As I hit the final hill on Leg 6 of the 2008 DeCelle Lake Tahoe Relay, I had a Net-Plus Two going, having passed three runners and been passed once. The last hill is a mile and a half straight up, ‘nuff said.
To run this hill in a race after nine miles is to go see the elephant, to engage in running combat. On this last raw hill, one and a half miles of nakedness as you continue up to the top without respite, you either pass, maintain your position or get passed. There is no other alternative, besides quitting. You can see who is ahead, and who is approaching.
Round and round the S curves I went, knees hurting, muscles aching, breath whistling sharply in and out. I heard some huffing and chuffing behind me and a runner smoothly went by doing sub-eights. He had come from a long way off and there was no keeping up with him. I returned to grinding up the hill. There was a runner ahead that I was approaching, however, and I went by her halfway up. I was back to Net-Plus Two. (Left: Early in my Leg 6 run.)
Then, to calm my racing heart and gasping, labored breath, I walked 50 yards when I saw my support team, imbibing some needed fluids. I broke back into a painful trot again. A runner had been gaining on me and he ran past. Revived by my walking spell, I passed him back immediately. I elevated my pace slightly and up the hillside the two of us silently toiled, sweat dripping off our noses and chins. Up ahead was a woman, whom we both passed. The warrior behind me clung desperately to me, six feet back. At one point he dropped to twelve feet back but then by a force of will, he closed the range again.
My leg muscles were screaming from the unaccustomed task of a solid mile and a half climb. I had trained for this race by running up hills, but nowhere in DC could I find a steep hill of such length that started out at a mile high already. Life became elemental, listlessly watching the roadway eight feet ahead of me, listening through pounding ears to the breathing and footfalls of the runner behind me.
We were approaching another runner. We got to within 30 yards of her when I saw the Bliss State Park sign heralding the top of the pass just ahead. A quarter mile to go! Close quarter combat was about to commence on top of the mountain between the three of us.
The runner behind me was steady as he matched my pace and trod on my heels. The woman ahead had attained the summit but she had not increased her speed despite having only 200 meters of flat terrain to go. I reached the level ground and saw my teammates at the exchange point, cheering me on. (Right: To get this beautiful medal, you're just gonna have to run the Lake Tahoe Relay yourself. If you want to have quiet satisfaction forever, run Leg 6 for your team.)
The top gained, I was now at Net-Plus Three and I hoped to pick off the runner ahead and hold off any charge from the runner behind. There wasn’t much space to operate in anymore. I pushed off on the level ground to begin a two football-field sprint to the exchange point.
My left hamstring muscle immediately clenched into a painful balled fist and brought me up short instantly. I hopped to a stop and started murmuring "OMG! OMG! OMG!" as I grabbed the back of my leg and tried to massage the fiery ball away. It was rock solid and incredibly painful. I was down, and out of the battle. The runner ahead went off towards the finish. She never increased her pace. The warrior behind, who had doggedly hung with me on the hillside while I was trying to drop him, swept by me. I didn't begrudge him benefiting from my sudden injury.
(Left: Late in my Leg 6 run. E has water for me.) I couldn’t even walk until I got my hamstring to relax a little. I stretched my leg and kneaded it for perhaps a minute. The grains of sand run out fast when you’re under pressure. Having just lost a place in the last 200 yards, and failed to gain another place, I started to worry about who was coming up the hillside next. I trotted down to the exchange chute as best I could and slapped B, the anchor leg.
We were in 77/113 place after my 10.5 mile leg. My 1:37:44 (9:18) run had gained two places. It wasn’t perfect, nor did its modest outcome seem very compelling, but I had just finished the hardest competitive run of my life and I hadn't let anybody down that day, including myself.