Monday, March 12, 2012

Backyard Burn Trail Race, Wakefield - Redux

“Did you win?” asked the red-faced runner who’d stalked me for the past four miles. We shook hands and alternated talking with sucking in the brisk morning air.

“Um, I don’t know,” I said. “On the course they told me I was sixth.”
“Yeah, but I think those guys ran the 10.”
“Hmm, we’ll see, I guess. Nice run.”
“You too.”

Thirty-seven minutes before that conversation, I stood on top of the curb unable to muscle my way to the front of the running horde waiting for the siren to signal the dam break. Some last minute instructions: the course was flat and fast, it was actually 5.6 miles not five….The starter counted down the last five seconds and an uncommon shot of adrenaline coursed through my body and sent a wave of nausea that crashed in my stomach. I leaned back a second trying to catch it, trying to save that unexpected nervous energy, but it was too late. The siren sounded.

We bound down the road in a tangle of legs and arms. I stuck to the outside to stay out of the melee before methodically working my way to the other side of the road. The pack strung out in the first 300 meters separating us from the group. The nausea wave pooled and hardened into an angry ball. I took deeper breaths to try and break it up, willing myself to relax and find a rhythm. I settled in behind two runners and hung on their shoulders. The course bent to the left and sent us down a long, flat stretch of dirt road. Here, I found my stride and took mental notes as the “.5 mile to go” sign flashed by. I’ll see you again, I thought.

After my conversation ended, we headed our separate ways, him for the food and me away from the crowd. The nausea from the start returned and I walked to be alone. I pulled in deep breaths to fill my lungs with that life-giving cold air and thought I had everything under control. Then I coughed. Then I vomited. And then again. I stood there with my hands on my knees. A woman walked by and patted my back. “Good job today,” she said. I turned watery eyes up to her and managed a “thanks.”

The dirt path disappeared and carried us over wet grass. The pace slowed noticeably as the three of us ran under a canopy of trees and the bright orange sign shone ahead, calling for a hard right turn onto the single track. Before I could ponder the decision, I shot out and around the first of the two runners then decided to overtake the second, not wanting to get caught behind them heading into the woods. Riding my confidence, I kept my foot on the gas to add a little distance between us and focused on the orange swatches on the runner’s shirt ahead of me.

Without my GPS watch – I forgot to charge it – I was at the mercy of waiting for the “3 mile to go sign.” I put the distance covered out of my head and focused on the task at hand: hunt the runner ahead of me, stay ahead of the hunt behind me. My mind worked as hard as my legs trying to spot my next footfalls, finding the orange shirt between the branches, and spotting the pink ribbons and orange turn indicators to stay on the course.

Sometimes it was too much to compute.

I reached a creek crossing and slammed on the breaks. Panicked, I looked for the course markings, spotted one flickering ahead in the light breeze, and jumped down nearly three feet into the creek then pulled myself up the other side. That couldn’t have been right, I thought tamping the water from shoes. Out of the periphery, I saw the easier crossing, but too late. I cursed myself hearing the footsteps closing in behind me, and ahead, the orange shirt nowhere to be seen. The earlier confidence trickled away and I pressed on the gas to fly around the twists and turns that set my heart rate skyrocketing and my breathing ragged.

My reference point vanished and the pursuit pack snapped branches somewhere behind me. I ran on alone.

The gang post-race
After I emptied myself out, I trotted back toward the finish line and sipped on some water. It was cold inside my empty stomach. The other runners began to stream in. I met up with my wife and friends as they came through, and we chatted as they indulged in the post-race snacks.

I pulled my wife aside when she asked, “How’d it go?”
“I think I won it,” I said. Her face lit up. “But I don’t know for sure, so don’t say anything.”
“I’ll have the camera ready,” she said.

I pointed at the volunteer holding out the cups and muttered, “Water?” then snagged the cup and sipped more to wash my mouth out than to swallow. “You’re sixth!” he bellowed. I tossed a wave and listened to see how long it took him to yell to the other runners. I had gained my lead back. The trail switched back as we began to climb. I caught my pursuers over my shoulder and still had a good gap.

The three mile to go sign flashed by, then two. The trail rose and fell and on every turn, I glanced over my shoulder but only enough to catch a sense of where the predators were. The trail turned hard over itself and I minced my steps, trying not to panic as my pace slowed. They have to run it too, I reminded myself. Don’t get nervous in the pack, Bruce Denton said in my head.

With one mile to go, I breathed a “Come on!” A storm of doubts raged in my head and I did my best to batten down the hatches. Believe in the miles. I pleaded. Believe in the work.

I began to retrace my earlier footsteps along the straightaway dirt road. Keep it neat. Turn ‘em over, I repeated. Told you I’d see you again, I said to the “.5 mile to go” sign.

I went for broke.

I dropped the hammer and decided to kick from here. Every breath thundered out of me and the lactic acid seaped in and started to bind my legs. I straightened up for the photographer then took one last look over my shoulder and allowed myself a brief moment of reprieve seeing the gap I’d opened up…then nearly squandered it when I stumbled over a branch.

I bore down on the finish, wanting it to just be over, willing my legs to churn. How could the equivalent of two laps around the track take this long? Then the finish chute appeared and I summoned one last effort.

“Number 432!” the man shouted. I came across the line and nearly went hands to knees but tried to walk it off. There was no tape to break, no applause, just a woman there to tear the ticket from my bib. I stumbled around, a grimace on my face, and saw only volunteers.

The awards ceremony began and we crept closer to the stage. I listened to the times get closer and closer to mine, the nervousness back in my stomach. When they got to second place, the announcer said, “Brad,” and my heart sank a bit. “Burns,” he finished. “And first place overall in the five mile race in a time of 36:32…Brad Holzwart. You have to be a Brad to get on the podium I guess.”

That evening, I opened up the next beer in my four pack. It tastes a little better out of a pint glass that says “First Place” on it.


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