The Story behind the Story
This story appeared in the Gainesville (Florida) Sun in 1977, when I used to freelance for them. I'd just started running a year before and had never tried a race before, nor had I any particular ambitions in that direction. The enthusiastic friend who dragged me into that Sun Run 10-mile race is John Moran, now a great Florida nature photographer. Luckily, John is just as enthusiastic about the world now as he was then. His most quotable saying is "Life is good". Take a look at his inspiring work at http://johnmoranphoto.com/
NOTE: See The Marathon article to compare this to a race where I really trained properly!
The Story in front of the Story
"Bam, bam, bam."
I forced open one eye and tried to focus on the ceiling that I knew was up there somewhere.
Only one person could have the bizarre sense of humor to come pounding on my door on a Saturday morning. Unsuccessfully trying to figure out which end of the bathrobe had the sleeves, I swung open the door.
Yep. It was him: grinning too, something which I've instinctively come to suspect.
"Now?" still trying to steady myself on the doorknob.
Oh, no. I knew what that meant. "You mean the Sun Run? That's only 50 minutes from now."
"Right. We'll have to hurry. Come on."
Caught off-guard and half-asleep, I was totally unprepared to complain very effectively. "I was right in the middle of a good dream," I said lamely, as I groped under a pile of newspapers for my running shoes.
|Me, at the finish line: made it!|
But we did have time to go cajole his girlfriend into entering the one-mile Run-for-Fun. Before I had time to rationally consider just exactly what it was I was doing, I found myself standing in front of the registration table, waiting my turn to fill out a "release from liability in case of injury or death" form.
"Four bucks to enter a race, huh? At least they give out free T-shirts."
"IF you finish."
Beyond trying to solve the logistical problem of where to pin on the number when I wasn't wearing a shirt, I was at a total loss for exactly what I was supposed to do to get ready for a race. After all, I'd never been in one before.
For that matter, I'd never even run 10 miles (16 km) before. I'm a passable three-mile jogger but hardly in shape for 10 miles. For, as any experienced runner will delight in pointing out, it's a quantum leap from three miles to ten.
I began sizing up the other runners. You can tell a lot by the shoes. The ROTC guys and ex-marines were wearing Adidas, the fashion-conscious and the super "in" wore their Nikes, and we budget-conscious had on our old Brooks Villanovas, a great but phased-out shoe that's been selling half-price for the last year.
Crammed in at the starting line out in the street in front of the Chamber of Commerce, there were supposed to be about 500 of us. Being buried in the middle of the crowd made it look smaller and I could only see about 70. I couldn't even imagine completing the whole course: out University Avenue to near the North Florida Regional Hospital and back.
Without hearing a gun go off, I suddenly noticed that the front rows were beginning to take off. This was it! "I think the race is starting!" I said cleverly, feeling like I was about to bail out of a smoking plane.
And with a surge of the mob and the air ringing with applause, a small brass band blurting out something like "Stars and Stripes Forever," we were off.
We began at an incredibly strong pace and from the first moment I was breathing hard, in oxygen debt.
We were gradually thinning out and runner after runner slowly passed me by. We passed the first mile marker in front of the Flagler Inn and I heard them yell out "6:42" (a 4 min. per km pace).
I couldn't believe it. I was falling far behind and yet I was running faster than my usual three-mile pace. This can't keep up, I thought, thinking people would start giving out in a couple more miles.
But the second mile passed, then the third, and yet no one was slowing down.
"Everyone CAN'T be in THAT good a shape," I thought. But as I crested the hill leading down to 34th Street, I could see the leaders had already crossed the intersection, maybe half a mile ahead of me, and there was a thick stream of runners in between.
Out Newberry Road and I was burning out fast, running way past my capacity, but still the leaders kept pulling away.
Up a hill and past the four-mile point. I began to seriously wonder if I could even finish. The sun was beating down and I could feel the energy draining out through my pores. I searched the sky for clouds to move in front of the sun.
I began to think that, for me, the second half might turn out to be an Un-Run. It was looking grim.
I heard a noise and looked up. Speeding my way, the leaders were already on their way past me back into town. At only four miles into the race I was already two miles behind. All visions of my bending down to have the gold medal placed around my neck to the roaring of the throngs were quickly muffled beneath the sound of slapping feet of runners whishing by me.
With hundreds of runners passing me on their way back, I figured I must be in the last 10 or 20, but I didn't have the heart to look back.
At four and a half miles, I felt the tell-tale signs of a cramp coming on, deep in my side. It quickly dug in and my breathing became shallower and more restricted. That orange juice and Snickers bar I had before the race were taking their toll.
I finally approached the half-way point and rounded one of the walkie-talkie men, who yelled out "34 minutes," and that painful, drawn-out mile slipped behind me as I turned to begin that long uphill slug back to town.
But as I looked around I began to realize that there were maybe another 200 behind me. I was in the middle of the pack! Incredible!
I felt much better then. Relaxing a bit, I slowed down to a pace I could finish with. I figured I could let another hundred pass me and I'd still be all right.
The runners I'd been keeping up with for the last two miles began to inch away. A high school girl that I'd passed several times before soon left me behind, out of sight.
Six miles and I was weakening. More runners came up from behind and slowly moved ahead.
Seven miles and I felt totally drained; no more reserves of energy left. I regretted not getting up earlier and eating a decent breakfast. But I noticed that the cramps had gone away.
Trudging across 34th Street and this time it was UP the hill. A girl came up from behind, her breathing so close to the absolute edge of endurance that she sounded like she was drowning or maybe on a respirator. I couldn't believe she could hold that pace for more than another hundred feet. But soon she, too, disappeared ahead, around a bend.
Two miles to go and I reached the university campus. If I could just hold out. I began to feel nauseous. I remembered what a friend's cross-country coach used to yell to him, "Throw up over your shoulder and keep going!" If anyone was running behind my left shoulder, they were in for a big surprise.
I continued to slow down, now running 10-minute miles. I crossed 13th Street and couldn't even lift my eyes to look at the spectators. Their applause and encouragement only seemed to mock my near inner-collapse.
Now every step was labor, every second a suspended moment of pain to be endured.
Nine miles. A little kid, about as high as my waist, came cruising by me. He MUST have started back at 13th Street.
Now occasionally moaning or gasping, I approached the Seagle Building and thought I could make out something of the finish line.
Across NW 2nd Street and I could see the crowd at the end. Suddenly, this was it. I was going to make it.
Almost subconsciously my speed increased a bit, but I didn't tire. I increased it some more and suddenly I was sprinting towards the finish line. Somewhere within me I had a hidden reserve. The joy of beating the race seemed to call up an inner strength and I flew past the line, covering the 10 miles in 75 minutes, 42 seconds. That was 15 minutes ahead of what I'd figured I'd do, but still a full 27 minutes behind the winner, Barry Brown.
It was over. I turned ice cold, having almost no heat energy left to burn.
Never again, EVER, without training for it first. But I did get my T-shirt and a box of McDonaldland cookies. Everything necessary to sustain life as I know it.
And soon I was lying in the sun, airing out my battered feet, feeling the aches coming on in every part of my body.
I sighed. If only I could remember that dream I'd interrupted a couple of hours before.