In To Win

A couple of months ago, I sat in a living room and chatted with a gathering of my extended family.  Somehow – I was probably wearing some race tee – the conversation worked its way around to running as various family members said those things to me that non-runners so often say to runners.  “I only run when something’s chasing me.”  “How many miles did you run?  I don’t like to go that far in a car!”  And so and so and so forth.

But then my cousin’s wife, Freida, caught my attention when she said,  “We’re having a 5K at the school.  You should come run it.”  The school she was referring to is First Assembly Christian School, a small, private school in Concord where my dad was principal for years and where Freida is a teacher.  I made a mental note to look into the race.

These last few years, even while I’ve obsessively chased my dream to qualify for and run in the Boston marathon, I’ve also simultaneously pursued a few little mini-quests on the side –  1) I would like to run a road race in all 50 states (I’m currently up to 12 and counting).  2) I’d like to be the overall winner of a road race.  When Freida mentioned First Assembly, I thought that would be a really cool one for me to win since my dad was principal there for quite some time.  It would have extra meaning.  I decided to run it.

First Assembly 5K

I showed up on race day, May 12, and registered.  I asked someone about the course and they pointed me to Perry, the same guy who’d be doing the timing for the On A Mission 5K later that night – he had a busy day!  He gave me a few directions/instructions about the course and I set out on a little warm-up jog to check it out.

I was a little concerned because the course had quite a few turns – things could potentially get a little dicey for the leader.  But luckily there were volunteers stationed at every turn.  As I approached, the volunteers jumped up and pointed which way to go, many of them thinking the race had begun and I was the leader.  I calmed the anxious ones by assuring them that the race hadn’t started yet and that I was only warming up.

I ran a mile or so and, already sweating profusely, came back to my car and changed into some dry socks, flats, and a racing singlet.  Then I trotted to the gym where I snapped the following pic:

The Strickland Gym, named after my father, Wayne Strickland.

The school gym is named after my dad who was instrumental in getting the place built.  My family and I affectionately refer to it as the Wayne Dome, an obvious play on the University of North Carolina arena’s nickname, the Dean Dome.

This race was small, very small, and as such I felt like I had a decent shot at winning.  Or so I thought until I saw a familiar runner at the registration table – Bobby Aswell.  I yelled, “Bobby!  What are you doing here?!”  I was a little shocked he was at this race because A) The race was so small that I didn’t think it would show up on anybody’s radar and B) I knew Bobby had raced the night before in Salisbury.  We chatted for a sec as I started trying to accept the idea of finishing second.  But I didn’t give up completely – I still thought I had a chance since surely Bobby’s legs would be a little tight, having raced only some 12 hours earlier.

A few moments later an older gentleman, clearly a runner, thin, in split shorts and singlet, jogged up and Bobby introduced him as Frank, who when he trotted away, Bobby described as a “mid-19:00 guy”.  So now I had at least 2 guys to worry about.

A few moments later, we were lining up at the start.  I saw a couple of teenagers who could potentially pose a threat, but otherwise it looked like the race would be between the 3 old guys – the vast majority of the rest of the competitors looked to be under 12 years old.

Then Perry shouted “Go!” and we were off.  As usual, the prepubescent horde shot to the front, followed closely by Bobby, Frank, and me.  In about 100 meters, when the kids started fading, I found myself in a very short-lived lead as Bobby quickly passed me, and Frank soon followed.

I settled into third place and told myself to just keep in touch, but it became painstakingly obvious early on that this was much easier said than done.  Bobby gapped me early and by a mile and a half or so, I let him go and started focusing on second place.  But alas, Frank proved to be a more formidable ally than he appeared at first and by mile 3 the gap between us was insurmountable.  I held on for third.

One good thing about getting your tail kicked by Bobby is that he often brings a camera and snaps photos like this:

Bobby had enough time to finish, get his camera, and snap this photo before I came through.

