The gun fired quicker than I thought it would, and the guys jumped out at the line. I was on the outside edge of the track, hip number 11. Perfect position, I realized, as we rounded the first curve. I stayed out, running free, steering clear of the spikes, feeling the fellows jostling behind me.
Around we moved as a tight mass, settling quickly into a rhythm. As we entered the second lap, a runner moved around me on my right and forced me down into the rail. By the end of the fourth curve, we had ourselves more or less organized, just in time for the quarter split: 72.. 73...
Perfect, I thought. I assumed we were right on 5-flat pace, since everything goes out a bit quicker then settles. I checked my breathing: good, even. The legs felt great. Everything was smooth. Next quarter: 2:27... 2:28...
I had forgotten one thing since the last time I had been in this situation. Perhaps I can be forgiven because some of the kids I was running against were 5 years old the last time that I ran in a race like this. In track, you don't get to do what you want to do. You have to race the pace that is set. More than that: you have to make yourself a part of this barely formed organism that is tightly hurtling itself around this little track. You sit in there, and you lose yourself in the mass. This is the middle of the race. It's the only thing you can do.
I actually did this well at first. I ran instinctively and let the group carry me. It was remarkably easy. We floated through 1200 in 3:43 before I had a thought of my own.
Then, we approached the mile. The meet was indoors at ETSU's oversized track. It's 280 meters, and of course it would be impossible to get splits on your own, but they had a couple of guys who were holding a neon sign and reading out splits every 400m at various stages on the track. As we rounded what must have been about the 10th curve, I saw them coming into view, and I made my first mistake: I thought. I thought, "What if this is too fast?" 4:56... 4:57...
In a road race, you make adjustments off the pace, especially in a podunk road race where there is no such thing as a pack, just a few scattered skinny guys you know and train with all the time. You hear the pace at the mile, and you respond: okay, out too fast, or out too slow. You make choices, and these choices have nothing strategic about them: you simply try to stay calm, relaxed, and running within yourself. You aren't a part of a loosely-bound organism skittering tightly around a 280 meter oval. You are a normal human being, and you think like one.
Thinking, in the middle of a track race, is a HUGE mistake. It only separates you from the organism. [Side note, don't be confused: Thinking is awesome at the end of the race, if you can still muster it, because that's when the organism must be separated--and better that you do the separating.]
I heard that split, and I made my second mistake. I thought: "It doesn't matter if they go, I'll back off a bit and pick up the pieces. 4:57 is a little hot." So, I let the little organism of tightly packed, non thinking, runners running go, and as soon as I did I found myself totally and utterly alone.
There is no lonelier thing than a runner who has just lost contact from the pack. This is why you hear coaches screaming at their runners: "Don't lose contact!!!" They know it is death. So, there I was, alone. I'd been amputated from the organism. Worse: I'd amputated myself.
Almost immediately--immediately, actually--I was useless. A sensation rose up the back of my spine and clutched me between the shoulderblades. It yanked me off kilter, and suddenly instead of the smoothly striking, gently gliding running machine that I had been, I was a hunched and pinched and struggling body. Just up there, easing away, was the organism. It was strength, grace, beauty.
Me, I was left with that sensation--that icy clutch right at the base of my neck, that tightness in my chest. That was fear itself, the primitive sort of emotion that is bred into us by the wolves that chase the pack, looking for stragglers. To be alone, in the chase, is to be eaten.
So, there I was, literally straggling around the track, running not from strength and power, but out of fear and loathing. Over the course of a half a mile, I'd gone from smooth 75s to grinding 80s. I had no peripheral vision, no relaxation. The lap counter swung into view. 10 fucking laps to go.
I dropped out.
Well, I wanted to drop out about as bad as I've wanted anything. I wanted a hole in the middle of the track to open up and swallow me. But no hole opened up. I wanted to drop out SO BAD, but I ran on. Because there are no fucking wolves. Because it's just a goddamn indoor track meet. Because nobody gives a shit about running 75 second quarters except me.
We've all been there--the last half of a bad race. These are its qualities: 1) Shame--cause really I've given up on racing; I'm just running because I'm too proud to quit, and what kind of pride is that? 2) Strangling, staggering fear--we've already touched on this. 3) Disappointment tinged with self-pity--stupid body, stupid mind, why did you betray me? 4) The normal pain of running your balls off--but we are used to that and even sometimes love it.
So, I staggered on. I told myself that I must be running 6 minute miles, but of course that was just the stupid pity talking. Let the record show: mile 2 was 5:20, mile 3 was 5:27ish. Total time was 16:22.
Next Saturday, there's a 3000 at TSU. I just sent an email to the coach to see if I can get in. Yeah, the race today was a shitty race. Yeah, I'm kinda embarrassed about my time. Yeah, it was a waste of a drive and a hotel room and all of that.
But I tasted the FEAR.
And if I can conquer that...