By Dan Dipiro
I am hammering along a wooded, gently winding, country road that I have never seen before today. I’m in the lead, but I have no police escort or any escort at all. Ordinarily a stickler for knowing the course ahead of time, I don’t know this one. I don’t know where I’m supposed to turn next. So far, I’ve seen no signs, no arrows marking the course anywhere. Aside from the occasional passing car, I’m alone.
The road travels beside a fairly big river-maybe thirty or forty meters across. So far, the course has had only gentle ups and downs. It’s a sunny July morning, and the heat is starting to come on. I pass through a few shady spots, but I’m mostly in the sun. The heat isn’t horrible, but enough to oppress, enough to steal a few seconds per mile. I pass a few old houses, and then an equally old service station.
By “hammering along” I mean to suggest a decent amount of industry on my part, but no high art. I knew, coming into this little race, that I wasn’t rested enough to run my best. I came in thinking of it as something between a race and a training run. So, no, not a cabinet maker with his measured, careful strokes. Just a rough framer driving spikes and leaving big, quarter-moon dimples on the two-by lumber. Hammering along.
I’m not even a mile in when I feel myself easing off, letting myself settle back into tempo-run effort. I wonder if I’ve gotten too used to that relatively moderate tempo-run pain this season. Or is it just that I have no one around me right now to push me? Maybe it’s the heat. Or just my fatigue; I knew I was tired…. Finally recognizing the excuse mill for what it is, I turn it off and start pushing harder, trying to stay on pace.
One reason I don’t know the course is that one of the two race volunteers who provided me with a description of it was about, oh, eleven. She spoke of “fairgrounds” and “loops” and “coming back to school” (a middle school-her school, I think), but I hadn’t made much sense of her directions and hadn’t felt like trying to disabuse her of her little-girl assumptions. (Every adult knows where the fairgrounds are!)
But now I see a police cruiser ahead, at an intersection, parked across the road, blocking the way of three or four cars that sit waiting-waiting for me, and for the runners behind me. I know this must be where I turn into the fairgrounds. So I do.
There’s a gentle descent and then an equally gentle ascent that carries me over a bridge, over the river. The road turns from tar to dirt, and then I’m faced with an immediate problem: a fork in the road and not a course marking or person in sight.
To my right, lie what appear to this X-urbanite to be likely indicators of fairgrounds: large fields, board fences, wooden bleachers, sheds. Given all the pre-race talk of fairgrounds, I begin to fade right, toward all of this. As I go right, though, the view of the left road opens, and I see a water station and half a dozen volunteers standing around. Not yet fully committed to the right road, I veer hard to the left.
“This way?” I yell to the volunteers, race fatigue making a desperate croak of my voice. Yes, this way, a man indicates with a yell and a gesture, kids scrambling around him to ready themselves for their first customer.
A couple kids hold out cups. A boy sprints ahead with a plastic garbage bag and then stops and turns and readies himself-apparently to catch my cup. He has moved with an alarmed intensity the likes of which I have never before seen in any water station cup catcher anywhere.
While I’d have gladly taken a cooling splash over the head, the volunteers are standing too far out of the tangent I’m running, and I don’t want to lengthen the course to get to them. So I just say no-thanks and hammer on, avoiding not just the extra race distance, but also that water-station slowing that always necessitates the little added pain of having to speed back up again.
The dirt road is shaded, which is nice. The dirt is a little damp-a little wet-packed-so it’s not too sloppy or slow a surface, but still softer and slower than tar, and it ascends slightly. I endure this gentle climb for half a mile, losing some time to it, but I am then rewarded with what will prove to be the event’s only course sign. The following is Magically Marked onto white poster board:
MEMORIAL 5K LOOP HERE —>
Just before having my eye caught by this sign, however, I’d been looking ahead at two men standing at a crossroads, about three hundred meters ahead, and looking back at me. Occupied with the sight of these two men, I was late to spot the sign. But I do spot it and then cut hard to the right to make the turn.
Again I’m presented with a navigation problem. This little spur I’ve turned onto ends in no more than thirty meters, and there’s a paved road onto which I must turn either right or left. There’s no sign or volunteer to tell me which way to go. I have to guess. I decide to turn left, in the general direction of the two guys at the crossroads. A minute later, this proves to be a good bet. The two guys come back into sight. They’re watching me and, whether spectators or volunteers or some combination thereof, they do seem to be standing there for some reason related to the race.
