One of the many running related pages I follow on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/runnerdsrock) posted up a question about what might be your favorite run or race.
I thought about that one long and hard. There are lots of them to choose from. One of the marathons? One of the half marathons? So many 5k and 10k events to choose from. So many great training runs. So many great fun runs…
But there is one that sticks out. It happened long, long ago in a place not too terribly far away to a boy who is really just parts of me now. My last cross country race in high school. What was sure to be my last competitive running event. The race had a name I don’t remember. But I do remember the place and most of the course. This was the last JV race of the season. The varsity crew had one more, and then those that qualified for state (or nationals as the case may be) would keep going for a bit yet. But for me, a senior, and a slow JV runner, this was it.
But the finality of the race isn’t what makes it important. This race showed me a lot about myself and the running community in general.
I remember the start being a typical mass of bodies and confusion. In true team manner we pushed each other out of the chute. The mass of humanity (yes, even high school boys are human) ran straight at a short, but steep hill. Last time I was on this course that hill at the start about destroyed me. This time it hardly altered my stride. Shortly after the hill the pack started to spread out. I’m not sure exactly how far into the race it happened (I am sure it was before the end of the first mile), but I found myself shoulder to shoulder with another runner. And we ran. Good lord did we run. We pushed each other. The run became a battle. As the trail would twist and turn we would jockey for position to get the shortest tangents. Where the trail narrowed we battled to be in front. We swapped spots several times over the next mile or so always returning to be shoulder to shoulder. Never more than mere inches in front or behind the other. One missed step and we would surely both go down hard.
And it was somewhere around mile 2 that things started to dawn on me. Until this point in my running, I had been racing the clock. No one else mattered. Heck, most the time I was just struggling to finish the distance. But today was different. Today I was racing to beat someone else. And the varsity members of the team started to notice this at well. As we ran past the team at about the second mile marker I could hear the voices. The rest of the team was starting to get excited. I didn’t have that luxury. I was too focused on breathing and not tripping. But the others were a bit more experienced than I and they saw this battle shaping up to be potentially epic.
And the battle continued for another mile. Side by side. Shoulder to shoulder. I could hear my new comrade breathing hard over my own breathing hard. The sound of our footfalls on the hard packed dirt and gravel roared in my ears almost as loud as my pulse. Looking back, I don’t remember how my legs felt. I’m sure they were strong, but weakening. I don’t remember how my feet felt. Being the end of the season I know my shoes were worn and it’s very likely something hurt. I do remember hearing my pulse echo in my head. I do remember the rasp of my breath as a real sound in my ears. And I do remember feeling the burn in my lungs as my body sent air in and out to fuel the machine.
Nearing mile 3 we passed the rest of my team again. A small group of folks, varsity runners, state champion contenders, who gathered to simply cheer on people they had trained with for the last 3-6 months. We enjoyed warmup and cool down and stretching together even if we didn’t all run at the same pace through training. There were team dinners and bus rides. Jokes… Oh the jokes. They were terrible.
I heard one voice rise above the noise of the crowd and the noises in my head. A girls voice. To this day I know who this voice belonged to. If I ever run into her again I hope to thank her for what happened next. It has stuck with me to this day. I don’t remember exactly what she said. I wish I did. It was something to the effect of “I can’t believe it! Matt is still racing him!” And at that point there was an explosion of noise as my team erupted. Over the screaming I could hear words of encouragement from our coach. They screamed and cheered as if the power of their voices could propel me across the finish line looming just a few yards away.
And you know what? It worked. As we rounded the last bend, still side by side, we could see the finish line at the end of the straight. Still shoulder to shoulder. I was sweating on him. He was sweating on me. Both of us were pushing. My opponent started to pick it up. I managed to keep with him. He kicked harder. I kicked harder. The din from my team, my supporters, had stopped echoing in my head, but had not stopped echoing in my heart.
This is where you want to hear about me propelling myself to the finish line like a super hero mere moments ahead of the person that had pushed me the whole race. Well, it didn’t happen. He had more kick left than I did. I started to slow. He inched ahead. Six inches. A foot. Three feet. Four. When we crossed the line and proceeded to switch immediately to my post-race tradition of dry heaving. (A tradition I maintain to this day.) As I regained myself I started to look for my new brother. But he didn’t have a tradition of being sick all over the finish line, so he was long gone. Off to rejoin his own team I’m sure. I wanted to thank him. I wanted to shake his hand. I wanted to hug him. And maybe a little bit of me wanted to trip him… (Hey, I was 17.)
See, the end here isn’t the exciting part. I mean, sure, it was great at the time, but that’s not the part that sticks with me. It’s the middle. The part where I refuse to be dropped. The part where I push too hard. The part where I maintain. And the part where a handful of voices give me the courage and strength to carry on.
The voices. I’ve heard that a few times since then. I’ve heard that playing hockey in front of 3000 people. I’ve heard that finishing the Bolder Boulder where the course climbs an incredibly steep hill and turns sharply left and dumps you into a stadium roaring with people cheering on their friends, family, and just the guy who looks like he needs a scream to finish strong.
I heard the voices this week and witnessed their power as I watched the Boston Marathon streaming live over the internet. As the elite women made that last left turn onto Boylston Street the crowd erupted like a volcano of sound and energy. Even on the live feed it gave me chills. And I saw the runners react as well. After running 26 miles their posture got a little better. The strides got a little more precise. The determination got stronger. And there were even a few smiles…
The running community is a strong and supportive group of people. Remember that. Don’t be afraid to smile and wave to another runner. A random high five just might make someone’s day. A simple “good job, keep it up” may even make someones year.
I end this with a call to action. Use your voice. Be supportive of other runners vocally. Call out. Encourage. Use your words to carry someone else to the finish line.
Until next time,
Don’t let the fat man catch you.