“This coffee tastes weird,” he said to me.
I tasted mine.
“It kind of does,” I said. “Maybe it’s the cup?”
I had taken out a rarely used travel mug for him, and I thought maybe it just tasted a lot like metal. “You can have some of mine.”
Patrick and I were driving south of Sioux Falls, making our way through Canton and down into Newton Hills State Park. I heard a friend earlier in the week describe life outside right now like living in a painting, and that’s what it felt like, everything orange and red and crisp, with NPR on the radio and a shared cup of coffee between us.
“So, are we running together,” Patrick asked me.
I didn’t say anything, stalling. I didn’t know what I wanted to say. I’m not in some amazing racing shape, not even mediocre shape, but I had that feeling you get, where you want to go and run as hard as you can, even if in the scheme of things it’s not that hard. A benchmark. A breathlessness. A something that makes you want it.
“What, do you think I’ll slow you down,” he said.
I stayed quiet. I don’t know. Maybe? He’s not in great shape, either. We’re both a long way from where we were several years ago, when he competed in Ironman races and I competed in everything. At the same time, we’re a long way from where we were even a year ago, when the thought of doing any of this was nearly unbearable, crushed under the weight of a hundred other things happening.
We never resolved how we would run the race, the Newton Hills 10K that the Sioux Falls Area Running Club puts on. We drove into the park, and I went inside to get a sticker. “How many people are in the car,” the clerk asked. “Two,” I said. “That’s $6.” “I only have a $5,” I told her. She said it was OK and waved us on. We pulled into a spot near the start and began taking an inventory of all the gear we had thrown into the car. I debated a T-shirt and arm warmers, annoyed I hadn’t brought a different pair – these slide off my upper arms all the time. But my long-sleeved shirt was really tight, and I knew I would get hot after a while. I brought gloves. Patrick put on a half-zip and a T-shirt over it, a trail series buff and a hat.
“It’s not January,” I told him.
People around us were doing strides along the road, others walking toward the bathrooms and others doing what we were doing – trying to determine the right mix of clothing for standing around and then running.
At the pavilion for the race, we ran into everyone we knew. It’s one of the best reasons to go to a race. I talked to Luke and Barry and Adam about their recent trip to St. George, Utah, where they and our friend Erica all just killed it. To Russ and Nancy, a biker and runner.
“It’s cold,” Patrick told them. “Maybe I’ll just sit in the car.”
“I don’t think she’ll let you,” Nancy joked back.
I met Nancy at the Good Earth trail run a few weeks ago, where she won the master’s division, and we talked about how she’s going to Boston next year and about some longer trail races she’s considering next year. I told her I wanted to run the Black Hills 50, and she said she was thinking about it. I encouraged her, thinking it would be fun to do that with her, even if we aren’t together on the race course. I like her, and I’d like knowing she was out there. It’s another person to know, making the racing community feel tightknit.
We began to gather at the start, and race director Nathan Schwab, who put together the three-race series this summer, gave the final instructions, reminding people that the course fairly quickly drops into single-track, so line up where you belong. He thanked the sponsors and volunteers and told us all to have a good time. Patrick and I still hadn’t talked about how we were running this race. When the gun goes off, we all know it’s every runner for himself. Still, we’ve done enough races together where we’ve run every step side by side, there for the fun of it and the pace of whatever seems to work. It’s a great way to experience an event, and I love it.
The course begins in a small field and then drops onto the trails at Newton Hills. I’ve lived here for 17 years and probably gone to this park two or three times a year, and I still can’t figure all the trails out. I’ve run this race before and still can’t figure them out. I just know there are railroad ties here and there, the hills are steep and to watch out for anything left from a horse in some spots.
The only discussion we had was when Patrick asked me where I wanted to line up. “Somewhere near the back of the first third,” I told him, and that’s what we did. It sounded better than “the front of the middle.”
We ran close together, with me in front of him, for a while. I could hear him behind me, told myself to run as close to whatever edge I had without going over. You know how it is in a race, you try to start out not too fast, but not so slow that you let yourself slide into an easy jog for the duration. It would have been easy to turn and say, let’s just enjoy this day out here. I wanted to. But I knew what that would feel like later, wondering why I’m so lazy, so just pathetically lazy sometimes.
Just like when we bike together, Patrick passed me on a downhill, and I tucked in behind him.
Luke and Adam were the course volunteers at the top of a small hill, yelling for us, and I made a joke as I did my best to sprint past Patrick up it. “He’s going to beat me,” I yelled at that. “I can’t let it happen.”
The joke that isn’t a joke.
And maybe that’s where it all began. We are two very competitive people, when it gets down to the wire. We’re the kind of friends who can’t ever really get into a fight, because we’ll be so hurtful to win we may never recover. I know this. I know this about myself, and I know this about him. We stay within our limits, and we did the same on these trails, winding through the park, leaves crunching, jumping over roots and our hearts pounding.
This is what it feels like to race.
I wasn’t racing for a place (I finished 8th woman overall and not even top three for master’s women). I wasn’t about to set a PR (my time was 15 minutes slower than my fastest 10K). There was no glory beyond domestic bragging rights to be had in this race, but that’s what it was.
Patrick picked it up on every downhill. We came through the 2-mile mark, and he swung over to drop some of his gear off, and I kept going. We climbed up onto the bridle trails, and my chest hurt, stepped onto the sandy uphill and I began to power-hike. He was right there. We didn’t speak. The trail evened out and I began to run again, felt him do the same.