I finished in 18:12, roughly a minute after Bobby, and somewhere between 15-30 seconds after Frank (I could not find official finishing times online to confirm).  But before you get excited and tell me how fast that is, please note that my Garmin showed the distance as being 2.83, a good quarter of a mile short.  I was near pace to break 20:00, but it would have been close, very close.

Bobby and I jogged a quick little cool-down, and then he graciously agreed to pick up my award for me as I was rushing out of there to meet friends in Myrtle Beach.  It was the least he could do after crushing my dream of victory yet again (I’ll cut Frank some slack since this was the first time he’s done it to me).  I’ve lost count of how many times Bobby has gotten me, but he holds a slight lead over Chad Crockford in this department.

Free to Breathe 5K

This race happened for me by sheer serendipity.  I had no plans to race on Saturday (May 19), but Laura Gray mentioned to me that her friend was the event chair for the Free to Breathe 5K at Park Road Park and that I should run it.  It sounded like fun but she also mentioned that a sub-18 guy she knew was running so it didn’t really occur to me that I might have a chance to win.

Friday evening, Laura and I showed up at Omega Sports on Park Road – she was picking up her packet and  I was registering in the first place.  She told me that her sub-18 friend had bailed.  After I signed up, I noticed a list of participants laying there so I picked it up and perused it.  There were only a few names that I knew, and of those, there were only 2 that I spotted that I knew were in my wheelhouse or faster – Anna Donlan and Rob Ducsay.

With the sub-18 guy out of the picture, I started entertaining the notion that maybe I had a shot here.  I knew Anna had run a sub-3 marathon in Myrtle Beach so I had legitimate concerns that she might be a fast 5ker.  I could easily envision coming in second to her and facing ribbing by some of my more chauvinistic buddies.  I did a little Athlinks checking, along with texting to some friends in the know, to confirm how fast Anna was.  I didn’t find a sub-20 5K and saw where she had at least one recent 20-something 5K.  So maybe, just maybe, I could take her.

Then there was Rob.  I saw us as virtually dead even, with maybe the slightest of edges going to him.  I haven’t cracked a 20 yet this year, while Rob ran a 19:40 second 5K in the Cooper River 10K in April.  But I’ve been getting faster of late and Rob participated in an experiment on the treadmill earlier in the week where he ran something like 30 miles in 2 days  – his legs were probably a little fatigued.  Flip a coin – I’m thinking Vegas would have given us even odds.

Barring the last minute late arrival – ala Chad or Bobby – and the unknown factor (usually some high school or college track/cross country kid), I was in this thing.

Saturday morning, I arrived at Park Road Park and spotted Laura.  We ran a little warm-up and then checked out the festival-like atmosphere.  I have to give it to everyone involved  – this was a small-time race with a big-time feel.  My favorite kind!

I carefully looked around for signs of fast-looking folks.  Other than the known contenders and one or two potentially fast folks, things looked pretty good.  No Crockford or Aswell or Linz popped up at the last second.

Laura and I sporting identical temporary tattoos. That’s me on the right in case you weren’t sure.

After a few moving speeches about lung cancer survivors and the reason for the race, it was time to line up at the start.  There was a little confusion as the announcer told us to head for the finish chute to start while another lady directed us to a different spot.  I opted for the second lady as she seemed very confident while the announcer was iffy at best.  Things were squared away pretty quickly as we lined up at the actual starting line, instead of at the finish chute.

Like so many small races, most folks shied away from the starting line, the exact opposite of big races where it seems like everyone wants to crowd upfront, regardless of ability.  Rob, myself, Laura, Anna, and a young guy toed the line.  Katie, Laura’s friend, yelled, “On your mark, get set, go!” and we were off.

Without the usual kids up front, I led initially with only the cop car ahead.  After 40 or 50 meters, Rob passed me and cried, “I’ve always wanted to lead a race!”  And he cheered and held his arms high while I tucked in behind him.  He then yelled something like, “Anybody else want a turn up here?  Anybody?”

