No doubt about it – Team RWB-filled weekend helped push me
Mike Meadows led from the sound of the horn. Also pictured are: me (13), Pete Hobbie (red, left) Joshua Liller, Eric Yarbrough (and in front of him, but not visible, Eric Vaubel).
YELLOW SPRING, W.Va., April 28, 2013 — I wasn’t supposed to win. And I certainly wasn’t the prohibitive favorite.
Mike Meadows leads as we approach the half-mile mark.
Of registered runners who showed up to ride the bus to the start of the Red Bud 10-miler on Sunday, I figured I had a top 5 finish in me. Veteran Mike Meadows, the 55-year-old from Martinsburg, was (in my mind) the clear favorite. I feel I know enough of the local racing scene to have mine serve as a credible opinion on that issue. Other contenders included Joshua Liller, Eric Vaubel and Kevin Burkett. And there were a couple of folks in the field of the race designated as the Road Runners Club of America’s West Virginia 10-Mile Championship about whom I knew nothing.
But the volunteers were in place, trained and ready to do what was necessary to ensure a smooth, successful event. Once the horn sounded, I turned from race director to competitor. And off we went.
As I expected, Mike went out in front. I seemed to be beside Eric, Joshua and Kevin – and a couple others I couldn’t identify from the corners of my eye. We started on the service road by the Capon Bridge Public Library, used the sidewalk to cross the bridge over the Cacapon River and less than a quarter-mile into the race made the second-to-last turn the race course requires.
At a half-mile in, I realized I was in second. There was no one beside me. And Mike wasn’t 200 meters in front of me. In fact, the separation was only a few feet. I thought, “well, let’s try to keep him in sight.” He’d told me on the bus ride to the start his goal was a sub-70:00. My public goal was a 71:30 or better, but I felt that if things went well I might run a sub-70:00, too. So Mike became my goal for as long as my legs — which had the burden of 19 miles over Friday and Saturday at about 7:30 pace — would propel me forward.
At a mile, Mike wasn’t ahead by 200 meters. In fact, the separation was only a few feet. I came to his left side, and we were shoulder to shoulder. I noticed he glanced to his left a couple of times, quickly, as if wondering who was the nerve to be up there with him (a justifiable contention, as Mike clearly had the fastest 5K and 10K times of anyone in the field).
Me (13) and Mike Meadows as we descend into the S-curve and approach Aid Station 1 at Mile 2.5.
It was me. Here I am, I said silently. I’m going to hang out for as long as possible. Hours after the race, I learned that it was here when Mike realized it was me, and he mentioned that I appeared to look strong and quite ready for a race. Shortly after the 1.5-mile mark, I took the lead. And at 3 miles, I thought, “I’m almost a 5K in and I’m ahead of Mike Meadows!” Had I tweaked an ankle then, or otherwise been forced to drop out, I would have been satisfied at a respectable 5K effort. A slight uphill. Then a sweet downhill into the S-curve as we approached the 2-mile mark. I was still ahead.
I hit the first aid station — a self-serve water table with pre-poured cups — first, about two seconds (probably less) ahead of Mike. I grabbed a cup and made a decision that I thought might hurt me. I walked to ensure I actually drank some water instead of spilling it on me. Low and behold, Mike stopped for water, too. This was his first 10-mile race. He had only one competitor at this point and knew, as experienced as he is, that the next 7 miles wouldn’t pass easily if he were dehydrated.
I threw the cup on the ground and moved on. I heard Mike breathing. I knew he was close. This was the first time something about victory went through my mind. I thought to myself, “I’m no match for his speed. I need to be well ahead of him by the end if I’m to win.” Mike can run a sub-5:30 mile in his sleep (practically). I can’t. But how on earth could I get far enough ahead – especially since he was hanging on my shoulder with every step?
We passed Mile 3. Mile 4. Then began Mile 5, arguably the most difficult of the course and with, inarguably, the most challenging ascent. A slight uphill prefaced the hill to come. On the “mini-hill,” I heard Mike louder than ever. He wasn’t hurting. He was gaining. Then came the bottom of the big hill, and I made (after walking at the first water table) what I felt might be my next big mistake: I figured he would push hard on this uphill as he had just done on the smaller incline. So I deliberately backed off, hoping to save some energy for later.
Sure enough, Mike charged. The crest of the hill came at the 4.7-mile mark, and that’s where Mike and I were, once again, shoulder to shoulder. And I thought, “that’s it, that’s the race. No way I’m gonna catch him in the second half. He’s just gonna take off.”
Indeed, Mike forged ahead on the flat. But the road quickly turned into the start of a sweet descent to mark the end of Mile 5 and aid station 2 (mile 5.2). Bananas, apples, gummy bars, water. Nope. Just Gatorade this time. I wanted some sugar. I’d actually hit this table about a half-second ahead of Mike (I like to take advantage of downhills). Of course, I didn’t know whether or not he’d stop, too. Lucky for me, he did.
