This weekend I ran a 6K race on a course that I had raced approximately 1-year ago. When I ran it last fall, I was going through some rough times, having recently broken up with my girlfriend of six years, and was generally preoccupied with desperate thoughts. I have been known to complain about not being able to focus in races anymore, but back then I had abandoned all hope of being able to concentrate on anything. I literally couldn’t even focus while tying my own shoelaces.
But I’ve healed quite a bit since then, and this time my head was mostly in the game.
At the start I went out very slowly to protect my weak ankle (nothing like going out dead last in a race that includes competitors over twice as old as you). After the initial sprint I keyed off one of the veteran runners on our team – an impressively fast man we refer to as “Coach” – who was running about 100 meters ahead of me. Coach was wearing a fluorescent yellow long sleeve t-shirt, which helped me catch up with him just over 1/2 mile into the race. Again playing it safe, I decided to just hang with him for once rather than powering past him for a mile only to be passed in a humiliating way later on.
Coach is a consistent runner, and running consistently hard felt uncomfortable to me. I imagined for a moment that I was the comic book hero Spawn, and could summon the chains of the underworld to anchor me to my enemies. From then on I was attached to Coach by steel bonds, and I didn’t separate from him for another two miles.
When you run a race, there are constantly angels and devils whispering into your ears. The angels say “you can do it! pain is temporary, glory is forever!“, while the devils simultaneously whisper “the pain is too much! nobody will know if you slow down.” I listened to them both at various points in the race, but with half a mile left to go I was listening to the devils, who were saying “if you slow down now, then that man in black ahead of you won’t be close enough to catch at the end, and you won’t have to work as hard.”
Because I tend to run races near people who are significantly older than me, I usually don’t get passed in the last quarter mile. In Sunday’s race, Coach passed me with about 600 meters to go, right after I had succumbed to the sweet advice of the racing devils and let the man in black get away from me. Something woke up in me then, and the voices of both the angels and the devils were gone. I put on a short spurt to catch coach and hang on his tail.
Coming down the final stretch I knew it was just me and Coach — I had judged from the cheering that our closest competitors were 30 meters back. With 300 meters left I was ready to drop the hammer and tear though the grass between me and the finish like an out-of-control tractor. But something strange happened. The world got quiet, and I decided to just finish with Coach. I had a Zen moment where the refractory bit of glory gained by burning down the final stretch was replaced with the satisfaction of running a smart, hard race with one of my teammates.
Maybe the devils were speaking to me then too, telling me that there was no need to work hard to pass my own teammate, but I think that I learned something important about racing, patience, and teamwork this weekend. I ran the 6K course 12 seconds faster this year, and that’s after taking four weeks off from running to heal my ankle.