I took a few nervous glances around the start area, sleek bodies peppered up front, self-consciously staying away from the actual start line. The usual cast of runners owned their places, dressed in shorts at near illegal length, college names emblazoned on singlets, the most minimal of brightly colored shoes adorning their feet. I wasn’t much different, except, and it’s worth mentioning, I was wearing my circa 1987 RATT Dancing Dangerously tour t-shirt. I mention this, because more than just a deliberate, antagonistic break from elite runner attire, this shirt represents something to me. Again, going back to my days of more care-free running and racing, this was the shirt I often wore at trail races. Honestly, I don’t remember why I chose it to race in, but it ended up becoming my “thing”. Ultimately, this is how people remembered who I was. For me, however, this shirt is more a representation of just running, of not worrying about exact splits, perfect fueling, practiced form, and all those details that can really get in your head. This shirt represented putting on some shoes and just running. It felt good to put it back on the race course.
Minutes before the start I began my routine of light jogging, warm up drills, and quick, strong run outs. The race hadn’t even started, but I felt great, if only because I was back in my element, not as an imposter wishing I could hang up front despite all the evidence to the contrary, but because I really could hang up front this time. It has been almost 3 years since feeling this, and damn, it felt good. It felt exciting. My run outs surprisingly felt the same. A few quick bursts and my heart rate never spiked, my legs filled with a strength and fluidity that signaled I was more than ready to race. A few more minutes ticked by, the swell of runners inched closer to the start line, and we were ready to go.
With a short countdown and an air horn blasting skyward, we bounded forward into the course to eat up the first declining mile. A group of us scattered out front to settle into our respective paces and determine where we would line up around the rest. Instantly a group of four runners gathered up front, two more coupled a few paces behind, and then myself. I sensed and heard runners behind me, but dared not look back to see what might be coming. The declining mile convinced me I would be tucked back among many runners that went out too hard with the aided elevation loss, but that never happened, and not because I was pushing to hard either. I was reserved, as I had consistently reminded myself, and very reserved. I was cruising as if starting a long run warm up, but still up front and losing the footfalls of other runners behind me. Looking ahead, I saw one of the coupled runners made a comfortable surge to run with the front pack, leaving the 6th runner on his own, giving me a bright orange singlet to keep in sight like an elusive carrot to horse.
We rolled past the first mile marker, but I didn’t see it or a clock, fortunately, as I dared not get the concern of pacing in my head, compelling me to compensate one way or the other. My goal was to beat the course and leave it at that, so when we rolled up onto the bridge that spit us out down a short downhill and towards the base of the first extended climb, I was glad to be feeling completely in control and breathing calmly. The runner ahead was still in sight and not gaining or losing much ground in our efforts.
The first climb extended from about 2 miles to 3 and a quarter, but offered moments of relief when the course would turn then slightly dip before rising again. At one point of the climb, however, it wouldn’t relent until we peaked and dropped again. I worked my way up the hill, trying to maintain a decent pace and solid form, but not going for an all out attack and expending the strength I would need later in the race. Reaching the top of the drawn out climb, I was glad to find a quickened recovery within me and the ability to push back to pace and then some as the course began a drop back downwards. We ran through neighborhood streets with a spattering of spectators offering words of encouragement quieted by the early morning, or more excitable children ringing cowbells and taking advantage of the permission to yell without reservation.
I stayed secure in my 7th place position as the course dropped abruptly, like really abruptly, forcing the decision to bomb the hill and risk banging up the quads and aggravating my IT band issue, or braking slightly, also a risk of banging the quads and aggravating my IT band. With little difference in effect between the two, I decided to go for broke and let gravity take me where it may. Trying my best to bound lightly into and off the ground, using the momentum of the downward pull to lessen the blow, the course quickly bottomed out, but only briefly before pushing us back up a significantly steep and pace sucking hill for nearly a quarter of a mile.
The change from downward speed to an uphill battle was immediately felt and I tried to switch from lungs beating out of control to legs that could carry me to the top as quick as possible. Again, I didn’t try to fight the hill, but stay stable and keep form up and over, hoping the peak didn’t involve a slumping body and legs emptied of strength that would barely swing forward. I felt the weight of the climb wearing on me as the top of the hill and a cheering section waited, but I was excited to find I could pick up speed at the top, rolling me through the crowds quickly and back towards the next turn that lay on undulations in decline, the bright orange runner still in sight ahead of me and only distant cheers for the next runners following up from behind.
Speaking of cheers, among the “looking good!”, and “nice work!”, I started to hear a bit of, “Hey! Nice shirt!” and “Ratt! I like your shirt!” I was pleasantly amused, but far too focused to respond…more on that to come.
