March 29, 2011

River Rotation Half Marathon

He had been there since the beginning of the race, sitting on my tail. Maybe he was pacing me; maybe he was holding on for dear life. We had started near the front together, letting the lead pack pull just out of striking distance. But that was fine. If either of us had aspired to give chase, we could have done so. We could have let our legs, bursting with adrenaline, glycogen, and ambition, carry us to an unsustainable pace.

As it was, we had passed two members of that pack, but not seen anything but fleeting glimpses of the others. They appeared briefly, as dancing legs and bobbing heads amongst trees, far enough away that we couldn't tether ourselves to them.

And so we ran, with nothing but the others' pace to judge our progress. There were turns in the trail, logs and trees to be hurdled and ducked under. But they didn't track our movement. The only gauge was whether we moved faster or slower than the other.

We exited the woods and arrived at the drink station marking mile 10, a table with Gatorade and bananas under a tarp. He stopped; I didn't. There were 3.5 miles to go - only a little more than a 5K. I could run that without eating or drinking anything; I exclusively ran those without eating or drinking anything, in fact. He would raise his blood sugar, rehydrate, and run faster. But for the 30 seconds he stopped, I would press on, punish myself to victory.

Or rather, I would punish myself to 5th place. I had resigned myself some time ago to the fact that I wasn't finishing in the top 3 - the only places to earn awards. 4th was also out of reach. I had seen that group, eyes forward, glazed slightly, and traded thumbs ups with them. They were heading back, finishing the final loop of the trail, and they were at least 2 minutes ahead of me.

But there was still a victory to be had, still one competitor to defeat. He would chase me, but he would not catch me, could not pass me. They call these small battles, but they are still worth winning. Adrenaline responds to the chase, that primal desire to catch your prey - or to avoid becoming it.

I ran, entering the woods again, alone with my breath and my thoughts for the first time. It occurred to me that there was a sharp pain in my right foot, like a nail was being driven in to it with every impact, and that most parts of my lower extremities were giving out. The mind was willing - demanding, even - but the legs were beginning to ignore orders. Still, I ran, keeping close to my pace out of habit.

"An object in motion tends to remain in motion," I told myself, seeking solace in physics, confidence in the natural order of things. I clung to those cold certainties, forgetting the hot sweat, the cold air, the searing pain. Most of all I did not look back.

But the trail took a violent curve, almost a U-turn. He was there, not more than 10 yards behind me. I hadn't heard him catch me, not one breath or footfall. But there he was, like he had been all morning, on my tail.

My mind dug to its ancestral roots, finding some feral cortex, and with it, a reservoir of strength, speed, and adrenaline. It found a need to run, a need to be faster than the thing chasing it.

I surged. There was no longer anything effortless about my gait. The strike of my foot did not automatically lead to a kick of my leg, which did not then lead to a forward swing. Every movement took concerted effort, every step and every breath an intense focus.

I began glancing back, rarely at first, then more often. My lead had doubled, but no more. His pace hadn't budged, and neither had his effort. He ran while I flailed.

But this was not the time for conserving energy. I had gambled, and so there was nothing to do but run with the consequences - and away from him.

Only I couldn't. My advantage shrunk, some invisible line pulling him towards me. I felt him coming, then, for the fist time, heard him. There was a breath that was not mine, measured and steady. There was the rustle of his shorts, a swishy metronome ticking off each stride.

"Good run," he said, while shooting by me on the left.

I didn't respond then, mostly because I didn't have the breath to spare. I tried to surge again, to draft behind him like he had done to me. I tried that for all of 20 yards, before the futility of it became clear.

As I watched him pull away, I was surprised to find nothing like malice or bitterness. Instead, there was acceptance, a comfortable peace at knowing I had wrung every bit of effort from my sinew. There was also gratitude. It had been a good run, I knew, and so much better for having shared the chase.

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