Having checked out the course Friday morning, I knew where we were going which helped me relax a little – it was an easy-to-follow, well-marked, course so I didn’t have that “oh-crap-I’m-going-to-get-lost” anxiety I sometimes experience.  I focused on not going out too fast which was no easy task as the first mile was straight downhill.  Rob turned to me a couple of times and said things like, “Oh man, I do not like this leading stuff!”  Granted, it can get a little unnerving if you’ve never experienced it – only you and the cop car, all exposed and vulnerable.

I felt relatively comfortable at a low-6:00 pace here in the early stages.  My goal was to stay relaxed and not lose contact with Rob.  After one mile, mission accomplished – I was only a few steps back from him as my watch beeped and my split was 6:07 – easy peezy lemon-squeezy.  A mile down and I was still in contention.

We made the first right and I continued my concerted effort to stay latched to Rob’s wagon.  I had no idea what was going on behind me but I couldn’t hear anything so I assumed the two of us had pulled away.  It was a two-man race.

I tried to conserve energy because I knew a nasty hill awaited us around the half-way mark.  I focused on hitting the tangents, which admittedly wasn’t particularly difficult as the race only had a few turns.

Rob hit the first hill and I tried to go with him.  Monitoring my heartbeat along the way, I backed off a bit when it pegged around the mid-170’s.  Rob gapped me a little, but I made the distance back up immediately on the downhill.  I made the intentional decision to avoid passing him – I wanted to conserve energy for a finishing kick.  I was sure that we were so evenly matched that I wouldn’t be able to surge enough to drop him.  I continued to tag along behind.

Mile 2 came and went and my split, while considerably slower at 6:27, didn’t overly concern me because of the substantial hill we had just traversed – geography, not fatigue, had slowed us.  I was still within striking distance.

At 2.44 miles, we made the left turn back onto Park Road and began the final stretch.  I still felt good about my chances with about three quarters of a mile to go.  We had covered the toughest part of the course and Rob hadn’t dropped me – when running the course on Friday, I thought if I was going to be dropped, it would happen on the big hill.  But it hadn’t.  I kept telling myself, “Keep in touch, keep in touch.  Gradually start reeling him in, not all at once.”

While I was formulating my finishing strategy, the kid (results list him as 29-year-old Andrew Burns) who had lined up at the start with us, suddenly passed me.  I never heard him coming.  “Don’t panic, just go with him”, I told myself.

When we hit the last significant hill up Park Road, I surged and made a strong move past young Mr. Burns – I wanted to blow by him and kill his will to come with me in the process.  And there was one Mr. Rob Ducsay to deal with up ahead – it was getting dangerously close to go time and I suddenly noticed that Rob had put some distance on the kid and me while we were duking it out for second.

I picked up the pace, but so did the kid.  He passed me back and I noticed that he didn’t seem to be exerting nearly as much effort as I was.  Curse words here.  “Go with him!” I screamed at my legs, but they didn’t seem to want to respond.  The kid gapped me and I was instantly transformed into a spectator.  It looked to me like Rob had increased his lead and our finishing places were already secured.

But nobody told this to Andrew Burns.  He made the final turn into the park and all out sprinted.  Rob never saw him coming and the kid broke the tape before Rob had a chance to realize what had happened.  It was not unlike this finish (click on the third video from the left) to the Fargo Half Marathon.

I beat myself up a little afterward.  “Why didn’t you go with him?!  You gave up!”  But it always seems easier to go with somebody in hindsight.  If I could have stayed with him, I would have.

It hurts to be that close (not as close as Rob, but close nonetheless).  But it serves no purpose to wish to change the past.  Look ahead and move on.  There will be other small races.  But for now, it’s time for me to put my little quest for a victory on the back burner and to start focusing on another shot at Boston.  I’m looking to try to qualify at the Canadian Derby Edmonton Marathon in August.  I’m hoping it’s far north enough that I won’t have to run another marathon in the heat.  Wish me luck!

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