The Running Bug

"The Running Bug"

by Tony Noland @TonyNoland

This science fiction adventure ran as a serial on Twitter, March 24-26, 2010. Each episode was posted hourly, around the clock, tracked by the hashtag #run. This was an experiment in 24/7 engagement, author to reader. Did you see it on Twitter? Did it work? Feel free to leave a comment, brief or extensive, to let me know what you thought of the content, form or logistics. Suggestions for future serials are welcome.

Update: A special tip of the hat to @Doublelattemama and to @FutureNostalgic for their enthusiastic support of this story with RTs and the #runpancakes hashtag on Sunday, March 28, 2010. PJ and Sam, thank you!

#run The sole of my right shoe flaps with every stride. I hadn't wanted to run barefoot so soon, but so be it. At least I'll be quieter.

#run I push the shoes into a snowdrift. The spies won't be able to get anything from them. The bugs are strictly intramuscular.

#run Rock salt digs into my heels, even through the calluses. Road crews must have been out prepping for the ice storm.

#run I've been running since midnight, but now I've got a strong, icy tailwind. Only another 35 miles to go. The wind chill feels great.

#run I know I won't really need to eat for another couple of days, but the habits of a lifetime are hard to break, even now. I miss coffee.

#run The gallon of molasses and rum I drank is keeping the bugs happy, thank God. So much easier and faster than eating four jars of jam.

#run I should get off this road before the sleet gets much worse. I don't want to be seen by someone pretending to be a simple jogger.

#run Gasping, grunting as they run, pushing through the pain of the wall, getting that sweet rush of a second wind. I remember it all.

#run The poisonous buildup of lactic acid in muscles pushed past the brink of failure - burning, tearing pain. I remember that, too.

#run Now, when it's too late, when I can't feel either pleasure or pain when I run, I wish yet again that I'd never taken that contract.

#run It was natural that they came to me. How many molecular biophysicists are also mammalian physiologists who run marathons?

#run Such a ridiculous idea. Nineteen separate grant proposals rejected! And then came the Army, with gobs of money and infinite patience.

#run "Sure, I can make your soldiers tireless and unstoppable. What's holding them back is how their muscles work." God, what a fool I was.

#run If the money had come from a company, they would have wanted results sooner, and I never would have been able to do it.

#run The nanoengineered retroviruses worked as my simulations predicted. Only on the forty-first round of testing on mice, but regardless.

#run The necropsies showed the virally-enhanced streptococci had invaded all of the muscles, and were happily degrading the lactic acid.

#run Without any buildup of metabolic toxins, the muscles could go at 140% forever, or until the cells started to tear themselves apart.

#run As long as their blood supplied their muscles with glucose and oxygen, the mice could happily run four mouse-marathons in a row.

#run Invasion of the cardiac muscle was a surprise, but their improved hearts turned out to be a complementary, even synergistic mutation.

#run Synergistic coordination of degradation. It amazes me that I used to talk like that. I had no idea what that would really mean.

#run The mice were willing, even eager to run for hours and hours. I was blind. I paid no attention to that eagerness, that compulsion.

#run Army doctors didn't understand what I'd done and were skeptical about the results. If only I hadn't been so arrogant, gotten so angry!

#run It was so childish, injecting myself with the culture, just so I could show them it worked on humans. I had no idea what I was doing.

#run None of the mice had shown any notable discomfort, let alone the kind of incredible agony that makes you wish for death.

#run Every muscle in my body, even the little ones in my feet, pulsing and throbbing like I'd been dipped in flaming kerosene.

#run When it stopped, it was like turning off a switch. I expected to be sore for days from those horrible muscle cramps. Instead… nothing.

#run That first run afterwards, the one I took to clear my head - that was like a dream. Ten miles in fifty-five minutes, and I felt great!

#run I was itching to show those smug Army guys how well it had worked, hungry to prove myself. Itching and hungry - that's how it started.

#run I was ravenous, but I vomited everything up. Steak, salad, even the toast and coffee. It was the last coffee I ever had…

#run The only thing that tasted good was maple syrup with vodka. I had five. My gut churned, but I felt no pain. Just the itch to run.

#run They doubted me, said they'd cut the funding. I blew off steam with fifteen miles in the morning, another eighteen that afternoon.

#run I know I sounded crazy in the final conference call. I was on my cell, talking as I ran. The itch was so bad, how could I *not* run?

#run My heart ached, my legs burned unbearably. Initially, a steady pace of 160 beats per minute scratched the itch. Then it took 170.

#run The sun rises, blocked by a thick mass of sleet-heavy clouds over my shoulder. My training watch says 205 bpm. Another 24 miles to go.

#run Every runner I see - they're all Army spies. They think I don't know that they're watching me, waiting for me to stop. But I know.

#run There's one, heavily swathed against the sleet. She stares at my bare feet, T-shirt and shorts as I sprint past. She is one of theirs.

#run No Army simpleton is going to pretend not to believe me, then take credit for my work! I burned down the lab at the University. Ha!

#run My order from the wholesaler arrived yesterday. Fourteen pallets of Briar Rose Black Molasses, thirty cases of generic 151 rum.

#run I have everything I need. Glucose, alcohol and space to run, to work, to sweat, to give the bugs the lactic acid they need.

