Roanoke Canal Race Report

    A couple of weeks ago a friend and I hopped in a car and made our way to the Roanoke Canal race. She was trying to get back into running, and asked if I would register to run the race as well so she wouldn't let herself blackout. She volunteered to drive us there, leading to the discovery that the best way to arrive to a trail race is in fact, a Prius. It provides the rare gift of allowing one to feel extra smug and brag about being connected nature while still losing the race.

Oh know, I don't really  see the roots so much
 as I FEEL the trail
   Unfortunately, thanks to my own inherent laziness, and absent mindlessness I completely forgot to register for the event before hand. I took a chance and spoke with Michael Forrester, the race director from Tar River Running that morning. He was gracious enough to allow me to quickly register for the 8k just before the rain started pouring overhead. 

   For those uninitiated in European magic/communism 8 kilometers is essentially 5 miles. Its a nice sweet spot between feeling like you're going to have a stroke, heart attack, and brain aneurism simultaneously (also known as the 5k), and continually debating in your brain if you're going too fast, too slow, can you hold this pace, and good god where is the finish line at this point? (Also known as the 10k)

   Despite not being able to register before the race, I was egotistical enough to check the race results from the last two years on our drive up. I felt fairly confident I was going to have a strong day and started to scope the competition out as soon as I had filled out the necessary paperwork. One can never really tell how fast or strong a competitor is going to be, but usually there are some tell-tell signs. I looked around and one person stood out immediately. The length of his short-shorts meant that he was either a very strong runner, or he was expecting me to break out some singles for watching him to his warm up stretches.  

   For those unaware, the shorter the shorts the faster the runner. Its a well known fact* that in the running community hiking one's shorts up higher is the medieval equivalent to removing ones glove and striking your offender across the face in order to issue the challenge. 

En garde, sir!
   As luck would have it, the monsoon rains that had started just after we arrived stopped dumping on us just a few minutes before the 8k began. (Unfortunately for the half marathoners this meant they had been dealing with mud and rain for almost thirty minutes.) As usual the conversations turned to half assed attempts to politely discover exactly how fast everyone was. A local runner sporting a beard and a green singlet was the first to open the gates with the guy walking beside me. "Sooo...what kind of time are you thinking this morning?" Eventually the question made its rounds and finally reached me to which I responded with the truth, that I wasn't quite sure and was just going to play it by ear. Which left us with one man toeing the line before me. 

   Not wanting to interrupt our game of telephone I asked the final person in the chain, a young, fit runner who's named turned out to be Sean what he planned to run the race in. "Oh me?" he asked. "Well, I knocked out a 24 minute and some change 8k a couple of weeks ago so..." My feeling upon hearing that the runner next to me was running sub 5 minute miles for the same race a couple of weeks ago must have been written all over my face with Hanksian-like expressiveness. He quickly amended that since it was a road race, he'd never be that fast out here. In fact, he hadn't even intended to race here at all. Sean was a collegiate Division 1 runner from up north who was traveling down to Florida and camping along the way. Last night he had bummed into Micheal (race director) and asked him if there was a good place to run around here to which Micheal responded with the fact that he was in fact hosting a race the next morning and Sean should join. 

Why is this a thing thats happening right now...?

   The fact that I had even less chance than a drunk penguin winning a round of golf against Tiger Woods nested itself into my brain as the 10 second countdown for the race began. Closed eyes and a few deep breaths to shake off one too many beers and not enough burritos from the night before and we were off. 

   The pack that took off was rather large and consisted of about 7-8 of us of which thankfully didn't take off at an extreme pace. For the first half mile we wove around a narrow path flanked by volunteers who were already cheering us on. This herd quickly thinned out to half its number consisting of Sean, myself, the former mentioned green singleted runner, and the  Henry, the race director's teenage son. Sean and Henry led, while I looked on from fourth place and took in the beauty of the thin, but tree lined trail with the boughs hanging just out of reach above us. 

   I maneuvered to take third, leaving the runner who would later become known as "Mr. Green Shirt" behind me as we moved out of the tree lined portion of the trail and into rolling fields. I watched the two in front of me move in almost perfect harmony as their heels rose up to meet their hamstrings in front of me and heard Sean encouraging Henry to keep up and keep breathing. I resolved to myself that since I came into the race with no expectations, 3rd overall would be just fine.
   Within another mile as we climbed and dropped over the muddy hills I noticed that Henry, while still running strong, was beginning to fade. I decided to make a push and see if I could overtake him. I closed the gap as Henry continued to fade and Sean continued to encourage him. I would have liked to have done the same, but I was struggling for breath at what would normally not have been such a difficult pace. Undaunted, I pushed ahead and Sean matched my pickup as we pulled away from Henry.