After rolling the second hill, the course found it’s way onto an isolated back road that offered some flat terrain for recovery and gauge of pacing. It was here we passed the 5 mile clock and I caught my first sense of how the race was going, time-wise, kinda. I took a quick glance, still running comfortable and in control, to see the clock ticking out 29 minutes and change. I quickly did the most poor of math and thought to myself, “Shit…7 minute pace? I figured I was running harder than that. Those hills must be more problematic than I thou…wait…5 times, wait, 6, that’s 30:00. Oh! Shit! I’m at sub-6:00 pace. Nevermind! I can work with this!”
And I was still feeling strong and in control.
The bright orange runner still lay in sight, just ahead, and the cheers resounded relatively distant behind, just as the course took a turn that began a long, significantly fatiguing, uphill climb from mile 5.5 to 6. This was the type of climb that seemed to only get steeper as it extended around each turn and when you thought the end was in sight, it grew away from you, testing your resolve to keep pushing against your resisting legs and quickening lungs. A water station at the top of the crowd was the only impetus for me to keep pushing, compelling me to salvage a bit of my broken ego, pretending I wasn’t desperately seeking the end of the climb and ready to keep pushing strong. Somehow, in the midst of all that, I dropped my hand to give a quick high-five to one of the little kids on the sidelines, maybe a more true testament to my resolve at this point. The climbs, however, weren’t over just yet. I was beating the course, but hadn’t beat it just yet.
The course turned along side a golf course and stretched far off into the distance, the only relief being a slight decline that helped me get my legs back under me, recover my lungs just enough to fall back into rhythm, and start pushing again. The bright orange runner, however, had started to get away at this point, and the cheers for me were soon followed by more close behind. Someone…or someones…was gaining. Still, I dare not look back, for they weren’t my competition. The course and my resolve was.
I fell back into rhythm down the long stretch and made my way to an abrupt downhill that would meet the final potential race ruining climb that peaked just past halfway in an isolated neighborhood that brought out a sizable crowd of spectators to cheer us in and out. Bombing that short, but steep, hill just before the climb I suddenly felt that worrisome and pointed pain to the side of my knee, signaling a tightening IT band. I adjusted form and tried to run through it at the bottom, but the pain quickly increased, forcing me to stop for the first time, make my brief outward leg bend before starting back up again and barely stopping in the process, probably only losing a second or two. The pain dissipated as I knew it would, and I was pain-free for another few miles. But I still had the hill to conquer.
I started picking my way up the steep climb, a group of spectators cheering us as the course turned left…into another steep upward climb towards the top of the hill where the crowds waited. The incline was taking its toll and I struggled to bound my body up the hill with strength, feeling my torso bending over instead of pushing straight and tall to the top. My lungs beat hard and fast and I craved the relief that would come in the rolling neighborhood, but in the moment I was feeling the burn. The gathered crowd cheered hard, but I couldn’t help but internalize pity in their voices as my face surely looked strained. Then, when the doubt mounted with the elevation, the road curved over and finally let the recovery flood my body as I ran away from the spectators, however, the cheers behind came almost as soon as I passed, alerting me to other runners just behind. I said the battle was against the course, but I can’t leave all the competitiveness behind, and I started telling myself, “Ok, 8th or 9th place is totally fine, even 10th. Top 10 would be great. What about 13th? Damn. I don’t wanna get rolled into 13th this late in the race. I just hope I can hang onto the top 10.”
All this conversation was enabled by the course relatively leveling out, though the recovery I hoped for remained elusive. I waited out the spiked heart rate and tried to find my legs beneath me, which happened, surprisingly, as the course wrapped around the neighborhood and ever so slightly inclined back up. Suddenly my arms were swinging straight and I felt the consistent control I had earlier in the race. The hills had certainly taken their toll, but I wasn’t in a suffer to the finish mode just yet. I didn’t claim victory over the course prematurely, but I knew this was my turning point, where I could start to let go and really push without reservation. I ran past the spectators again, catching sight of the other runners coming into the neighborhood, and turned back towards the downtown, and then turned again…the wrong way.
Somehow, still a bit out of my head from the effort, I turned left when the course went right, inside a couple cones and RIGHT BY A COURSE VOLUNTEER. I saw the course volunteer stick his arm out to signal to the runners behind me to go right, looked up to see cars off in the distance, which gave me pause and made me question my sense of direction, only to hear a powerful voice yell out behind me,
“Hey! No! This way!”
I turned, saw the first woman lead by a bicycle rider, who was the one redirecting me to the course, pass right by, followed by another runner.
“Shit.” I verbalized to myself as I ran back on the course, losing a few seconds in the mistake.
Fortunately, they were the only ones in striking distance at that point, and so I remained in 9th place, comfortably in that top 10 placing I was hoping to retain. I rolled up a few paces behind the lead woman, passed the other male runner who was hanging on to her pace, and tried to fall back into a groove where my internal fight was to begin. And I still had about 5 more miles to see how that would all play out…
——–Part 3 to come——–