Photo credit: Melissa Ruse at @SweetMimages
A return to the desert for the BMO Phoenix Marathon. Five days before I had toed the line for a 12k in Honolulu with Sergio Reyes, a US Marathon Champion, and one of the best marathoners in the country. It came down to the very end. I made the mistake of letting him go, thinking to myself that he had attacked too early. I instantly regretted the decision as I saw him pull away and cross the finish line ahead of me.
Friday, I had spent the entire day on my feet working in a neurological rehab facility in Flagstaff. My legs ached, but I was continually reminded of the pettiness of my own complaints as I witnessed the courage & hell-bent determination of the patients who struggled before my eyes.
I was still sore when I arrived in Phoenix the night before the marathon with mama bear @scatudal & our three little bears. Racing on roads will push your limits. Chasing down a pay check on roads will punish you & stretch those limits beyond what you ever imagined possible.
I was tired. To be honest, I didn’t want to race. It probably wasn’t the smartest move, but this is a blue collar lifestyle. Like any other job that is based on manual labor, you don’t always wake up excited for the day to start. But, just like any other blue collar job, you do it anyway because your life & the life of those you love depends on it. As far as I could tell, I didn’t really have much choice in the matter.
We roll into a drive through to grab some food for the girls. “Can I please have some French fries mommy?” Harper asks. “No sweet heart, we don’t have enough money.” Steph responds. “What do you mean?” Harp counters, surprised that her polite request had been denied. “Like, we literally have zero dollars in our bank account right now Harp. We have enough cash from my tips the other night to buy gas to get back home to Flagstaff after the race, but that’s all.” Steph explained. “Well…what are we going to do then?” Harp prodded, concern in her voice. “Daddy’s gonna win some money tomorrow sweet heart.” Steph stated confidently.
“Welp…I guess that settles it.” I think to myself.
A 4:00 am wake up call. I shiver my way onto the bus. “How fast are you hoping to run? My eager seat mate asks. “Not quite sure.” I respond with a sheepish smile. In my mind though I respond to myself, “As slow as possible, but as fast as I have to. Hopefully East Africa sleeps in. That will help.” “You hoping to get that BQ….Boston Qualifier?” He prods. “I hope so.” I respond, “You?” “Hell yeah man!” He yells. I smile and nod approvingly.
My numb hands fumble with breakfast – a king size Take 5 bar, an Arizona Tea, a half a box of stale Caramel Apple flavored Mike n’ Ikes that were 50% off when I bought them two months ago before the Honolulu Marathon, two tootsie pops, and a Red Bull. In my hand is a 400 calorie flask of First Endurance gel that will serve as all of my nutrition once the gun goes off. I stay in the bus until 15 minutes before the start, find a porta potty, then strip down at the bag drop with 3 minutes to go.
I try to calm my shivering as I step up to the start line. I am hoping for an easy effort. 2:40 would feel wonderful, but I know it’s naïve. I glance to my left & the sight feels like a fist to the middle of my chest. “You have got to be kidding me.” I mumble out loud as I see two of the Eritrean runners who were at the Rock n Roll Phoenix Marathon a few weeks before, and one more Ethiopian runner who boasts a marathon best that is nearly 10 minutes faster than my own PR.
I covered my face in my shivering hands and took a deep breath, trying to convince myself that it wasn’t real; that I had just seen a ghost – or 3, and that I was still going to be able to cruise my way to the pay check Steph had promised the little girls.
“Those french fries aren’t going to come as easily as I had hoped.” I think. I close my eyes and take a few deep breaths. “Ok.”…(Deep sigh)…“Let’s do this.”
The gun goes off and the four take a commanding lead. I sneak behind, watching their moves, slowly working my way up. We cruise through 5 miles before they notice me. One glances back and catches my eye. He turns and says something to the others. They all look back and immediately slow the pace. I catch up and am forced to take the lead. They surround me and cover every move I make. “It’s on boys.” I mumble to myself.
I glance at my watch as we roll through the half marathon in 1:08 low. I feel good. Eminem has retreated to some far corner in my brain. Instead I find myself audibly mumble words and humming tunes as I alternate between “Wait for it” and “Dear Theodosia” from Hamilton. Not that I’m not just as intent on winning as I had been when I raced these same guys a month ago, but today my mind is calm, my lens is positive, and the burden of rage that so possessed me has somehow been lifted.
By mile 16 there are only 3 of us left.
We roll through mile 20 having averaged 5:12 per mile up to that point.
The mood begins to shift. We take turns leading and analyze one another’s movements, looking for signs of weakness. I push to the lead and make a move. It’s instantly covered. The other two take their turns at the front and I respond, not allowing the invisible chain to be severed.
