I’d waited two years to run the Steamtown Marathon, a wonderful mid-sized race held in Scranton, Pa. Trained since the winter, peaking at 45 miles a week twice. The morning of the race, people around me murmured and stretched, but all things considered, I felt oddly calm.
I spent the time tweaking the songs on my iPod’s running playlist and deciding at what point in the race I would start listening to my audio version of A Scanner Darkly.* Running alone,I planned to tune out my surroundings and any pain.
But then an unusual thing happened, something I hadn’t planned on. Two miles into the race, I noticed a man running next to me, our strides perfectly matching. “Seems like we’re running the same pace,” he said neutrally.
“I think you’re right,” I replied, still looking ahead.
“How fast are we running anyway?”
“Clocked the first two miles at about 8:30 pace,” I said. “I’m trying to not go out fast, just be very conservative.”
“Oh. I trained 11-minute miles on a treadmill.”
This struck me as curious. Why would he run so much faster than his training pace? How could he? Turns out that he’d prepared in an almost zen way, logging slow, easy miles on the treadmill in his basement, finishing with a four-hour, 21-mile long run a week ago. Instead, I’d followed a plan in a Runner’s World magazine, studied the course layout, and strategized fueling and hydration.
We had a lot in common: both laid off during the recession, two young kids at home, and happily employed at new jobs. Dave worked as a fork lift operator, four ten-hour days a week.
And so it went, twenty miles vanishing as we talked. Eventually we decided to cross the finish line together, to greet our families and introduce them to one another. At the halfway point, we were on pace for a 3:50 marathon. I was optimistic that we both had a solid second half left. That was half right, it turned out.
“Mile 18. Want to pick it up?” he asked.
My hip muscles, fatigued from ten miles of downhill running, had only grown weaker with the uneven surface of a rails-to-trails path. “I’m not sure I have that in me, Dave.”
“Ok, buddy. I’m going to stay with you. Just tell me what you need. We can go faster, we can slow down.”
At mile 22, I was counting down the distance left and feeling weaker every step. I kept telling myself not to slow down, but dehydration and heat exhaustion had set in—I shivered in the shade and felt burning hot in the sun.
Finally, at mile 23, I told Dave to go ahead so I could walk and drink more fluids.
“You’re my wing man. I’m staying with you,” he said.
“You have a better race ahead,” I said. “Please go.”
He protested, but finally agreed. “You don’t want to tell your family that you didn’t finish,” he reminded me before moving ahead.
Between mile 23 and 25, I drank Gatorade and water, and divided my time between running and walking. You only have a couple miles. You can make it, I thought. Come on! Run! Slowly, but surely I found myself jogging again.
The final 1.2 miles I ran until I reached a three-block hill in Scranton that looked like a climb on a roller coaster. I can’t remember how I made it up that monster, but I heard someone nearby yell, “That’s the finish just over the hill, Mr. Muscles! Keep going!”
The final fifth of mile came after the crest of the hill. I saw an older man crumpled next to a car with medical staff nearby. I eyed the finish line and put everything I had left into moving forward by any means necessary.
The crowds were cheering and I looked everywhere as I ran. I caught sight of my wife and kids, then my sister and her family. I pointed at them and burst over the finish line.
After receiving a finisher’s medal, I folded in to a chair and sat there for a long time under a shiny space blanket. Then I saw my family and everyone was all smiles. That’s when it dawned on me that I’d made it.
Still, I couldn’t figure out where Dave had finished. I hope he ran equal halves and crossed better than four hours, but I can’t be sure. I only hope that he was as happy to see his biggest fans as I was.
Here’s a video of my finish:
Official Race Time: 4:08:17
* This might be the first race recap in history that mentions Phillip K. Dick.