I ran every flat as hard as I could without bottoming out, took the downhills seriously, wishing I had worn my contacts so I could see better – bifocals are a terrible choice for trail races, I know that. Don’t fall, I told myself. Don’t lose because you’re clumsy. I power-hiked the uphills as fast as I could, usually passing Patrick on them, silently, trying to hold it on the top and then feeling him come up and past me the next downhill.
Just relax, I told myself. He’s barely been running – and we have miles to go. He can’t hang on. Cyclocross practice and bike commuting aren’t enough. He’ll fade. Wait for the fade, and hold on until then.
He wasn’t fading.
We came through the sumac in the last third of the race, and I saw Patrick do a few surges, look behind him, check where I was. I had fallen back a bit, and now there was someone between us. It’s now or never, I told myself, and I began to pick it up. Just pass that guy, I thought, the same way any of us pull ourselves toward the finish line. Click off one runner at a time until you’re at the clock.
We hit a downhill.
Let’s go, I told myself, and I began to run, really run. Most of my running the past year has been a slog. But in the last few weeks, I’ve gone out with some of the guys I used to run with at noon and been reminded that somewhere deep inside me is some speed. Not a lot, and not for a long time, but there’s still something, one more gear, and I searched for it at Newton Hills. I couldn’t let Patrick beat me, not badly, not because I had given up when I realized I would have to fight for it. Where’s the fun in that, for either of us? A victory is sweeter when you know it isn’t a given. Otherwise, why had we done any of this today? We could have admired the leaves and talked the whole time, like usual.
I passed the guy between us. I don’t know what it felt like to him, but for me, I honestly felt like I blew past him. I felt like I was on fire. I felt like I was running faster than I’ve ever run. I felt amazing, like a gazelle, like I was having the most fun of my life.
Like I was gaining on him.
I watched him know I was coming. Friends of ours were along the fence, yelling, watching the two of us race each other for the middle of the pack. Is it pathetic? I don’t know, maybe. When I see people surge like that at the end of a race, I always think, you know, why didn’t you do that steadier and move up in the pack earlier? If you have that much energy, you could be placing somewhere. Still, I heard our names being called. “Go get him, Jacqueline,” Eva yelled. They knew what was happening.
At the corner back into the field, I fell back. What are you doing, I asked myself, don’t look like an idiot racing across this field. He pulled ahead, and I watched him slow down, knowing I wasn’t right on his heels.
Damn it, I thought, let’s go, and I went, and we crossed the finish line within a second of each other. There’s no actual finish line, just a clock and a chute. I stepped ahead of him, in an annoying move. “I should have thrown an elbow,” he said later. “I should have worn cross-country spikes and taken you out in some kind of Tonya Harding move on the course,” I replied.
We laughed. I could barely breathe. Patrick pulled me over into a hug, both of our chests rising and falling with the effort of the past 58 minutes.
It was fun. The only conversation on the course a few “You’re killing me” comments I made, met with a “Good” from him.
When is the last time you raced? When’s the last time I did? I can’t tell you what it felt like on Saturday. To run hard against someone else, to know we’re fairly evenly matched, to know neither one of us has any business trying to do anything out there but run for the fun of it. And the truth it, this was the fun of it. It was fantastic.
“I didn’t want you to say later that you could have run harder,” Patrick told me on the drive home. “I wanted you to give it everything.”
And I did. I’m a little embarrassed to say that – my everything should result in a faster time. But it didn’t. It resulted in that time, and that experience on that course and that day. That’s how it goes sometimes, when it goes well, in whatever you’re doing. Those tiny moments when you really know, just know, you did everything you could to hang on, and you hung on.
There was no medal for me. No line about a personal best in my running log. No glory in having dropped him somewhere along the course. And he knew I slowed down at the corner.
“What happened,” he asked. “I was hoping for an all out sprint to the finish.”
My friend Owen always advises to run within your limits, then open it up and see what you have. I did that, and what I had was one of the best races I’ve had in years. Not for time or place or anything except the satisfaction of knowing that I really did the best I could the entire time, that my best friend was a rabbit for me, even though I know it hurt him – he can still barely walk two days later. “My hips and back,” he whines when he stands up.
(Secretly, that’s the real glory for me, as I go for a run. Also: I’ll get my comeuppance on the bike soon enough. We know that.)
There’s something to be said for racing against another person. It’s not the same as racing against the clock. It’s more visceral, so much in the moment, so much listening to how someone else is breathing and watching their calves ahead of you, knowing as the course changes when you can gain and when you better just hold on. To turning to someone in the chute and laughing about the absurdity of it all, even better when it’s someone you know, when all the fire is friendly.
Even better when hours later a friend texts you.
“You did beat him,” she says, a photo of the results with me one second ahead in the next frame.
“Hey,” I said to Patrick. “Remember when I beat you in a race this morning?”
“You know, this just makes me want to crush you next time,” he said.
We ran some errands. Made dinner. Watched a movie. Listened to the rain.
Jacqueline Palfy is a longtime runner, reader and writer, marathoner, mom and board member of the nonprofit Sioux Falls Area Running Club. Her contributions to the 605 Running Co. blog will appear each Tuesday. You can follow her on Twitter @runnerJPK or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Story ideas are encouraged.