At the annual ACLI 3-Mile Capital Challenge race in May, I suddenly found myself on the starting line, unexpectedly so. A team member had gotten delayed and was not present for the race.
I consulted one last time with the team captain, Commissioner McSweeny, whom I had been coaching for the race and who was a novice racer but a powerful runner. "There's a lot of sideways running at the beginning of these crowded races," I said, "so stick close behind me, follow me wherever I go and we'll get through slower clumps of runners as best we can by shooting through holes that momentarily open up between runners to try to get to open roadway." She looked dubious but said she was glad I was running with her, at least for the first mile.
That was the hurried plan conceited in the last two minutes when it became clear that I would be subbing for a missing, much faster runner. I would take her out at a proper pace for her, a sub-8-minute mile first mile and she would power it in in the last two miles from there. I don't have many sub-8-minute miles left in me, and certainly not three consecutive ones or even two in a row.
The gun went off and we started out. The three fast runners on our team were gone already, far ahead. It quickly became apparently to me that by lining up at our proper station, with the 8-minute mile group, that we were too far back and too jammed in.
After a few hundred yards of darting and dodging, going from side to side of the two-lane roadway to find clear spots, some space opened up that we could operate better in. The commissioner was still there, just off my hip. I glanced back every twenty seconds or so to make sure as I set a fast but manageable pace of what I judged to be mid-sevens (7:30-minute miles).
I'm experienced enough a runner to be able to do so by feel. I've run several hundred races, all but a half dozen in the last decade though. Things seemed to be going well now, now that we had some open space, although runners were still all around us. I settled into a good, fast pace, with my head on a swivel as I looked back for the commissioner.
She was gone. She was definitely not there any more. Was it possible that she passed me, I wondered?
Nothing up ahead, and I certainly hadn't seen her go by. I slowed perceptibly, and runners started flowing around me like moving water rushing around the edges of a large stone sticking above the surface in a fast-moving stream. Where was she?
Five seconds passed, ten seconds, fifteen. Then suddenly, "Here I am!" She had caught up to me from behind. I had dropped her off the back by going a little too fast but now she was caught up again and I adjusted my pace.
So now we started slogging up the out-and-back course. The minutes passed and the burn came on in my lungs and legs. Up ahead was the first milepost.
We passed it at 7:50 according to the race clock set up there. My stop watch, which I set as we actually passed the starting gate, said 7:31, which was within a second of what I wanted for the first mile. It had taken us 19 seconds after the race started to cross over the starting mat because of the congestion of runners at the beginning.
I told the commissioner to go ahead, that I could no longer match her speed as her youth and strength were now coming into play. She always finished strong and ran negative splits, at least in the three-mile runs Greg and I had run with her. Off she went and she soon disappeared into the crowd up ahead.
Now I was struggling. I know I slowed, although I willed myself on. The spirit is strong but the flesh is weak. That's why you train long and hard for your races, like the commissioner had but I hadn't.
My pace fell out of the sevens in the second mile and I was wallowing around, I was sure, at around an 8:30 mile pace. I was hot and sweating profusely. I passed around the midway cone and started back, looking for the second mile marker.
I passed it at 16:05 by the race clock, a notable diminution from the first mile. I think I got even slower in the third mile, although I picked it up with a quarter mile to go and passed everyone who was slightly ahead of me on the roadway during that stretch, five or six runners, and didn't allow anyone behind me to pass me. The race clock said 24:20 when I finished. Ugh. That was a personal worst by a minute and a half.
It got worse. Somehow my official finishing time was listed as 24:29 (an 8:10 pace). What are you going to do? Whine to the scorers about it? I was DFL on my team.
The commissioner time, officially, was 23:32. I know she ran faster than that but what are you going to do, whine to the scorers about it? She ran a great race, sub-eights the whole way. In addition to our official times being mysteriously many seconds slower than we each thought, our delay in getting over the starting gate wasn't taken into account (chip-time versus gun-time) despite it being a chip-timed race.
By my reckoning I did a 24:01 and the commish did something under 23:13, perhaps a 22:54. The other runners all had times in the 18 minute or 19 minute range. My participation perhaps made the commissioner half a minute faster but the fifth team member, me, turned in a time about six minutes slower than the missing team member. What are you going to do, cry about it?
I was barely in the top half of runners. Our team was 17th overall out of 104 teams, ninth in our competitive division out of 34 teams. We missed eighth place by one point; if only I'd started my finishing kick earlier and picked off one more runner! The commissioner had the same exact time as three other runners yet they placed her fourth among that group of four. Places matter in the scoring. She later said she didn't remember that any runners finishing in a dead heat with her, much less three others.
Greg, who was credited with a 19:40, and I ran back to the office from the race site to begin our work day, a run of 4 more miles. It was a delightful start to the morning.