In the sport of long distance racing, like in the reality of wartime, there are two types of people. There are civilians and there are soldiers.
There are those who lace up with the intent to enjoy or participate, to claim a finisher’s medal and possibly better the time they set last race, and then there are those who live for the battle, those who would eat a fistful of dirt to be the last one standing, those who narrow their eyes on the starting line and glance sideways at the others, sizing them up the way a rooster might lift his beak and eye his feathered foe in a cock fight.
In the same way that a square is always a rectangle but a rectangle is not always a square, professional runners are always soldiers but soldiers are not always professional runners. To reach the upper echelon of any endurance sport, you must be a soldier. It takes the false flame of invincibility and a controlled boil of arrogance to compete for the glorious moment of feeling tape break across your chest, but next time you’re watching a race, don’t walk away after the elites come through the finish chute.
What you’ll notice around hour four or five of a marathon is that every so often, some guy in knee-length shorts and a ratty singlet will be charging toward the finish line as though the tape is still hanging in the air there, waiting for him hours later. He fights hard for every last second, for every last body he can pass, causing the shuffling people he is passing to turn their heads and stare at him with a “what the heck?” expression. That guy is a soldier.
Just like every citizen of age in this country has the right to walk into a military recruiter’s office and become a soldier, the decision to become a racing soldier is a cognizant resolution made before the gun fires. Before the war starts.
Sometimes I am a soldier, but not every time.
Yesterday I was.
From the first moment I stepped into town, New Orleans wasn’t what I expected. It was like Paris, but grittier and more American, or like certain parts of Vegas with a vintage Instagram filter slapped on.
During my easy run the day before the half, I turned left onto Bourbon street and recoiled at the smell of, well, bourbon. It reeked of alcohol. And garbage. And sin. I ran through dingy blocks of sinister-looking shops with black walls and low-hanging signs, then found myself suddenly assaulted by cheerful, bright rows of French styled dwellings, pink and yellow and white and adorned with intricate verandas hanging out over the sidewalk.
When I Ieft the cramped, narrow streets I found myself unexpectedly choked up as I drifted to the right and came abruptly upon the wide, muddy waters of the Mississippi, deep and murky with the kind of history that does not exist on the coast I was born.
I stopped running and stood on the Riverwalk with my fingers wrapped tightly around the railing and took a breath as I stared at the picturesque steamboat that rested on the bank, massive and white and looking like something Mark Twain himself had written into being. And I was frightened. Not of the steamboat, though I’m not crazy about boats. I was scared because the soldier in me wanted to fight but was not prepared to do battle.
See, I ran the Houston Marathon in January and since then I’ve done very little in the way of serious training. I took a good two weeks off and began to run light mileage in February. Then, I was hit by the worst flu I’ve ever experienced. Since then, I’ve managed a shamefully small number of serious workouts and I knew I was heading into the New Orleans Rock and Roll Half Marathon with less physical fitness than I’ve had in a long time.
There is an intense vulnerability that comes with racing and it is compounded when you stand on a starting line knowing that you are not ready to run fast. My plan was a simple one; hope that the pace wasn’t too hot to run with whoever was leading the race and pull away 8 miles in.
The anthem was sung, the gun fired, and we were off. The lead shifted between a handful of women for the first few miles and I leapfrogged from one to another as each new surge pushed a different woman into the lead. Eventually a woman and her male pacer settled into 5:50-5:55 pace and I latched on, cautiously optimistic about the relatively comfortable pace and the smooth licking of my 361’s against the pavement.
Endurance is hard to fake and after eight miles, when it was time to surge forward, it felt like pressing the gas pedal on an empty tank. (I now know exactly how that feels as Michael and I ran out of gas on a desolate highway in the middle of Arizona last week and had to hitchhike.)
The quicker cadence felt unnatural and clipped, and though I managed to put a few dozen meters on the woman and her pacer, when I glanced back a mile later, there they were, gaining on me.
By mile 10 they had pulled even again and I had to reset mentally. I had to lie to myself and pretend I had never tried to surge away but was still running comfortably with the two of them, just like before.
I stayed with them until eleven and a half miles when a bizarre burst of energy pushed me forward in a surge heavily fueled by the knowledge that there were less than ten minutes of torment left and with this new energy, this new distance between us, came the choice. It was my chance, it was time for the soldier to pull the trigger and end it.
The problem was, my instinct to battle and annihilate was suddenly overcome by a far, far more powerful desire to encourage and uplift. I twisted my head and shouted for her to stay strong. To stay with me. To fight with me rather than against me.
In an incredible show of strength, she dug deep and made her way back to me with less than a mile to go and under the pain, beneath the raw picture of two women fighting to make it from point A to point B ahead of the other, I was proud of her.
With a half mile to go I pulled away for good, hammering recklessly down the finishing straight without looking back. After breaking the tape, I turned and watched her finish. She was dazed and glassy eyed as she staggered into the arms of the race officials. She had given everything and had run a six minute personal best to drop from 1:23 to 1:17.
When Roman soldiers went to battle, the front line of men propped shields before them and were supported by the soldiers behind them, each with a forearm pressed against the back of the man in front of him as they surged forward together, one impenetrable unit against the enemy line. In life. In war. In faith. In everything, we are stronger together.
It’s okay to be afraid of the battle itself, but don’t be afraid to fight.