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Rick's Corner

Grey-Bearded Old Fish

The voice in the parking lot took me by surprise. “Hey, thanks for pulling me up that hill,” a singlet-clad runner called as I was collecting my warm-ups after a large 10-K road race.

Momentarily, I was at a loss. I remembered passing him on the course, and he had no reason to be thanking me. Rather, he’d made a string of tactical mistakes and I’d made sure he paid the price–a calculated move in a medal-rich event in which I’d unexpectedly found myself an age-group contender. I’d had no intention of helping him. Rather, I’d deliberately induced him to self-destruct.

I’d caught him near the base of the 200-foot rise that was the crux of the course. He’d slowed for it, but not as much as he should have. That was his second mistake. The first had been going out too fast in the first four miles. When I drew near, he was already beginning to labor.

I stole a glance his way as I moved by, wondering if he was in my age division. He looked younger, but who’s to tell? My own gray hair often fools people into thinking I’m a decade beyond my actual age.

I was aware that sizing up runners as you pass is a sign of weakness. It tells them you’re not confident that once passed they will stay that way. And although I felt strong, I was indeed concerned. He was struggling now, but even so, I wasn’t gaining quickly, and if he was a strong enough downhill runner he might make a comeback on the long downgrade ahead. If he wasn’t in my age group, I should continue running my own race. If there was a chance we were competing for the same medal, I should forget the clock and deal with him.

He may or may not have understood this. What he did do was to pick up his pace, positioning himself just off my shoulder where I could hear but not see him.

I am a chaser by nature, not a front runner. At my best, I run a rock-steady pace, gradually reeling in faltering runners. People who try to pace off me make me nervous. I feel pushed, and I’m convinced they’ll eventually reel me in, just as I would them. I’m also acutely aware that when the Good Lord handed out fast-twitch muscles, I was off somewhere on a long, slow run. There aren’t many people who can’t out-kick me in the final 100 meters. I prefer not to give them the chance.

But I knew that giving chase uphill was the other runner’s third mistake. I was running well within my abilities, with plenty of energy for the finish. The labored breathing behind me said that my shadow was overextended. It was time to administer the coup de grace while I held the advantage. I picked up the pace, just a bit.

For 200 meters, he stayed within a stride of me–long enough to make me wonder if he’d ever break. His breathing said he couldn’t hold on much longer, but he clung to me with surprising tenacity, and the summit seemed to recede as fast as I moved toward it. Then, suddenly, he vanished. One step he was gasping in my ear–a half-dozen paces later, he might as well not have existed. There was no need to look back–he’d never recover before the finish.

And now, here he was in the parking lot, thanking me for my efforts to break him, even as he explained how he’d pretty much died after he’d finally dropped behind. I didn’t have a clue what to say. Looking at him now, it was obvious he was at least a decade my junior. If he’d run more conservatively, he too might have won a medal.

The coach in me felt the need to be honest. “You never should have gone with me–” I started.

But he’d have none of it. “What? No, you really helped me up that hill!”

As he walked away, still smiling, I did some brief soul-searching. But there were no grains of guilt. The enormous growth of fun-running, I realized, has taken some of the competitive edge off of racing. There’s nothing wrong with that: fun runs are healthy and pleasant, and I’ve done plenty of them myself, as trainers.

But when it comes to the race you’ve been peaking for all season, it’s big-fish/little-fish time. And sometimes we gray-bearded old fish still have sharp teeth. Before and after the race, I relish the runner’s easy camaraderie. But from start to finish, if you?re in my age group, never mistake me for your friend.

© 2002-05 by Richard A. Lovett. All rights reserved.

See this at http://running.richardalovett.com. If people want to come to my site, that’s great.

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