The next couple miles are a bit of a blur to me. Mike came up to take the lead again. All I know is that somewhere around Mile 7.1, I came up beside him and figured, “why not?” I surged, and figured the worst that would happen is that my legs would stop wanting to work as I desired, I’d slow to a walk and slowly enjoy the rest of the course. The path for Mike’s victory would be clear (there was no one else really close at this point).
Aid Station 3 – again, only water – came quickly at Mile 7.5. I was in front, but Mike’s breathing could be easily interpreted as “you haven’t won anything yet!” I’m not afraid to admit it – at this point, I was running scared. It was go hard or go home. I didn’t know it at the time, but my effort felt stronger even though I was only maintaining – that is, my miles weren’t getting faster. I didn’t know it at the time, but neither were Mike’s.
Me (13) and Mike Meadows as we approach Aid Station 3 (at the 7.5-mile mark).
I grabbed a cup from Lindsay at the 7.5 – but I dropped it, cursed and turned around to get another. She replenished me, but she also was there to hand Mike a cup, too (I didn’t want any favoritism or perceived advantage – more on that later). And with 2.5 miles to go and eyeing my first possible road race victory since I was in high school, I walked. And drank. And walked. It felt like an eternity, but was probably 3-5 seconds, tops. I threw the cup down and continued. And then looked for motivation, any edge I could find, real or perceived. “Okay, Mike’s in new territory. He doesn’t usually race more than a 10K (6.2 miles). Go for it.” This is when I first realized I might actually be able to win. I envisioned myself crossing the finish line in first place, arms in the air, a smile on my face. My 13-year-old son watching with awe and respect.
So I went for it. I figured I would need as much separation as possible between me and him to hold him off that last mile. So I went hard – or, rather, I thought I did. Though the effort was more difficult, I simply maintained a 7:07 pace for the last few miles. I didn’t know it — I could have sworn I heard him long after it was physically possible — but Mike had not maintained. He had slowed.
Mile 9. Then the start of the 10th and final mile. It was this last mile that, almost every step of the way, I wanted to vomit. Hack. Throw up. Toss cookies. Unfortunately, I found several more words that meant the same thing and every one of them went through my mind. I couldn’t shake the urge to hurl.
I crested the last small hill on the course and saw the Capon Valley Ruritan Club grounds on the near horizon. I was close. I entered the right turn into the gravel driveway — 0.2 miles to go — and I looked right, over my shoulder. No Mike. I felt like that was the point I started to walk. I was finished, I had nothing more to offer this day. I all but limped to the finish line. There was no fist pump, no arms in the air (too heavy), no smile (more a grimace). But I won. 1:10:34. 7:03 pace. Not a PR, but a heckuva time for me considering where my training has been the last few months.
And I’d run hard during the previous 48 hours — 3 legs, about 19.5 miles and each leg better than 8:00 pace (2 of 3 legs were 7:03 pace or faster. To be honest, I had no idea I was capable of such a pace, over a prolonged period. Then I got to thinking. I’m not. Not really. I got a little help. Right beside me, there was Mike. He and I gave each other a great run, and I had as much fun on a run as I’ve had in quite some time. During the race, though, something went through my mind. It was after I passed Mike for the last time. As race director, I thought, should I win? Was it right? Would my winning have an adverse impact on the integrity of the race? No money was at stake, but a championship plaque was, as well as the title of RRCA WV 10-Mile Champion. But if I dropped out for no good reason, wouldn’t that also adversely impact the integrity of the race?
Hours later, after I was home and showered, Mike and I talked by phone. He was not upset that I had doubled as RD and competitor. Said he was glad I had run to push him in what was his first-ever 10-mile race (and, as he won the RRCA’s 40-and-over division, his 10th state title as a masters runner). No one should be upset, he said, because “no one had more to lose than me.”
He enjoyed the race, he said, and acknowledged how wonderful it is to log the miles and appreciate each one of them.
“Every time I race, it could be my last.”
So when a good race comes along, sometimes it doesn’t matter who wins.
In the finisher’s chute.
Still, there was something else. Something even bigger. During the American Odyssey Relay that Friday and Saturday, I’d met fellow veterans from Team Red, White and Blue from across the country. More than 20 Team RWB teams (I met RWB athletes from MD, PA, NY, CT, MA and TX) converged at the start of the 200-mile journey from Gettysburg, Pa., to Washington D.C. And they rOcKeD wearing The Eagle. Pride. Dedication. Determination. I was full of emotion, from impressed to in awe. And I have to admit, I think that’s what helped me to the finish line on Sunday.
It was my first road race victory – first victory of any kind – since I was in high school, when I ran a 10K at Fort Detrick, Md. Great memories, but Mike reminded me there could be a lot more ahead. Not wins, mind you. But great races.
“I think I could run better than (I did) today,” he said. And I think I might have something left, too. Time — and training — will tell.
My well-earned winner’s plaque.