It was 37 and raining when I left the hotel for my run this morning. Darkness gave way to light, grey and subtle above as the miles passed below on slick pavement. I ran through quiet neighborhoods, the indulgent post-holiday silence broken only by the roar and screech of garbage trucks making their Friday rounds to collect wine bottles and discarded turkey and stuffing from the day before. As I ran towards a yellow house on the corner, I saw a man emerge from the garage in sweat pants, stepping slowly and gingerly through the grass as he dragged the trash can behind him. I heard his wife tap the window hard and yell something at him, muffled behind glass.
“I don’t got my shoes on!” he hollered back at her as he continued to tip-toe through the grass in an effort to beat the garbage truck that was stopped at the house next door.
He glanced up and saw me running by and smiled sheepishly as he propped the can up on the curb. I waved and kept running. It was all so familiar and comforting. The day after Thanksgiving in America is always the same, hungover folks in bathrobes waking from the stupor of a feeding frenzy with the brave ones lining up to bark lengthy orders at Starbucks baristas before clogging checkout lines with carts full of Black Friday purchases. The predictability of this was a comfort to me today. See, no matter how my race went yesterday, that man would still have walked through the grass in his socks dragging a trash can as his wife yelled at him this morning. The sun was still going to rise behind a dreary grey curtain and Black Friday shoppers are still going to shove and push past one another fueled by greed and frugality. I can pretty much guarantee that somewhere in a Walmart at this moment two women are playing tug-of-war with the last sweater on a 50% off rack. And so it will be next year on the Friday after thanksgiving and the next, and the next (if Trump allows us to keep our holidays).
I am both comforted and alarmed by the steady passing of time that allows me distance and perspective on tough races and brings me ever closer to the inevitable demise of first my running then my life. As the great theologian Charles Barkley once said, “Father time is still undefeated”.
Sheesh Sarah, this is getting dark.
Just wait, it gets worse.
See the inside joke among the Zap crew this week revolved around a study that coach Pete Rea read recently. Apparently, athletes in all sport disciplines are apt to perform better, scoring more points and shooting more accurately when shortly before the game they are reminded of their impending doom. Pete joked that while we stood on the starting line with 10 seconds until the gun he was going to lean out from the sidewalk and shout “You’re all going to die!”. It seems that the mere mention of death and its inescapability is enough to bring out the best an athlete has to offer. I think I know why.
After all, what is sport but an attempt to achieve the pseudo-immortality offered by score keepers and record books?
With a mile to go on my morning run I turned down a road with a yellow diamond declaring “Dead End”. I chuckled. Running is a dead end. For all of us. At some point I will lose this precious gift to age or injury or something else. The chance of me being faster twenty years from now than I am today is not even one in a million. It is zero. There is no chance of that. And twenty years is the blink of an eye. It is a slice that is just one fifth of this round cherry pie that we call life. Beyond even speed, there will come a day when running itself will become a struggle, then an impossibility.
What all of this means to me is not as philosophical or deep as you might think. This concept didn’t prompt me to question why I run at all or if this fleeting pursuit is worth it but rather it evoked the simple question of why I did what I did yesterday.
You see, yesterday I was a coward, plain and simple.
I’ve run the Manchester Road Race 4 times now and yesterday was the slowest time I’ve turned in on that course by a huge margin.
Before this year, every time I’ve raced here I’ve blazed through the first downhill mile well under 5 minutes with the lead pack and been within sniffing distance of the “queen of the hill” bonus at mile 2. And yes, every year the eventual winner has put massive distance on me during that last 3 miles, as I’ve lost ground trying to hold onto a pace that slides ever backward.
Not this year, I thought on Wednesday during my pre-race run. This year I will be smart, I will hit the mile no faster than 5:05 and begin to move forward, gradually picking off those who have gone out too fast. This year I will leave plenty in the tank for the final mile. And sure, on paper, that is the smart way to execute a race.
But f*** it, that’s not how I race.
In a race as short as Manchester, I explode from the line like a cannon ball, hurtling through the first mile in a pace that is chaotic and suicidal and completely out of control then I hang on for dear life to the lead pack for as long as I possibly can as they escape me one by one before closing that last few hundred meters at an effort that sparks protest from every fiber of lungs and legs that have been put through hell for the first 20 minutes of the race. I didn’t do that yesterday. I hit the mile in a conservative 5:07. The lead pack was long gone. The race was long gone, and I was a non-factor. Without the terror of running with the lead pack and the acute fear that I would be the next one to fall off I chugged up the hill like a steam engine pulling a few too many coal cars, breathing heavily and unfocused, no idea of what pace I was running.
The bright green Jersey of Zap’s Joanna Thompson passed me on the uphill and I caught her on the downhill, shouting a brief phrase of encouragement as I ran past. I had no idea what place I was and when she pulled even with me with 1K to go, I no longer felt like I was running a race at all. It was me and Joanna alone on a cold morning around bass lake stride for stride as we had been time and time again this summer and fall.
I was tempted to reach for her hand and cross the line as one but pride got the better of me when two men flew past us and I went with them, kicking the last 150 with everything I had left.
We finished 11th and 12th among women, the first two spots out of the money. It was humbling to say the least. I didn’t sleep last night as I replayed the race over and over in my mind and how pitiful my attempt to race cautiously had played out. I raced a 4.75 mile race like it was a marathon. I let tactics get in the way of guts and instinct. Back in college, I made my fair share of mistakes as a younger runner, but that was not one of them.
And as much as 18-year-old Sarah would have argued it, I am not immortal. I am not invincible and even if I did have 10 or 15 or 20 years left at the top of my game, that is not enough time to waste a single race opportunity by giving less than what I am capable of. The truth is, I have no idea how much time I have left in this odd little athletic pursuit, but I don’t want to waste another opportunity like I did yesterday. I value racing too much to dishonor it like that. I’ll screw up in plenty of races in the years ahead and that’s okay, but as long as those mistakes are born of risk rather than caution, at least I can sleep at night.
All you can ask of yourself is the old cliché that’s been beaten to death. Do your best. But if you truly are able to find a way to do that, you will honor your days in a way that most people never do.
Well, that’s all for now, I’ve got some Black Friday shopping to do while I still have time.