Anyone who has run competitively before has a scenario they play in their head. It's a scene you live out on countless runs causing that spike in endorphins and a quickening of the step. For each runner this scene is unique and changes throughout their life. Whether you have competed in high school and college or picked up running later in life, you know what I speak of. It's a scene of heroics and redemption. That ideal race where everything is on the line and, despite all odds and past failures, you overcome and deliver. You yearn for that day. It's what drives you.
I write now to speak of such a day, and, as with all in life, the scene I had played in my head countlessly veered from the intended script. But what would be life if everything was scripted and without spontaneity? It's these unintended diversions from the script that make it ever more meaningful.
I'm running the anchor leg. Not because I'm our fastest runner. But it's the card I've been dealt, and I'm happy to play it. We've run near 200 miles throughout the night and on little sleep. I ran legs 12 and 24 earlier. The first was short and fast. The second long, downhill, and fast. Our lead has fluctuated between one and three minutes for most of the night. I'm ready to have this race done.
As I loosen up, I get a good look at my opponent as he readies with form drills. Young, legit. I've maintained or extended the lead slightly on my prior legs. But now the sun is up, and they can see us. It's tough running in front, not knowing where your competition is. Knowing the sight of you ahead is giving them all the motivation to push harder.
They are whittling down our lead.
Eddie's filling in for the injured Andrew on leg 35. He comes up to me while we wait for Larry to finish leg 34. "Down to just you and me," he says. He has a short leg, roughly 3 miles or so. I ask him to give me as much cushion as he can. Larry soon comes in, and the exchange is made. We wait for their runner to hand-off. 54 seconds is the gap.
We drive to the next exchange. I shuffle around a bit. Any more warming up won't help me any. I stretched after each leg. And I've felt much worse going into my final leg before. I'm not nervous, but I'm anxious. We both wait at the end of a tunnel, just outside where the handoff will occur. I verify the course with the volunteers. 5.2 miles starting on hard trails, rough terrain on either side. Toughest part is at the start where we will climb nearly 150 feet in the first mile. It levels off a bit and rolls, right turn at 2.9 then again at 4.7. Second half is a gradual downhill.
I hear our number: 301. Theirs is called a bit later but I don't think about getting a split. There is a long wait then Eddie appears from the tunnel with Ben and Larry escorting him through the final stretch. Here we go.
I tell myself to hold back on the climb, and I do. I have a slight shortness of breadth mainly from the nerves kicking in. First mile is 6:08. Slow but expected. I work the downhills where I can, picking up the pace. 5:40s or so, the descent steepens and I hit a turn around 1.5 miles. This is unexpectedly early. It's clearly marked with a Ragnar sign, so I don't worry. Eddie gives me water and yells encouragement. I glance back and see their team running back up the hill. Yelling for their runner, Jesús.
He's catching me.
I later find out our lead was 70 seconds at the exchange. I keep pushing, hoping he went out too hard. Then I hear yelling. "YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY!" There's confusion. I look back but keep running. Their team is running down the hill chasing me as is ours. I don't know what to think. I know I followed the sign correctly, but I also know the map was different. I'm on the road instead of the trail. Jesús appears, also making the same turn. Whether he ignored his teammates seeing me ahead or didn't hear them, I don't know. But they are able to direct him back before he goes too far.
I start cursing, "Which way am I going?" I'm at a practical standstill. Eddie and Larry direct me back up and across the road and onto a gravel trail, leading up to another path. Just like that our lead has evaporated and I'm back a good 100 meters or more.
I finally get back on course and gather my wits, but I'm not disheartened. If anything a sense of relief comes over me. The fear of getting caught, the anxiety, it's all gone. This is how the scene is suppose to play out. This is the chase. This is what I've been waiting for.
Adrenaline kicks in. I tell myself to stay in control. It's still early. I have time.
I'm running 5:20 pace.
He's in reach. I know it. I keep telling myself to run smart. We are on a hard trail with an expanse of grass buffering the road in front of us. The gap is closing steadily. The path turns, but at the end Jesús cuts off to the grass and beelines to the road. I take pursuit. There's standing water in places, but not enough to waterlog my shoes. We are soon back on the road. The gap can't be more than 20 meters. 5:10 pace.
I reach him and settle in behind to recover. The pace slows significantly. About 5:50. We are near 2.5 miles in. At least I am. The pace quickens to about 5:25-5:30. He's not content letting me sit on him.
Then he throws in a surge. I respond, hanging just off his shoulder. Sub-5 pace, but it's short lived. This is a relief as I'm not sure how long I could hang with him. We settle back into 5:45 pace.
I move up next to him. "Do you know where you're going?"
"No," he replies.
"Neither do I."
We run abreast, stride-for-stride, each sizing up the other. What does he have left in him I think. His breathing doesn't appear labored, but who knows what's left in his legs. Neither of us really knows how much distance is left in the race or if we're even on the course. It doesn't matter.
There's a median dividing the road. Our van drives past on the opposite side as we run against traffic. Someone yells that we are back on the van route. Turns out this was also the updated course route, so we both had made the right turn in the first place.
The pace starts to quicken. 5:30 and falling. We are more than 3 miles in.
The van stops ahead to direct us at a traffic circle. Some of his teammates had hitched a ride with our van. They start yelling for Jesús and at least one jumps in to help push the pace. We're running close to 5-flat. I yell over at them, "Hey, let us race!" They back off a little but run with us still as we start hitting a downhill.
Eddie and Blake, I think, are there, too. They join, running along side us as well, all while yelling encouragement. Whatever's gonna happen, it's happening now.
Traffic cones are flying past either side as we race down the road. There's a slight uphill before the road plunges again. I find myself with a half-stride lead.
It wasn't a conscious decision. But this is when it was made. I open up my stride and go with it. The gap is immediate. The pace blistering, dropping from 4:50 to 4:20 with the aid of the downhill. I don't look back.
I soon see the other half of our team at the bottom on the opposite side of the road, cheering wildly. They direct me to cross. I jump the median and make the turn as they block traffic.
The finish is right in front of me. Andrew directs me around a few obstacles. At this point I'm in an all-out sprint, arms pumping furiously. I hear our team name announced. And just like that, It's done.
Hands to my knees momentarily, then I keep walking. I look up into the sky and mouth, "Thank you." Then the runner's high sets in.
I turn to see Jesús finish, 12 seconds behind. I walk over and we embrace, exchanging congratulations on a hard-fought race.
Our teams arrive, and details of the race come forth from my lips, likely incoherently. Eddie comes running down the finishing stretch with an expression of jubilation on his face, having run the last 3/4 of a mile watching the finish unfold. He grabs me in a bear hug. Someone else, Loren or Larry maybe, help him hoist me on their shoulders.
Nearly 200 miles and it comes down to the last kick. Insane.
Both teams loitered around the finish, a sense of camaraderie evident as we talk and take photos together. Over 19 hours of racing will do that to you. Despite the loss, they are in good spirits.
Having experienced that sort of defeat before, I know it isn't as tough as it sounds. It's the journey that matters. A hard-fought loss is better than an easy victory. It provides the motivation and that scene to play out in your head. They'll have their day again. But this day is ours.