On the first Sunday of June I ran my slowest half-marathon as part of a Quassy (Middlebury, CT) Half-Ironman relay, yet it was my best race ever because of what occurred on the course.
I and three of my running buddies agreed to participate in this relay coordinated by our friends in the local triathlon club. It promised to be a fun weekend, though the weather was predicted to be hot and we knew the course to be very hilly. The morning of the race, despite the fact that we would not start running until our swimmers had completed their 1.2 mile swim and our cyclists had finished their 56 mile ride, we runners dutifully arrived at 6:50 a.m. to see off the swimmers. The 2000+ triathletes were divided into waves. The professionals started at 6:50, followed by age groups each separated by a few minutes. The relay swimmers started their race in one of the last waves at 7:40 a.m.
We waited at the swim-bike transition and less than 26 minutes later we saw Tom—MY swimmer!—jogging up the hill from the lake handing his chip to Chris—our cyclist. Very quickly, the other relay swimmers finished, the cyclists were gone, and we estimated that we had about 2½ hours to wait for the cyclists to arrive back and wrap the chip around our ankle and complete the race. We figured they’d return between 10:30 and 10:40, so we planned to be back at the transition area by 10:10, just in case someone had an incredible ride. Just before 10:10 we were wandering back marveling at how warm it had gotten when we spied what appeared to be one of our riders entering the area. We broke into a run fearing we had miscalculated their arrival time.
It was Chris, my rider. Unfortunately, he had blown out both of his tires part way through the race, had to get a ride back, and our team was disqualified. My race was over before it had begun. My friends looked at me and said I might as well start running now. This is not the mindset with which one begins a race, but I tightened my shoes, gathered my wits, and took off out of the transition area to run my half-marathon.
Because I was leaving so much earlier than expected, it was mainly the professionals who were completing their bike rides and heading out for their last leg of their race. Within a few hundred yards I was out on the road and leaving the crowded transition area behind. I could already feel the heat of the day on me. Less than a half mile down the road I was passed by a woman. She was a professional, which I could tell by the P temporarily tattooed on her right calf. My calf had an R for relay. Everyone else had their age, so that participants could tell who their age group competition was during the race.
We also knew that the first three miles were gently downhill, followed immediately by the longest (2 miles), steepest hill on the course. I wanted to be sure not to blow up on that hill, so I took it easy. The woman quickly pulled away from me and soon disappeared from view. A couple of male pros passed me before I reached the hill.
The hill was everything that was promised. It steepened quickly and went on and on. We had been warned that when it seemed we had crested the top, we hadn’t, because you go around another curve and up it goes again. I was managing the hill and the heat well enough. Each water station I poured water on my head and put ice in my cap.
As I finally approached what turned out to be the top of the hill I was surprised to see that I had closed the gap with the woman pro who had passed me almost five miles before. She was going very slowly and weaving slightly. As I passed her I turned to offer encouragement and could see that she was gasping for breath. I asked her if she was okay. She nodded yes, gasped she was okay, and waved me on. I asked if she was sure and she vigorously nodded her head. So I went on…for about 10 more strides.
I stopped and turned around. She had stopped running and was walking. I walked back to her. She waved me on again. “No (gasp),” she said, “Don’t stop. (gasp) Keep going. (gasp) Don’t ruin your race. (gasp)” I stopped my watch, smiled, and said to her, “Today is your lucky day, because I don’t even have a chip on so I am actually doing this race for fun. I’m in a relay and the cyclist blew two tires.”
She looked at me quizzically and started to try to run again despite her inability to breathe. She staggered. I realized that she while her clothing was wet, she appeared to have stopped sweating, which I knew was a bad sign. I encouraged her to sit on the side of the road in the shade, which she did. Again, she protested between gasps that I should go on. I told her at that point, that I had one job right then and that was to be with her. I told her that was why I was there that day; that is why Chris’ tires blew, that is why I had no chip, and that was why I left earlier than planned on my leg of the relay—to be here when she needed someone. I talked her through her respiratory distress. I encouraged her to trust her body and to allow it to help her breathing normalize. She was not very lucid, but I learned her name was Jen. Her breathing was slowing and returning to a normal pace.
In the meantime a pickup truck stopped asking if we needed help. I walked over and told the driver to continue onto the water stop we had passed about a mile back and alert them to the fact that someone was in trouble on the course and to send help. He gave me a bottle of water and headed on. I came back, sat next to her again, and asked if she would like some water. She looked at me and asked where I had gotten the water from. I realized that she was still fairly incoherent.
We sat there for less than 10 minutes when she stood to continue. She mentioned that she had been the first woman to finish the swim which gets a bonus (there was $100,000 in prize money to be distributed to the pros). She wanted to finish in the money. I asked if she had family. She nodded. I asked if she thought they cared about prize money or her arriving back home alive. In response, she said she would walk instead of run, which she did for about 20 feet, then broke into a jog, and soon was pulling away from me again. I wished her well and shouted to be careful.
Less than a mile later I was passing her again and could see her breathing problems had resumed. I passed her and encouraged her to take care of herself. I went around a curve and saw a water station. I stopped there and insisted on seeing the staff person in charge. I brought her out, explained the situation, and told her that Jen the Pro would be coming around the corner and needed to be evaluated. She assured me that she would do precisely that. I headed on.
The race, my time, and the heat no longer mattered. What mattered was that I was able to help someone who was in trouble. I never felt better during a race, though I remained worried about Jen, because I assume that professional triathletes regularly push themselves beyond their perceived physical limits and can find themselves in real trouble. When I finally finished I checked with the folks at the computers and learned that she never passed the next running checkpoint which meant that she was pulled from the course or left the course with the staff on her own accord. She would be going home alive.
I had run my slowest half-marathon, yet it was definitely my best race ever.