my time wasn’t nearly as good as what I’d been hoping for. In terms of my ability—remember how hard I’d trained for this—I should have been able to swim much faster. I consoled myself with the thought that at least I wasn’t disqualified, didn’t get left behind that much, and was able to finish the swim. And whenever I managed to swim in a straight line, I did a decent job of it, I think.

I got up on the beach and made straight for where the bikes were parked (which seems easy but actually isn’t), peeled off my snug wetsuit, tugged on my bike shoes and helmet and wraparound sunglasses, gulped down some water, and, finally, headed out onto the road. I was able to do all that so mechanically that by the time I was thinking again, I realized I’d been splashing around in the water until just a minute before and now was whizzing by at twenty miles an hour on a bike. No matter how many times I experience this, the sudden transition feels odd. It’s a different feeling of weight, speed, and motor reflexes, and you use completely different muscles. You feel like a salamander that’s evolved overnight into an ostrich. My brain wasn’t able to make the switch very quickly, and neither could my body. I couldn’t keep the pace up, and before I knew it seven other racers had passed me. This isn’t good, I thought, and up to the turning point I didn’t pass anyone.

The bike segment follows a well-known stretch of seacoast called Sasagawa Nagare. It’s a very scenic spot, with unusual rock formations jutting out of the water, though of course I didn’t have the time to enjoy the scenery. We raced from Murakami City northward along the sea, with the turn near the border with Yamagata Prefecture that would send us back along the same road. There were slopes in several places, but nothing steep enough to make me blank out. Before reaching the turn, I didn’t worry about passing others or being passed, but focused instead on pedaling at a steady pace, using an easy gear. At regular intervals I’d reach down for my water bottle and grab a quick drink. As I did all this I gradually started to feel comfortable on the bike again. Feeling I could handle it now, when we reached the turn I downshifted, sped up, and in the second half of the race passed seven people. The wind wasn’t blowing hard, so I could pedal for all I was worth. When the wind’s strong, amateur bicyclists like me get pretty dejected. Making the wind work for you takes years of experience and a great deal of skill. When there’s no wind, though, it all comes down to a question of leg strength. I wound up finishing the 24.8 miles at a faster clip than I’d expected, then tugged on my good old running shoes for the final leg of the race.

When I switched to running, though, things got pretty rough. Normally I would have held back a little in the bike portion to save up energy for the run, but this time, for whatever reason, it just didn’t cross my mind. I just let ’er rip, then plunged right into running. As you can imagine, my legs didn’t work right. My mind ordered them, “Run!,” but my leg muscles were on strike. I could see myself running but had no sensation of running.

Each race is a little different, but the same basic thing happens every triathlon. The muscles I’ve pushed hard for over an hour while biking, the ones I still want to be open for business when I start running, just won’t move smoothly. It takes time for the muscles to change from one rail to another. For the first two miles both my legs always seem locked up, and only after that am I finally able to run. This time, though, it took a lot longer to get to this point. Of the three events in a triathlon, running is obviously my specialty, and usually I’m able to easily pass at least thirty other runners. But this time I could only pass ten or fifteen. Still, I was glad to be able to even out my performance a bit. In my last triathlon I’d been passed by a lot of people in the bike portion, but this time it was my run time that wasn’t so great. Even so, the difference between the events I was good at and those I wasn’t had decreased, meaning that perhaps I was getting the hang of being a true triathlete. This was definitely something to cheer about.

As I ran through the beautiful old part of Murakami City, the cheers of the spectators—ordinary residents, I’m assuming—spurred me on, and I wrung out my last ounce of energy as I raced for the finish line. It was an exultant moment. It had been a tough race, for sure, what with my Vaseline adventure, but once I reached the finish that all vanished. After I caught my breath, I exchanged a smile and a handshake with the man wearing race number 329. “Good job,” we told each other. He and I had battled it out in the bike race, where he passed me many times. Right when we started running, my shoelaces came untied and twice I had to stop to retie them. If only that hadn’t happened, I know I would have passed him—or so goes my optimistic hypothesis. When I picked up the pace at the end of the run, I almost passed him, but wound up three yards short. Naturally the responsibility for not checking my shoelaces before the race lies entirely with yours truly.

At any rate, I’d happily made it to the finish line set up in front of the Murakami City Hall. The race was over. I didn’t drown, didn’t get a flat, didn’t get stung by a vicious jellyfish. No ferocious bear hurled himself at me, and I wasn’t stung by wasps, or hit by lightning. And my wife, waiting at the finish line, didn’t discover some unpleasant truth about me. Instead, she greeted me with a smile. Thank goodness.

The happiest thing for me about this day’s race was that I was able, on a personal level, to truly enjoy the event. The overall time I posted wasn’t anything to brag about, and I made a lot of little mistakes along the way. But I did give it my best, and I felt a nice, tangible afterglow. I also think I’ve improved in a lot of areas since the previous race, which is an important point to consider. In a triathlon the transition from one event to the next is difficult, and experience counts for everything. Through experience you learn how to compensate for your physical shortcomings. To put it another way, learning from experience is what makes the triathlon so much fun.

Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive—or at least a partial sense of it. Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself. If things go well, that is.

On the way back to Tokyo from Niigata I saw quite a few cars with bicycles strapped to their roofs on their way back from the race. The people inside were all tanned and strong looking—the typical triathlon physique. After our unpretentious race on a fall Sunday, we were all on our way back to our own homes, back to our own mundane lives. And with the next race in mind, each of us, in our place, will most likely silently go about our usual training. Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely inefficient, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so. That’s the feeling I have, as someone who’s felt this, who’s experienced it.

I have no idea whether I can actually keep this cycle of inefficient activities going forever. But I’ve done it so persistently over such a long time, and without getting terribly sick of it, that I think I’ll try to keep going as long as I can. Long-distance running (more or less, for better or worse) has molded me into the person I am today, and I’m hoping it will remain a part of my life for as long as possible. I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together. There may not seem to be much logic to it, but it’s the life I’ve chosen for myself. Not that, at this late date, I have other options.

These thoughts went through my head as I drove along after the triathlon, headed for home.

I expect that this winter I’ll run another marathon somewhere in the world. And I’m sure come next summer I’ll be out in another triathlon somewhere, giving it my best shot. Thus the seasons come and go, and the years pass by. I’ll age one more year, and probably finish another novel. One by one, I’ll face the tasks before me and complete them as best I can. Focusing on each stride forward, but at the same time taking a long-range view, scanning the scenery as far ahead as I can. I am, after all, a long-distance runner.

My time, the rank I attain, my outward appearance—all of these are secondary. For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am able, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson. (It’s got to be concrete, no matter how small it is.) And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it. (Yes, that’s a more appropriate way of putting it.) Some day, if I have a gravestone and I’m able to pick out what’s carved on it, I’d like it to say this:

Haruki Murakami


Writer (and Runner)

At Least He Never Walked

At this point, that’s what I’d like it to say.

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