Harrisburg is one of those little hidden gems. It’s supposedly a flat course with a low entry fee and some decent goodies including a wind-shirt in lieu of a cotton t-shirt and an insane amount of Hershey’s candy (score!!) It’s local for those of us within driving distance of PA and it’s small, two attributes that make a race more appealing to me. It even had race day packet pickup, which, if you don’t know what that means, it means you can save the cost of a hotel stay. MCM was a distant memory and I had yet to ever go to Harrisburg so I figured why not?
I got up early Sunday morning and made the 2+ hour trek. The website said packet pickup was available at a nearby hotel. I arrived with about 40 minutes to spare only to find out the website was wrong and I needed to get to the starting line which would require a ride on the free shuttle. Except that I had just missed the last one. As a result, I was left with a slight bit of dread and relief. Often when I’m starting to wear out, I tend to jump into these last minute races with a certain sense of confidence that quickly wanes once race day arrives. I thought that if I couldn’t make it to the start, then I couldn’t run and if I couldn’t run, then I’d have a great excuse for backing out. I didn’t feel bad, I just didn’t feel great. I also had decided, once again, to try something new on race day which was proving to be a bad decision.
The day before I had made a trip to my local running shop. I was looking for gloves but also some wisdom on running with the shin splints I had picked up right after Marine Corps. I had run 7 miles that morning with my marathon training group and had tried a technique called “taping” where strategically placed strips of heavy white medical tape help to support the leg and mask the pain. I had painstakingly watched shin splint taping videos and taped up my achy leg and much to my surprise, it worked. Of course, I wasn’t convinced it would work for 26 miles. It was great for 7 flat ones but who was I to assume that I could quadruple that mileage without issues? So it was with great excitement that I picked up a pair of compression sleeves for my legs and decided to follow the advice of a rail thin, fresh faced teenager who looked like he’d never set foot on any surface outside of a high school track. He said “you can fly in these – they’re awesome!” So, Sunday morning, I taped my leg and squeezed these incredibly small tubes of heavy elastic over my bandages and figured that the inability to move my foot would wane as I started the race. I hopped in my car and took off for Harrisburg.
Upon arriving and realizing I had missed the last bus and would undoubtedly need a cab, I did what every jittery marathoner does – I walked into the glass door, dropped my sunglasses, spilled my purse and finally earned the pity of the hotel receptionist who told me that another guest was on his way down, having already called for a cab and would most likely be willing to split it with me. I firmly believe that the receptionist was charmed by my hot pink outfit and matching knee-length argyle socks and thus, volunteered this information. The socks were serving two purposes – one, they were getting a test run since I was planning on wearing them to Space Coast at the end of the month to pace in, and two, they were covering up the hideous compression sleeves, which by this time, had squeezed my calves into two tubes of human sausage. My feet weren’t feeling great but by this point, I wasn’t paying attention and ended up jumping into a cab with an older guy who was also “braced up” in several knee and ankle accoutrements. He was trying to qualify for Boston, a race he never had the pleasure of making it to and in his quest, chose Harrisburg specifically for its reputation as a “flat fast course”. We chatted a bit and parted ways, he in dire need of stretching, me in dire need of all my stuff. Luckily I found everything including my number and chip about 10 minutes before the start time and breathed a sigh of relief. I lined up in the starting corral and realized that at that moment, my legs were already hurting. I had been wearing these sleeves now for well over 3 hours and we hadn’t even started yet. Once again, the thought of ditching the race last minute crept into my mind but I was snapped out of that mindset by a nice young woman who loved my socks and wanted to discuss them.
The gun went off and we were on our way. Immediately I knew I had made one hell of a mistake. At mile marker 1 I stopped – the tops of my calves were throbbing and the pain was intense. I was able to adjust a bit and hobble on. For the first time, I really, really wanted to turn around and call it a day but I couldn’t. The problem was I stood out. I rarely stand out in a race, usually choosing to blend rather than draw too much attention to myself. I have never worn my name on my chest, never put on a costume nor a wig, never run in something silly. But today of all days, I had chosen to wear the brightest and most energetic girlie outfit I could find. I even had a bow in my hair. There was no way I was wandering off this course without someone noticing, especially since several runners had also witnessed my attempted graceful hotel exit earlier. No, I was in this one for the long haul.
At some point, my cab friend surged by me. I knew what he was doing was utterly foolish, after all, he had never run any faster than a 4:24 and he needed a 4:15. I wanted to say something to him but I didn’t. Instead I kept my mouth shut, bitter and annoyed at my own foolishness in wearing shoes that were not broken in enough and socks that had cut off some major blood flow to an area of my body that I needed it the most. I was not flying by any stretch of the imagination. I kept trudging ahead, managing to maintain around an 8:50 pace. I knew I wouldn’t PR today and I knew I’d be tired but I didn’t realize how bad I would feel. I haven’t had a bad race day since last fall, so in some ways, I was due one. They’re good to have from time to time as a reminder that no one is invincible, no one can “fly” all the time. Bad days are what keep me grounded.
Somewhere around 11 or 12 I decided that perhaps a walk would do me some good and that’s when one of those little events occurred that changes things. Typically these are the types of things that if ignored, don’t have any adverse effect but when heeded, can change everything. That “thing” would be Robert Crowe, an older man who was wearing a ratty green 10k racing cotton t-shirt, worn out shorts and a pair of sneakers that looked like they may have been new sometime around the time I was in 8th grade. Robert came up behind me and said “now those are some nice socks!” I muttered thank you, figuring it was just an annoying old man trying to make conversation. Of course, he didn’t stop there. “Now you can do better than walk. Come on, keep running – you can do it!” I hissed that I was “trying” in that way people say things when they’re holding back a mouthful of vitriolic rage. I was trying to appear happy and content with what I was doing, knowing fully that the stranger wishing me well was right, yet I had no desire to admit it.
So I started running and caught up with him. We began conversing – it was better than staying focused like a laser on my achy legs and I find that when I run with someone that I can talk to, I’ll be more likely to finish, especially when I have very little left in the tank. For the remainder of the race which was more than half, we went back and forth both in conversation and in stride, he occasionally surging ahead, me getting in front of him, see-sawing back and forth until the last 2 miles, always saying something encouraging or just taking the moment to pat each other on the shoulder. It was at this point I realized that I was now in some serious pain and it wasn’t the kind that would just go away. Something was amiss in my legs and even my knees started buckling, almost as if suspended by some invisible puppeteer’s hands. Robert, though, would not let me stop. I didn’t have the heart to tell him my legs hurt – after all, this man had spent most of his life running (he was 62) and had not qualified for Boston in 10 years. He wanted it, badly, and he knew that at mile 24 at 3:32, we could make it in under 4 hours (his Boston qualifying time requirement). But he wouldn’t do it alone so he kept slowing up, yet still pushing me for about half a mile. Finally, I stopped, yanked those sleeves down to my ankles and said if Robert can do this at 62, I can do this. I had kept him going from 12 to 24. He was now returning the favor. So I sucked in a deep breath and started running (and it did feel better – my legs could breathe!) At 25 there is a very steep switchback up to an iron bridge. I tapped him on the back and together we ran. Halfway across the bridge his hamstring blew out. He started limping. I knew I couldn’t finish without him so I stayed, by his side, hand-in-hand, and we "ran" (really, we hobbled) in together, just under 4 hours. He hugged me and said he was grateful. Ironically, at that moment, I was too.... perhaps more so than he because we both had a lesson in why we run. However, mine held more hubris and in the end, it’s humility that keeps us grounded even when we think we can fly.
So Robert, this post is for you. You flew.