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I’m looking around at the crowd of runners gathering at the start of Lex’s Run for MDA. Like any race, there is a wide variety of runners. Every shape, size and age is represented. There are about 75 of us milling about. I’m looking to see who I think the lead runners will be. There’s my buddy Chris from Run Run Live. He’s fast, strong and experienced. There’s another, younger guy who has a team shirt on that looks pretty fast. I eavesdrop on his conversation with another fast looking kid. I’m doing the numbers in my head. I’ve got myself in 4th. That is, until I hear their conversation. They are talking about a man named Sawyer. From what I can gather, he’s 48 and he’s fast…real fast. I see them look over and nod. I follow their gaze and there he is. All 5’4″, maybe 120lbs on a day the sun and the moon are on the other side of the planet.

“There’s your winner,” I thought.

“There goes your winner,” said my friend Adam. I laughed. We would later joke that Sawyer had negative body fat and that every time he walked by, we all lost a pound.

Hmmm, okay, 5th place looks about right.

Another slender runner walked by. I would later find out his name is Jonathan. Much like the Sawyer, Jonathan is built like a your stereo-typical runner – long, lean, slender.

6th…shooting for 6th!

***

Before long, Doug called the runner to the starting line. I don’t necessarily like starting at the front of the pack, but Chris urged me to join him on the line. Sawyer and Jonathan positioned themselves to my left. As Doug blared the foghorn you could hear our four stopwatches beep just slightly out of sync with each other. We were off! Within about 400 yards, the four of us had created a gap with the pack. I had run this part of the course with Doug earlier so I acted as the navigator. Chris took the lead with the three of us following close behind.

I had no real strategy for this race. My friend Sheila had suggested running like my hair was on fire. Chris kept the pace hard as we worked our way through the first several turns. The first half mile, on a park trail, was relatively narrow, not allowing for a lot of movement, but then the course opened up a bit. It was at this point that Sawyer made his move and took the lead. Almost immediately he began to push the pace. The three of us held on for another quarter mile or so, but I got the sense that had he wanted, Sawyer could have left us completely in the dust 10 yards into the race.

Coming out of the park at 3/4 of a mile we hit “the hill”. The hill was a 154 foot climb over a quarter mile stretch. Sawyer pushed the accelerator down. Jonathan stayed closed behind him. I heard Chris yell, “Good luck boys” or something to that affect. I decided to try to run with the big boys. I was only about 3 or 4 yards behind them, but I couldn’t close the gap. 2/3 of the way of the hill, I yelled that I didn’t think I was gonna be able to keep pace. Jonathan yelled back words of encouragement, but it was no use. These two guys were simply much faster than I was. Little by little they began to pull away. As we hit the top of the hill, an EMT cheered us on. With my lungs and leg on fire, I remember thinking, I may need this guy soon!

Legs burning, lungs on fire...

As we made the turn I looked down at a glorious downhill. Nearly a mile of downhill grade. I thought maybe I could use gravity to close the gap a little with the two leaders, but they must have been thinking the same thing. Part way down the hill I glanced over my shoulder to see if Chris or anybody else was closing in on me.

Nobody.

I was sitting comfortably in third, and this is when my head started to play games with me. Barring a stumble, there really was no way I was catching Jonathan or Sawyer. Looking back, I had created about a 200 yard gap between me and the next runner.

What are you running so hard for? Ease up on the gas. You don’t need to be going this fast. You can’t catch those guys. That guy can’t catch you. These were the thoughts that drifted through my mind as I tried to push through. I got so lost in thought that I almost missed the water station. I had no intention on grabbing a drink, but I yelled at one of the kids there to throw the water in my face. She missed and hit my chest, but it was the refreshing jolt that I needed. I heard the girl and the mother laugh as I flew by.

Re-focused, I concentrated simply on finishing strong. As I hit 2 miles, the course flattened out and took a turn back toward the start. I could see both Sawyer and Jonathan in the distance and decided that I would try to, at the very least, keep them in sight. With a little over 1/2 mile to go, I glanced over my shoulder. I had stretched my lead on the next runner to about 300 hundred yards. As I went into the final turns of the race, I was aware of people cheering but could not hear them. My hair was on fire and the only way to put it out was to cross the finish line. At the final turn I saw the clock. My goal had been to run a 19-handle, but the clock had already rolled over to 20. I sprinted through the chute at 20:27. 3rd overall out of over 70 runners. Not bad for a first 5K. Initially I was disappointed with my time, but after some reflection, I realized that the course was not considered an easy one. The climb on the hill probably took more out of me than I was willing to admit, especially since most of my training this summer has been on flat roads.

After crossing the finish line, I found Jonathan. Sawyer had gone out for a cool down, but I wanted to cheer everybody in (easy to do when it’s 70+ people). Over the next 30 minute Jonathan & I (joined a few minutes later by my dailymile and twitter bud Adam) chatted and cheered everybody in. Jonathan, it turns out, had started running only recently. A few years ago, pushing 250 lbs, he had decided to change his life. He went out the door and ran 5 minutes from his house, stopped and then turned around and ran back. He slowly built up to 10 minutes, then 15. After being able to run consistently for 30 minutes, he started running for distance. The miles added up, the pounds dropped off, and now he’s running 5K’s in 19 minutes, along with running marathons and competing in triathlons. Adam actually has a similarly inspirational story you can find here.

As the rest of the racers came in, I got to meet several other runners, a lot of them with neat, interesting stories of their own. One woman, Mary McManus, had run Boston 2009 after being diagnosed with post-polio syndrome in 2006. You can find her on the web here.

So what did I learn from this race? I’m not sure yet. That a 150 foot climb over a quarter mile is hard? I don’t think I needed this race to learn that. What WAS reaffirmed was that the running community is vast and varied, and that running brings us the peace of solitude and the joys of community.

I hope that if you are relatively local, you’ll consider running Lex’s Run in 2011. Doug’s wife Lex, suffers from adult onset muscular dystrophy, and they have created this race to give back to the association that has done so much for them. You can find their homepage here.

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Jonathan, Me and Adam post-race courtesy of Chris

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