Instride Blog 11/3/12-“Duel In The Snow”

In 1982, Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley battled for 26.2 miles over the course of the Boston streets. Despite pounding out sub-5 minute miles for two-plus hours, only two seconds separated the winner and loser. With one thousand meters left in the race, one of the many men on motorcycles accidentally cut off Beardsley as he rounded the turn, and interrupted his momentum. In his own account of the race, he reflects: “you talk about the perfect excuse that everyone would have believed…everyone would have believed it, except the person it mattered to most–me. When it comes right down to it, plain and simple; I just got out kicked.” After this weekend, I can relate.

About two hours before the race, we were each still hiding under the warmth of our hotel’s bed sheets. My teammates and I were miserable. Despite our current comfort levels being at an all time high, we looked out the window and shivered as the wind howled and the elements came pouring down in the thirty-degree temperatures. We made noises that bordered that gray area somewhere between crying and laughing—this was going to be painful.

The Ivy League Championships, more commonly known as Heps, is not your typical conference meet decided by the arbitrary lines drawn up by football coaches. There is history. These are eight regionally located universities that have been competing in everything since their establishment. It is a personal experience. As you run out during strides, you pass by the seven other coaches who recruited you, the masses of kids you personally hosted on recruiting trips, and the same runners you have been battling since high school. Everyone knows everyone. And when that gun goes off, everyone hates everyone. Hoards of alumni travel from all over the northeast and full teams come on fan buses to pack a cross-country course. There is no single sound tunnel, because the crowd outlines the entire course like it’s the last 200 meters of a typical race. This is Heps—a unique spectacle of ancient rivalries.

We warmed up in the gym. Princeton running one way on the inside of the track; Columbia running the opposite on the outside. Oh, the tension. We get the signal.  Thirty minutes until the gun. We pack up and head over to the course and as we hop out of the van, the chill hits us like an arctic wave. Spikes come on; shirts come off. I am pretty sure this is why clothing was invented, for weather like this. The gun goes off, and within 800 meters, it’s just as I expected—tactical. Only a mad man would be reckless enough to push the pace in the early stages of a race in these conditions. Just after 4k, after trotting along at a tad above 5 flat miles, the first move is made from the guy everyone was expecting to be the one to open things up. We hit the turn, and Cabral surges. My contacts are sheets of ice, and my eyelids are struggling to stay open, but I see the move and respond. Within a half a mile, we have our pack—the contenders have been separated; the race finally starts. The weather has shifted from rain to sleet. I put my gloves to my face and I feel nothing—always a good sign. I take notice of my breathing, contained and relaxed. I try to take notice of my legs, but I feel nothing. I look down to check that they’re still there—they are. That’s instrumental with 3k left of a race with a rapidly dropping pace.

We come around a turn in preparation for the final smaller loop, and Ethan Shaw of Dartmouth takes the pace. He hits the accelerator just a little bit more, and we separate. Now it’s snowing. I am just sitting, and he knows it. But he presses hard into the wind, the only appropriate move for one of the toughest guys I have ever raced. One mile to go, I pretend that I only have less than four minutes of hard running left—a small white lie to calm myself. At 7k, I look at him—he has icicles where his face used to be. I feel great; I’m in a rhythm and for some reason, still very comfortable. I make a small move to put a couple seconds on him, but then I reel it back. I remind myself of my closing speed, and decide to sit a little longer. Big mistake. With 400 to go, it’s my move. I roll, and start to open up. I make the final turn and see 200 meters until it’s all over. But then I feel someone on my shoulder and he’s back. With 50 meters, we are neck and neck. I start pumping my arms, and lifting my legs—but they won’t nudge, I’m a block of ice. And then the snow leopard pounces on me; he gets his head in front and takes the victory in heroic fashion. I cross the first timing pad, but don’t make it to the second. I thump to the ground. I’m asleep.

It’s cold, real cold—and I am a wreck. I don’t know what hurt more, the loss or my body. I am then covered in layers of jackets, but it’s to no avail, so I am carried off to the ambulance. The shivers get worse as my body is fighting to find warmth, and my groin begins to hurt from shaking so much. After 10 minutes, the paramedics suggest to my parents a trip over to the hospital; I’m sure they have blankets there. I know that I am in no way the only person out of the ninety-six-man field in such form; I was just lucky enough to be the first guy to cross the line who needed medical attention. I’m a mess the whole ride; this never happens in the mile.
I was right; they have lots of blankets in the emergency room. Special blankets too! Some had electric heat, some with air bubbles. But before I get under the covers [again], I notice one of the three female nurses going somewhere bad; I’m being stripped. I yell at my mom to get out, she doesn’t need to see this. Then my worst nightmare, “roll over onto your side.” Wait…what? No! AH! SHIT! Well…my rectum gave that thermometer a reading of 95.4, a lot colder than the 98.6 that I normally am. I’m informed of my hypothermic state, and that I’ll be fine; I just need to be thawed. An EKG, a couple bags of IV fluid, some drawn blood, and an hour later, I start to feel a lot better. But I have to use the bathroom badly. I am given a bedpan, but my extremities are frozen shut and the presence of the female nurses makes me shy. Ten minutes of solitude in an empty room does the trick; and now it is time to check my temperature to see how I am doing. Luckily, this time it will be done orally—why that wouldn’t have worked the first time, I do not know. I quickly confirm with the nurse to make sure that this is a different thermometer than the one before, and it is. I am back to normal temperatures. Shortly thereafter, I was released and able to meet up with my team to venture back to the city.

In the van ride back to school we all exchange the various events of our individual 25-minute adventures. The team ran well, but we came up short. Without a doubt in anyone’s mind, we each ran to the fullness of our capabilities; and it is difficult to be upset when you lose because another team [in this case Princeton] ran better, despite our own best efforts. We joke about the many falls suffered during the race, and in the safety and heat of the van we can now laugh about the misery of racing in a frozen tundra. However, as I analyze and explain the breakdown of my own race, I internalize the disappointment.

.1 seconds–It doesn’t get much tighter than that. I try and think about all the different places I could have made up such a slight margin. The difference of one turn being taken a little tighter, or taking two more extra hard steps off the line. Maybe I moved too early, or maybe I moved too late. What would have happened if I pushed the entirety of that final kilometer? Anyone watching the race would have advised me to just sit-and-kick, to be patient and let my speed finish the race out for me. But in the final moments of a cross-country race, logic is irrelevant, personal bests mean nothing, and the first 7900 meters never happened.

I recall the day before; during our pre-meet shakeout I took notice of the fact that the final straightaway was surprisingly short. On Saturday, I can’t describe how long it felt. From the second I finished, I have relived the race in my head over and over again with eidetic clarity. Each time, the distance from the final turn to the end gets further away. But no matter how many times I replay the race, the order of finish won’t change. Now, from here, I take consolation in my best cross-country performance to date. I remind myself of the grit and determination that each of my teammates ran with and how proud I am to have lined up with them in the final XC Heps of my career. I can only look forward.

You learn in the losses, and you truly find yourself in the failure. It is a reminder that no one race defines a career and that the regret of one race can provide the necessary motivation for another. I wanted to win, and I’m upset I did not. But maybe the refusal to walk away content is what will make the difference in the future. Rain or shine, hypothermic or not; I am not satisfied with the simple truth—I just got out kicked.

Author: kylemerber

Kyle Merber is a professional runner for HOKA One One and the New Jersey*New York Track Club. He has personal bests of 3:34/3:52 but would prefer that not be included in his bio because he believes his writing should be judged independently. He tweets a lot @TheRealMerb.

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