Thirty-two years ago I completed my first running race, the Olney, Maryland Kiwanis Club inaugural 10-K. I started my inaugural race at the back of the pack and finished near the front. Being my first road race I assumed most people would be faster than some 25-year-old guy who never competed in high school athletics. Surprise! I was wrong.
I do not know how many road races I have run in the intervening three decades, well over one-hundred, and over the years I’ve learned to position myself more appropriately in the starting queue. Saturday June 1, 2018, I placed myself behind 7,000 of my fellow 8,000 participants in Des Moines’ final 20-kilometer, Dam to Dam race, a race whose inaugural coincided with my high school graduation. 2018 is the last running of Dam to Dam and the final event earned the motto, “Thirty-nine Forever.” “Thirty-nine Forever” filled my mouth with the taste of irony. “Thirty-nine Forever.” If only!
I swore off running about two years ago. Declining speed made racing less fun and increasing pain made me question the sanity of running when I could cycle instead. I told my warrior goddess wife that I was hanging up my running shoes, that I would not run farther than a 5-K and that I would only run enough to complete sprint triathlons. She nodded, agreed, kept on running and kept saying, “I’m doing the XYZ race. Do you want to do it with me? There’s a five-K option.”
I would reluctantly agree, thinking, “If I could do it ‘with’ you running wouldn’t be so bad,” but I continued to struggle through. As I’m fond of pointing out, being married to a woman who is aging well is a great blessing. I’m just not sure who it is I’m trying to convince with those words.
Twenty-kilometers is four times as far as I was willing to run, and I knew that just finishing would be a problem for old, arthritic me. I began to “train” the tail-end of winter with a three-mile, hilly-run in our new home-town near Raleigh. Eastern North Carolina is far more hilly than where we’d lived the previous quarter century and my inaugural run did not go well, but it went.
My race goal was modest; build up to twelve miles over twelve weeks and finish the Dam to Dam without walking. Speed was irrelevant (HA!), but I was hoping to maintain a 5 mph/8 kph pace. Hope springs eternal.
I began training by simply adding one slogging run weekly to my daily round-trip bike commute of 15 to 18 miles. These knees don’t go fast, and I smiled sardonically at an age-mate co-worker’s suggestion that I add interval runs to my race prep. Oh, Jack, Jack, Jack! God bless.
Adding a mile per-week to my three-mile opening bid would get me to my 12-mile goal with a week to spare and I dutifully increased my once-a-week run by one mile successively and successfully for the month of March. “Best laid plans of mice and men,” comes to mind as I reflect on my pre-race ramp-up. I ran, increasing my mileage by about a mile as I went, but my add-a-mile-a-week plan soon fell by the wayside.
After mixing in some trail-runs to my work-outs, including a few “tempo-runs” of 1.55 miles (a convenient distance for a loop I could do from my house without crossing any major streets) and haphazardly going farther and sometimes faster, race day loomed with me never having run farther than eight miles. I boarded a flight from Raleigh to Des Moines with my warrior goddess in preparation of girding our loins for battle along with our two sons, Kevin 27 and Sean 25.
We landed in Des Moines on Friday, June 1, 2018 and the mercury was well into the nineties. Thirty-five Celsius is just nightmare icing on my looming pain cake and I fear that my modest goal of “running” the entire race will be gone with the strong prairie winds that sweep the plains of the Midwest. H-O-T is not for me, but a weather forecast of thunderstorms for the next morning assuaged my fear of overwhelming heat and replaced it with another (or was that a hope?) that the race might be cancelled due to severe weather. In either case, our Florida son Sean slept in one hotel room with our Iowa boy Kevin while my goddess and I reposed in another.
I awoke around four the next morning to a gastrointestinal upset that consumed most of the time I’d hoped to spend doing much needed stretching. Patricia checked the race website along with the weather report and, just before 5:00 a.m., knocked gently on the door to ours sons’ room, declaring, “Wakey, wakey time! It’s monsooning out!”
We had elected to stay at the Des Moines Hilton because the armada of school buses that would transport eight-thousand runners to the race start queued directly in front of the hotel. Sean and Pat grabbed light-weight rain jackets while Kevin and I braved the heavy rain wearing shorts and tank tops. We arrived street-side just as a wave of buses was filling the quarter-mile length of pre-dawn pavement and soon found ourselves luxuriating in four-star school-bus splendor. The drive was slow and at the end we bid adieu to our bus and disembarked our haven from the cold, heavy rain and waded into the wet throngs of racers.
