Friday, May 17, 2013

Angel Kisses 5K Redux

Our crew post-race.
More than *gasp* 20 years ago, I have vague memories of toeing the line as a fourth grader for a local one mile run while my dad took off in the opposite direction to tackle the morning’s 5K (I won that mile while my dad brought home an age group victory). That same 5K has undergone several iterations over the years, and I have since graduated to running the full 3.1 miles. And each year, I creep higher and higher in the standings.

This race always held special significance to me, as it winds through the neighborhood I grew up in, and I return every so often, my mind heavy with nostalgia. This year, I salivated at the thought of taking on a 5K, particularly this one, on marathon-hardened legs. When I spoke with my coach about strategy, he said, “Don’t worry about the time, just go run to compete.”

It was with this in mind that I jogged the four miles from our house to the start line, a generous warmup. I worked my way through the crowd to the front and began eying up my fellow competitors. At first glance, I hoped thought that perhaps I’d be running alone. But then I caught a glimpse of a short, shirtless runner in split shorts. “Just go run,” I said to myself, trying to calm the sudden butterflies in my stomach.

After the gun, I surged forward and watched shirtless sprint to the front along with an even younger kid in a gray shirt, whom I wrote off immediately.

The first half mile climbed up a house-lined street and I focused on my form and maintaining contact with shirtless. As the road leveled into a false plateau, I noticed gray shirt was still with us and showing no signs of fading. The three of us traded positions as we reached the apex and flowed into a steady downhill. I let my breath catch me here and focused on settling in and making the effort look like no effort at all.

We made the turn onto the main road and the three of us flew by the first mile marker. I didn’t even bother to look at my watch. “Run to compete,” I thought. I went to the lead and listened to the footsteps behind me tuck in.

The course turned into my childhood neighborhood and I turned a quick sideways glance at the house I grew up in, the only one that ever appears in my dreams. The pace still felt comfortable and the steady rhythm of my pursuers’ footsteps pounded behind me. As a vet of this race, I knew the course well and it made up many of my marathon training runs. I knew then that the backside of the 5K would draw us mostly uphill, taking away the easy declines we flowed through so easily in the beginning.

The orange cone marking the turnround appeared ahead and a smattering of applause from volunteers clapped around us. I went into the turn first and caught a glimpse of the rest of the field: gray shirt and I had opened a gap on shirtless and no one else was near. “This is the podium,” I thought.

We began the climb out of the neighborhood back to the main road. Gray shirt overtook me and I let him work the lead for now. I hung on his left shoulder so he knew I was still there, but controlled my breathing so as not to reveal my hand. My friends and wife flashed by headed out the opposite direction and called to me. I managed a slight smile before going back to work.

We turned back onto the main road and I pulled even. We ran side-by-side with three-fourths-of-a-mile to go. My head became a mess. I wrestled with doubt, with not being able to close, knowing it was going to hurt, knowing that I was running on marathon legs, not 5K legs. The competitor in me finally silenced the doubter and brought forward the image I’d burned in my head: pulling away at the final uphill to rocket away to the finish. “See it,” I thought.
I settled in again, ready to compete to the finish. We arrived at that final hill. Gray shirt and I still ran side-by-side and he made no indication as we started to climb that he had begun to falter so I put my plan on hold. Just as we neared the top of the hill, I watched his shoulders creep up to his ears and his stride begin to chop. My mind screamed, “GO!”. And I went.

I pulled ahead and knew in that moment that I was all in. I would either break him here or burst into flames.

I made the penultimate turn off the main road and pushed up the final hill. I took the last corner and flung myself into the final stretch to the finish: a rollercoaster drop of a downhill followed by an interminable straight away. I didn’t bother looking over my shoulder.

Mrs. OTBR still proud of me.
Arms pumping, legs churning, I went hurdling down the hill. I had a feeling he would be back. The finish line appeared around the bend and I started to let myself believe. My breathing turned ragged and I blew flecks of spit from my mouth on each exhale. Still, the finish line got no closer. A haze started to seep in around the corners of my eyes. Closer. Cement hardened in my quads and time slowed down, like a bad dream. I was two mailboxes away when I heard him. His breathing as ragged as mine. The footsteps growing louder, the panic rising inside of me as I withdrew. One mailbox. Slapping of shoes behind. I reached deep inside me for one last gasp…and there was nothing.

We came to the finish line together. Only we didn’t. He was half a foot ahead of me. “Could be a tie!” the announcer called. But I knew.

I put my hands on top of my head and sucked in the cool air, regaining my wits, and fighting to keep from going hands to knees.

I forgot to click my watch and didn’t know my official time until they called me to the stage 30 minutes later to collect my second place medal. 17:11, matching my PR from more than two years ago.

Gray shirt, I later learned is 15. And though he nipped me at the line, I know there’s only one more spot for me to move up to…next year.

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