My engine light came on Saturday night, just twelve hours away from having to drive 90 minutes to the starting line of the Nipmuck Trail Marathon. Lulu needed the other car for her full day of driving the kids between a lacrosse jamboree and dance recital. With a queezy stomach, I knew I had no other option but to gas ‘er up and hope for the best.
Earlier that day, I had taken my final run before the race. Thirty minutes in the woods with the dogs and a few strides on a nearby soccer field. Finishing up, my right knee started giving me problems, another warning light right before a race and another that I chose to ignore.
Sunday morning, race day, broke orange and warm. Heading north with a bowl of Multi Bran Chex and a cup of Joe in my belly, I felt mostly relaxed thinking about the race and singing along to a little Bob Dylan, “Oh, Mama, could this really be the end?” Despite the signs of trouble ahead from my engine and my knee, I was geeked up to be running with none of the fear that I’ve sometimes felt around the pain of a hard effort. At this point, I’ve had enough of them to be comfortable with the misery that, no matter how intense, I know only lasts for a finite period of time.
Coming off the line, I hopped into first. That lasted for twenty five meters when the eventual winner (I never caught his name) took the lead. I settled into second at a pace that felt a whole lot closer to 5K than marathon, but I wasn’t too scared of it, I wanted to give myself a shot at winning. Having always run negative splits in a marathon, this time I wanted to open something up on the front end. The first half of the course is the easier section and I planned on taking advantage.
One mile in, I had someone on my back and close. I pulled aside and let them pass. Judging by the sound of their voice and the look of their body (from behind), I was sure this runner was in the sub Masters category and so I let him go without too much of a care. My goal afterall was to win the Masters. But right before the first turnaround at six something miles, I got a look at the two people ahead of me. The leader was a baldheaded rock star hammering like a diesel engine through the Connecticut woods and not too far behind him was the man in second place. He was blasting it too but to my bitter frustration, I found him to be not some young Turk but a gray haired guy with a few wrinkles and clearly over 100,000 miles on his engine. It was Jack Pilla, 51 years of age and a total running stud. I knew right then I was in it for third or worse.
From the turnaround at six to mile nineteen, I was running by myself which can be a nice place to be in the woods on a sunny day. I kept things positive in my head, took what the trail was giving me, running fast on the flats and downhills and shortening my stride and picking up the tempo on the considerable uphills. At the aid stations, I stopped long enough to drink deeply and thank the volunteers for helping out.
By the second and final turnaround, I was tired, my legs were a little sluggish but I was reasonably comfortable with having 3rd locked up. As I turned from the aid station to head back up the trail, a runner popped out of the woods like an evil child spit out from the womb of my fears. What the f*** was this guy doing here?
I wished him luck, told him he was doing great and started hustling up and out of the deep hollow we were in. I had to get moving or I was going to get passed. Screaming in protest, my legs had no interest in charging up this steep but I had no other option. Especially, when a train of eight guys blew past me on their way to the turnaround. Comparing their outsides to my insides, I was devastated. They looked fast, hungry and focused plus they were heading downhill. Inside, I was tired, beaten and scared. My long day in third, would soon be over.
There were about thirty seconds there, where I gave up. As my lungs and muscles rebelled at the change in tempo, I felt I had nothing left to give, that my engine light was on and blinking blood red. But the thing I really love about running distance is that you almost always have time to change your mind. And as I crested that hollow and got on a more level section of trail, I changed mine. If I wasn’t coming in third by God, I was going down fighting like a Pit Bull with a crystal meth habit.
For seven miles, I opened the throttle wide and let it all hang out. Downhills were a highwire act: a quarter inch here or there and I would have broken something. On flat sections, I gave up everything I had and when the trail went uphill, I threw myself into it like I was running from Alabama lawmen. At the final aid station, one of the volunteers said, “You’re doing great, honey.” To which I replied, “No they’re on me” and sprinted off back into the woods. It was only later that I understood why she looked so surprised.
That last aid station was at the top of a good ½ mile hill which you could see most of the way down. The volunteer could see that no one was remotely close to me and there was only two and a half miles to go. I kept the hammer down and finished the “back” section 6 minutes faster than I had the “out.” Third place was mine and I’d hacked 25 minutes off my pace from the last time I’d run this sucker.
This morning, I’m taking my car in to get that engine light looked at. And this week, I’m taking some time off to let my body rest up.
Finally, as part of my prep for this race, I reached out to my friends here and elsewhere to raise money for The Hole in the Wall camps. I am really grateful for everyone’s participation in this effort and that program will be better off for your generosity. There is still time to contribute, so if you’d like please go to: Team Hole in the Wall.
Thank you and keep running.