Elite Eyes by John Valentine

“How The West Was Won: Duels, Dust and Belt Buckles”

Friends of the River, Fort Worth, Texas

“Oh, great.” I thought to myself as I walked up to the starting line that ran across the width of Montgomery Plaza and saw my competitors in the Friends of the River 5k. Sure, that may not be what you think a professional thinks about when he/she lines up for a race, but I couldn’t help it this time. Decked out in my trainers, calf sleeves, favorite Mizuno running shorts and my least favorite running singlet, I toed the line.

“Are you going to go out blazing?” my friend and running partner asked me. “Haha, I don’t think so. My tempo didn’t feel that great. I may just try to keep contact and try to progress throughout the race.” I think they bought my bluff.

I think I bought it too.

Let’s go back a few minutes. On my schedule, which I misread, I had a 6 mile tempo run for Thursday (I later found out it was supposed to be on Friday). When I was told about this race a few days in advance I thought it would be an easier way to get the work in. After all, I already ran one time trial on Tuesday with Joe Boyle and the Texas Running Center group, and it’s generally easier to go faster with a lot of people rather than running on your own…or at least that’s how I see it. So, my plan was to do one mile warm-up and then a moderately hard, progressive two mile tempo to get things moving and shaking before race time. It was either that or continue running for two miles after the race was over and, let’s be honest, people would think I’m a certain kind of stupid for running two miles past the finish line.

We weren’t but a few minutes into the warm up when I tiredly asked DB how far we’ve gone. “Three quarters of a mile” he said as we were approaching a small bridge that passed over the Trinity Park trail. We were following the race course, so I at least knew where the 3/4 mile mark was; not that that will bring me any significant advantage during the race. Then, as if I were conditioned from previous tempos with DB, the beep of the Garmin went off and so did I. If only I would drool when the watch beeped. Pavlov’s Pacers. It’s got a nice ring to it…hey-o!

“Oh, hey.”

My legs learned to speak overnight and that’s what they came up with. It was more of the “oh, hey” you would say in an awkward run-in with an ex-girlfriend. I asked them how they were doing. “Fine, ” they responded “and you?” “Oh, good. Everything’s good.” We could both see through our lies. I was exhausted and my legs were beat like tenderized meat ready to be thrown on an open flame. I just hope I seasoned them to my competitors liking. I finished the tempo and met up with CK at DB’s car as we all dressed up in our race kit. As per usual, we walked to the starting line in our “The Runner” singlets.

“Run smart. Be in control of your race.” Words that would later be thrown out the window like a gnawed-down apple core on the highway.

“Runners, set!”

…I honestly have no clue what came next. It could have been the artillery cannon from a military tank that started our race for all I know. All I do know is that the race started and before we could make the first turn I was already behind the leader, who was following a police motorcycle. Trying to stay composed, I worked to get up with him. Not happening. He made sure to get things started early, so I worked for the first half mile to get up with him. I finally managed to get shoulder to should with him and we stayed that way for a bit. Immediately I felt a sense of relief. Not in terms of effort, but for so many years I have been running I have never really had a race. As dumb as that sounds, hear me out. Generally there isn’t this whole “duking it out” ordeal in a road race. At least none that I have been in…well, except one. It’s a rare occurrence and I was just glad to finally be running -no- competing shoulder to shoulder with someone. I digress. Remember my plan? Me neither, as I pulled ahead of the leader at -coincidentally- the 3/4 mile mark. I wasn’t used to running alongside a competitor in a road race, so my natural instinct was to try and start slowly testing his comfort zone. I was half-stepping him as if it were taught in a textbook. I just couldn’t get too far ahead. I mean that in two ways: I couldn’t get too eager and blow the race within the first mile, and I literally couldn’t get too far ahead of him. He stuck on me.

Just before we got to the mile, out of nowhere an over-sized pickup truck came blasting down the trail towards where we were about to turn. Going from 30mph to 0 in about 2.5 seconds may not have seemed like a big deal to him, as he all-knowingly pointed in the direction of where we were to go despite there being three volunteers, but what he didn’t see was the wall of dust he brought with him. We made a right turn past the truck and our mouths were immediately filled with the chalky dust that was made to stay on ground. “Chrissakes!” I screamed (to myself). I hadn’t had anything to drink after my tempo run before the race and it wasn’t exactly humid out that day, so my mouth was beyond dry. Trying to focus past the dust I could see the red LED’s from timer at the mile marker. In the distance I could barely see it counting up “4:33, 4:34, 4:35…” “Chrissakes!” I thought again knowing full well I didn’t need to be taking out as fast as I did. We came through the first mile in the low 4:50’s, which isn’t blazing, but still took a bit of effort. After the mile one we hopped on the gravel trail and I pulled ahead by a step, maybe two. I was digging a hole conveniently big enough for my body to lie in after the race, if need be. I did not need to be leading a guy who had presumably fresher legs than I did.

