I suppose it would be possible to go back and count all the races. All those times toeing the starting line. Looking around at your competitors. Wondering how the body and mind will respond on that day. In that moment. And for how long?
But some would no doubt be forgotten. Too many to count.
Yet there are always some races that stand out in your mind. It may be the quality of your performance, or some quirk in the weather. I recall winning a 10K race with an earwom of the Amstel Light Beer commercial playing through. “25 calories…never tasted so imported…till you…blah blah blah Amstel Liiiiighhht” over and over and over again. I couldn’t shake it.
Gratefully for me, there are more than a few races that stand out over the years. This past two weeks the dank late April and early May weather makes think about a point-to-point half marathon I ran in the early 80s.
The reason that race stands out is that I’d been fighting a cold for two weeks before the late-April start. That cold involved all the classic symptoms of sore throat, snotty nose, coughing and then the clearing out of phlegm. Nasty stuff.
So my nose was sore and raw from blowing it. But mercifully the worst had abated by the time I’d stepped to the starting line. Still, I felt a bit achy and tired. Not race fit necessarily. But I was determined to give it a go.
Part of that determination came from obligation. As a sponsored athlete for the Running Unlimited store that provided my shoes and racing kit along with paying race fees, I’d signed up weeks before and the expectation was that I’d be at that line. It was a major local race, you see. Right on the fringe of that store’s market area. So I sucked it up and got my ass to the race.
Early on, it was tough to establish a rhythm. When the body is racked by a cold, it feels like the pistons aren’t firing together. But my training had been going well, so it was a question of being patient enough to let things warm up and fall into place.
Leaders in sight
Through 10K I stuck where I wanted to be. The leaders were still visible a ways up the road. I knew that I would not win the overall as there were some notably better runners entered. But my goal was top 10, cold or not.
There was a slight wind in our faces as we headed south. The course followed roads through posh suburbs and hard industrial towns along Lake Michigan. A spit of rain might have fallen at one point, and the scent of flowering bushes still penetrated my half-clogged sinuses.
At ten miles I caught a longtime competitor. We typically traded wins against each other every other race. I knew his stride instantly. He was short and solid, my polar opposite. He always wore a hat backwards before running caps were even invented. I gave him a quick hand signal to say “Let’s go” but it was not his sharpest day either.
That’s how it is, or should be, with our keenest competitors. We get better by trying to best them. On the days we do, there’s a little satisfaction. But it’s always best to win if you’re feeling good and so is your rival.
Perhaps he’d been fighting a cold just like me. In any case, I still smiled to myself as I pulled away. My body had turned into something other than a cold-wracked portal. I was running well. The training had kicked in. I’d been running sub 5:30s and passed ten miles in under 55:00. Not bad for a skinny guy with a head full of snot.
The finish line loomed and I tried to lift into a sprint, but that call to arms was not going to happen. My time just under 1:11 for the half-marathon earned a spot in the top ten as I’d hoped. My sponsors were happy. I was happy to have survived the day and be done.
Two days later the cold was almost magically gone. Perhaps that hard effort in the half marathon had actually blown out the carbon, as they say. But more likely the cold had just run its course. I was back to healthy again.
Two weeks later I’d race a 5K on the track at an All-Comers meet. There were so many runners the race did not start until midnight. I lined up with perhaps 25 guys and we took off under the lights. I came home in 14:45 but stopped my watch a bit late and it read 14:47. Such are the challenges of the self-coached athlete.
But those were two races that have forever stood out in my mind.