[ Ed note: One more tale from Reach the Beach is still forthcoming, but we interrupt that adventure to bring you this special news bulletin! ]
Five years in the waiting, and it finally happened. The stars aligned, the moon was in the correct phase, and the tide was just right. I actually won a race. Was it wicked cool? You bet. But one of the most fun bits of the day came after the race, while my wife was checking out the posted results. Someone else checking out the results over her shoulder remarked, “Some old guy won it!”
Seeing as this is, after all, a blog about the adventures of getting back to running later in life, nothing could have been more appropriate or more amusing. To be fair, I’m told that the speaker of said comment wasn’t all that young themselves, and was probably stating it more as a, “Wow, that’s cool, it wasn’t just some kid running away with it!” And I’m also pleased that someone stood up for my dignity and replied, “That old guy is her husband!” Bottom line though is that when she told me this story, it truly made my day.
How do you like that? I finally won a race. Some old guy won it.
The irony is that ten minutes before the start, I wasn’t going to run. Since those screaming downhills in Franconia a few weeks back, the left shin has been in tough shape. It’s been right on that edge where I figure I’m out of shin splint zone and into stress fracture zone. I’ll never know for sure, since I learned long ago that it’s really not worth the medical brou-ha-ha (and cost) to figure it out when the remedy for either is rest. So I rested, but that little Reach the Beach event intervened – can’t really skip that one when there are eleven others counting on you – and it got pretty painful again. So I rested again, pretty much hadn’t run since RTB, and around rolled Sunday.
I was already registered, and it’s a big turnout day for my club, so of course I showed up, dressed for the party. But in a mere mile warm-up, I could feel the pain returning. Do I, or don’t I? Hey, it’s only a 5K, can’t hurt much, right? But hey, the leg hurt in less than a mile. And I was (and am) still hoping to run (very casually!) the NH Marathon this coming weekend, despite having not put in anything longer than eighteen and having taken the bulk of the last two weeks off. But I’d finally strapped on those ultra-light New Balance 904s I bought way back in April and had yet to race in, and I oh so wanted a test drive. But don’t be an idiot, you fool, you’re injured. That was it, my mind was made up, I was sitting this one out.
Then I noticed that the pre-race crowd was mysteriously sparse. The Forrest Memorial 5K usually pulls in a field of about 200, but clearly that wasn’t the case today. Crap. How many times had I finished second or third, how many times had one guy showed up to spoil my chances of that elusive win, and how many times had I looked at the results of races I hadn’t attended and said, “Crap, I could’ve taken that one easy!” I knew I’d kick myself if this was my day and I didn’t step up to the plate. OK, so my healing will be delayed one week. I was back in.
The field really was thin. This was no feat of vanquishing the masses. Only a hundred showed, and nobody stood out as a ringer. Still, you never know.
Off the line my assessment held true. Not even any starting line imposters, playing rabbit till they petered at the first turn. Lonely. Just me and the two motorcycle cops. But it was way too early to think it could last.
And indeed, it got interesting pretty quickly. At half a mile in, another runner reeled me in and pulled along side. Didn’t pass, just pulled up. Neither of us spoke for the next few tenths, nor did I even glance. I started working through my head whether I could hold the pace, wondering who this guy was and what he had under the hood. His breathing belied that he certainly wasn’t cruising effortlessly, but neither was I. Heading up Phelps Street I broke the silence.
“How old are you?”
“Forty,” he replied. OK, two good facts. First, he’s no youth ready to out-sprint me at the end, but he does have nearly a decade less wear on him. Second, this race does 5-year age groups, a bit of overkill even when at its full-size field, and a density of medals sure to carpet the field on a sparse day like today. But presuming we didn’t go cardiac or get taken out by a surprise army, we were both in the hardware.
“Cool. I’m 47. No matter what happens, we’ll both get something.” I figured I’d toss in a little old-guy psychology too, and called him a youngster, just for fun. He took the bait, and made a crack about wondering where the real youngsters were. Bunch of wimps, we decided, and huffed on.
Another tenth along, as he stuck like glue, I pondered that he might indeed have a reservoir of capability, contemplated a potentially deadly horserace at the line, and decided to lay out a deal. “You ever won one of these before?”
“Me neither. Whaddaya’ say if we’re still like this at the end, we just cross the line together?”
“I’ll think about it.”
OK, so he’s confident. That’s OK, I’m not doing too bad myself. Every little surge he pushed, I met. Bide my time.
Now, you might be saying, “Hey, that’s just throwing the game,” and I suppose in a way, it was, but here are a couple of 40-somethings and it just seemed simpler than imposing death and destruction on both of us. And I was tickled think of what Wendy and Bill working the finish and results would do to sort that one out. A tie? Umm, we’ve never had that before…
A tenth or two later he spontaneously agreed to the deal. Confidence waning. So I could probably take him. Yeah, but I offered the deal, so I can’t act on that signal, it just wouldn’t be sportsmanlike, now, would it? I’d made the pact with the devil, I couldn’t be the one to break it.
So he did it for me. At a mile and three quarters, climbing the biggest hill on the course, he faded suddenly and significantly. I goaded him to come along. No dice. I simply held pace. I didn’t leave the coffee klatch, he did. The bargain was broken, fair and square. I had my shot.
But it wasn’t over. After the biggest climb came the biggest drop, and I’m not a strong downhiller. I was certain he’d be back. I poured on what I could find to forestall the inevitable, and refused to look back. Give no signs of weakness. The thin crowds didn’t give me any hints to the spread between us, either, so I finally broke down just before the final turn and shouted to a spectator, asking how much room I had. Had I looked, I would have known why he laughed. My rival, knowing he had nobody close behind himself, and having given up the hope of holding on to me, had faded well back but remained solidly and safely in second. Later he’d tell me he was pleased with his race and was fine with the whole deal / no-deal thing. And so it was just me and those two cops, for today, my cops for a change, heading for home.
The look on my wife and daughters’ faces was classic as I passed them, headed into the parking lot, and crossed the line. “You’re not supposed to win races!” one of them said later. What fun proving her wrong!
It wasn’t a stellar time, though it was my best 5K since the famed foot surgery. And the field was thin. And perhaps, just maybe, the magic shoes, the feather-light 904s gave me a little unfair advantage (or a fair advantage, why not?). But all that really mattered was that an old guy won it, and finally, that old guy was me.