After a mile of leading, or more so trying not to be in second, my body finally gave a little bit. My breathing got more labored, and with that vital clue my competitor passed me. I thought I was done for. He had already put 15 feet on my by the time we reached mile two and by this point I was struggling to keep my legs moving. I started to feel a bit of cramping which caused me to over-analyze my breathing pattern and I spent too much time and energy figuring out a remedy for this worsening cramp. The gap had almost reached 20 feet as we passed by a group of walkers. “No, hang in there. He hasn’t completely dropped the hammer on you. He may not have more in the tank.” I watched as the gap remained the same. This eased my mind as I started to go back to basics: arm swing, check; run on top of your foot, check; just breathe, getting there; fire the glutes, trying. I made up my mind to not let him get away. “This is a race dammit. You were running shoulder to shoulder. Don’t let him get away with the win without giving it another go!” We passed by a water stop and I almost wanted a sip of water more than I wanted to keep running. I had tried to spit, but ended up spitting on my face and shoulder…we’ve all been there, right? It was truly a pitiful sight. I pressed on past the water station, strongly out of principle (you don’t need water if you are running a competitive 5k, I say).

His training partner beat me the previous week. I say he beat me, which he ultimately did, but that came from me dropping out of the race. It was my first 10k in a year and a half and I didn’t really have a strategy going in to the race. His training partner took us out in a 4:50 first mile and it was all uphill from there…or downhill…whichever is the worse of the two. He ended up running a PR, which made me happy. I was happy for him and I was also happy that the first mile wasn’t in vain. The main reason I dropped out was the severe cramping I got after the first mile. I couldn’t find a rhythm and something(s) started spasming…

Not again. I pressed hard. It hurt, and like most things that hurt, I knew it wouldn’t last forever. We crossed over the River and I had put myself back on his radar. I had to have. He made a hard left turn following the course, opening up his peripheral view to the bridge I was on. He had to have seen movement. I began to slowly reel him in. Or, maybe I was just slowing down the slowest. We were both dying, I know it. Our pace had been steadily decreasing each mile and we both train through our races. Hell, this race was part of my training. Well, at least it was supposed to be until I started racing. We passed mile three in just over 15 minutes. Soon after he made a right turn and started a short, steep ascent up to the 7th St. bridge.

Oh, god, did that hurt. It was as if someone was pushing down on my knees, preventing me from moving up the hill. I almost fell apart. My form had almost completely deteriorated until something popped in my mind. A distant mantra from the hills I used to train on: Heel to but, bring the knee up, fire the glute. As quickly as I lost speed, I started to find my rhythm again. In that short amount of time, I went from 15-20 feet to 10 feet. We reached the top and rounded two corners. That left us running across the aesthetically pleasing 7th St. bridge. Passing by some walkers gave me an idea of how fast we were going. Fast. We had both sped up and were in our top remaining gears. 5 feet from him.

It clicked. I found the form I had been working tirelessly on. My knee drive was adequate, but more importantly all of my extensor muscles were firing. My body rode my legs like a thoroughbred and I rolled past the leader. I was committed. I knew we had at least another 1/4 mile left in the race, but I didn’t want him to start his kick with me behind him. I took control of the race and dammit I was going to make this son of a bitch work for it. I knew he could beat me, but often times you have to take a risk to prove something to yourself and to test your will.

I flew down the hill and really started to pour it on.

“Break 18 minutes!! Come on!!”

Huh? What is this guy talking about? I continued my kick in agony when all of the sudden I ran past a chute of people. I look up and I see red LED’s “17:52, 17:53, 17:5…” I kept pressing. I don’t think I have been more confused and disappointed to finish. “These people are really wanting a good finish if they are lining up 300m before the finish!” Before I could comprehend what was going on I ran about 50ft past the finish line, still some-what expecting to continue the race towards Montgomery Plaza. “You’re done! Good job! Don’t you want your necklace.” Mindlessly, I took the finisher necklace. Hell yeah I want free stuff. Wait, how was that 6k? Why did we stop? The race announcer specifically said, “Run all the way through the Luke’s Locker banner (tunnel, arch, something). All I saw was a clock and some mats on a sidewalk. I started walking through the rest of the chute. Second place, who should have beaten me in the last 1/4 mile-that-never-was briefly congratulated me and started his cool down; the guy runs 100 miles/week! I was offered water, which couldn’t have been considered one of the highlights of my day, and walked back down towards the finish line. I cheered in DB. I sat down near a fountain, just absolutely wrecked. I waited and cheered in CK. All of The Runner(s) have finished – time to party.

Did you know that your race entry allows you to drink and eat as much as you want?? Good stuff. I hung around my friends and my competitor the rest of the night, sharing mostly running stories, race thoughts, jokes, and the occasional beer. I was called on stage to receive my award, which -unbeknownst to me- was a 10th Anniversary Friends of the River Belt Buckle! I was very excited about that (now I don’t have to run the Western States 100miler!!! [yet]) and also pretty buzzed by this point. I friendly cheers to all from the stage and I continued my night.

If I took anything away from this experience, it would be learning how to be tougher. Not just for a few moments, but for a whole race. I may fairly quick runner, but I am not always tough.

“Never give up. Never surrender.” – Galaxy Quest. Love that movie.

Another day done, another race won. That, ladies and gents, was how the West was won. Duels, Dust and Belt Buckles.