Author’s Note: The last line of this post is shamelessly stolen from a scene in the movie “Office Space.”
Last weekend, I won the Buckeye Buster 50K. It was the third race I’ve won in my running career, and the win was added to almost a dozen top three finishes.
It was an unexpected win; I had run the race as a training run, with no taper, following a 91 mile training week. I was definitely tired, and I had no intention of racing.
It was a smaller race, and a lot of the “big names” weren’t there. And not long after I finished working my tired butt off to hold onto the win, I started ignoring all my own advice.
The win shook me up. I mean, I’m the girl who got on the soapbox just a few weeks ago about “only, but and slow,” yet when I found myself faced with this unexpected win, I immediately started an award-winning recitation of … “only, but and slow.”
Yes, I had won, but it was a slow time. And it was only because X, Y and Z hadn’t been there. Hmmmm.
So I thought about that. I thought about that a lot. I went around and around in circles. And it actually wasn’t about beating myself up; at least, I didn’t think so at first. Most runners, regardless of their fitness level, know that humility is one of the greatest qualities of our sport. That Kara Goucher is one of the nicest girls around. That Krissy Moehl and Nikki Kimball and Tracy Jorneau all celebrate each other’s success as much as their own. That on our best days, we all work together to elevate each other to that next “level” of fitness.
Honestly, it was kind of about RESPECT.
Respect for other ultrarunners I respect like Connie Gardner, Lee Shane, Sandi and Rachel Nypaver. And Beth Woodward and our own Pepper, whose trail 50K PR is still a whopping 11 minutes ahead of mine.
Yeah, I got my win on a tough course, and yeah, it was on tired legs after a 91 mile week and having done a 21-miler two days earlier, but I felt kind of weird saying “Hey! I WON with a 5:47!” Which is still a generous half hour slower than my own 50K PR, trained and tapered.
Because I respect those who have gone before me, so much faster. Because while others look up to me, I continue to look up to those who are at that next “level” that I’m still aspiring to.
Because no matter how good you are, no matter how good you get, there’s always that next level to get to.
As I continued to ponder on how one learns to live in the gray space between “really good” but not quite “elite,” I found myself recognizing that it wasn’t such a unique problem after all, but one that relates to runners of all abilities. I mean, most of us, regardless of which of these “levels” we’re at, have “beaten” someone we didn’t expect to, or run a time we had no idea we were capable of, or bested the training partner we always considered stronger than us. So I continued chasing my tail, trying to find that line between being proud of our own unexpected accomplishments, but continuing to respect those ahead of us.
My journey led me to one of my very favorite Quentin Cassidy quotes from John L. Parker’s “Once a Runner”:
“…in my own mind, I’m what a newspaper sports person would call a ‘steady performer.’ And it really doesn’t matter a whit how many races I win. I haven’t even broken four minutes yet. Roger Bannister did that back in 1954. I’ve spent seven years of my life hard at this thing and so far I’m … average.”
“’Let’s put it this way,’ he continued, ‘There is a fellow right now in New Haven, one in Boston, one somewhere in Minnesota of all places and two – Mize is now indicating three – in Oregon who might very reasonably request that I launder their jocks for them. And that’s just the United States.”
And that, my friends, sums it up. Quentin, though a fictional character, went on to win silver at the Olympics. He was an elite; an Olympian to boot. He did eventually break 4 minutes in the mile. But he too – even at his “level” – was unceasingly aware of those that came before him.
There are about half a dozen girls in Ohio who could respectfully request that I launder their sports bras. And one in Colorado who blows my mind. California is full of them. And they weren’t there on Saturday. Nope. They weren’t.
But here’s what did happen. I knew the field was small, and for most of the race, I knew where I stood. I knew I was running fourth at the end of the first loop. I saw the two women I knew were ahead of me. Then this girl in blue bunz went flying by me shortly after the aid station.
And even though it was a training run, I couldn’t help feeling competitive.
During the first half of the second loop, I took out two of the women. Blue bunz was still ahead of me. I saw her on the “grassy bacon strip,” a brutal mile-long stretch of exposed, undulating hills with very uneven footing.
