We'd spent the April school vacation week in Atlanta and were heading back on Saturday mid-day. I'd found a 5K race at my alma mater, and e-mailed to confirm that race-day registration would be okay. I received a response telling me that yes, it would be fine, and that I should get there in time for the 9:00 am start. I thanked the person, since the web site info said that the race started at 8:00 am.
I left my sister's place at around 7:30, stopped for coffee, a scone and the New York Times, and I arrived just a minute or so before 8:00, figuring I had a half-hour to relax and then another half-hour to warm-up. As I reached the registration table, a woman said, "Just in time." Before I could ask what she meant, I heard a megaphone-amplified call for all runners to take their marks. I was a bit shocked, threw my stuff down, ran a couple of strides to get my blood flowing and made my way down the hill to the start area, and took a place in the second row (where I usually plant myself, given that I'm not slow, but certainly not fast.
About 150 runners lined up, and - as you can see to the left - a young boy took off like a light. He lasted about 200 yards and peeled off the course.
Incidentally, I'd run the course once before, at my 10th college reunion, long before I became a "runner" and I remember the course being treacherously hilly. I set out at a brisk, but totally manageable, pace and before I realized it, I was in the lead pack with an older guy and a younger woman. The woman kept surging ahead and then falling behind, so I figured she was not much of a factor. The guy just kept hammering a steady pace. At the time, my "watch" was my iPod with a Nike+ SportKit, which I found to be consistently inaccurate during all races. So, not really knowing how fast I was running and not having marked miles, I knew only from having looked at the course map that the last mile was the same loop as the first one, with the big climb which I dreaded from 7 years earlier being in Mile 2.
The non-illustrious "lead pack" came out of the woods after the first mile, and I felt that I had another gear available, but was pretty gun shy about using it.
As we started up the hill in that dreaded second mile, I noticed first that it wasn't as bad as I remembered (having walked part of it last time) and then that I felt like I was running too slow, staying with my elder co-leader. So, I stepped up the pace, and left him behind on the hill.
If you've read this far, I should share with you that I became completely obsessive about running about 8 months before this race. I joined the local running club, bought all the gear I needed (and then some), read every training and running history book I could find, and otherwise immersed myself in my new sport. With all my knowledge, though, I had absolutely no frame of reference for what to do when leading a race. None. I was doubting even that I was leading, thinking someone else must have taken off so fast that I missed. Then I thought that the guy in second must know something about the course that I didn't, so he was saving himself.
This inner dialogue of shock, doubt and excitement might have slowed me down, or might have helped me dissociate enough to keep plugging ahead. At one point, I felt tired and thought I should stop to rest. Then I realized what I was proposing to myself and I decided to run as hard as I could for as long as I could. When I crested the last small hill and had about a half-mile to go, I started running like a man being chased by a pack of wild dogs. I forced myself NOT to look back, figuring that either this guy would or wouldn't catch me, but it wouldn't affect my effort either way.
So, when I saw the finish line and looked at my watch, my first feeling was disappointment, because it was clear I would not be breaking 20:00 (yes, I know, that's a darned slow winning time). I let up in the last steps and finished in 20:02. Looking back, I wonder why they did away with the finish line tape (which I saw in previous years' race photos).
For few minutes, I walked around in a bit of a daze, knowing I needed to do a cool-down and trying to process what had just happened. I trotted around for a mile-and-a-half or two and then came back over to food and festivities area. During that run, I pondered the lesson of the day: perhaps it's not necessary to overthink things, as I often tend to do. With no warm-up or race strategy, I managed to win. Why? Because I'd been running a lot and was getting faster. I'd done the work, and was able to perform on race day. Well, that, and the fact that mostly slow people showed up for this event. :-)
I knew no one there, and realized from some comments that it looked like I was some "ringer" who'd jumped in at the last minute to claim the $100 worth of prizes. I wanted to explain it to everyone, that I was just a lucky schmo who happened to be in the right place at the right time. I waited around in the crisp morning sunshine until they'd conducted a raffle where nearly every person there won something and had given out all the age group awards. Since many people knew each other, there was a lot of cheering, that is until they announced my name as the overall men's winner. Utter silence followed.
I still managed to walk up with a big smile and accept my award from running legend Gayle Barron, winner of the Peachtree Road Race and Boston Marathon. As much as I hate to admit it, I believe that this is almost certainly my first and last overall race victory. As I told my sister when I returned with the shocking news, if I'd run a similar race back at home, I'd have been lucky to finish in the top 25. The following Saturday I did just that, and came in 24th.