Joe stood at the start line twitching his shoulders up and down and turning his head back and forth in a release of nervous energy. Greg came over to him and they shook hands. “How you doing today, Joe? Feeling fast?”
“Whoa! Nice jersey! That’s a real eye opener.” Greg wore a form fitting cycling jersey in bright hunter’s orange. “I think so. I’m really hoping to finish in under two hours.”
“Yeah, it’s an open course you know, I want to make sure the cars can see me. That’s a pretty good time on this course. My first time I finished in 2:02: 14. Good luck, buddy!”
“You, too! Have a good race.” Open course, he thought to himself. He hadn’t really thought about traffic playing a part in his race.
He’d worn a red Lycra/Spandex Pace cycling jersey because it hugged his body like a woman’s brand new one piece swim suit and therefor wouldn’t flap in the wind. He was glad it was also a vivid color, though sedate in comparison to Greg’s.
This was Joe’s third running race, his first biathlon and the first competition that he expected to work hard at for as long as two hours. Hartford had a bike club, The Wailers, which put on a monthly time trial in the summer and early fall and Joe had done perhaps a dozen of these over the years. He had finished the ten miles in as little as twenty five minutes and in as many as twenty eight but in those races he worked hard for less than half an hour and then was finished.
His first 10K had been over in under 41 minutes, his last 5K had taken well under 19 minutes and the only bike race he had ever done other than the Wailers’ time trials was The Long Street Charge which he had finished in a bit over two hours back on Independence Day. Joe knew that today he would be working much harder and longer than he had in any race previously.
Joe hardly listened to John’s perfunctory final opening comments prior to the race’s start. He saw little and heard less. He wished he had some water as his mouth was parched. As he stood worrying himself he heard John yell, “…get set, go!” and then the starter’s pistol fired. The loud bang was followed by scores of tiny beeps as the racers tapped the start on their stopwatches. Joe added his “beep” to the multitude and took off at a quick clip.
Joe had started at the back of the Kiwanis Club race because he didn’t know where he would stack up with the other runners. While he had done fairly well he couldn’t help but think that if he had just started closer to the front that he easily could have dropped the 51 seconds that would be necessary for him to break into the 39:59 time he coveted.
The start at Atlanta’s Manufacturer Hanover race had been massive but so had the width of the streets on which they ran. Joe had had no problem advancing through the crowded field as he had at the New Britain 10K.
One of the quotes Joe liked to repeat was, “A sure sign of intelligence is learning from your mistakes.” Joe considered intelligence an important commodity and he was determined not to make the same mistake of seeding himself too far back in the pack. It didn’t take him long to realize that that was not the nature of today’s mistake.
The run started on a straight away out of the parking lot and then onto a feeder street that connected the bike corral parking to the main drive that encircled the park. Joe had warmed up, stretched, eaten well and considered himself ready to compete. Before he had traveled the first .3 miles and gotten to the arcing curve that lead the runners around the course the top twenty or so runners had put enough distance between him and them that they were now barely visible.
They wound their way counter clockwise around the park. The runners had filled the width of the narrow street that led to the main road but once they hit the loop they ran on the right side, filling that lane with gasping bipeds bent on speed. As the race continued and the distance between runners increased the fact that he was running with traffic rather than facing it popped into Joe’s head. He had been taught to run and walk facing traffic and to cycle in the same direction as other road user, and being on the right side of the road while running felt foreign and uncomfortable to him; he tended to hug the white line as he sped onward. He found the thought of not being able to see passing cars a bit disconcerting, though as of yet none had passed the runners.
Joe soon discovered the flaw in his decision to start at the front of the race. If winding through a maze of people in the 10K had been physically difficult at least it had been invigorating and provided him with the thrill of passing runner after runner in hot pursuit. By starting at the very front of today’s race Joe felt demoralized as he watched runner after runner pass and then slowly pull away from him. He found that he had a greater psychological advantage when chasing down and passing other competitors than he did by being passed.
After the first mile he seemed to have found an island of like paced competitors with whom he loped along in a slowly changing formation. He settled into a routine of focusing on the runner ahead and trying to pass him, while not allowing those that passed to pull away. He was successful at slowly and occasionally reeling in a runner here and another there but those that passed him tended to stay ahead. As they started up the first major hill he looked as far forward as the hill allowed and even though the hill provided him a clear view of dozens of fellow runners he could not spot Greg’s bright orange jersey.
The runners took the first of two mini loops off of the main road that had been incorporated into the race to conform to an exact 10K/6.2 mile distance. Coming out of the loop Joe spotted what had to be the water stop ahead as he rounded a curve. The stop was supposed to be at the halfway point and Joe slowed his pace so that he could grab some water as he jogged by. He grabbed two cups of water and drank most of the first and poured the remainder over his head and then did the same with the second cup. His checked his Timex as he again picked up his pace and it read 23:47.
Joe was a bit surprised at how long it had taken him to get this far. His pessimistic estimate had him arriving at the halfway point by 23:15 and he was more than a minute off pace for seven and a half minute miles. “Don’t worry about it, maybe the stop’s not exactly in the middle. Just keep going,” he subvocalized.
The water refreshed him and he settled back into passing the runner who was directly ahead of him. Ten minutes went by and as he rounded a curve he caught a glimpse of Greg’s orange jersey. The sight of his friend gave him the incentive he needed to dig a bit deeper and run a little faster. The increase in speed made his gastrocnemius muscles twitch but he ignored their protests as he pursued Greg. The steep hills around Stone Mountain were far more demanding than the gently rolling ones he and Misty had trained on and he wondered how his bride was fairing.
The road curved to the right and Joe’s hopes fell. He was approaching one of the loops that were incorporated into the course so his sighting of Greg was a result of him already having taken a detour which Joe now entered. He checked his watch as he circled to the right, 36:22. “Okay, should be done in about ten minutes,” he panted to himself.
Joe ran on and as he came out of the loop he again checked his watch: 41:37. He did the math in his head and then said, “That can’t be right!” He checked again and discovered that his friend had at least a five minute lead on him. “Crap!”
Joe’s calves were protesting more loudly but in the distance he saw one of the course volunteers waving an orange flag that directed the runners that they were to exit the main loop there and head back to the bike corral in preparation to beginning the cycling leg of the race. “Looking good, looking good!” was the mantra of the flag waver as he directed people toward their bikes and checked to make sure that any early morning traffic was yielding to the runners. “Yo, Joe! Keep it up, almost there!”
Joe whipped his head around and waved to the volunteer but had no idea of the identity of the man who had called out to him. Other volunteers pointed the way to the bike corral and as Joe approached his rack he surveyed the scene. Most of the bikes were still there so he must be doing okay. Misty’s bike was still on the rack close to his which came as no surprise as she had not been one of the runners who had passed him.
He checked his stopwatch; 48:03, more than a minute and a half slower than his lowest expectation and over three minutes slower than he figured he would achieve. It looked like he’d have a lot of time to make up on the bike. He dropped to the ground in front of the bike and changed his shoes, put on his gloves and helmet, broke the peel on his banana and then grabbed his bike. “Now for the fun part,” he said with a grin.