12 September 2009

That Pesky Butterfly

Somewhere a butterfly flaps its wings, next thing you know, Hoover Dam comes crashing down, or something like that. Or so goes the famed butterfly effect theory. That butterfly flapped, and once again prevented me from winning a race today.

To be fair, I won once, two summers ago. But pub runs with 20 people and no timing don’t really count, even if the wonderful hosts of those events do post the results on Coolrunning (and continue to do so, often with great and amusing elaboration). I really just can’t count that. And I’m certainly not so fast that I really should win a real live road race. But others slower than I have had the lucky day when the right combination of people didn’t show up for their own special reasons, and the resulting fickle finger of fate put them on top. Just once, that would be cool.

Today, it could have been, but for that pesky butterfly.

The event was the local Marlborough Police Chase, a perennial benefit event held in honor of a patrolman lost to the ravages of pancreatic cancer. It usually draws well over a hundred souls, and last year on its new fast 5K course (which I had some input into) I set my Second Lap 5K personal best of a few seconds south of eighteen minutes.

This year, RAIN. Cool, chilly, scare off the non-die-hards RAIN. Which dropped the field down to about sixty five. But on these days, the die-hards still come, so a smaller field doesn’t really mean it’s any easier to climb the ranks. And this year, of course, I’m just not as fast as last year. But hey, any given day, you never know.

And it would have been, but for butterfly.

Years ago two people I’ve never met, coming from different places in life, made identical college decisions. Through random chance, they met, dated, engaged, and planned the wedding, through chance on this weekend, in Worcester, not far from here. One had a friend from back home in New York, now living in DC, who happened to be a runner. That runner had nothing to do with this area, but was avid enough to have looked online for a race to keep him busy the morning before the wedding. And there happened to be a dearth of races in the area that weekend, a rarity. And that guy happened to be capable of a sub-fifteen-minute 5k.

Curses, you butterfly.

I spotted him easily. He fit the profile. Wandering around the pre-race crowd, I overheard him. He looked the part of the fast young guy, but more importantly, he was asking others about the course in a manner that I recognized, a manner that said in tone, but not words, because you can’t come out and say this even though you need to, “No, you can’t just tell me to follow the crowd because there’s a good chance there won’t be a crowd in front of me.” As I said, I’ve never won, but I’ve had plenty of 2nd and 3rd place finishes, often distanced from the winner, and I understand that instructions of “follow the crowd” just don’t cut it. Most don’t worry about it. I do. He did. I caught on to him. Busted.

I started to explain the course including the one tricky bit, and then just gave up doing it verbally and instead invited him to run a warm-up with me to show him the route. We hit the course at a good clip, and it was, for me, pretty quick for a warm-up, but my legs were sluggish from a day off and needed it, so while I huffed and puffed a bit, I didn’t mind the pace at all. We ran the whole course, had a great time chatting, and I discovered his visiting ringer status. OK, so any chance of a win was gone again, but I really didn’t expect it to begin with, and the pleasure of running with a guy of this caliber alone made for a fine day. We also got thoroughly drenched, which didn’t bother me until the gun went off, we sprinted out of the gate, and I realized that my waterlogged socks and shoes added about 5 pounds to each leg.

The race? Like all 5Ks, over before you’ve thought much about it. Out the door, Visiting Ringer took off like a bat out of the hot place. Another guy I recognized but who’s name I couldn’t recall slipped into second, and I settled into third, about 40 yards back of him, with obvious footsteps close behind. The course is a steady climb for the first half, mostly on our local rail trail, front-loading the hard work. Before we departed the trail about a mile and a half in, I reeled in #2, putting an exclamation point on my pass by taking advantage of his tactical error of positioning himself on the wrong side of the trail for the upcoming turn, and took over second place. By this time, of course, Visiting Ringer was in the next county. The return trip, mostly all downhill, was just an exercise in striding and praying, since I’m not a strong downhiller (indeed, I had a tune from my church band in my head the whole way), but nobody challenged and I came home in second place overall, taking the masters division.

Now, the humor here is that Visiting Ringer was out for a stroll, running a over minute and half off his best. I too was almost a minute off my best, but had I burned a new PR, it wouldn’t matter since he put nearly two and a half minutes between us! Kind of puts things into perspective. I may be a moderately sized fish in my local small ponds, but I’m a barely a herring in the real world. Hats off to this guy!

Within about two minutes of finishing, barely before I’d stopped breathing hard, there he was again, heading out for a warm down, and of course, I just couldn’t resist. So we ran the course yet again. The course marshals who saw us for the third time were, needless to say, amused.

Did I miss my chance to finally win a race? Well, not really. That butterfly is always flapping, and had Visiting Ringer not shown up, the winds would have shifted and something – or someone – else would have come along. And I had the chance to run a few laps with a thoroughly nice guy who also happens to be a heck of a runner, which is a win on any given day.

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