I reminded myself it was a training run. But I was making time on her pretty easily.
And even though it was a training run, I realized that I was feeling pretty darn good for 18 miles in, and it wouldn’t exactly hurt me to work a little bit.
So I did, and I got her. And while she didn’t fight back immediately, she also didn’t seem to be hurting too bad. Which meant I was running scared if I really wanted it.
I decided I wanted it, and I ran scared.
I ran scared all the way back to start/finish line, where I would start the third and final 10 mile loop. I ran scared on the out-and-back, waiting to see how much time I had put on her. And then I didn’t see her on the out-and-back, which meant that she was breathing. Down. My. Neck.
And then I realized I had to pee.
God, I didn’t want to pee. I simply didn’t have the time. I mean, I only had 60 – 90 seconds on her, and I was tired. I’ve always said that the only excuses for peeing on oneself are a close win/PR or a downpour that’s going to wash it away anyhow. But I’ve never had any luck peeing in downpours, and I couldn’t pull it off then either. And I knew I was asking for a serious cramp if I didn’t. So I stopped, and I peed, and I started gunning it. And just when I started gunning it is when I heard the voices. And let’s face it, I had known I would.
Blue bunz was on me, and she had two guys hunting with her to boot.
I started running UP the hills. And that was no small feat, and those were no small hills.
And finally, I breathlessly reminded myself that this was a training run. That my race was Burning River, eight weeks out, not today.
I decided I would work as hard as my body would allow, but that if she caught me, I wouldn’t fight her. I assumed, of course, that she was tapered and racing, while I was training. So if blue bunz caught me, I would let her go. And if I saw Darris, who had seemed to be struggling, I would also slow and just finish with him. Because, after all, it was a training run, and I was getting tired.
About a mile from the midpoint aid station, I caught Darris. He was walking, and had been throwing up Heed. I told him I was going to stay with him, run in with him. He insisted that I go. “You’re sick,” I said, “and I’m staying.” And we went on and on for a couple of minutes and had that tough discussion you have when you catch a spouse in a race.
“Go win it for us,” he said.
I started running again, and spent the next half mile questioning my decision. I know the feeling of suffering, and of wanting to suffer through it on your own. And I know the feeling of not wanting to hold your spouse or training partner up or back. But my husband was sick, and I didn’t need this win. As I approached the aid station, I decided to wait for him.
But before my bottle was even filled, there he was, jogging in. And I knew when I saw him that he really was “okay,” and that though he was roughed up, he was holding it together.
So I ran. I ran fast. I ran with a pair of blue bunz breathing down my neck, wanting that win. Maybe even more than I did.
I ran hills I didn’t want to run, hills I didn’t think I could run. I pushed flats way harder than I wanted to on my tired little legs, and I banged up toes without toenails and threw myself down rocky downhills like an uncoordinated cartoon character.
I worked hard. I fought the voices that said it was okay to stop fighting. “Hell yes,” I thought, “hell yes I’m going to fight those blue bunz if I see them.”
I got great practice for my races ahead, and yes, I crossed the finish line first and it felt awesome.
And as I reflected on this and wrote it down, I finally found my answer. I found that missing piece, or rather, the piece that I had been missing.
That very few runners will ever know that feeling. That of the hundreds of thousands of us that run races of any distance or any size, very few will ever have the chance to cross the finish line first. Not to be the winner – for we are all winners by being out there. But to reach that finish line in first, and know the feeling of breaking the proverbial tape, whether there’s a tape or not. There are many who would first have to overcome injury or weight battles, or simple genetic coding that says they will only ever be so fast. There are some who would have to be running a race of one to accomplish that. There are some – the truly evolved – who really don’t even care.
But few runners will ever know that feeling, and I am blessed to be one of them. And it doesn’t matter if it was (only) a training run, or if my time was (slow), or that it shouldn’t have happened (but) X, Y, and Z weren’t there that day.
It’s hard to walk the walk, and Clove needed an attitude adjustment.
Last weekend, I won my third race. Damn it feels good to be a gangster.