It’s been nearly a week now since I finished my 25K race around Cape Ann in Massachusetts. For those unaccustomed to metric distances, it was about fifteen and a half miles. It’s the longest distance I’ve ever run (er…jogged), and I was surprised that it went reasonably well. I am not “competitive” in the sense that I am not a contender to win or place in any races, but I am, in one other sense, deeply competitive. This phenomenon where runners of average or below average athletic aptitude retain a champion’s helping of woundable pride is best observed in the latter stages of a long race like this one.
My race started once we were about 3 miles in and the crowd had thinned at least somewhat. I could sense, and partly see, a woman just off my right shoulder in a blue running skirt. BlueSkirt was hunting me. She was using me for pacing and was just off my heels. I knew I could beat BlueSkirt, but at mile 4, I had to dodge into a port-a-potty. When I emerged, I saw BlueSkirt up ahead just cresting a small hill. Though charging up hills is not advisable, I irrationally needed to overtake BlueSkirt at that point. I bolted up and promptly blew by her. I didn’t see BlueSkirt again the rest of the race. One foe vanquished, I settled into a steady cadence for several miles. By mile 9, the field had stretched so far apart that only about 5 other runners were visible ahead of me at any point. Two of these, PurpleSkirt and YellowShorts would become my companions and my competition throughout the remainder of the race.
When running behind someone for a considerable distance, one grows rather intimately familiar with her outfit, her gait, her leg muscles and the back of her head. PurpleSkirt had a big, grapey colored tattoo on her left leg, and the flash of it with each step hypnotized me for a mile or two as I drafted off her shoulder. YellowShorts was probably in her late 50s, with a big gray mop of hair flying behind her and ropey calves pumping steadily before me. It was only the three of us for a good long time, along the roads leading into Gloucester center. As we came into town, all the race officials had dropped away, there were no more mile markers or water stations, and it seemed we had been abandoned along the notoriously treacherous intersections of a New England town. I overtook both YellowShorts and PurpleSKirt, and semi-delirious at mile 12 and 13, I saw many runners staggering off into alleys. I picked my way around parked cars and people sitting on glass strewn stoops when up ahead I heard the urgent dinging of railway crossing barriers dropping into place. To my utter disbelief, our route to the finish was being closed off so a train could pass. I threw my head back and yelled to the sky, “You have GOT to be kidding me!” As evidence of our poor state of mind by this point in the race, 4 guys and I dashed across the tracks anyway, keeping a wary eye on the commuter train still stopped at the station platform. Having made it across, and with neither YellowShorts nor PurpleSkirt in evidence, I tried to pick up my pace with a mile and a half to go. That distance, at that point, seems to stretch on infinitely, and I was rounding the corner into the middle school parking lot where the finish line was set up when PurpleSkirt materialized off my right shoulder. I recall thinking, “Oh hellno.” Some kind of surge of determination flooded me and I left her behind, snatched my finisher’s medal and looked urgently for a discreet place to be sick. (This is the mark of a good race, obviously.) As I walked back toward my waiting family, I saw PurpleSkirt with hers. I smiled, and thought of saying something, but the look she gave me was so cold, I just walked right on by.
PurpleSkirt was trying to pretend nothing had happened between us. And I know I finished ahead, but realistically, she may actually have beaten me in final time since she might have started farther back in the pack. The point is that we were rivals and companions through those difficult middle miles. She had given me something to focus on, and I had given her the same. I refuse to admit the possibility that I imagined the whole thing; our speeds may be vastly more modest than an Oympian’s, but the fundamental drama is the same. Passing, getting passed, stalking someone’s peripheral gaze, being stalked. It’s why we pay to do these races instead of just running 15 solitary miles at home. Nobody wants to lose, but PurpleSkirt and I both were bested by hundreds and hundreds of people anyway. Our race had narrowed to a tiny field of three, and once you set your eyes on the runners you’re racing, you subtly announce yourself to them. So PurpleSkirt, you can pretend it didn’t happen, but we both know it did. I’m GrayShirt, remember me? And I’m up for that rematch anytime.