A Guided Tour of the Struggle Bus

It was mile 8 of a half marathon in May and there I was, just trucking along until I suddenly found myself scooped up and plopped into some other dimension where putting one foot in front of the other was the hardest thing I’d ever done. My stride length decreased in inverse proportion to my effort level and the next five miles stretched out ahead of me all the way into the shimmering palm-tree oasis of infinity.

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech. A looming, square-ish form pulled up next to me in a noxious cloud of pink smoke, all clattering engine and squealing tires. “Well? Get on! I don’t have all day!” came a gravelly bark from the bowels of the wheeled beast. I didn’t even have time to reply before I found myself somehow whisked to a cracked, sticky plastic seat halfway down a narrow aisle that was like an obstacle course with the sweaty, compression-socked calves and blistered feet of fellow passengers sticking out from the other seats. A sharp, cracked plastic edge dug into my right hamstring and the seat was so hot I thought it would melt my shorts.

This was it: my official ride on the struggle bus.

What? Oh. I hear you. Hey Caraway, the struggle bus is a metaphor. When I said I was literally riding the struggle bus, I wasn’t using literally literally.

Ah! I am, though. When I say the struggle bus is literally real, I’m using literally literally. I was there. This is my story.

Bus covered in colorful paint
Here it comes… The struggle bus!

The struggle bus schedule is completely unreliable.

The struggle bus comes exclusively when you neither want nor need it, never when you do.

The driver may or may not have a license.

She’s bopping out to 80’s Cyndi Lauper on the Walkman headphones she’s jammed over her moussed-to-high-heaven curls, steering with one knee while she digs into a tub of ice cream.ย  She learned to drive at the official driving school of LIFE, OK? You can ask questions (it’s a free country, after all), but don’t expect her to be able to hear you while she’s humming Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in between mouthfuls of Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle Cookie Dough. Don’t worry, though, the ice cream is probably not spiked with vodka. Probably.

The struggle bus does not have working A/C…

…unless it’s below freezing outside. The heat, of course, works great on full-blast in the middle of summer. Thinking of cracking a window? Think again. They’re all painted shut.

Speaking of air, the air quality is “interesting.”

The driver spritzed on half a bottle of Bath & Body Works’ popular 90’s Country Apple Body Spray before she left for work this morning. Plus, she’s got a bottle of Lysol in a hip holster that she yanks out and randomly sprays toward the passengers every now and then. Well, come on, you guys are gross! Look into showering, OK? And maybe deodorant? Also, the chickens kinda smell.

Oh yeah, about those chickens.

If you’re lucky, you’ll get a sticky plastic seat to yourself. If the bus is especially full that day, you may have to share with a netting bag full of chickens.

Stack of suitcases with travel stickers
So. Much. Baggage.

Don’t worry, though, there’s definitely enough room for all your baggage.

Like, allllllllllllll your baggage. Don’t look now, but yeah, that’s your high school gym teacher crammed into the metal overhead luggage rack. And is that your gross ex crammed in next to him, the one who constantly reminded you that what you were doing wasn’t “real” training and double-checked how many grams of fat were in the yogurt you ate for dessert? Yeah, that’s him, and he’s brandishing a razor demanding you shave his back hair for him. Oh, and that 19th century steamer trunk full of transcripts of every rejection you’ve ever received from anyone in your entire life — how’d that get here?

You’ll get off when the driver says you’ll get off and not a millisecond earlier.

It’s weirdly easy to get on the struggle bus, but it absolutely does not let anyone off. Sure, there’s a button you can push that rings a clangy school bell at the front that’s supposed to alert the driver you want to get off, but half the time she can’t hear it over her tunes. And the doors are stuck shut the other half of the time, so you might as well just settle in and enjoy the entertainment.

Oh yes, there’s entertainment.

A tiny movie screen is playing a terrible, too-loud movie, perhaps Hot Chicks, or something with David Spade in it.

Ultimately, though, the struggle bus always comes through.

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeech. You’re thrown against the gum-studded back of the seat in front of you. You’re still trying to unstick your race number from a gooey glob of chewed Wrigley’s when the gravelly voice penetrates your eardrums again. “Hey! You! I don’t got all day, this is your stop, unless you wanna stay all day?” There’s a flash of light, and then you find yourself squeezing through the barely person-sized crack between the bus doors and stumbling onto a road lined with cheering spectators. The bus roars off in its trademark toxic pink exhaust cloud; you rub your eyes and squint in both directions. Ah. There it is. The finish line. Your legs are all stiff and one foot’s asleep from cramming yourself in with the bag of chickens, but you slowly hobble toward the giant numbers on the clock. It’s not how you imagined yourself finishing all those months ago when you started your training plan, naive and full of motivation, but the driver got you here all the same. Maybe you’ll raise a spiked milkshake to her later. (After you’ve rinsed off the Lysol.)

Have you ever been on the struggle bus? What was it like for you?

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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