#run The sleet is so thick now, I can barely see. The road is so slippery, I feel like I'm swimming. Faster… I have to go faster!

#run I'm right here, jerkface - get on your own side of the road. Hey, look out, you fool, look out! LOOK OUT!

#run Ahhh… what happened?… Blood? A car?... I have to get out of this ditch, must get up, must run, must… where is my left leg?

#run Somebody, please help me… no, not the blood, I have to get up… the pain is unbearable… the itching… please - help me run… please…

This concludes "The Running Bug". For more fiction, visit #run

I really do want to know what you think, so please feel free to comment, ask a question, make a suggestion for next time, anything at all. Thanks!


  1. tony, I was attending a conference the days you did this - sorry to have missed it.

    This is really cool, suspenseful and funny.

    Very clever way to post a story - I hope it was fun on Twitter!

  2. I was swamped at work when I check twitter, so the first one I saw was "him" running in the sleet. Since I know you're in Philly and had talked about exercising more at one point, my reaction was, "Good God man, it ain't worth it." Then I realized it was an awesome twitter serial:-)

    I liked it, but it seemed a little too broken up. Since you have basically only 135 characters to play with I understand how its going to be either description or exposition. But it seemed to go all description, all exposition (how he came to be running), and then back to description for the end.

    I'm not sure that the Power of Twitter(tm) couldn't have been better used by threading the two a little more. Interspersing exposition amongst the description,

    Still thought it was awesome. I especially enjoy how so many of your stories highlight the dangers from unintended consequences.

  3. Tony - *bravo* for taking a chance on this interesting format and interesting story. The twitter story has been done before but it's definitely a new enough concept that by attempting it, you're delving into uncharted waters.

    Regarding the logistics, my suggestion would be to create a unique hashtag so that it's easy for readers to catch up on installments that they miss (e.g., overnight), rather than having to wade through other random tweets on running. Regarding the story itself, I love the concept - it's suspenseful and clever. Per D. Paul's comment above, it seems like the prose took on a different form in tweets than it might have taken if you had just written it as a flash story. Not necessarily a bad thing, just an observation.

    I think the thing i like most about the approach that you've used is that it forced you to consider each and every word, sentence and tweet and how they contribute to the overall storyline and how they keep things moving along. I think it's an outstanding exercise, if nothing else, and it is a good practice in discipline. Great work, Tony! :-)

  4. I knew this guy's run wasn't going to end well by how you gradually increased the tension in the tweets. His arrogance and paranoia hastened his demise.

    Couldn't help but wonder where the guy headed on his run, as he mentions only having thirty-five miles to go? So, do the mice go crazy, eating each other? I also wondered about the "bugs" -- actual bugs crawling under the skin that caused the degradation or a "viral bug?" I imagined them as actual bugs crawling under the skin and through muscle. *scratching*

    Would've like to have seen him actually drinking his concoction ... I know, gross, but nice visual. : )

    I enjoyed this, Tony. Tried following it during the day on Tweetdeck. A dedicated hashtag will definitely make it easier to follow next time.

  5. Thanks for the comments and suggestions, everyone. A unique hashtag will be a sine qua non for anything like this in the future. Fiction like this so often comes from single-purpose Twitter accounts - e.zines, essentially - that it's easier to follow them. This is especially true when each installment is preceded by an intro tweet (Up next, the sci-fi serial 'The Running Bug', Episode 14 of 50. #TNrun #fiction).

    The writing is different from a normal story broken into 140c chunks. Each tweet had to not only set the scene and/or advance the plot, it also had to hook the reader. If someone came in mid-stream, Every Single Tweet had to be engaging enough to make the reader want to go back and catch what they'd missed and stay around for the next one.

    Plot, setting, characters, hook, hashtag in every tweet, over an arc of 40-50 tweets. Too few and it's not enough space to develop the story. Too many and it drags on too long, with too many complications to keep track of.

    Needless to say, this was a challenge to write. The logistics need to be improved, but I think the story itself is OK.

  6. This was such a cool story and I loved the idea of the tweets. I'd second making the hashtag something less common, but the story itself is awesome. Great job!

  7. Missed it on twitter, but still a fun read here on the site!


  8. I followed it on twitter, but missed the last 4 tweets. I had no idea it was so close to the end - that's the way to keep it moving right to the finish!

    As I tweeted to you earlier, I found it a little difficult to catch up after being away for any length of time, due to the common use of #run. That said, I fully understand the space limitations you were under that caused the non-uniqueness of the hashtag.

    One thing I like is the interaction that can be a part of webfic/weblit, so the odd reader choice for the storyline would have been interesting. Obviously, though, this means alternate paths, or storylines that can converge down the track.

    On the story itself, I enjoyed the plot, and you kept it moving well. The ending was great (especially since it almost came out of no-where) and was unexpected as you had drawn us to expect capture or perhaps escape.

    I will add your site to my bookmarks, and hope to have time to look around it soon.

    Thanks for an enjoyable read.

  9. ganymeder, capriox, WA_side: Thanks for reading, and for the suggestions. As I note above, this is tricky for a number of reasons, and I'm still thinking about the logistics. In the meantime, regular prose is MUCH easier to format!



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