On Saturday, July 18th, in Concord, New Hampshire I competed in my first actual race since high school. I'm talking here about a real and true race, as in the only thing that matters is who crosses the finish line first. A race very much unlike the dozens of glorified time trials I've run over the last decade. No clock was needed.
My rival for the great showdown at the Bill Luti 5-miler was my friend Andrew, a.k.a. "Thunder," whom I had met in real life only once before during the weekend of the Harpeth Hills Flying Monkey Marathon in Nashville last November. Although Andrew and I had only met that one weekend, we've been friends and rivals for a while now thanks to the virtual world of the swamp message board on RunningAhead.com, home of the worlds best online running log. Yeah, runners are weird.
After months of cyber smack talk, the big day had finally arrived. Andrew and his wife, Liz, a New Hampshire native, were in town for vacation with her family and it just so happened that the Bill Luti 5-miler fell on the first weekend of their trip.
I got on the road around 7am on Saturday to make the hour-long drive to Concord. Shortly after I arrived, I met Andrew and Liz and a few other "Swampers" who had also made the trip up from Massachusetts to bear witness to the great battle. And to complete the picture, all of us would be racing in our ridiculous green singlets (complete with skull and crossbones!) of the imaginary swamp racing team. Yes, it was magnificent.
Liz and Andrew with me in the background pinning my number
Apparently Andrew's warmup routine is a closely held trade secret and cannot commence until some exact number of minutes before the start. So I did a couple of miles by myself before meeting back up with the swampers on the walk down to the starting line. After a few pictures and a some last-minute taunting we got lined up as the announcer gave the final instructions and introductions. This was the 42nd annual Bill Luti 5-miler and was also part of the Concord Area Race Series so there was a decent pack of really fast locals, not that it mattered to us. Andrew and I were each only concerned with one other competitor. We took our positions on the starting line in our ridiculous uniforms--we even wore the same shorts which was NOT planned--and got ready for business.
Bill Luti himself fired the starting gun, and we were off. The rollercoaster nature of the course, with decent climbs in miles 2 and 4, demand a conservative start and right away there was a lead pack of over 20 runners just ahead going a lot slower than your typical lead pack.
The first couple of miles were very conservative. I led to just past the mile marker at what felt like a jogging pace, apparently around 5;46. As the road bottomed out, Andrew went by me on the uphill in the 2nd mile and gradually put about 30 meters on me by the top of the 6/10 mile long hill. My plan was to relax the uphills and work the downhills and flats. I felt like I was probably slightly fitter and more experienced so if I could stay relaxed and keep it close, I'd be able to take it in the last couple of miles. I tried to gradually reel him in on the downhills and flats over the 2nd and 3rd miles, eventually pulling even somewhere in the 3rd mile and running shoulder-to-shoulder for a bit near the Saint Paul School. On the next uphill though he put another little gap on me and around here it occurred to me that Andrew looked stronger than I had expected. He was rolling along pretty good and not looking like he was going to crack any time soon.
The 4th mile was uphill again and I was not gaining and in fact seemed to be losing ground which caused me to genuinely start to worry that he might not come back. The gap was about 40 meters approaching the 4 mile marker and I thought to myself that perhaps my plan wasn't going to work out--I began working on my concession speech. But then I gradually made up a little of the gap on the downhill at the start of the 5th mile as the course ran through the grounds of a nursing home then down a private way onto the street that runs out to the main drag. Though the gap was coming down slightly, I still didn't think I was going to catch him. Strangely I also wasn't really upset about it. I was running as hard as I could and it was clear Andrew was running a great race to be holding me off like this. I was very aware through here just how awesome this whole experience was and how much fun I was having.
On a little rise before one of the last turns, with less than half a mile to go, I finally noticed Andrew's legs get wobbly for a second and realized I was still in it. There was blood in the water. The gap was down to about 20 meters and once we turned onto the main drag I opened it up and reeled him in on the last bit of road before the turn into the athletic fields and ran a stride off his shoulder as we tore ass through the parking lot and onto the grass surrounding the track and football field. The course made three quarters of a loop on the grass outside of the track to the finish straight on the walkway between the bleachers and the track--grass which was completely soaked from overnight rainstorms. I caught him on the back stretch just after the visitors bleachers as we splashed through puddles and I think I said something like, "lets finish this off!
I think I actually heard Andrew groan something as his fear became realized--the runner stalking him was me. I was kicking with almost everything I had now and was able to put a couple of strides on him as we took the long turn around the outside, going ankle deep in puddles at times and just trying to stay upright while running wide open on wet grass. We were holding nothing back. Pure racing.
During the entire race, and especially this final sprint, we were absolutely competing with and not against each other. But we sure as hell each wanted to win.
I knew he was gathering himself for one last attack coming off the the last turn and I had just enough left so that when I saw the finish line ahead and felt Andrew moving out into the outside lane--The Lane of High Hopes--I let loose everything I had in one last hellacious sprint to the line. And it was over.
Andrew had run a PR by over 20 seconds. And he had very nearly pulled it off. We congratulated each other and rehashed the race as we cheered in the rest of the people we knew. Both of us were on a complete high.
We went for a cooldown and rehashed the race some more. Later we rehashed some more while we drank a beer together--a couple of Harpoon Summers I had packed for just that purpose. Andrew gave me a bottle of his homebrew to take home. We milled around talking with other runners for a bit and then Andrew and Liz had to take off to begin their vacation for real. Andrew would later report that it was the most fun he had ever had running a race. And I know exactly what he means.