Tuesday, May 3, 2016

When winning isn't the only thing (for maybe six minutes)

The Google 1 racing team, together, is a competitive group. In particular we get pumped up about our rivalries with the Stanford Run Club and the DSE Runners at the Golden Gate Relay, despite (because of) our personal connections to each group. The morning of this year's race Andrew Tibbets emailed the team list suggesting the Stanford team had deliberately fudged their estimated time passing an intersection near campus in the school paper to try to throw us off: “They know we are reading :-)”. That's a tongue-in-cheek suggestion. The joke lands because the rivalry is real. We knew at the start that they had a strong team, and that we did, too. In van 2 as the race got underway we heard reports of Stanford's lead and speculated how the race might play out. They had their best runner in the 7th position, we had ours in 10th, so we might come back late. Brent and Vitor might give us an edge in the hills. Our experience and endurance might take over the second and third times through. Our careful planning of runner order might help in the margins. By the first van exchange we were a couple minutes behind. Iain, in 7th position, opposite Stanford's strongest runner, ran a minute under his projection. I in 8th hit mine. The deficit swelled to almost four minutes. Maybe youth and skill would prevail for the second year. But then we had Kirk and Ben coming up 9th and 10th, talking about taking the lead in two big chunks. If they did the race would be very close through the first set of legs, setting us up for a very close finish!

Kirk went out on fire. In a short leg he cut Stanford's lead in half. He got across an early stoplight without delay. This was down to good luck, as a stoplight Avesh missed in the last leg was down to bad luck. We posted runners to press the walk button but the cycle was driven by other traffic. And Kirk saw, “Go Kirk!” written on the sidewalk. And Larry was later heckled, “Hey, Larry!” by some guys in a truck that were calling everyone Larry. And I had met a fellow runner from my high school, the great Dukes of York, at the starting line. And Avesh would run across anyway, with a honk from another guy in another truck that could only wish to be out here. Ben's leg was long so we stopped halfway through to offer him water. As he came up on us he passed Stanford's runner. He'd run a 5:05 first mile by GPS and made up the gap in half his leg. So much for caution and endurance. The Stanford's runner's knees were bloody. Ben would say he'd seen him trip earlier. He was veering toward the edge of the shoulder, toward traffic, then back to safety. He turned down water.

After both runners passed the Stanford runner started to wobble more severely, crossing over the fog line then back. After a few long seconds of indecision Kirk shouted that this guy wasn't OK, that someone needed to go after him. Then Larry chased him and I followed. I overtook Larry, who'd pulled a hamstring, then drew even with the runner. I got to his left, just inside the fog line. I started to talk, saying not much, let's take it easy, keep on the shoulder, maybe take some water. Then more indecision. He needed to stop running, this was delirium, not stubbornness. But could I just tackle him on the road, block his progress as his top competitor in the race? He veered into me. I pushed back shoulder-to-shoulder to keep him in-bounds. He went back off to the right. Then he angled in again, then back to safety. The third time he angled left his weight slumped against me and I caught him. We stopped running and lowered ourselves to the ground.

Then the group was up with us. I tried to keep him sitting with his head supported. Kirk checked that his eyes were tracking, asked questions to keep him talking. The runner's name was Wyatt. He tried to get up and run a few times, but by now it was certain, he wasn't running out of here. He was a freshman, a physicist, studying cosmology. He was from Washington State. Perhaps named after Wyatt Earp, toughest S.O.B. in the west. He'd said, “This wasn't supposed to happen,” as we first went to the ground. Runners love to be tough, to win by will. A lot of us were picked last at every sport. I was worst at soccer. My dad tried to teach me to take contact with my shoulders when I had a line to the ball but I couldn't learn. Pheidippides died on arrival at Athens and everyone wanted to run the distance from Marathon. He was a messenger from battle. Glory is for warriors (mostly). Football is king (even Joe Newton said that — perhaps with some sarcasm).

Anyway, philosophizing is for useless assholes.

Patrick had run with the Stanford Run Club as a student, and knew some of their phone numbers. They were at the scene in a few minutes. Our van 1 was contacted and got to the scene. Patrick was sent on in one of our vans and got to the next exchange on time to take the baton from Ben, who hadn't seen what happened behind him. Larry got on the phone with emergency dispatchers and we scrambled to find the nearest intersection to describe the location. Avesh and I went ahead to the next exchange in one of the Stanford vans but the race had passed. On the way we saw our van speeding back to the scene to pick us up. Neither of us knew how to contact any of them (so we wandered without connection like in a '90s sitcom or a Hemingway novel; Avesh had tried to look up contact information on one of the Stanford guys' phones but couldn't authenticate to his Google account without a second-factor token). Then Avesh was going to go on to his exchange in the Stanford van because it was the next one leaving but as they were leaving our van arrived, and the two of us, and whoever else was at that exchange (maybe Ben), got back in our van. That was van 2, and we were six. Five runners and a driver, with a runner on the course. We worried about getting Avesh to his point on time, and we argued and spun our wheels a bit like people do when they're late for things, then we realized we had time, and we calmed down. Stanford had a runner on the course maybe six minutes after Wyatt stopped.

We heard later that Wyatt ended up OK. He'd been picked up by his RA from some hospital. The Stanford team got within about three minutes of us at one point early in the second set of legs. Later in the second, and over the third set, we pulled away. Kirk and Ben kept running away from their projections. So did Iain and Craig, preventing very strong runners from cutting into our lead. Brent and Vitor did impressive work in the mountains. Our endurance took over and all of us sustained our performance in our second and third legs. Our experience and knowledge of the course helped us limit time spent lost when we took wrong turns. Stanford finished only 13 minutes back, in second place, down a runner and covering miles however they could. Our 18:19:16 was our best-ever finish time, a minute better than two years ago. Stanford's 18:32:16 would have won the race many years. At exchange 33 in Ben Lomond we critiqued some C++ code they'd written on the side of their van back in Calistoga. It was testing, in a tight loop, if (Google == "sucks"), though the variable Google was not modified in the loop, nor declared. I suggested it could have been declared volatile in some header, then grilled them on synchronization. Larry had pointed out several times, “These guys could be our future colleagues.” It's never too early to learn the style guide.

And when they arrived on the beach we took a photo together under the finishing arch. This was after a few false-starts and before we retired to eat, then dispose of the remaining practical tasks. We were connected by this one event we shared, for maybe six minutes. That was enough to break through all the other stuff we always share as runners, for maybe six minutes. The competitive drive, the drive to win, to win by will, to will past exhaustion, to exhaust and leave behind? The bravado, never false nor true? An absurd surreality: we little messengers dare to wrest immortality from the warriors? And we gain the timeless prize only by our own mortal weakness? Because we always run against ourselves? So we can only win by utterly defeating ourselves? Pheidippides, cf. Salazar, Beardsley?

Philosophizing is for useless assholes.