“This way?” I ask, for the second time in this race, and they nod and assure me that I’m on course and that I should now turn back down the dirt road I’ve just climbed. I thank them and take the road just traveled.
I’m a good way back down the dirt road when the second-place runner comes climbing up. He is thirteen. I know this because he told me before the race. Unsolicited, his older sister had told me what his 5K PR was.
“Wow,” I’d said. “You’re fast.” And I’d given him a fist bump thinking that in just a year or two he could be a good high school cross-country runner.
Now this skinny little guy is pushing his way up the dirt road. I say something encouraging to him, but not too loudly. I’m trying to gain back some time on my descent, so I don’t invest energy in any big war cry or anything. Then comes a forty or so year old woman in third place. She looks like a decent runner.
“Great job!” she calls out.
“Thanks,” I gasp. “You too.”
Then come the jogging, panting, over-dressed masses-about 60 of them. Many are wearing the yellow cotton race tee that bears the name of this memorial event and the name of a deceased boy. I guess they are mostly family, friends, and acquaintances of the deceased.
I’ve already learned that the boy’s mother is the race director. The day before, I called for race information, and a woman returned my call. “It’s a memorial race for my son,” she told me, “who I lost a year and a half ago.”
“Oh,” I said. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” But she didn’t acknowledge what I’d said. She just pushed on with her description of the race, and I guessed that this is how one deals with the loss of a child-by just pushing on, by not stopping, because stopping might mean not being able to get going again.
On my way back down the dirt road, I do gain a few seconds back. And after I’ve returned to the paved roads, I’m able to maintain decent speed, but I’m on pace for only a par performance. With about six tenths of a mile to go, I start fighting for a strong finish. I’m not destined, however, to fight long.
I run only a quarter of a mile back on the winding, riverside road on which I began this race, when I round a turn and see, just ahead of me, a cruiser blocking the road. Could it be that I’m already at the school entrance? But that entrance sits just a hundred or so meters from the finish!
There, by the road, is the school’s sign. Yes, this is my turn. I immediately think a number of things all at once.
“Yes! The pain is almost over!” And, “Damn, it’s not even near a legit course.” And, “That clock is gonna have one fast time on it.”
“I told her, before the race,” one of the six or so spectators near the finish line tells me, “‘I bet he can run this in seventeen minutes.’” He is fifty five or so, a sturdy, capable looking guy, not particularly fit or unfit. Maybe a high school coach of some sport other than running. Or maybe a father who’s watched a son or daughter in a handful of races and noticed the top finishers and their times. A woman, probably his wife, is at his side. I am still panting a little, and the endorphins are pouring on. He is beaming, apparently pleased that my finish time of 16:45 has confirmed, for both him and his wife, his ability to pick a runner from a crowd.
“Well, thanks,” I say, as it seems to me there’s some compliment in there somewhere, although one could argue that there wasn’t. Then I lean toward him a bit and lower my voice. I don’t want to offend the organizers, but I also don’t want to pretend to be something I’m not, and so I tell him, “The course was a little short. I’m not a sixteen-minute guy.” We exchange a few more friendly words, and then I go out for a long cool-down run.
As I near the finish area, on my return, I can see that most, if not all, of the runners are in and milling around, most of them uniformed in the yellow race tee. As I approach, someone yells, “Here he comes!” I stop my watch and see that I’ve cooled down for about four miles. Then I make my way through the crowd, heading for my water bottle and tee shirt, which I’ve left on the ground by the registration table. A couple people smile and nod at me and congratulate me on my win. Then a smiling woman approaches and asks me, sweetly, deferentially, if I’m going to be staying nearby, because she has some awards to give out. I say yes and thank her for asking.
About ninety seconds later, as I sip water, I hear her calling my name and announcing my finish time. Someone remarks, “Wow.” She gives out just two white envelopes-one for me and one for the female winner-and then thanks the crowd for participating. That’s the whole awards ceremony. As the crowd disperses, I realize that these people have all been waiting for me, kindly holding up the awards ceremony, for me, while I’ve been off on my long cool-down run.
Follow Dan on his blog Shodfoot Running, where Dan writes about training, racing, and living with Addison’s disease.