I decided not to, and felt fairly confident that was the right decision. It was about 39 degrees, and I'd just finished my strides and was lining up about 8 rows back at the start of the .US National 12k. The crowd helped keep me warm as I waited for the starting gun.
It's always neat to run in high-profile races like this one. I knew Molly Huddle was already out on the course, and just ahead of me were some male elites I'd read about in Runner's World: Aaron Braun, Trevor Dunbar. Then over the loudspeaker I heard "Please welcome Olympic Gold Medalist Joan Benoit Samuelson to the start!"
Joan Benoit Samuelson, I thought. The Joan Benoit Samuelson, who I watched win the gold medal by a mile in 1984? And there she was, lined up about two rows ahead of me. I later learned she was 57 years old, but she hardly looked different from the TV image that's still engraved in my brain, 30 years after I saw her win. There she was, in person, wearing a bright yellow cap. Maybe I'd see her during the race!
Before I had time to process that thought any further, we were off. My plan was to line up far enough back to avoid starting too fast, and I could soon tell that a fast start was not going to be a problem. The start line was fairly narrow, and I actually had to walk for a few seconds before finally hitting my stride as I crossed the line and started my watch. The plan was simple: Start at a 6:10 pace, and see how long I could keep it up. If I managed that all the way to the finish, I'd finish in 46:00, and I should get a 10k PR along the way. No matter what, I was guaranteed a 12k PR: I'd never raced this distance!
I knew the race was essentially flat, but I had spotted a small hill during warm-ups, just under a mile from the start. Soon we had turned the corner and started up the hill. At the top, I checked my watch: 6:11, right on target. I crossed the timing pad at Mile 1 as my watch read 6:11 and the official clock ticked 6:20; it had taken me 9 seconds to cross the start line.
About a mile and a quarter in I saw Joan Benoit Samuelson's bright yellow hat ahead of me. In a moment, I was past her, but I could see that she was still a strong runner, wearing an F55 bib on her back to indicate she was in the 55-59 age group. I doubted there was any woman in her age group ahead of her.
Now the runners were beginning to stretch out. There was still a group around me, a few guys and one woman in the 40-45 age group. I was keeping a solid 6:07-6:08 on my Garmin. I figured I should hit the Mile 2 marker any moment. Then I noticed that I was already 7 minutes in to the "mile." Had I missed the marker? There was no way to know until we reached Mile 3.
Before we got there, we saw the elite women headed home. It was an out-and-back course, 7.46 miles total, so about 3.72 to the turnaround. One woman was well ahead of the pack -- was that Molly Huddle? No time to know for sure. Finally I reached the 3-mile marker, and with relief hit "lap" on my watch. A 6:10 pace for Miles 2 and 3. Right on target!
The turnaround was tight -- no room to maneuver at all, just a cone to run around. I tried to accelerate quickly out of the turn and not lose too much speed. Mile 4 was over before I knew it, another 6:11. A moment later I checked my watch and saw that I was running a 5:37 pace. Too fast! I slowed down a bit, but tried not to slow down too quickly. The group of men I was with began to pull away. I let my pace decline to 6:00, figuring I might as well cash in on a quick mile. But then when I arrived at Mile Marker 5, I saw that it was all an illusion. I had run the mile in 6:10, the same as the others; it was just the Garmin itself that was wrong (as they often are on 180-degree turns).
I was deflated. I had been hoping to pick up the pace, and now I had nearly two and a half long, lonely miles ahead. Suddenly what had seemed easy was beginning to feel laborious. I finished Mile 6 in 6:26. Ugh.
But now there was less than a mile and a half left. Surely I could pick things up a bit for the last little bit. Slowly, slowly, I edged my GPS pace back to 6:10 per mile. I made it over the little hill and knew I had less than a mile left. I was on the final straightaway, and I could see the finish line! I could see the tiny, infinitesimal finish line, interminably far away. How could I ever hope to keep this pace up?
I felt someone pass me on the right. She was by me in a flash. It was...Joan Samuelson! Holy crap, Joan Samuelson just passed me! Maybe I could stay with her. Maybe I could cross the finish line with Joan Samuelson! How cool would that be? I picked up the pace, and soon I was running side by side with Joan Samuelson. Would it be rude to tell her she was one of my running heroes? Would it be possible? I was gasping for each breath; I'm not sure I could have said a word.
For half a mile, I ran side by side with Joan Samuelson, who got stronger with every step, as I got weaker. People cheered her on as we ran by, "Go Joan! Go Joanie!" Finally, right around the 7-mile marker, I had to let her go. She pulled away smoothly, easily, as the growing crowd urged her forward. I saw my wife Greta and our friend Pat cheering me on. I was thinking "Did you see Joan Benoit Samuelson?"
Greta actually got a photo of me and Samuelson:
|Yep, that's me, trying not to look too bad as Samuelson crushes me!|
|Not too shabby...|
|You can see Samuelson, in her yellow cap, at left. At least try to look tired, Joan!|
I was a little disappointed that I couldn't stay with Samuelson all the way to the end, and that I hadn't quite held my 6:10 pace. But I'm glad that I managed to pick things up after my disappointment at Mile 5. I'm really glad I got to race with a living legend, even though she beat me in the end, at ten years older than me! She was the third-place Master's runner, and the first female finisher over age 43. Oh yeah, she has definitely still got it!
I shook Samuelson's hand and congratulated her on her race, and then she was whisked away to be interviewed over the PA system, while I wandered around looking for Gatorade, and my friends.
"Did you see Joan Samuelson?" I asked them, excitedly.
"Was she the winner?" Greta asked.
Oh, she was. She most definitely was. And I was honored to be running, ever so briefly, alongside.