I know them when I see them. They’re often grouped together conversing happily having developed relationships while enduring miles of pavement and trails together. They don’t dress in festive attire like the hundreds of amateurs milling about nervously stretching before the race coordinator announces the event begins in five minutes. They don’t come in all shapes and sizes as some would have you believe.
The horn sounded, and I sprinted forward with the group. A half mile in and I kept up with their 6-minute pace, but by mile one I was at a 6:30 pace. Mile two came at around the 14-minute mark, and their distance from me grew considerably. Thin, muscular legs carried their slight torsos ever faster as I shuffled forward awkwardly carrying a frame built from years in the weight room and a lax diet.
A few miles further and I ran alone. The exciting cheers and music of larger events was replaced by bicyclists and walkers gracelessly blocking the path during this smaller race. A young woman ran by me with the form of an Olympic marathoner at mile five while I stumbled forward with my clumsy, heavy feet barely leaving the pavement. I felt tired, and the seeds of doubt began to blossom. Two tall men in their forties ran by me with the piston-like legs of a gazelle, and I counted the runners pass the opposite direction as they began the last half of the race. I was in seventh place.
I wanted a top 10 finish. There were only 300 hundred runners and aspiring to place a spot ahead of my previous finish didn’t seem too outlandish, but my body didn’t care what my mind aspired too. I suffered a minor injury five days earlier, and I reluctantly, smartly, rested to prevent further damage. The strain was gone, but my legs felt like they were encased in concrete.
A small, middle-aged man gained on me. His slight, smooth strides looked effortless with years of running experience. He surged past me, but he relented when we came upon a step incline. I didn’t see him the rest of the run. I finally hit the wall so many runners talk about at mile 10, a new experience for me. My pace slowed considerably to a 9-minute mile, and in short order two older, taller men passed me again. Doubt grew considerably and, for the first time in my brief stint as a recreational half marathoner, I thought about walking.
There is no harm in walking. It can save you from yourself. It can help you push further and farther. In fact, Amby Burfoot, a Boston Marathon winner and author of “Run Forever,” believes walk-running is the best way to continue a lifetime of running. But, I’m in my thirties, and I’m too stubborn to heed advice from a 70-year-old professional runner with more than 110,000 miles under his belt. I. Did. Not. Want. To. Walk.
I slowed to around a 9:30 pace with a mile to go. Making a sharp left onto Northern Avenue, I could see the inflatable arch of the finish line. A bald man in his forties passed me, but I put my head down and struggled to mitigate the doubt rising in my head. The energy I felt running the last mile of the Rock N Roll Half Marathon wasn’t there. No cheers, no external help to aide you in deafening the roar doubt unleashed. The torrent of negativity built through the momentum of years of failure. It was me versus me. A formidable foe who had the upper hand of decades worth of pessimism to rely on. Failure is second nature. Failure is a familiar frenemy who is always there to remind me of my ineptitude.
I endured. I reminded myself of the novel I’ve yet to write. I reminded myself of the years of timidity leading to a lifetime of regret and ‘what ifs.’ ‘What if’ haunted me. This was a silly recreational run but failing to see it through to the end would have resulted in another deposit into the ‘what if’ account. The small step to push through my doubt in that moment I knew would lead to a giant leap toward halting the negative cycle that has haunted me for a lifetime. I came in 12th place overall, but, for the second race in a row, I placed first in my age group.
The euphoria of placing first in my age group wasn’t there like the previous race. My legs hurt, and I cramped with each step. I loitered around the finish line passing the time with an audio book while waiting for the race director to announce the winners. Then I spotted the group. They appeared to be carrying on with the same jovial conversation they had prior to the race. There was no pain etched in their faces like I knew was etched in mine. Their smiles, athletic builds and nonchalant attitudes revealed in them what I strived to be – a winner.
Cheers rose as they announced the names in each age category starting from the oldest to the youngest. Staring at the ground in thought I was aroused from my stupor when the announcer fumbled through a name. It was my turn. I smiled and attached the 1st place distinguishing coin on my finisher medal before asking a bystander to take my photo. I came alone, ran alone and alone defeated the doubt in my solitary pursuit of happiness, health and meaning.
I was reflecting on the hurt I felt as a youth when I would look up at the stands during a basketball game, and it was always empty of my parents. The times I would walk home alone after a football game while my teammates were carried off by beaming fathers and mothers. But then I received a text from my wife, “I’m proud of you.” Five simple words cured me of my self-pity and reminded me to let go of the past. At home awaited the love and support I always longed for