Collegeville, MN – Two Miles to Go
— “What’s your pace?”, the racer asked me once he caught up with me.
— “I don’t know”, I said, hesitantly… “What’s your pace?” I asked him, without really looking at the placard he was holding.
He said something to me that my brain did not register. I turned back to the road ahead. For several seconds both of us were running more or less at the same pace. Then I conceded…
— “I am out. I have nothing left in the tank”, I said.
— “Stay with me, you can do this”.
I look at him briefly. He is wearing a white cap like me, holding a sign with the numbers “3:27”. He is running with so much lightness and eagerness that don’t seem in tune after 24 long miles of exertion. “Hang on!”, he adds with a firm voice that tries to pull me out of my numbness state. “We can do this!”
I doubt. I do not say anything and somehow don’t believe him. I continue moving anyway and try to stay next to him. For a few more seconds both of us are side by side, running towards the same point in the horizon. A white tower looms ahead; it looks graceful yet unreachable. My right calf trembles and I slow down. Everything hurts. Now it is my left calf that contracts for a nanosecond, sufficiently for me to abandon a futile attempt to keep up with him. I drift.
Holdingford, MN – Twenty Six and Some Miles to Go
Arriving at Holdingford High School, I was so nervous that I chose to steer clear from the crowds forming in the middle of the gym, taking pictures and doing small talk. I sat near a corner to get my gels and other things ready. I had just finished eating a banana, putting sunscreen on legs and arms and going through my racing checklist when someone stood up in front of me.
— “Do you need anything?”
Coach Trueman was looking at me, with that inquisitiveness that is by now legendary in our training group. I looked up, smiled and brandished the checklist, telling him I was just fine. “Good”, he said, and made some comments reassuring me everything was going to be Ok. He looked at the checklist, the same one he gave me two years before, nodded and left quietly.
By the time I lined up the temperature felt ominously warm. Everyone at the start line seemed reasonably nervous, but happy and willing to start the journey down Lake Wobegon Trail. The only one hard to read was the guy wearing a mask and cape. The last person I saluted was a young woman whom I seemed to recall from Lake Minnetonka’s Half Marathon the week before. We had just finished chatting when the horn marking the start of the race went off. At that moment, everything changed around me.
The adrenaline that had been accumulated in my body the night before, weeks before, months before this race, was suddenly released at the sound of the horn. It was a quick shot that sent my legs on a crazy, frenzy cycle. My first mile at 7:13 min/mile was my fastest, contrary to marathon racing canon that says the first mile of a marathon should be the slowest of all. That was how much powerful the initial jolt was. In the subsequent miles I was going to try to strike a tricky balance, one that coach Trueman would later call it of “high risk and high reward”.
Here is the thing, for months my teammates and I had been training in cold weather. It just so happened that this race wasn’t going to be cold at all. How do you tackle something like that? My bet was on breaking the canon.
By speeding up in the first miles, the plan was to build up a cushion large enough so I could afford slowing down in the last miles, where the weather would be hotter and the sun much, much brighter (not a single cloud was in the sky). If the gambit worked, I would be crossing the finish line in record time. If not, very likely I would be toast by mile 20.
From miles 2 to 4 I “slowed down” to 7:40sh (still too fast, but not as crazy as 7:13). One of my running buddies from the East passed me, wishing me good luck. He ran so comfortably and decisively that I did not dare to keep up with him. Then the 3:22 pacer caught up with me, a young man with an entourage of several other runners.
“Better not talk, nor wave, just nod”
Such was the advice from a nice guy who got me into the long distance running sport few years back. He suggested to me the day before that my best chance for this race was to concentrate every bit of energy on sorting out the miles ahead and avoid any distractions, whenever possible. But it was inevitable to strike a short conversation with a nice lady in the 3:22 group who became curious about my past races and background. The group was lively and pretty soon I found myself enjoying hearing them talk about this or that while miles 5 through 10 went by in the 7:30sh range. Time went by quickly. A couple of problems were sorted out without much hesitation. My left shoelace became loose and had to stop briefly to tie it up. The other one was my gel pouch itself, which I had acquired recently and had to wrestle with to get the energy packs out.
It became obvious that the 3:22 pacer was too much to keep up with any longer, so, regrettably, I made the decision to slowly pull back. Albany was in full light by the time we reached the only T intersection of the course, going left, going towards the sun which by now was high above our vision field. Then came the Half Marathon mark and the soul searching began. “How are you feeling?” “Do you realize that the real race starts now?” “Are you up to this task?” In a moment I felt uneasy. These were questions mainly planned as rhetorical ones before the race and were meant as a routine check, presuming that the answers would come out all positive and reassuring. However, scarily, there were no answers, only silence. At 13.1 miles exhaustion began to creep up and so I resorted to do math. It is not a good sign whenever a runner starts playing with miles and counting numbers way before the final stretch.
“Today is Your Day!”
