The Race Unspoken
*Disclaimer: I am not fast, nor do I claim I ever have been, though I am working on improving that.
Three miles behind me, I pull off of a short section of trail onto the 5K road loop that circles the Rose Bowl. Feeling good, I’m running a bit faster than my typical pace, weaving through and past the walkers and slower joggers, enjoying my music, taking in the night air. I appreciate road runs for the steadiness that they provide, to have the opportunity to not think about foot placement or hill climbs, but just settle into a fixed pace and my thoughts. About 800 meters into the 5K lap, I sense another runner closing on me very slowly; he was there for a while, but I was oblivious due to my headphones until a streetlight cast his shadow beside me.
Almost instinctively, I begin to pick up my pace just slightly enough to keep him behind me. For some reason I decide I shouldn’t let him pass.
He hangs on my heels to the left for about 30 seconds. And then I feel him making a surge, now running beside me with a comfortable distance between us.
Neither of us look at each other.
We hold the pace, now about 30 seconds per mile faster than when he first caught me.
I don’t know how far he’s already run, but we appear to be working about as hard as each other.
I reach down and cycle through my music to find a more upbeat song and pick up the pace slightly. He drops two steps back, realizes the change, and picks it up again, staying beside me.
After another 30 second eternity of running beside him, ignoring each other, he picks up the pace. I decide to let him go just a little bit, staying about one meter behind him, but matching the increased pace.
The race is on. How far, to where, on what terms…nobody knows. But there is no denying it is happening, despite the fact we still “ignore” each other by avoiding eye contact and hiding behind our headphones.
I decide to catch him and pass, but he stays with me. We are side by side again, engaged in our awkward dance. The walkers and other joggers we pass have no idea about the struggle lurking beneath the surface; we likely look like running partners.
We are now easily running two minutes faster than when he caught me, easily approaching my best 5K pace, if not faster. I’m starting to hurt, lungs and quads burning, but I’m still successful in making a conscious effort to relax my face, drop my shoulders, settle in. Fast, smooth, easy. One mile to go on our 5K lap, a turn is approaching. I decide that is where I’ll make my move. The road just around the turn begins a 400 meter gentle decline, followed by a 400 meter rolling hill, then flat again. I fall back on his heels for the last 200 meters leading into the turn.
A pause comes between songs and I can suddenly hear his labored breathing and the weight of his footstrikes. My timing is good; I’m not breathing or pounding nearly as hard and at this point I’m certain I have him. He’s getting stretched thin.
We hit the turn and I accelerate, this time with a more decisive kick, easily pulling away by 10 meters before he responds. He’s still there, matching my pace. I turn it up a little more and I can feel him fading.
I’m stuck now in a solitary world of burning, of wondering how long I can make this last before I blow up, betting everything that I can hold it just a little longer than he can. I try to relax but I’m beginning to strain. I can’t relax. I don’t want to look back. Just keep going.
We pass a light; his long shadow is completely absent beside me.
My turnoff is coming; I start drifting across the street to where I’ll leave the loop.
Upon reaching the intersection I turn sharply left, affording me the ability to glance back over my shoulder.
He’s 400 meters back, stopped and doubled over at the side of the road.
I slowly jog up the side street until I know I’m well out of site, and then come to a staggering, knee-clutching stop. I fight hard, sucking desperately at the air to make my head stop spinning. Smiling. It was likely a 5K PR for me, all in the midst of what was to be an “easy” 9 mile run.
Perhaps it would’ve been nice to shake his hand in the end, to laugh it all off and break the tension, but this race was to live unspoken amongst strangers.