After some hard fought miles I was finally running alone. The sound of the starter’s gun is still ringing in my ears and the race has really just begun. All the work, all the missed social engagements and all those lonely hours on the road was paying off. Battling two would be challengers for the better part of the race. I was finally in the lead of my home town race the Brownstown 5k. This race was just like any other run-of-the-mill 5k, but to me, it was unlike any other. At this race last year I failed. My body let me down. I burned out with the intensity of a solar flare. And this was the race I always wanted to win. Today not only was I in the lead but I was also pulling away. At the two mile marker the majority of the pack was left behind and by two and a half miles I finally separated myself from my two lone rivals. Out in front the open road was my only companion.
I had never noticed how quiet racing could be. Normally in the middle of the pack, there’s always noise. There is always distractions. The sound of breathing surrounds you. The rhythmic sound of countless pairs of running shoes impacting and griping the pavement runs along with you. And the nervous chatter as competitors talk amongst themselves encircles you. But up front, alone, and in the lead it’s quiet. The only sounds are those of my lungs filling with oxygen and exhaling. The sound of my shoes hitting the running surface and propelling me forward. And lastly the absence of sound as my inner voice encourages me. Compared to being sandwiched in the middle of the field it’s so peaceful running in the lead.
Running up front is different, then running in the middle of the pack. Up front you set the tempo. If you’re trying to win the race as I am today, you set a pace just a bit faster than everyone else. Leading the race means you get to see everything first, guiding the field behind you along the course. Running with the lead also means you have to make sure you follow all the correct twists and turns along the race course. Whereas in the pack you can safely play “follow the leader.” Up front you have to motivate yourself, push yourself and challenge yourself when there’s no one in front for you to chase. And today at this point in the race, the field was far enough behind me that no one was pushing from behind.
But what is THAT? As I glanced down to monitor my footfall a shadow appeared at my feet. At first it caught me off guard, was it a tree, or an animal, some kind of creature approaching me from behind? After further study the shape of this intruder registered in my brain. The shadow was a head of an approaching competitor running me down from behind. All my senses heighten, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and my skin became electric. My sense of hearing picked up on a sound, the soft cadence of someone approaching from behind. My heart rate quickens, and my nerves are rattled. I looked down once again and now even clearer, projected from behind, the looming silhouette of a runner. And this stranger was growing larger.
Now I’m sure, the shadow, the evil figure attempting to steal my victory was running at a pace that will surly over take me. My brain fires off signals that call for my accelerated heart rate and over juiced adrenaline to kick it up to a higher gear. My stride reaches out, my leg turn over quickens and the road beneath me speeds by ever faster. And yet the dark threat continues to loom and grows even larger. Now I can clearly see the shadow of the head and shoulders of the silent figure behind me. My flight or fight instincts kick in and now without even transmitting the thoughts my arm swing widens and my legs drive forward. I Pass a sign telling me I have less than two tenths of a mile left of this 5k. I vow that I will not let this menace who lives in the dark, who steals from behind, creep up and capture my day.
My eyes are fixed on the prize. Like a young boy hiding his head under the covers hoping that the monster just goes away; if I stop looking maybe the shadow will go away. But will power fails and curiosity forces me to look, in horror I see nearly a complete torso. In fear and panic I lean forward attempting to pull away from the ghost behind me. My foot strike quickens more. My heart is pounding. My lungs are on fire. I’ve got nothing left to give and the shadow grows larger still. Only 50 yards to go, and I’m in a dead sprint, my brain is lost, my body is maxed out and I’m almost home yet the pursuer gains an advantage with every effort I give to counter his attack. The finishers tape is just ahead, ten yards then five yards. I’m doing everything to pull ahead to keep the hunter at bay…and with a last push to the finish, I come home the winner.
I’m spent. I’m done. I’ve given everything I have and I’ve finished. The race is mine. I have won. Yet I wonder who nearly caught me, as I stumbled down the finishers chute collapsing into the arms of a volunteer, I ask, “who came in second?” With a mystified stare the young girl tells me, “no one, you’ve won the race and left the field in the dust.” “But who was behind me, who was I fighting off? WHO?” I ask, “Came in second?” The girl a bit confused tells me again, “Sir, no one, second place has not finished yet.” “But I saw his shadow, I saw a shadow of an approaching runner coming from behind, I fought him off for nearly half a mile where did that runner go?” The young volunteer looks at me, and smiles. “Sir, that shadow was you.”