The half marathon has been going on for nearly four hours. That’s not unusual.
Nobody has left. That’s unusual.
Back in the old days, 4 hours was the cutoff time for a marathon. Many years later, the mass of participants has resulted in increasing times and waning interest for the later finishers. Until today.
The race team had a genius idea. They’re giving away prizes to 10 people in a raffle. There aren’t that many people in the race, so odds are pretty good. And it’s not a $10 gift certificate to Marlene’s Frangrances that you’ll never actually go to. It’s just a hundred dollars in cash. A HUNDRED BUCKS! 10 PEOPLE! SIGN ME UP! The catch? The raffle won’t start till the last runner finishes.
As I continue to get slower, I’m fascinated with the folks in the back of the pack. Bill Rodgers once said he couldn’t imagine how people could stay out there four hours running a marathon. What would he say about the peeps who take that much time for 13 miles and change?
If you’ve never run way in the back, you don’t know how hard these peeps are working. There’s just as much suffering here as in the lead pack with the gazelles. Maybe more. We’re just doing it in slow motion.
I’ve had the world’s crappiest run today, coming in a nudge under 3 hours, so I know exactly what they feel like as they wage war with the clock, which is quickly ticking down toward the cutoff. I’m alone on a sunny day with free beer and pizza, so I prop my feet up near the finish and watch the last guys come in. And I find myself cheering like crazy.
Finishing clearly is a huge thing for them. The fast guys quibble over seconds. These peeps just want to cross that line. They do it with arms raised, smiles extended, medals gratefully accepted. They’re celebrating in a way you forget about when you’re going to a lot of races. It’s a Big Deal.
A pair of women come across, hands locked and extended overhead. Another pair. What is it with women? Guys would be tripping each other. It takes a village to run a half, I suppose.
And then, the clock ticks past 4 hours. I snap a photo of the last guy, and the race director starts handing out the cash. I’ve got the number 969, so I figure in a pinch I can flip it and claim 696, doubling my odds. Or not.
It goes along at the same pace as every other running auction — 62,000 numbers called out with nobody claiming. Slowly but surely, they find a few winners.
A bike escort guy pulls up, waving his hands up and down like he’s an NFL linebacker revving up the fans on a fourth-down stand. And there she comes.
She’s shuffling along in pretty much the same fashion I was, except that she looks more determined and does not appear to want to kill herself. She’s got a huge smile and clearly couldn’t be more delighted to be here. She crosses the finish line triumphantly, high-fiving anyone with an outstretched hand.
She’s 10 minutes past the absolute cutoff, which suddenly becomes not absolute at all. The race official leads the applause and then asks someone to grab the lottery number from her bib so she’ll get in on the drawing. I’m suspicious.
She sits down on the raised curb, taking off her shoes and basking in the congratulations from her family. The drawing goes on.
The closest I come is 959. I consider asking for 20 bucks and calling it even, but I’m not quick enough. “Not quick enough” is something I’m thinking a lot about these days.
And a few tries later, whose number do they call? Hers.
The race official, who has insisted that people come up to get their money, takes it over to her. Coincidence? Nobody seems to care. She earned it.
As he’s leaving, I run over and ask if I can take their photo together. A woman who must have been her relay partner gets in the photo as well. They all beam. After a really depressing day of running, I’m happy.
I stop by on my way out to congratulate her. I shake her hand and tell her simply, “that was a great race.” Because it was.
I finish my beer, get my $200 Honda out of the valet parking of my $200 a night hotel, and head home.
I think about it all the way back. I still get so hung up on times. I’m too slow. I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m not a runner, just a pretender. Why bother.
Then I see someone finish an hour later, and I realize it’s not about time at all. It’s about winning. She won this race. Maybe I did too. Maybe we all do, every time we put on a number and face down the demons.
The running philosopher George Sheehan said it best: “It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.”
She heard the voice. She told it to shut up. A champion indeed.
Maybe I sort of loved that race after all.
But would it have killed him to call 969 …