I needed an emergency plan, and I needed it quickly. I began talking to myself: ”You have just sustained a sub 8:00 pace for half a marathon. All you need to do is to stretch it a bit more”…
Miles 14 through 17 were picturesque, with lovely scenery but deprived of cows, horses or barns. Maybe I missed them earlier. Was I talking this too seriously? An occasional group of trees by the roadside would give a little break from the sunlight whose intensity was in crescendo. The intersections passed by one after the other and finally came one at mile 18 where my watch buzzed, showing a 7:52 min/mile average pace. It was around this time where I saw a familiar figure approaching with something small in her hand. Coach KG carefully handed me a bottle with some words of wisdom and encouragement. “Today is your day!”, she said and probably noticed my struggle. I don’t remember if I thanked her or not, I hope I did. The water was fresh and the bottle easy to handle and carry with, unlike the cups that were a one-time deal. Further down the road, I thought I saw coach Trueman, cheering and extending his hand. I am not sure if I returned the gesture, my eyes were fixed on the road.
After mile 18, with the first part of the plan completed, I decided to give myself a break and reduced my pace at mile 19 to 08:03 min/mile. I breathed easily. Then came the dreadful mile 20 and I slowed down even more: 08:21. It was perhaps around this time that I began reciting names. First my immediate family’s, then extended, some friends’ names came along too. I would also pick up a point in front of me, just a little bit ahead and do a short pick up. I would try to remember key moments from training in order to convince myself that what I was doing, painful as it was, was feasible and worthy. I remembered past races, the jokes and conversation with many good people along Gateway and other trails; and all of that seemed to work.
Despite swallowing a few bugs floating casually along one stretch of the road, miles 22 and 23 were sunnier, brighter and put me back in the game at 08:01 and 07:59 min/mile respectively. Yes! I was beyond hopeful, almost convinced that achieving the goal of the day was almost a done deal. I should have known better.
In deciding to take another break at mile 24, I slowed down too much for a recovery, forgetting the coach’s advice of only resting the very minimum before picking up again in the next miles. My body began to shut down. It did not help seeing a couple of racing contestants walking and sweating profusely under the ardent sun. After I passed them I went back and forth on taking a walk myself. “Hey, just a short one. It would be Ok”. “No, don’t even think about it”. Surely I avoided walking, but I did slow down, a lot. My watch buzzed again telling me I had finished mile 24, at 08:27 min/mile. My heart sank.
The extra speed applied in the earlier mileage finally was taking a toll. I wanted to move faster, but couldn’t. It was a strange feeling. My mind was telling my legs, my arms and core that it was time for a final push but nothing happened. I felt detached, in automatic mode, like my own self did not care much one way or the other. The worst thing was, I did not even panic, quite the opposite: I became conformist, complacent. “What is this for, anyway?” That was the worst question to ask, but it came, followed by a stanza:
It is not as if the horrors of this world,
which are countless,
are going to disappear overnight
by finishing this race in flying colors
I could not believe what I was thinking! And then the final touché to my aspirations: “You need to stop this, you have done more than enough until this point.” Suddenly all the names were gone, and with them the inspiration, the thirst for glory. I accepted the inevitable; in the next few meters I resolved to take a long break. That’s when he caught up with me…
“What’s your pace?”
One Mile to Go – A Rose
Pacer 3:27 (I found out later his real name is Jim) was friendly. He surely had pity on me, given my state at the time. He empathized in a way that was irresistible. “Stay on it, you can do it”, was the last thing I heard him saying on the course.
“Oh, well…”, I felt liberated. “Maybe I will be able to do this after all”.
In the final mile, and to my disappointment, the 3:27 bearer got farther and farther away. I was exhausted, not a single muscle was spared; my inner thighs hurt the most. And I slowed down even more…
St. Joseph’s water tower, that familiar sight from two years before, finally showed up in the horizon, a glimmer of hope. Then I heard a young voice calling my name, close to me. The voice had an attitude and forced me to focus and continue on. I did not dare to look at her but knew exactly who she was. We trained together, we supported each other; I saw her at her best when conditions were adverse, a rose that blooms in a thicket full of thorns, and now she was there, in the final steps. I also saw my wife and heard my daughter by the side of the road, and remembered words I once heard at a Boston Marathon Sunday service…
“Train yourself for devotion, for, while physical training is of limited value, devotion is valuable in every respect, since it holds a promise of life both for the present and for the future…”
The sun was shining in all its glory. The girl’s voice faded away, but not before delivering me from my plight to the point I could reach the line I have been waiting to meet for a long time, with just a few seconds to spare. Once the line was crossed I did not go for the medal, not right away anyway. Instead, I found a patch of grass by the side with some shade, no pomp and plenty of circumstance. My daughter, my wife and friends were calling me from the other side of the fence.
“I just need to be here for just a moment”, I said and slowly laid myself down, facing the most cloudless sky I’ve ever seen.
Photo credits: CK Photography and the author.