While I was unprepared for the ardors of twenty kilometers number one son was even less ready. We had already agreed that Sean and Pat would head toward the front of the race queue while Kevin and I, after hitting the port-a-potties, would line-up toward the back of the pack. So far my race day had been overshadowed by pressing digestive distress, a theme that was to repeat itself throughout the morning.
Dam To Dam lines up on a top of Saylorville Dam, a location that in no way shields from wind and rain. The race, slated to start at seven, had been postponed until 7:30 and around 7:25 the winds rose from strong to fierce. We knew the race had begun when Kevin and I joined the masses intrepidly slogging our way from our queue position to the race-start timing-mats a tenth of a mile away. Crossing the mat we began jogging into the now rain free air that had become a Dorothy-in-Kansas worthy vortex coming directly from our direction of travel. Ah! Iowa!
The in-our-face gale became more tail than headwind when we executed a dam exiting ninety-degree turn. The severe weather withered to wet pavement as the wind and rain rescinded and Kevin and I plodded onward.
Kevin and I had agreed to run at our own paces and my slow-but-steady soon outpaced his, leaving me all alone with thousands of strangers. I made my way, happy to be surrounded by runners but highly aware of the workings of digestion; my body had needs that I must heed. I made a pit stop around mile two. And three. And five.
Feeling better, I advanced to our first hill. I was astounded by the number of back-of-the-queue runners who chose to walk the mole-hill. I opted to aggressively attack to the summit. (“Aggressively attack,” is an indication of effort, not speed. I didn’t walk, but my pace remained glacial.)
Nearing the race’s halfway point, I spied a U.S. Flag lined hill, bedecked with Old Glory as a monument to our troops. Bagpipes wafted to my ears and my throat tightened. It is entirely possible to support our troops while hating war, to believe in America’s beauty while acknowledging her faults; I ran to the top of the rise, tears flowing freely.
My slow but steady increased to a more robust pace for a couple of miles, a decision I soon came to regret. Reaching the eight-mile marker, my pre-race longest run, fatigue washed over me, and my pace slowed. Fortunately, the race-route included impromptu entertainment along the way, including a four-piece musical group, a string orchestra, and a woman with an accordion. Tired as I was, I turned to each and applauded enthusiastically as I passed. Their efforts lifted my spirits and I wanted them to know how appreciative I was.
Tired, my pace fell. I watched as a woman walked around me. Slow as my pace had fallen, I was still catching and passing walkers, but this tall, thin, white-haired woman walked around me and put distance between us. At first I didn’t notice, her gait was not the exaggerated one of many race walkers and her seemingly effortless propulsion lulled me into complacency.
Complacent, that is, until I noted the gap that had appeared between us. Determined not to have a walker best me, I increased my effort and kept my eye on her as I slowly and painfully closed the space between us. When I caught her I told her she was rocking that walk and that she was doing an amazing job. Little did I know that I would have multiple mini-chats with her over the next 45 minutes!
Jo, born January 1960, and a resident of Muscatine since 1979, and I passed one another and chatted briefly three more times before the final turn of the race. With 400 meters to go (I know, because there were signs at four-hundred, three-hundred, two-hundred and one-hundred meters) I ignored my incredibly painful feet and knees, told my protesting muscles that they were not allowed to cramp nor spasm for a few more minutes and gave my all to a hearty finish. I ran for all I was worth, as little as that may be.
I finished my race in 2:34:40, coming in 5,885 out of 7,225 finishers. I finished in front of Jo Schuman but then again I started in front of Jo Schuman. Her time was nearly three minutes faster than mine as she finished 104 out of 177 in the age group she shares with my wife.
Kevin dropped out of the race with blisters. Whole lot of water in those shoes from the rain and not enough training miles, but I was ecstatic that he tried. The warrior goddess missed besting two hours. Missed it by one second that is, finishing in 2:00:01 and coming in 24th in her age group of 177 fifty-five to fifty-nine-year-old women and nine-hundred-seventeenth out of 3,866 women.
Sean, our four-year-varsity high school cross-country runner, after advancing at his mother’s pace for the first 5-K before doing the next fifteen at a rate more in keeping with a young man’s fancy, finished in 1:48:43 or 175th in his 416 deep age group; a time with which he was content. Full-time job and adult responsibilities tend to make us reevaluate life’s priorities.
The day after the race the goddess asked me if I was glad I’d completed Dam To Dam and I had no answer. I’m certain that running twenty-kilometers is a bad idea for me, but some of the best things in life stem from bad ideas. There’s nothing crazier than always doing the sane and sensible. In any case, Dam To Dam was my LAST race over five K! That’s it! No more!
Except July fourth. But that’s only four miles. And I’ll be sure to position myself toward the back of the pack.