The bicycle pacer rolled in front of the lead woman who was looking strong and in control, while the other male runner beat out a rhythm with his footfalls that would lead me to believe he was struggling. They were loud, quick, and seemingly frantic, yet he wasn’t struggling, and I found it difficult to remain calm at that pace and stride. I’d like to say I pulled ahead to put the sound of his feet smacking the pavement back behind me, but really, the opposite occurred. As the lead woman made ground, he was able to hang on her back and follow while I waited out the distance in an effort to recover from that last hill climb. Ever so slowly, they put space between themselves and me, just when the course began it’s undulating drops back into town and towards the finish.
Admittedly, I’d love to say that when we left that cemetery, at the high point of the course, I dug into the well of strength I was reserving and launched into a quickened pace, eating up the other runners and miles in front of me, seemingly getting stronger as the race drew on. But…that didn’t happen. Fortunately, I didn’t crash and burn either. I held steady…and this was good.
The three of us exited the cemetery and started into the streets lined by houses and businesses, the road dropping just before rising again, then dropping, then rising again. The course description read “It’s all downhill from here”, but I knew that wouldn’t be true. If you tell a runner it’s “all” downhill, we’re going to assume it’s ALL downhill, but it wasn’t. The drops fell into the start of another block long climb, before dropping and then climbing, like a gentle roller coaster, which can significantly drain the body of strength as you adjust to the varied efforts. And yet, those downhills filled my legs with the rhythm of quick running again and again, letting me push at every opportunity, and it was a victory that I could.
The small inclines would pull my efforts back, but at each subsequent decline I was able to get back into race pace and push ahead, despite the runners just ahead making slight ground in getting away. Still, I stayed in 9th place and heard no cheering off my back, leading me to believe no one was making a concerted effort to run me down. I repeated the phrase that tends to enter my mind at this point in the race. “If you’re hurting, they’re going to have to hurt even worse to catch you.” And so I kept laying into each moment I could free my body from the forces of gravity, and it was encouraging to feel I had enough in me to keep doing just that.
The undulations were wearing on me, however, but the encouragement of the spectators in this more crowded part of the course pushed me forward. We passed the 10 mile mark and the relief of “only a 5k” compelled me onward into a slight drop towards another left hand turn. As the downward force was pounding into my legs and sapping my resolve, I neared the turn and heard a spectator excitedly yell out in my direction.
“Ratt! Yeah! Ratt! Round and round! Round and round! Yeah, I love your shirt!”
His excitement was genuine and unbridled, igniting a surge of adrenaline within me that had me take the turn with a renewed sense of determination. I mean, with that sort of encouragement, how could I disappoint? And his enthusiasm came at just the right moment, as the course turned somewhat sharply upward – at least, it felt that way – for a block or two, but I took the turn without losing speed and pushed harder up the hill. Behind me, the spectator’s enthusiasm continued on,
“Did you see that?! He had a Ratt shirt on! Round and Round! Yeah, Round and Round!”
Invigorated by this quick surge, I looked ahead to see the 8th place runner and the course turn yet again, sending us back down towards the bridge we crossed after the 1st mile. I crested the rise, made the turn and managed to hold onto my pace as I sense my heart rate increasing with the distance. Fortunately, the course seemed to continue dropping as we ran forward, then with little warning dropped further and further, sending us into “hill bombing” mode, forcing me to gain control of my form and not resist the muscle shredding impact of each footfall. The final downward hill turned back into the bridge we first crossed and I could feel the psychological release of the race almost complete. Almost.
I got to the bridge, the runner ahead just out of striking distance, and felt the pointed pain on the side of my knee spike abruptly, the IT band worked too hard on the previous downhill. I stopped cold, bent my leg, and then pushed back onto the bridge pain-free, hoping that would be the last interruption of pace before the finish line.
Crossing over the bridge, I tried to measure my pace towards something strong but still reserved enough to keep from a pre-finish blow up, then took a turn that brought us near the finish line, but then right past it. I ran by the 12 mile time clock and did some quick, amateur math, realizing I was probably a full minute behind the 1:20 breaking point. I was ok with that, knowing that, at this point, I had beat the course and not the other way around. I hit my goal, but the race wasn’t over.
I ran through a crowd of spectators and heard a volunteer call out, “Just one more quick rise and then you’re done.” Admittedly, I started to FEEL done, but knew I needed to hang on just a bit longer. I ran up the hill, but couldn’t find the drive to push hard, hoping I could make up for the digression on the final finish stretch. Making it over the hill I saw the runner in front of me make the turn at the bottom of the next descent, quite possibly in striking distance now. Maybe I had made up some ground. Maybe he had lost some. Either way, I let gravity pull my body down the hill more than anything else, took the turn, and ran smack into a consistent blow of head on wind. A sidelining monsoon by no means, the wind coupled with end of race fatigue was enough to hold off my final push a little further.
Another short turn kept the finish line out of sight and as I tried to bound off the ground hard, each marker I ran towards seemed to lie a few seconds further away as I closed in. Time was slowing the closer I got, like those dreams where you run as hard as you can, but seem stuck in thick mud.
And then..the course straightened out, and the 13 mile clock ticked away. 1:19:30 when I passed by, and it hit me that I had 30 seconds to finish out the final 100 meters or so. That seemed ridiculous, but the distance marker fully confirmed that it was time to go and I instantly picked up pace into a finish push, the act somehow finding a reserve deeper within me, and where I figured I would only be able to get across the line so quick, I was able to find another gear and then another, letting loose into a full on effort. I was running as strong and fluid as if I was completing my run outs at the start. I peeked at the clock as the finish mats came towards me.
1:20:00. 1:20:01. 1:20:02.
I leaned across the mat, felt the weight of my pace push my body forward, and abruptly caught my momentum, pressing palms into the tops of my knees and letting that indescribably sweet sense of relief and breath fill my body. Standing up to walk ahead a few paces, I felt the urge to lean back over, my body drained of everything I built into it up to that race. A volunteer ran over and wrapped my torso in a reflective space blanket, protecting me against the cold wind that kept blowing across the finish area.
Catching a more sustained relief, I stood up to walk ahead and caught sight of Laura on the other side of the barricades. I looked at her between two fingers squeezed just together, as to say, “This close. I was this close.” And the fatigue hit again. I leaned on the barricades, waiting out the exhaustion and sought a more sustained relief. And when it came, so did the exhilaration, of completing what I set out to do, on so many levels.
The race was over, and I could walk off the course, and back into my life where another battle waits.
Runner’s World Half Marathon
New Cancer PR