Friday, October 20, 2006
It began as your typical autumn Saturday morning 5K. A nip in the air, a line for the porta-potty, a bunch of pre-race instructions that nobody could hear. But 30 seconds after the starter’s gun, as we round the first bend, things get weird. Real weird. The race leaders are suddenly nowhere in sight. They’ve already dropped me, I think to myself. Then a quick side-to-side looksee reveals the truly bizarre—I’m the leader. It’s as if we’ve entered some other dimension where down is up, cold is hot, slow is fast. I mean, me leading a race? A race that involves other runners?
At 40, I’ve been running for 20 years, raced on-and-off for about 12 of those, and as such, certain personal race patterns have emerged. Besides this one time 17 years ago when I led a triathlon for about five minutes, the above does not fit my pattern at all. At races I’m always a bit player—huffing, puffing and shuffling amid the heavy-breathing mass, trying not to be too bummed when I don’t hit my splits, trying not to spit on anyone else or be spat upon. Today, it seems, this bit player was given Yorrik’s skull and told “You’re Hamlet today; give it your best.”
Earlier that year, my goal was to run a sub 40-minute 10K for the first time since Reagan’s first term. When that wasn’t happening I amended that to running a sub-20 minute 5K. In my previous race, I’d come within 15 seconds. Warming up, I hoped this was the day.
Midway through the first loop of this two-lap, blacktop-and-trail course, it looked to be a three-person race. It was me, a kinda heavy guy who was probably 50, and a 19-year-old woman wearing cross-country spikes that clicked atop the asphalt as she ran. I thought they were tap shoes and wondered if wearing tap shoes was something race leaders do to psyche each other out. I wouldn’t know.
Early in the second lap, I start to pull away. (I think that’s the phrase). Other runners’ footfalls and clicks fade and in no time, the rest is silence. I begin to focus on how truly embarrassed I am. As I approach them, unknowing spectators are cheering me assuming that—like most race leaders—I’m someone with blazing speed who’s pulling off a Herculean feat of Olympian athleticism. “Sorry, it’s just me,” I want to say. When it dawns on them that I’m the guy in front, I sense a vibe, a what-kind-of-race-is-this-if-Mike McQuaide-is-winning? vibe. And after I pass by, I’m pretty sure I hear them laughing. I imagine the race directors shaking their heads, wondering where they went wrong that someone like me is leading their race.
With time to think, I piece together the events that led to today’s predicament. 1) Many of the city’s hard-core runners were on their way to the Royal Victoria Marathon in British Columbia taking place the next day, or they'd run the Portland Marathon the week before and thus weren’t racing today. 2) Most of the town’s speedy non-marathon types were running an established 5K the next day at the local university—that drew most of the young fast folks. 3) Perhaps most importantly, today’s race was called the Daughters and Dads 5K Dash (a first-time fundraiser for the Girls on the Run program) which some people took to mean was open to daughter-and-father teams only. However, in small letters the application said, Open to Everyone, and that’s why I was here—I’m an everyone. But apparently, since only about 40 (I found out later) non-daughters-and-dads showed up, not all everyones read the fine print.
With just a few hundred yards to go, I begin to accept the unthinkable—I’m going to win. It’s accepted on faith because there’s no way I’m going to turn around to see if someone’s gaining on me. If they were, I know I’d let out a high-pitched squeal and maybe start crying.
Nearing the end, I fret over what to do when I break the finish line tape—a forward roll? Some fly break-dance move? Or just stick my chest way out as if it’s a photo finish at the Olympics? It needs to be memorable because it’s not likely I’ll ever pass this way again.
But of course there is no tape. Just a clock that reads 20:21 and someone who wants the tag off the bottom of my race number. I pull it off and hand it to her. And as I walk away—a winner for the first time ever—I’m pretty sure I hear her laughing.