"This is unbelievable," I muttered after an incredulous sigh. After just six miles of the Akron Marathon, I was staring at a bank of porta-pissers instead of running with the four-hour pace group as it disappeared into Firestone Park.
This was the first time I had ever had to stop to use the facilities during a race. Of the eight portable toilets it seemed people were only going in and out of two of them. Who knows what was going on in the other six stalls.
Back on the road I started picking off everyone I could. On a long straightaway I could faintly see a pace group sign bobbing above the heads of all the runners ahead of me. I cut to the outside, merged across to the tangents, and emphasized turnover, turnover, turnover. I was straining a bit.
My mind flashed to the motivational speeches at the previous night's pasta party from Chris McDougall and Amby Burfoot. They stressed the importance of relaxing and enjoying the run. I started to emphasize not straining, but instead a relaxed and quick stride.
I eventually caught up to the pace leader, David, on the brutal downhill of Howard Street, right before entering the Towpath, where I saw a woman holding a sign that read, "Chafed nipples turn me on." I was relieved to have caught up to my group right before entering the parks, the toughest stretch of the run.
I got right next to Pacer Dave and settled in as he told a blonde joke. At around Memorial Parkway, my home stretch of the Towpath, a rock wedged itself into my right shoe and started bouncing around under my foot. I tried to deal with it, knowing that if I stopped to get the rock out, I could just end up with another one before this stretch was over. I wanted to wait until we got off the crushed limestone path, but I couldn't.
At the Big Bend aid station, after about two miles of running with the pebble mostly under my toes, I peeled away from the pace group and peeled off my shoe as my group ran away. I didn't want to be alone in Sand Run, where the course starts to climb out of the Cuyahoga River valley.
Pacer Dave walked all the water stations. I knew that if I kept picking off runners and didn't walk that I would catch him early in Sand Run. Just after the second relay exchange I was next to him again as he told another joke.
I remembered something I had heard McDougall say at some point about the reason why the Tarahumara are such excellent runners is their ability to surge and recover. That's what had been doing all race to keep up with the four-hour pace group. My mentality was in a much better place this year, and I would need that as we had exited Sand Run and passed the 18th mile. The race was starting to get tough.
Before I dropped from the group in the Towpath, Pacer Dave said something important, "If you lose me in Sand Run, don't worry. There is enough downhill in the last two miles that you can make up about two minutes. There is still hope."
I played the surge and recover game with the pace group from Sand Run to Garman Road. Every time I caught them I would lose them again. And then the Bastard Garman hill put a real gap between me and them. As the race course took me through Stan Hywet I felt like I was on an island, running alone for the first time all day.
For a short stretch of Portage Path, I tried to keep up with a chatty couple, one a marathoner and the other a relay runner who seemed to be pacing him. They wore the same shirts. One told the other that they'd use the four-hour pacer as their rabbit. I used them as a distraction. I had no cheering section waiting for me this year after the 23rd mile, but I did run past my old apartment building and got a good cheer from my old neighbors for a boost.
I cut a tight tangent onto Market Street. Pacer Dave finally seemed to be within reach. Here I was, in Highland Square, with just over two miles to go and a large gap to make up to reach my goal. I tried to make my sore legs relax and use the downhills to gain ground. It hurt. Relax, relax, relax, I muttered to myself.
Finally, Pacer Dave was within shouting distance at Market and Merriman Road. He was running alone, the other groupmembers either dropped off the back or had run ahead to glory. "How we doing, Dave?" I said as loudly as I could. He looked back and let me catch him.
"We're doing good," he told me. "If we keep on pace, we'll be right on time."
"OK, I'll stick with you for a bit," I puffed.
I fell off pace on some of the remaining uphills, but Dave never let me fall too far behind, offering encouragement and at one point the sign he was carrying. "You'll get all the cheers," he said. I said no thanks. I didn't want the added wind resistance. I had enough to worry about.
A gust of wind smacked us in the face as we made the turn onto Main Street. I was waiting for my final wind to kick in so I could pull away for the finish. I kept waiting and waiting. We passed the 26th mile marker. I was just ahead of Dave, and I heard his final instructions, "Keep it up. Don't sprint."
I turned onto the walkway behind Canal Park. Rounded the corner into stadium. I saw the clock: 4:01 and counting. I knew I had a couple minutes banked from the gun, but I didn't know how much time. I couldn't slow down. The crowd in the stadium picked me up. I crossed the line, arms outstretched. I was pretty sure I'd done it.
I stopped my watch at 4:02:09. I stumbled through the corral. Shook Race Director Jim Barnett's hand. Found a place to lean. I scrolled through my splits on my watch to find my gun to chip difference. Just over three minutes. I had done it. My chip time was 3:58:40-something.
I waited a bit in hopes of seeing Pacer Dave come through to thank him, but I didn't see him. I made the long climb up the stands and started stumbling through the crowds. The Enthusiast appeared in front of me. I put my arms around her and then put my weight on her as we hobbled to the gear bag pickup.
I about pulled every muscle trying to pull on the knee-high, black compression socks I had gotten the other night. I slipped my feet into my slippers and walked around like an old man. There is an embarrassing photo of me on Facebook that I'm happy not to share with you.
I've never felt better about a race, despite the new wrinkles that every race presents. I stayed relaxed, positive and enjoyed the run as I let the pace come to me. And it did.
Thank you all for your support this year. I hope you're happy not to be hearing about my four-hour white whale ever again. And thank you to all you creepy stalkers who congratulated me before this post was online. Cheers!