Every journalism class I ever took instilled in me the notion that you do not begin a piece with a question. So this, then, is a token statement, before I flaunt that rule.
See? That really is quite the tease, isn't it? Well, I'll answer that question in time. But first, here's a picture of me making a stupid huffy face at the race's beginning.
As you can see, the race begins on a gravel road - only a couple hundred yards or so - with a slight downhill grade, after which the runners are turned on to the singletrack. I used that stretch to make stupid faces, flex like a bro in the gym, and open a sizeable lead on everyone else.
Succeeding on all three counts, I began the task of extending that lead. No one really seemed inclined to chase, and the last I'd see of other runners was a brief glimpse after a mile of running when the trail switched back on itself.
Unaccustomed to running at the front, and filled with the adrenaline that came with, I kept the throttle high. I focused keeping my turnover high in general, and especially on the descents. Downhills are free speed, if you use them correctly. There is a tendency to overstride, but that only serves you beat up your quads and knees unnecessarily. If, however, you keep your feet spinning underneath you, it's like effortless sprinting.
This was a focus for me this race, and I'm happy with the results. Writing the day after, there's not a spot on me that's even remotely sore. After 15 miles of hard running, that's a nice feeling. But wait, aren't half marathons only 13 miles? You're a clever one, reader, but just wait. I'm getting to that.
Unfortunately, running alone is a little less interesting than actively racing people. It's also more difficult to maintain a high level of effort. I mean, there's no one there. Why not slow down? Why not stop and drink a little? I told myself I would take a sip of something at the manned aid station, located at roughly the halfway point.
I did that, but probably would have been wiser to take down more liquid and calories. The second half of the race, my legs began to feel the fatiguing effect of the rolling hills. And although it was only a little over 60 degrees, this was the first race of the year where I've actually sweated. As such, my mouth was quite dry towards the end, and my blood sugar was noticeably low.
Still, there was no one in sight, and I didn't feel as if I was slowing too badly. One benefit of the (relatively) high mileage diet I've been on lately is getting a lot of practice running on dead legs with low energy. Or is that two benefits? Whatever. At this point, I was only focusing on two things: Rocks and signage. I figured the only way I could get caught was by missing a turn, or taking a bad fall.
I think you see where this is going.
I popped out of the trail, at the bottom of the road the race began on. There was now an aid station there, acting as the halfway point for those running the 50K that day. Those runners had to do an extra two mile loop, then do the whole thing again, putting them around 31 miles for the day.
"We were just talking about you," said a guy in a fake mustache and beret.
"How far is this?" was what I asked, as it's all I really wanted to know.
"13 miles," he said. "There's a two mile loop right there," he said, pointing.
I considered this, and nearly said something. Should have said something. I was the first runner they'd seen that day, and thus they probably didn't know which bib colors went with each race. Assuming I was doing the 50K, they pointed me in what they thought was the right direction.
Other than being bonked as shit, I'm still not sure why I didn't say something, or simply go finish up the hill. You could nearly see the finish line from there; it could hardly have been closer. Instead, I dutifully trotted the extra two miles, before being informed of the mistake when I returned to the aid station.
I was told that I was in fifth now, and that the (new) first half marathoner had finished about 5 minutes ago. I would love to say that my reaction was calm and classy, but for the sake of honesty, I can't really say that. Instead of saying that it was ok, that these things happen (they do), and that it was largely my fault for not correcting them in the first place (it was), I simply said: Shit. Not my proudest moment, and if I have any regrets about how this all played out, this is the biggest one.
As I trotted up the hill to finish, the pseudo mustachioed aid station volunteer called out that he had informed the race director of what had happened, and how large my lead had been. I wasn't really thinking about how the RD would respond, however. I was just embarrassed: Embarrassed that I had missed a turn when all I had been thinking about for the last hour was not missing a turn; Embarrassed that I had reacted so petulantly; Embarrassed at what the other half marathoners gathered around the finish would think, seeing this guy they never caught - much less passed - finishing several minutes behind them.
At the finish, the RD apologized, told me that I ran well anyway, and gave me a trophy that said "1st place Male, Half Marathon" on it. Which brings me back to the opening question: How do you win a race, despite being the fifth person across the finish line? Like that, it would seem.
Although, I have to say that I don't feel like I won. I feel like I ran well, sure, and like I was the fastest person in the race on that day. But the winner? Not quite. One of the central pillars and most beautiful aspects of racing is the simplicity and finality of it: The winner is the one who finishes first, and I didn't, never mind the circumstances. Even the chip timed results bear this out; in them, I'm listed fifth.
So I find myself in an interesting situation: Satisfied with how I ran, but not at all satisfied with the result. But races have a funny way of doing that. I ran every bit as well in my last two half marathons, and was soundly beaten in both. Winning is more a function of who shows up than a comment on your fitness; all you can do is run like hell, and see what happens.
Then, you go eat (too much), and resume training for future races, victories that may never occur outside of your imagination. You never catch the carrot, and that's entirely the point.