Nov 19, 2010

The Nemesis

Erwin and I (with the Feller) at the finish line of the Buckeye Classic 10K, Sunday, November 14, 2010.

Last Sunday, my running buddy Erwin Capilitan and I bundled up against the cold and headed out to run the Buckeye Classic, an annual 10K event at nearby Highbanks Metro Park. It’s a beautiful woodland trail, particularly with the last of the fall foliage garnishing the trees and filling the gullies along the course. It’s also fairly challenging with a good number of hills—the inclines are all quite short, but many are quite steep. There’s even a set of wide wooden steps to climb at one point on the course. Erwin and I had spent the previous two Sunday mornings running the trail to get the lay of the land and develop a level of comfort with the course in advance of the race.

This race was the first one where I had set an actual time goal for myself. I’d had other goals in other runs, but they’d never really been related to a finish time. With the Turkey Trot, the goal was to run the entire way—no walking. With the San Francisco Marathon, the goal was simply to finish. Granted, there was a time constraint to finishing that one, but the primary focus was on the completion rather than a particular goal time. The last race before this one, the Panerathon in August, was mainly about getting back into the running life. But with the Buckeye Classic, I finally had a specific time I wanted to beat. I’d set a goal to finish in under an hour. I’d trained pretty consistently and had seen my times improve, so as we gathered at the starting line with over 500 other runners, I was pretty confident I could make my goal.

With the family at the starting line. No, that's not a headscarf I'm wearing. I wasn't sure whether and Babs and the Feller would make it to the starting line on time due to the parking situation, so I threw the complimentary long-sleeved race t-shirt they gave me around my neck, planning to run with it if I needed to.

And we're off!

Overall, the run was pretty good. I found maybe the second mile a little tough—a lot of the hills were in that stretch, and the last mile or so was a little stressful, as the clock ticked ever closer to the sixty-minute mark. I was moving a little slower than I’d anticipated and I was a little worried I might not be able to finish in time. But physically, the run was not bad at all. The big challenge for me was to keep focused on the goal I’d set and not allow myself to get sidetracked with more petty and prideful competitions.

Erwin looking strong as he completes the first mile.

Here I come, finishing mile number 1. Little do I know that already my nemesis is breathing down my neck.

It seems that in almost every race, I have a nemesis—some stranger on the course that I tell myself for no good reason, that I “should” be able to beat. And it shames me to admit this, but usually that nemesis is a woman. I pride myself on being the least sexist of men, but the embarrassing truth is that there is still a part of me that doesn’t want to get “beat by a girl.” But God keeps reminding me that such archaic and patronizing notions really are nonsense, because in every race I’ve ever run, I’ve been beaten—soundly--by a girl. It was Judith at the first Turkey Trot, Mai on our Suicide runs, thousands of women at the San Francisco Marathon, and last Sunday, it was the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt. I really didn’t notice her until the first time I caught up to her, kept pace with her for awhile and then passed her somewhere near the middle of the race. She had long brown hair tied back in a ponytail, a deep tan, and was wearing gray Capri-style sweats and the purple hoodie sweatshirt that would come to haunt me later in the race. She ran a steady pace without earphones, and was surely focused on her goals for the race. I’m sure she took no more notice of me than any of the other runners jockeying for position on the trail. Indeed, when I first passed her she was barely a blip on my radar too—one of the many runners I’d noted sharing the narrow, winding trail with me.

I really took notice of the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt when she suddenly reappeared in the last third of the race, passing me on my left.

“Whoah, where did she come from?” I wondered. There was nothing that I could sense about either of our paces that had suggested that she would catch up to me again, much less overtake me with such ease. Had I slowed down imperceptibly? I hadn’t stopped, not even walked. Had she been just a few lengths behind me the whole time and I hadn’t noticed? How had this happened? Ah, well, no matter. It should be a simple matter to keep pace with her anyway. After all, I can’t very well get beat by a. . . .

And there I was—drawn once again into a silly competitiveness, one that if I didn’t keep at bay might derail the legitimate goal I’d set for myself. Still, keeping up with her shouldn’t be that hard right? And it wasn’t. Until it was. Somehow, without even trying, my nemesis, the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt pulled ahead. I quickened my pace to try to keep up, but I couldn’t maintain it. If I pushed it, I’d wear myself out too soon and end up losing valuable minutes when I collapsed into a walk. I’d been training long enough to know that trying to keep up with her would take me outside of the pace I’d set for myself and endanger my goal.

Well, maybe she’ll just be a few paces ahead, I consoled myself. But no, she continued to move smoothly farther and farther ahead of me up the trail.

Well, I’ll just burn it out in the last mile and catch her then, I promised myself. But that plan went from improbable to impossible to pipe dream when she disappeared from view altogether. I knew it was time to let it go, to get back to the real goal—one that was not about besting others but about besting myself.

Whoosh! There she goes! It's a remarkable coincidence that Babs happened to capture my nemesis, the Woman in the Purple Sweatshirt, in this blurry photo. Still more amazing, when I looked more closely at Bab's photos, I realized she's everywhere. Look carefully, and you'll see that she's in every photo on this blog (except for the finish line photos, of course. She was long gone by then).

I never saw my nemesis again. Not even at the finish line, at the refreshment table, or milling with the other runners in the parking lot. It was as if my nemesis in purple was so much faster than me that she’d managed to collect her medal, down her post-race snack, drive home, and was probably curled up with a good book and a cup of hot cocoa at her home on the other side of Columbus, by the time I crossed the finish line at 57 minutes and 22 seconds.

Entering the home stretch. It felt so good to see Babs and our son waiting and cheering me on. It gave me just the boost I needed to give it an extra push in the final bit of the run. Ironically, they weren't at the finish line though. They waited with Erwin's wife, to see Erwin pass and he'd dropped about five minutes behind me. By the time they'd seen him go by and made a pit stop on the way back to the finish line, I was long done with the race.

J, Evelyn and their son came out to cheer me on as well. It was really nice to have them. Rachel, as well as Babs and the Feller out there to boost our morale. Afterward we all had a nice breakfast at Tim Horton's.

So the Woman in Purple notwithstanding, I achieved my goal. I’m grateful for my nemesis, though I’m sure she’ll never know it. I am not the humblest of men to begin with, but my nemesis and the others that have come before her, whether friends or strangers, help keep my head to a halfway decent size, my ego in check, and my feet firmly on the ground.

Don’t you find it ironic that my next race will be populated almost entirely by women? I’ll either go completely nuts surrounded by numberless nemeses, or perhaps I’ll finally recognize that the only nemesis on the course that really matters is. . .me.

With my inspirations! I met my goal of finishing in under an hour, and now I'm ready to strive for my next goal. I'd like to finish a half marathon in under two hours, but I may postpone that goal for the upcoming Disney Princess Marathon. My first priority there will be to cross the finish line with my cousin Yvette. We are running in honor of her mother (my aunt) who died of cancer five years ago. That may or may not involve finishing in under two hours, but that is of secondary of importance. The main thing on February 27 will be to run for Aunt Patsy and for all those working to find a cure for cancer.


Anonymous said...

ROFL!! So funny Sean! And we'll be there at the princess race cheering you on the whole way.

See you at the finish line!


Mai said...

Great post! I do think it's ironic/funny that your next event will be primarily with women :)

You have Tim Horton's in Ohio? You know that's Canadian, right? :D