Run away with the race...see what I did there? No?
It's okay...I'll see myself out
   For a brief moment I entertained the thought that I could run away with this whole race and take the overall position. As we ran along I attempted to push harder and then ebb back to see what Sean would do. I would gain a few feet, and then he would surge a few feet ahead. I tried to focus on the terrain ahead and look for small rises and falls where I could run smarter and take the edge, which meant not being able to look over and really see if Sean was experiencing the same beginning-to-burn-feeling that I was. At most I was able to look out of the corner of my eye and see that he seemed for all intents and purposes to be running comfortably and focused, without breathing too hard. 

   Nearing the halfway point of the race there is a sharp right turn where you must cross over a bridge which is comfortable for one person, but definitely tight for two side-by-side. I had made up my mind that I would try to surge down the hill and take bridge first. When we reached it Sean seemed to slow just enough so that my plan came to fruition. What the hell was this?? Why did he seem to be letting me take the lead? Was he trying to get me to tire myself out? WHAT MIND GAMES WAS HE PLAYING?!?

In retrospect, I probably should have known that wasn't a GPS watch

   We came to the turn around marked with a simple banner, cone, and a few volunteers. I slowed to round the cone with as much efficiency as possible as not to lose too much speed. Sean, not realizing that only the half marathoners were to keep going ran on just a few seconds before the volunteers were able to catch him. 

   Sean made up the difference fairly quickly as I heard the footfalls sweep over the soggy grass and mud puddles behind me. I cleared the small bridge just as he hit it when I was greeted with sight that was completely unexpected. Here was a runner with a small turtle in his hands who had sacrificed his race time to pick up this little guy and move him safely off the course. We exchanged a smile and I waved as the other runner happily moved the shelled animal off the race course where no one would step on him. 

   In that space and time I felt like I had a moment of clarity as my perception of the world slowed to a crawl. Out here on the trails away from our phones and cars, pushing our bodies to a place where we focused not on the normal 1,000 processes of the day, but instead on breathing and heart rates combined with efficiency of movement we were allowed a moment to connect with nature in various ways that held the chance to appeal to anyone no matter who you were. And, by proxy, we were afforded a connection with each other.  

   This feeling lasted just long enough to hear Sean catch back up to me and snapped me back to my current competitive-but-feeling-like-crap reality. We passed several runners who were going in the opposite directions and cheered us on as we ran side by side up until the point where sections of the open trail narrowed. Realizing that I was breathing much harder than I wanted, and considerably harder than the runner next to me, I told him to go ahead and pass so he wouldn't have to do so awkwardly in some high grass or hole. 

   Sean responded that it wasn't "worth racing if you can't help someone along." It dawned on me that the entire race he hadn't spent the time so much pushing himself as he had helped push whomever led with him along. We raced the last mile and a half along steadily climbing the hill that lead into the part of the trail flanked by trees. Both Sean and I would occasionally look back to check the competition as the bearded runner in the green singlet had started to make a comeback. We fed each other an update roughly every 90 seconds or so as to the location of "Mr. Green shirt" as Sean had taken to calling him. 

Sean also spends his weekends 'making it rain' in orphanages
   We crested the hills and headed towards the end goal tearing up the mud in our last downhill stretch. Sean looked over and said "Lets sprint it out to the end," to which I grinned and responded with something like "sounds good." We flew towards the finish line and cheering volunteers but at the last second it seemed like the bridge all over again. Out of the corner of my eye Sean seemed to be slowing jusssst slightly. While I couldn't be sure, I decided not to take the chance. Here was a guy who had helped push me through the race and I wasn't about to let him sacrifice the overall win for me. Waiting until the absolute last moment from the finish line I turned my body to the side to come to a jarring halt, and then walked the one step across the line giving me a time of two-one hundredths of a second behind Sean.

   I told him post race I wasn't sure if he was trying to give me a chance to win, or if he would even admit if he was, but either way I didn't think that it was right to take that from a guy who could have smoked me, but instead chose to help me out. The Roanoke Canal Race reminded me of how much fun racing and running events could be and if you're in the area next year, be sure to give it a shot. Its an event with a lot of great people hanging out, cheering each other on, and reaffirming what to means to be a part of this great community. 

*Complete crap I made up on the fly, but secretly suspect is true about runners

PS: Oh, and just a small shoutout to my friend trying to get back into running; she won the 20-25 year old age division! Way to go, Erin. 

PPS: Its good to be back~

STILL powered by burritos 


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