I spent my fall becoming acquainted with the sport of running. Becoming enamored with the sport of running would actually be a more accurate way of describing it. My first season of cross country had been a revelatory experience that opened my eyes to a world of possibility and opportunity. Nothing affected me the way the act of running did.
I fell under the spell of Tom Dowling who was an Olympic development coach. He had taken at least a vague interest in me and I followed his words and direction ardently. The onset of shorter and markedly colder days did little to cool my passion for hitting the road as I built my endurance base in preparation for spring track season. Tom had me convinced the cold days and nights would pay dividends in time.
There were no races on my schedule that winter save one….the ‘Gobble Wobble’ which not surprisingly took place on Thanksgiving morning. For most this 4+ mile run provided an opportunity to rationalize gluttony later in the day. But, for me, this race would be my Olympics. I had ‘participated’ in this race before and placed 20th. But, that was before I was a ‘runner’. Having transformed into a runner the past few months I was no longer content to merely participate.
For inexplicable reasons, I was bound and determined to win this race. I had never won a race before and I had no idea who was participating in this race. But, some of the boldest decisions I have made have been borne of naiveté and ignorance. What was important is that I ‘believed’ I could win and that’s usually where things start.
While there was much I didn’t know as the race started there were a few things I did know. The course was a 4.5 mile loop around Lake Quivira. I knew this course intimately as I ran it almost every day. The majority of the course was flat. The toughest part of the course was roughly 4 miles into the race where a staggering incline of about 250 meters materialized. This incline would take the wind out of anyone’s sail.
I felt relaxed and comfortable during the first mile of the race despite the fact that I wasn’t anywhere near the front of the pack. I was about 15 spots back. I knew the course well, but I knew myself better. I never liked to be in front and I warmed up slowly. My only real gifts as a runner included the simple ability to endure and a monster finishing kick …if I could summon it.
I viewed races as a war of attrition. I was confident most of those in front of me were not terribly seasoned runners and would come back to me over the course of the next several miles. I was also confident in my own ability to endure and figured I could stay in the hunt for most of the race.
I gradually moved up into the 10th spot and could see a number of runners within striking distance. Many of those in front of me were members of a rival high school’s cross country team. While I really didn’t care who was in front of me, the idea of knocking off the rival high school’s cross country team single handedly would have been a nice bonus.
This far fetched idea became a bit more tangible as I entered the last mile or so of the race. I moved up a few more spots and off in the distance I could see ‘3’ runners moving smoothly in a pack with no one near them. They were all wearing race singlets from the rival high school.
They were running stronger than anyone else I had encountered that day. I suspected these three stood between me and victory at the Gobble Wobble. I threw in a bit of a surge to close the gap between us. The gap shrank and none of them bothered to glance behind them. I loved flying below the radar.
Looming in the distance was the aforementioned incline which looked much more formidable at this stage of the game. I had pulled up right behind what I assumed was the lead pack as we approached the base of the hill. Without much thought, I made my move and attempted to pass them going uphill.
I wasn’t sure if this gamble would pay off, but I knew at the very least it would rattle them. A few expletives from one of the guys as I passed him confirmed my hunch. They had no idea I was there and were more than surprised to see me pass them heading up hill. I hoped this move would serve to break their spirit.
This move took a reasonable amount out of my already leaden legs and laboring lungs as I reached the crest of the 250 meter monstrosity. Gasping for breath, I had pulled into first place, but the three runners I passed were too close for comfort.
On the other side of this hill was an equally marked downhill that would take a toll on the strongest, most well rested quads. Grudgingly, I rolled downhill and tried to let gravity do the work as much as possible. I was laboring and I knew my move had been strong, but perhaps it wasn’t enough to pull ahead for good.
Reaching the bottom of the hill, I tried to use my momentum to keep things turning over at a fast clip, but both the legs and lungs were pretty shot. Complicating things further were the three runners behind me who far from being broken, were giving chase.
Their heavy breathing and footfalls served as a stark reminder that this race was far from over. I knew this wasn’t really the Olympics and there wasn’t really a gold medal at stake, but I had worked hard to put myself in a position to win and despite whatever fatigue I was feeling, I wasn’t going to relinquish my spot without at least drawing blood.
I could almost feel their breath on my neck as I struggled to maintain pace for the next quarter mile or so. I knew that the only chance I had at holding them off was throwing in a finishing kick, but the legs were not happy and the lungs weren’t exactly sunshine and roses either.
The finish line was within sight with about another quarter mile to go. The three horsemen of the apocalypse were not backing off, but they weren’t passing me either. I played my last card and somehow mustered a half baked finishing kick in the last 200 meters. My vision narrowed as I careened towards the finish line on empty.
I doubled over feeling lightheaded and seeing stars. I had managed to single-handedly beat the rival high school cross country team and win my first race. I would have been elated if there was anything left in the tank. A race official slowly approached with a stick in her hand. She handed me a stick with the #2 on it.
While victory had been the goal, there wasn’t much disappointment I felt at falling a spot short. At the very least, I learned that having a winning mindset when approaching a race will put you in a position to have a chance at victory. For every race I ran after the Gobble Wobble, I always believed that I had a chance to win. It’s one of the most important lessons one can learn, ultimately.
While most of us may not be in a position to win races, believing that you ‘will’ complete a half marathon, believing that you ‘will’ run a personal best, believing that you ‘will’ accomplish whatever running related goals you have in mind is easily as important as any actual training you do.