“What are you lookin’ to do today?” The voice came from behind me. I’d taken my place at the front of the pack as we inched up toward the starting line. The weather gave us a brief window where no rain fell. A chilling breeze pushed the grey clouds across the sky.
“Oh, it’d be nice to run 6’s today,” I lied. “You know, if everything comes together.” He plucked an ear bud out and snickered.
“I won’t be up with you, then,” he said. “I just don’t like having to wade through the crowd at the start.” We exchanged a few more words about marathons past, when I realized that all eyes fixated on me. I had finally become “that guy.” I looked around and noticed I was the only one in split short and a singlet, and one of the few without headphones.
“You running the 5 or the 10?” another guy in a green shirt asked.
“The 10,” I said. “You?”
I remained friendly and upbeat. I asked him about the course and had he run it before. We shook hands, offered each other luck, and turned our attention to the starter.
A sudden calm settled over me, the one I’d been trying to instill all week leading up to this past Sunday. The doubts vanished. I replayed this race in my head for weeks as the lactic acid bound my legs on the track or I faced another hill somewhere in the middle of a two-mile interval. Just seconds away from the start, I knew I had nothing left to do…but race.
At the gun, green shirt bolted from the start and made the first right turn onto the main road. I drove the course the day before, so I knew that we would run the first two miles along this stretch before weaving our way through the local neighborhoods. I held back knowing that I had another 6.1 miles to catch him and whomever else went with us. But after 200m, I’d pulled even. And then away.
I didn’t bother to look back but rather focused on my form, keeping my legs churning, and not overstriding. The Sunoco station appeared on the right and I knew I had about a quarter mile to go before the first mile marker. My legs felt strong and I felt light. I glanced down at my watch hoping to see 5:30, knowing that was 15 seconds too fast, but burning some of that adrenaline off. When I saw 5:06, I hit the brakes. Whoa! Let’s everybody relax! I thought. If green shirt could hang, good for him, he could have it.
I rode the hills and came to the 5K turnaround. “Right turn,” one of the volunteers yelled to me.
“10. K.” I breathed.
“Oh. OH! Right on, dude!”
I smiled and surged on.
The two mile marker appeared at the bottom of the next hill. I made the turn and glanced over my shoulder. Green shirt was way back but still visible. Having driven the course the day before, I knew I faced a serious climb here, but, tapping into my trail racing knowledge, I thought, He’s got to climb too and he’s doing the chasing so he’s working even harder.
I settled in and found myself dropping the pace as I crested the hill. I waved off the water station volunteers and circled back to the main road. When I got ready to disappear into the next neighborhood, I glanced back again and saw that I ran alone.
I tried to shut my mind off here at 5K and just ride. The pace had started to get to me but I didn’t want to falter so I continued to press. The neighborhood streets were empty save for a few cars backing out of their driveways. I tossed a “thank you” wave if they stopped to let me by. For all they knew, I could have been out for a Sunday morning run. The houses and street reminded me of my old neighborhood where we used to ride our bikes to the pool and where, these days, I run through on one of my 12 mile routes. Some of those early memories distracted me from the work for a bit until the main road appeared again.
In the final neighborhood, I had just under two miles remaining. I started to catch some of the 5Kers who urged me on. The course double-backed on itself with a mile to go and I got to see just how big my lead had grown. Green shirt was nowhere to be found.
With a quarter mile left, I threw down one last kick and heard my friends calling out my name. The announcer picked me up but not in enough time for them to get the tape out for me to break.
I finished in 36:43, a PR, and course record. Green shirt finished 2:17 after me.
I put my hands on my head and walked over to meet my friends. “Nice job, man. This probably isn’t the best place to puke, though,” he said as I let the wave of nausea recede.
We stayed for the awards and watched my friend, Karen, also capture first place in her age group. While we walked back to the car, the rain began to fall. I stepped into the car, letting the relief wash over me. This one was important to me and had been for many weeks. It’s nice when the hard work turns into hardware at the finish.