OK, so it wasn’t exactly Dick Beardsley and Alberto Salazar in the famed 1982 Duel in the Sun at Boston, but it was, for me, one of the more exciting races I’ve run, and certainly one of the most pleasing. And like most events that fall into that category, who knew it was coming?
Let’s get the mystery and suspense out of the way first. I managed to retain my title as the fastest yokel in our small pond known as the Forrest 5K, chalking up only my second win in Second Lap history (bar runs don’t count!). Once again I was the beneficiary of the alignment of the stars; nobody truly fast showed up. Some really good competition, mind you, but had I jumped into the five-K just one town over yesterday, I would have been smoked five times over and finished close to two minutes off the pace. So this was no Herculean feat. But hey, a win is a win.
The fun – and the exciting – parts are how it came about. The pleasing part comes with the numbers, which, as you might expect from your OCD-prone author, need some massaging to reveal their deep inner truths. We’ll get to that.
Frankly, I came close to abdicating the throne without a fight. For reasons unexplained, the race organizers chose to move said event an hour earlier, leaving me with the uncomfortable choice of blowing off my church band or blowing off my small pond title. The balance of goading from various parties weighed on the side of title defense. OK, the band will survive.
Defending my crown was in truth a rather ludicrous idea. The only reason I held it in the first place was the dumb luck of who didn’t show up last year. So said defense was effectively ceremonial. Not to mention I’d just put in a hard twenty-two miler two days prior, and didn’t really expect much from my over-trained legs. But the race was small last year and hinted at being small again. Online registrations, nicely posted and visible, were thin, to put it mildly. No heavy-hitting names stood out, but then, who’s to say I’d know them if they were in there.
One name that did stand out was Issam, my challenger from last year’s race. There are two races every year on this course, the other being early in the summer, which I’d missed due to vacation. A little homework revealed that Issam had run the June edition and kicked his time down close to what I’d run last year. But hey, I’d also pushed my five-K down over the summer, so…? Now, getting smoked by someone out of your league doesn’t inspire a top performance, nor does being alone out front. But the idea of having this guy back, who’d pushed me hard through the first half last year, was sweet. Bring on the rematch!
Then what to my wondering eyes should appear this morning in the registration line, no, not a sled with tiny reindeer, but none other than Rocket John. Rocket John, who to my memory had smoked me in every race shorter than a marathon. Rocket John, who reminded me of his speed during a brief – and quick – warm-up. Rocket John, who I hadn’t talked to in a few months while he healed up a few injuries, but here he was, he’s back. Yeah, so defend, deschmend, it was nice to hold the crown for a year, it’s pretty much over now. I vowed to just try to hold on as long as possible.
Which is pretty much what happened at first. Off we bolted, sucking cop car fumes, John, Issam, and yours truly. Leading for the first couple of tenths, Issam inches off my left flank. Then John going a stride up, Isaam and I elbow to elbow. Round the corner into Phelps Street, the three of us stuck like glue. Ripping my lungs out to stay in contact with John. Issam’s right arm glued to my left. A real dogfight, and we’re only at a half a mile. A dogfight? More like hanging on for dear life to stay in contact, expecting John to turn it on at any moment.
Out of the blue, another set of footfalls. A youngster in our midst! He seemingly effortlessly weaves between John and I and into the lead. Oh please, guys, I’m at full bore, you turn it up a notch and, well, good night. Resignation, it’s looking like a typical age-group day. But that still means fighting off John, and for the moment I’ve forgotten that Issam is young enough to fall out of my tranche. I’m looking at third in my age group. Well, it’s hardware.
The early mild upgrades passed, we reach the first major rise and hit the mile in – yee-haw, five-thirty-nine. Issam is still glued to my left. And I mean glued. We’ve never varied more than half a stride since settling in a quarter-mile out. Then, and I don’t really recall when or where it happened, it was probably at this rise, not only the youngster but even Rocket John are no longer in my forward vision. Hills are your friends, I tell my middle school cross country kids. Today they seem to be. I bleed hills. I’ve taken two of them on the hills. Confidence rises a bit, but I’m burning up at this pace, they’ll probably be back, and Issam, Issam, we’re literally banging elbows. Neither of us cares or is offended. In our grunted breathing I sense he’s eating up this duel as much as I. I can’t shake him, nor he me. We alternately test each other with half-stride bursts, the other always answering. Beardsley. Salazar. But even they ran one in front of the other. If this race had crowds, they’d have a treat to behold. Alas, along these stretches, nary a soul.
I’ve never run a race like this. The two of us played Siamese twins for a solid mile and a half. Even around the turns. Splitting only momentarily as I had to swing wide around a car to avoid crunching his space, but rejoining within seconds.
Last year he’d faded early on the climb up Cook Lane. This year he stuck like glue as we neared the crest. A tenth, maybe two, to the top. If he stuck with me over the apex, no telling what would happen on the way down. Up is in my blood, down, not so good. Now or never…
I don’t know if I surged, he faded, or both, but suddenly the trance was broken, my left arm was free. I didn’t dare look back, even as his footsteps faded, which took quite a while. Reactions from the sparse crowd didn’t offer up the usual verbal hints to the span of the gap. And what of Rocket John and the Youngster?
All you can do in this situation is do all you can do. Sounds redundant, but there’s no deeper thinking. Just haul. Dig deep. Ignore bodily alarms, drips, and other inconveniences. And kick it around the corner, into the parking lot, over the line. You’d kill yourself if you lost it there.
I’d learn afterward that like last year, Issam dropped back more than I’d expected. I had twenty seconds on him at the end. But he sliced thirty off his previous best on the course; truly impressive, and a trend that extrapolated will be hard to counter down the road.
Had I known the gap, I might have slacked it in. And what a glorious reason not to look back, but to just assume you’re about to get re-smoked. Because that final push brought me in, at least on my watch (official timing experienced some challenges, so this is the best I’ll get) dead heat tied with the best I’ve ever run on that course, a time from three years back, three years younger, before the famed foot follies, while in my peak condition. Converted from the long course back down to a true five-K distance (I warned you that the OCD would come back into this), it was only my third sub-eighteen and only a couple seconds off my Second Lap best.
You don’t do that when you’re so far behind the leaders that you don’t care, or when there’s nobody pushing you. You do that when you’ve got awesome competitors of similar ability around you and you find yourself in that rare epic duel. My hat is off to these guys, and would be even if the order of finish had been reversed.