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Weekly long runs with your running circle of friends, often resemble therapy sessions.   Gasping for air, and mustering no more than 5 words at a time, it is easy to solve life’s pressing issues while exercising.  We run, we share barely audible phrases, and never seem to tire.  

I signed up for the Baltimore Half Marathon with my therapy partners…and one by one, they dropped out.  Life happens.  Apparently I didn’t have a lot of life events. Among my running friends, I was the only one arriving at the starting line.  It was time to meet new comrades and expand those therapy conversations.  With a sea of 25,000 runners, this shouldn’t be hard.

For the first 3 miles of the 13.1 mile route – the congestion of thousands of runners limited most communication to monologues

  • “oops sorry” as someone stepped on your toes
  • or  “excuse me” for accidentally shoving you into the curb
  • a simple “hand wave” that implies “Sorry to run in front of you but I’m really in a hurry so – can we just get along?”….
  • or just no words at all – as you re-gain your footwork from stumbling into a pothole

By mile 4, I noticed in my periphery – a man running along side of me.   Now, there are thousands of us running, and there is “someone” no more than 5 feet away at any given time.  Yet, I had the sensation that this particular man, was running with me.  We both raced past a water station…and neither of us stopped.   I passed a few runners to their right, and he passed to their left.  We continued to run, side by side.   By the time we reached mile 5 – it became obvious that we had become silent running partners within a congested mass of runner humanity.  We had the exact same cadence.  Our feet pounded the pavement together, in sync, and perfect rhythm, like a drum beat.

It was time for introductions.  Sort of.  I opened with “you know – we have the exact same cadence”.   Nothing like stating the obvious.  As a runner who is out of breath, I might as well get to the point.   He responded with “yeah, I noticed your cadence back at mile 3 and thought maybe I should run with you”.    Now, anywhere OUTSIDE of a running event,  this might be considered presumptuous, or at worst – stalking.  Yet during an event with 25,000 people, I took his comment as a compliment.   We exchanged names…meet Steve.  Steve and I continued to run in synchronized cadence while exchanging small talk.  Small talk while running,  is code for – gasping out a few words that barely resemble the English language.

And then he dropped the bomb.   “You are really running fast….for your age.   And, you’re barely breathing.”

What???   For my age?  Barely breathing?  Is that good?

My brain went into instant recall mode.   Did I remember to apply face (wrinkle) cream this morning?   Do I have more grey hairs today?   Has my mirror been less than truthful?  Did something suddenly change and now I appear “old”?   Am I in denial?   It seemed like yesterday, and I felt so young.   Sigh.  Have I finally reached that age, where compliments are followed by “for your age?”

It’s hard to process too many details 7 miles into a half marathon.   Up until this point, I was focused on “just finishing”.    Things have changed.  And apparently I have noticeably aged.  I decided to get one thing straight with Steve, in my mind.   Right then, and right now.  I was going to run faster and faster, until Steve could no longer keep up.  “for my age”  HA!   And my suppressed competitive nature – was out in full bloom!

One of the Golden rules of running – is to race at a speed you have successfully trained.   I read this somewhere, and it makes a lot of sense on paper.  However,  Steve tossed out the “for my age” comment.   A line in the sand has been crossed and now the Golden rules must be broken.

With 6 miles to go, I had to increase my speed gradually and hope that I could maintain the new pace.   Every mile Steve & I passed more runners.   He didn’t appear concerned one bit with the faster pace.   By mile 9 Steve astutely noted “I think we’re running faster“….followed by “you’re going to place really well – in your age group“.  In a moment, when I wondered if my new found speed had reached it’s peak, Steve’s comments re-fueled my energy.  We dueled the runners beat for another mile.

By mile 10, I was tiring.  And on a particularly tough uphill,  I slowed for a 30 second recovery pace and watched Steve run ahead, without me.  I was paying the price for breaking the Golden rules of running.   My eyes never left Steve.   After a brief recovery I reset my pace to chip away at the 100 foot lead that Steve had taken from me.   At mile 11 I passed Steve, giving him the infamous runners “hand wave“, and never looked back.

With help from cheering crowds lining the last mile of the Half Marathon finish – I stayed on my faster than normal pace – and managed to cross the finish line with a Personal Record.   I’m not sure when Steve finished.  I never saw him again.  I do know that he finished somewhere behind me.   As I dragged my aching muscles through the finish chute, I had to wonder.  Why is it that a perfect stranger – who thought I was “old” – managed to inspire me to run faster in my mid-life – than I ever ran back when I was 18?

We all have a tank of reserves – a special place in your soul where you go when you need to dig deep.   Thanks Steve for our running therapy session.   And helping me to discover – that at my age I still have a tank of reserves!