Heading home to Buffalo, NY for the marathon over Memorial Day is an annual delight. The weather is always perfect, the trees are green, and the city has a winter-is-finally-over-buzz that instantly doses me a contact high. It also arrives at an opportune time for relief when the heat is ramping up in Tucson to the triple digits. “It’s not bad, it’s a dry heat,” they tell me. Yeah, so is an oven.
It’s a quick trip. I arrive at my folk’s house at midnight on Saturday. I’m up at 5:30am the following morning sipping coffee and going over my strategy for the marathon that begins at 7. The last marathon I ran was Boston a couple years ago. I ran a PR (personal record) in 2:47. An hour or so after I finished, the thrill of my fastest marathon to date became trivial and insignificant as the horrific events of that day unraveled a block away at the finish line. I stuck to running on trails since.
Time ran its course and I’m ready to bash some asphalt again. I’m anxious to see what I can do since I’ve ramped up my training. The goal in my head is 2:40. My fastest half marathon time is 1:19 and some change. Since I’m just one month off a 50-mile race, I figure the 26.2 is my new half, at least that’s what I’m telling myself.
I slam some pickle juice in the car ride to the start line (for leg cramps). FYI, that shit is way better when your 33 miles into a race and thirsty – not so much first thing in the morning. I get it down, make my way to the front of the pack and await the gun. This is the first year the event has sold out at 7,500 runners. They also added a $2,000 cash award on top of $2,000 winning prize for breaking the course record. This drew some added talent to the race. The gun fires and off we go.
I want to run at a consistent pace just below my max threshold – before I start to breathe heavy and heart rate starts firing. I find within the first couple minutes that this will be around a 6-minute pace. I settle in to my groove and ignore the 20 or so guys that go off like they are running a 5k. I’ll see them again soon.
Now, about halfway into mile 1, is when something interesting happens. As the majority of the front pack is running a very inconsistent 1st mile, one runner makes her way over to me and starts running directly by my side. Hmm I thought, well all right. I figure the first few miles are usually pack oriented, and then folks tend to fall back or speed up as they find their pace. I will probably lose her soon.
Several miles go by and the pack is gone. All those guys who went off like a bat-out-of-hell are behind me now. I’m not alone though. This lady is still right next to me and she is the front-runner of the woman’s field. She is much shorter than me, has dark skin, and is a bit stockier than your average elite runner. I presume we both like this pace, so I break the ice and ask her, “What time are you shooting for?” She looks a little confused. Maybe she’s thinking “Really? I’m trying to win a marathon here and you want to chat?!” Then I realize she doesn’t speak much English. (She lives in Ethiopia as I later found out.) I ask again in simpler terms and I get “2:40” out of her. I excitedly exclaim, “Me too!” and offer her an All-American fist bump. The knuckles unite and the strange duo charges ahead.
Now this must be quite the sight. A tall, skinny white boy and the short, well-built Ethiopian woman are cruising mile after mile together. No one else is around us anymore. We are running so tight that our elbows touch several times. Even our breathing and stride sync up as we push over the small hills and concede to the extra effort put forth. We are in harmony.
We pass the half-way point. I receive an uplifting cheer from my folks as I shout, “I made a friend. We are going to crush it together!” We are at 1:19 and we are on track for that 2:40. I realize then that my partner in crime is undoubtedly going to win this race, but what about that course record? I retreat from my breathing rhythm and let her know we are running sub 2:40. “What’s the course record for woman?” I ask. She had no problem understanding “course record” and immediately replied with “2:40!” As I remember saying to my buddy Catlow in a previous race, I once again declared, “Let’s crush that course record!” Her grin of acknowledgement was all I needed to get fired up for the second half.
Around mile 18 my friend decides to change her strategy. After 17 miles of running side-by-side, she elects to position herself directly behind me and slightly to the side. She wants to draft me. There are somewhat breezy conditions on sections of the course, and with my stature against hers, I offer a heck of a plow for wind resistance. Now if this were just some random guy who did this and didn’t plan to return the favor, I’d tell him to piss off. But I’m pacing the 1st female runner as she quests to break the course record. Chivalry is back me lady, allow me to break wind before you. (I literally broke wind in front of her several times after this, but that’s a small price to pay for tailgating my exhaust pipe!) After all, she wouldn’t be able to return the favor if she tried, unless she ran on stilts.
Now an interesting psychological factor is introduced to me in the last 7 or so miles of the race. I’m not running so much for me anymore, but for her. This is extremely motivating. A couple of times around mile 21 I slow the pace down a bit as I am starting to feel fatigued. She slows with me. Rather than plowing right past and leaving me in the dust, she has decided that her strategy is to stick behind me. This makes me feel accountable. I can’t slow down; I have to get to that finish before 2:40! The pain, or “wall” that I have always experienced around mile 20-22 was nothing but a small hurdle now. My mind is bent on the task at hand, and this allows me to mentally conquer that dark place with ease.
The average monthly income in Ethiopia is about $300-$400, less after taxes. She is running to take $4,000 home. You do the math. All I am going to take home are some sore legs, a cheesy medal, and a fierce hangover from partying with my brothers. I got nothing to lose so I let it all hang out. We don’t speak the same language, but running is universal, like music. We communicate with small recognitions of tough sections, a nod when we both know we are cruising at sub-6 pace, or the rejuvenation of crowd cheers. Running with the 1st female, I mooched off the countless “You go girl!”… “Girl Power!”…“Whoo ladies!” from the spectators. Hey, ya take what you can get.
Mile 24 was a little slower at around 6:15 pace, so at mile 25 I shout “C’mon, strong finish!” We speed back up to 6 minute pace. She remains right behind me as we push our strides hard to mile 26. As we approach the line, there is no sprint to the end. We are running strong, but there is no competition between us. We cross the same way we have run the last 10 miles. She stays right behind me. I finish in 2:38:55 and she crosses a few seconds later. She met her goal and I met mine. Not only did she break the course record for woman, she set a new record, male or female, for the longest gap between 1st and 2nd place.
Later on that day my Dad told me some of her stats. This wasn’t her fastest marathon. She has run a handful of marathons faster than this, by several minutes. That’s when I realized…
Men like to think that they are heroes. We like to feel needed. I was no exception in my logic throughout the race, which seemed to work for me. It was, however, quite the opposite. I wasn’t setting the pace. I wasn’t pulling her through the last 10 miles when she got behind me…
She was pushing me.
Hah, this is an elite marathoner with over 20 marathons under her belt – winning more often than not. She knew what she was doing the entire race. When I slowed down and she stayed with me, it wasn’t because she was fatigued in that same moment. She decided to keep pushing me ahead. She pushed me to a 2:39, one minute under my goal.
Mission accomplished, Hirut Beyene Guangul.
We have since become friends on Facebook, and we plan to return to Buffalo next year. Our new goal: 2:35!
You go girl.