Today was probably my last running race of the year, and one of the most memorable. We were in Columbus for the Ohio State Four Miler, an inaugural event benefiting the Urban and Shelley Meyer Fund For Cancer Research. The big draw for this race was that it finished in The ‘Shoe, at the fifty-yard line of Ohio Stadium!
For me, it was less of a race and more of a fun run, because I was there primarily to support Katie, as she tackled her longest race distance to date. My recurring hip injury that ended my chances at a fourth consecutive PR at my last half marathon means that I haven’t trained much. I wouldn’t be able to put in my best effort without risk of aggravating the injury, so it was better for me to stay with Katie, and help her through her race however I could.
The forecast for the morning called for breaking clouds and cool temperatures, but neglected to mention the wind. It whipped through the buildings of the OSU campus and froze just about everybody. We arrived an hour before the start, and spent most of it huddling together behind whatever wind break we could find, trying in vain to stay warm.
This being an inaugural event, it was not without logistical problems. There was no race-day packet pickup, which is a huge oversight for a race guaranteed to draw a lot of attention from out of town. Had I not already been in Columbus on unrelated business earlier in the week, this could have been a bigger problem for us. Then there was the start, which simply was never designed to accommodate the sellout crowd of ten thousand runners and walkers. For some incomprehensible reason, the race organizers decided to do a wave start, perhaps with the intention of creating some space between the groups of people and mitigate the traffic. But it didn’t work at all, and the result was that we stood around for a half hour after the first wave went off, waiting on our turn, and got to spend most of the race weaving in and out of people anyway.
Growing pains aside, the excitement in the mob in the start corral was undeniable. It was a very different race from your local, garden-variety 5k, and the profile and size of the event was impressive. Members of the OSU football team and staff were present, including Brutus, both to help marshal the event and to run in it!
Katie made the reasonable decision to start in a conservative place in the queue, by a sign which was supposed demarcate runners with an expected pace of 11:00/mile. When it was finally our turn to start (we were the last wave), her nerves hit the firewall. She had recently completed the same distance on a treadmill, but that isn’t quite the same thing, and she was worried about how she’d do. Her concerns were the same as every runner when they approach a new race, and aren’t sure what to expect from the distance, and from themselves.
We settled into an easy jog when we finally got across the starting line, our pace regulated by the sheer volume of walkers and other traffic we had to navigate. As the mob spilled out of the bottleneck at the start onto Woody Hayes Drive, we started to make some headway, passing other runners by the dozens and finding what would become our pace. The exertion was welcome, as it started to thaw our numb and frozen feet and hands. I felt my legs warm up and start to come in, but was careful to restrain them enough to let Katie dictate our speed.
The sun started to break through the morning overcast as we finished our first mile, and I kept coaching Katie through as best I could, offering encouragement and pointing out how nice the morning was becoming. I know from training and racing together over the past few years that her mindset is everything, so the more cheerful I could keep her, the easier the run would be for her. That seemed to work well, and we cleared the first two miles before we knew it, before turning onto College Road for the zigzag back to the finish.
The third mile was the toughest for Katie, but she did the right thing, which was to dial back the pace until she was sure she could maintain it, and then just keep going. I got my phone out and started checking our distance, to keep her engaged with how much time and distance was left to go. That helped focus and reassure her, and soon we were on our last mile, and picking up speed again.
We turned west on Woody Hayes again, headed back to the Shoe, and the finish. As the stadium came into view, the allure of the finish, and a personal victory, spurred Katie forward, and soon we were sailing past people at a solid clip. The pace quickened further when we turned alongside the stadium, and by the time we angled into the tunnel to enter the field, we were at a dead run. I couldn’t stay next to her any more, as the crowd was still too dense, and so we careened separately through the masses like a police chase through rush hour traffic. She was the very face of determination, and I that of the adoring fan, and I was doing everything I could to get back next to her before we crossed the finish.
The flood of emotion that came over her as she reached the line is all too familiar, to me. All of her struggles, and setbacks, and postponed dreams, all of the hard work, the sweat, the pain, the personal sacrifice that this whole year has embodied came over her in a rush. Once she knew she could finish, she felt nothing from her body but the insatiable desire to go faster, to get to that line. Nothing was going to stop her this time, not aching feet or painful hips or sinus infections or strained muscles. She exploded across the finish line in tears of joy and relief, and was soon sobbing on my shoulder.
I, on the other hand, was beaming. I’ve always been proud of Katie, but she really rocked it this time, and for the first time in a running event, success was never in doubt. She went out there and conquered this race, and in convincing fashion. I couldn’t be more impressed, and I can’t wait to see what next season holds for her, as she continues to train and get stronger and faster.
Being an athlete in your spare time is incredibly difficult. Juggling the schedules of work, family, your personal life and physical training sometimes leaves no time at all for relaxation. If I was the only one in the house doing it, things would be even harder. But having my wife and best friend to share in the daily struggles involved with trying to become an athlete, and then trying to become a better one, makes everything better, richer, and easier. We coach each other and learn from each other on a daily basis, and neither of us would have come as far as we have without the other.
This year, more than ever, Katie has taught me how to fight. She set a goal at the beginning this year to run a half marathon, and was on schedule to do so until injuries stalled her progress. She was forced to back down from her goal for this year, but she never used that as an excuse to quit. Her attitude through all the struggles she’s faced this year has been my own quiet inspiration. She knows to never mistake “not yet” for “no,” and that sometimes a tactical delay can lead to strategic victories. She has demonstrated the power of persistence, and has kept coming no matter how many times life has kicked her in the face. She’s never thrown up her hands in surrender to a problem, as I am so often tempted to. Watching her succeed, as I’ve been privileged to to all year, is better than any race performance I have ever turned in.
Great job, Katie. I can’t wait to see what you’ll do next year.