When Holly was in middle school, one of her first races was a 3000-meter cross-country race. At the finish, she was ashen faced, wobbly, starting to see spots around the edges of her vision, with an odd, muffled sense to her hearing. She'd basically run herself right to the edge of collapse. Why? Because there was this flopping sound behind her all the way that she was sure was another runner breathing down her neck. Determined not to show weakness by looking back, she pushed harder and harder . . . and won.
When she crossed the finish line and finally looked back? Nobody else was even in sight. Running from what must have been the flapping of her own shirt or the echo of her footsteps, she'd won a 2-mile race . . . by two minutes.
It's possible to make pop-psychological hay out of the idea that she'd spent the whole race running from herself. But would she have run any differently if there had been someone two steps in front of her the whole way? Anyone who's a "racer" knows the answer to that. Of course not.
One of Rick's most memorable racing experiences was similar: a 10K (6.2-mile) road race, early in his career. He'd already covered the fastest 5 miles of his life when he rounded a corner and someone told him he was in 10th place. And right in front of him was another guy who looked to be in his age group.
The next 1.2 miles seemed to stretch out forever as the two changed lead, back-and-forth, ratcheting up the pace, higher and higher. Agonizing barely begins to describe it. But so too does sweet because, when the dust cleared and Rick finally ran away from the other guy, he'd not only clocked the best 10K he'd ever done, he'd also won his age group.
It's not clear how many racers have had experiences like this. Holly tends to come out on the winning end of them. Rick has come out on both ends: win and lose. Once - in another 10K, he spent the last two miles locked in a duel with a friend. It was total agony, buried in the knowledge that his friend would probably be faster in the final yards. But there was no way he wasn't going to play it out to the finish.
What is it that such duels teach? And why is it that, much as we dread them, we know we won't disengage?
In part, it's simply because this is what the elites at this week's world championships in Berlin are doing. You don't have to be fast or strong to be competitive. Sometimes the fiercest duels are at the back of the pack.
But there may also be something more primal. There is something chaseable out there in front of you (or something mean and hungry behind you). You can be friends later. Right now, it's primordial life stripped to its basics. Run! Chase! Flee!
But it's primordial life with a brain. A sudden sprint won't do. You have to hoard your resources, doling them out in the most efficient manner. It's muscles, brains, patience, and boldness all stirred into a pot that only comes to perfection a few times in a lifetime.
Somehow, when it's over, it's never the pain we remember. It's the surges, answers, and repeat surges. It's racing your shadow and discovering that even if you can't break away, you remember every step for the rest of your life. It's discovering that you don't have to be fast to have such an experience. It's being totally, fully, wondrously alive - even as you feel you're dying.
It's thumbing your nose at everything you thought you couldn't do.
Photo: © Richard A. Lovett 2009