Marathon Journey: Day 5

Today I remembered one of my favorite running stories, one that comes from my running life.

Here it is:

I ran track in high school. And cross-country. I mostly sucked, but that’s irrelevant. I just wanted to say it so you know this isn’t about me reliving my glory days. Because those glory days were really more like my glory couple of hours, and they probably aren’t that significant to anyone who wasn’t there and isn’t my mom. My mom probably wouldn’t find them significant either. She doesn’t really care much for sports.

Okay, there was a track meet, and it was a state qualifier. For the uninitiated, there are two ways to qualify for the state track meet: You can take 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place in the regional meet, which happens at the end of the track season, or you can run a qualifying time at one of a small number of track meets that are designated as “state qualifiers.”

If you’re coaching, you would prefer to have your best runners qualify at those state qualifier meets that come before regionals. There are lots of reasons, most of which are not exciting. Just take my word for it and we’ll skip ’em.

So we’re at a state qualifying meet. We had, basically, one distance runner who had a shot in hell of running a qualifying time. The plan was for this guy to qualify, but there was a snag. The wind.

Wind can be brutal in running, and I would submit it’s at its most brutal on a track, especially in a distance race. Because a track is an oval, you’re guaranteed to be running into the wind for a minimum of a quarter of the race. And because science and emotion really depart from each other when you’re breathing really hard, it FEELS like you’re running into the wind the entire way ’round. And being a Colorado spring wind, it’s frigid. You run one side and you’re sweating, then you turn the corner and the sweat is frozen to your skin. It’s a surprisingly taxing situation. This is why you see some weird-ass running clothing combos here in the winter, like a dude out with short shorts and a fleece neck warmer.

The scenario is set. We’ve got a guy we want to qualify in the mile, four laps around, and we’ve got a wind that’s almost certain to prevent that.

Let’s talk about one of my track coaches for a second. The dude was awesome. He started life as a football player, and I think he brought from football a love of the occasional novelty play, the longshot idea just crazy enough to work. Partially because they worked sometimes, and partially because he was kind of a mischievous guy. For example, he would occasionally ask someone to “rabbit” in a distance run. If you’re the rabbit, your job was to get out in front early and run a pace that you knew you couldn’t maintain. The idea was that other inexperienced but talented runners would follow your lead, wear themselves out too early, and then a teammate would take an easy victory. He had our teams switch up their uniforms last minute at big meets to fool other teams. He was a believer in luck, and he was a believer in making your own luck too.

Our coach had a scheme for the windy mile. He picked one runner, let’s call him Bugs, to be a rabbit of sorts. The idea being he’d run the first lap at our best runner’s pace. Our best runner would stick right behind Bugs, drafting like a cyclist and saving his energy. At the beginning of lap 2, Bugs would move to the side, and the faster runner would take off, on his own, and hopefully be able to maintain the needed pace.

It wasn’t a huge advantage, cutting the wind for one lap. But to be honest, our one good runner was really good. The rest of us could keep up with him for about the first quarter of a mile. It was really all we had to offer.

Bugs was excited about this idea. He also had a bit of mischief about him. He smiled, laughed, and was 100% into the idea. Even though it meant he’d drift off somewhere in the back of the back and run a bad time himself, it was worth it.

Here’s what happened:

The race started, Bugs ran out front, and our good runner followed right on his heels.

One lap. All good. Bugs and the good runner crossed the line, and then Bugs moved aside so our good runner could cut by on the inside.

This is where Bugs starts improvising. This is where it gets good.

The good runner went by, and then Bugs made a quick cut back into the first lane. And he slowed WAY down. Because he was back on the inside track, all the other runners had to go around him in lane 2, which makes the race slightly longer and more difficult. This is the whole reason behind the saying about the “inside track,” after all.

And THEN, when Bugs made it about half-way around the second lap, he stopped and sort of jogged in place. He was waiting for our good runner to come back around again, and he was going to try and help cut the wind for him again on the worst stretch.

It’s hard to describe how surreal and hilarious this was. You never, EVER see someone do this in a distance race. There is no jogging in place in the middle of a race. It would be like a bobsledder jumping out of the bobsled in the middle of the course, or a hurdler just running and busting straight through the hurdles, or a curler doing something that’s worth watching.

An official was totally onto the scheme, blew the whistle, and Bugs was disqualified, forced to continue on the track and to stop waiting for our good runner. I don’t know what the call or the rules were exactly, but nobody fought it. It was pretty obvious that a scheme was playing out.

That’s most of it. The good runner finished, but he didn’t qualify (that day). Bugs also finished. His subsequent laps were quite a bit slower than his first.

It’s one of my favorite running memories. And I wasn’t even running at the time. It was easily 15 years ago, and I still remember it vividly. I remember what Bugs looked like, jogging in place, trying to be all nonchalant and failing miserably. I remember thinking how funny it was that he cut back in to widen the gap between our good runner and the others.

It’s like this: runners are often seen as loners, but they can be total realist team players. What I mean is, Bugs wasn’t pissed off because our coach didn’t think he could run a qualifying time. We all knew that wasn’t in the cards. And Bugs wasn’t pissed that he was acting as a platform on which another runner would stand, or, more accurately, a literal human shield. He thought it was fun, funny, and he embraced the shit out of it.

Running can be such an individual sport. There’s really no propping up of a bad runner. But because it’s such an individual sport most of the times, it makes those teamwork moments pretty fucking awesome.