We approach mile 21 and the course makes a sharp left hand turn. Just as we approach a car drives over the cones and finds itself directly in our path. To my right I am boxed in by the two other runners. To my left is a car whose driver is clearly not amused by the spectacle. Just beyond the two runners I see a line of 10 police officers congregated together in an attempt to control the traffic. It happens in an instant. I hear one of the officers yell as the scene plays out before me, “Lady what the hell is your problem!? There is a race going on! Those cones were put there for a reason.” Flanked between the car and the two other runners I feel trapped. I keep moving directly towards the car. “He’s going for it!” I hear another officer yell to his partner. “He’s gonna do it!” He yells as I get closer to the car. Exerting as little amount of effort as possible, I jump and take two steps across over the top of the car before jumping back down and directing my eyes down the road. I shake my head and chuckle uneasily to myself when I hear the officer yell as I pass, “F*** yeah man! Get it!” I fall back into a rhythm, relieved that the officers were on my side and that I wasn’t arrested in the middle of a race.
I take the lead and make a push. I turn to my left and make eye contact with both of my pursuers. “Let’s go! I say, motioning to each with my hands to keep pushing. I look back down the road and continue to press.
Around the next corner I glance behind and see it’s down to two of us. The Eritrean, Naamn Weldyohans, has fallen off the back. The Ethiopian, Teklu Deneke, notices it too and pushes to the front just to my left. I jump on his move and go with him. I match his stride and pull up next to him. “Keep pushing man!” I calmly say to him. “If we go under 2:19 we both get a bonus.” I continue. “Bonus!?” He asks, his eyes lighting up. “How much?” “An extra $500 each. Let’s go man!” I respond clapping the back of my right hand against the palm of my left. He makes another push, his on the road in front of him. He glances back after 50 meters and catches my eye, “Bonus, bonus.” he says, motioning me forward with his head. There is a brief moment of unity and sense of team. If we can push each other along, we can collectively earn an extra $1000 from a large bank. That kind of wealth redistribution doesn’t keep me up at night. I don’t have to wonder if my winning and providing for my own family means a scarcity within in another family, or the absence of funds being wired across the world to an extended family in an impoverished country in political turmoil.
I make a slight push and Teklu and I continue side by side.
A sharp right turn appears in front of us right next to an aid station which congested with half marathon runners on the same course.
I see an opening and make a slight move to my right to grab a cup and continue around the corner. Teklu stays left just ahead of me. I reach out my right to grab a cup just as a stout female runner from the half marathon darts to her left, directly in front of me. We collide in a full body check, my chest square against her back. Her head snaps back in whiplash as her body flies forward onto the ground. In an instant I’m torn between two worlds – to my left I glance Teklu who has witnessed the whole thing. It is as if time is standing still. I see his eyes register the scene and in the same stride, they spread wide as if possessed with the impromptu opportunity, glance down the road, and attack. I see him make the move and glance back at the woman on the ground. I gesture an apology with my hands and eyes then fix my stare on Teklu’s back. “You have to go now, or it’s over.” I whisper to myself.
“Don’t let him break you.” I continue, my own voice morphing into a scream. “He won’t keep this pace up. It’s too soon. Go! He’s getting away from you. Don’t let him go! Come on man! Push. He’s still right there. If he breaks you right now it’s over. Go! Come on man, go!”
Teklu pushes and doesn’t back down. He is still close enough that I can see his eyes as he glances back around the corners. There is a perfect balance of fear and determination – as if he is running for his life, but as if it is he is perfectly suited for it.
We run through the next mile. My own split reads 4:56 and yet Teklu has somehow put nearly 40 meters on me. “You have got to be kidding me.” I whisper. “He went to soon.” I reassure myself. “Just hang on, he’ll blow up, but you have to be close enough to make a decisive move as soon as you see it in his legs, and when you go, it has to be a solid push until you cross the finish.”
We pass mile marker 25. “6 minutes left.” I whisper. “He’s right there. Let’s go boy.” Yet as I try to move, my legs rage back. Both hamstrings begin to tie up. My quads begin to cramp, and my calves feel as if they’ve shut off completely. “Come on guys!” I whisper to my legs. “Just a few more minutes!” I implore. But they calmly respond back. “Sorry dude, that’s all we’ve got. We’re shutting down for the day.”
I keep my eyes forward and watch as Teklu pulls away. I muscle my way through the next few minutes, fighting with every step to stay upright. I see the overhead clock shift from 2:17:59 to 2:18:00 as Teklu crosses the line. “Damn.” I whisper. I cross the finish line. My legs give out as I come to a stop. I lay there for a moment in quiet rage.
I hear familiar little voices asking, “Why is daddy on the ground.” In an instant my world comes colliding back together. My little bears climb over and under the barricade and are instantly at my side, giving me kisses and nursing my wounds.
Weldyohans crosses the finish line a few seconds later. All three of us under 2:19. All three of us earning the much needed $500 bonus from the Bank of Montreal.
“So daddy, even though you got beat, could we still get some French fries?” Asks a little voice.