by Josh Merlis
This was my 3rd time running in the Syracuse Half Marathon, having previously toed the line in '14 and '15. I greatly enjoyed running in the race, both on a general level (i.e., simply to be racing) and on an event-specific level. Besides HMRRC Winter Series #2 and a 26.2M relay in 2017, I hadn't raced a half since Syracuse 7 years ago. I definitely have missed racing and am making a concerted effort to at least get in a few each year, having otherwise gone several years without running in a non-Winter Series race.
One of the bizarre things about not racing for a really long time is not having a clear indication of fitness. Yes, I have a general idea from workouts, but nothing can replace the experiential gains of racing. From the taper to the hyper-focus of those final few days, and, most importantly, the unique advantage of race day (hopefully) offering others at your side and no reason not to give it your all, it is all the reason that races should be the days you run your best.
Even though I had run it before, beyond not really remembering it and, considering that they had changed a lot of the course, the one thing I did that probably was of most benefit was that I drove the course the day prior. This was a huge mental boost on race day knowing exactly what to expect, having seen it some 16 hours prior.
From an expectations perspective, sub 1:15 was the big goal, with breaking 1:16 as perhaps the dividing line of what I'd consider a solid race for myself. Having recently turned 40, I was also competing in a USATF National Masters Championships for the first time, and participated in a race for the first time with a bib also on my back, this one reading "M40".
When the race started, I found myself behind a lot of people who had started very fast. I was surprised at how quickly some people took off, and while there were a few moments that I definitely had to chop my stride or move out to the side, I then reminded myself, “you've only been running for 45 seconds :)” and focused on minimizing exertion and extra distance, tucking in and coasting along. My first mile would be my slowest of the race, and that was just fine.
It was humbling to see so many runners in front of me with the USATF numbers on their backs. I also quickly realized that they were color coded to make it easier to tell who was in your division from a distance, beyond the range with which one could read the text. A man with an M50 number pulled alongside me as we began to work together to move up through the field. Playfully, it was fun to be passing runners without numbers on their back, AKA the youth of the event. (Which, yes, in some cases meant only 3 months younger than myself. I better enjoy this while it lasts!) The man I was running with was 52 year old Gregory Putnam. Eventually we were joined by 53 year old Mark Callon. The two of them would go on to finish 1st (Mark) and 2nd for their age division at this National Championship.
After nearly 7 miles of running with them and a few others, another guy with an M40 pulled up alongside me and said, "I'm making a move to catch that guy, let's go" as he gazed at a yellow bib about 75 yards ahead. It was relatively quite a long distance to cover, and while I definitely wasn't looking forward to leaving the nest and the extra effort it required, we were on a downhill and so I let this other guy lead the way as I followed behind. About 90 seconds later, I looked down at my watch for the first time all race when it wasn't beeping for a mile, and saw 4:58 pace for the past quarter mile. While it was a downhill, this was definitely going to spell disaster, so I backed off a bit as the other guy continued on. I was around 8.5 miles at this point.
I came through mile 9 in 5:24, which as a time, was definitely faster than I would feel comfortable. It was aided by a considerable elevation drop, so I remained composed as I kept my eyes up on the man who had left me and the one he had just passed. By 15K, I caught the one who had encouraged our break from the pack, and shortly before mile 10, I shared an unspoken Let's Go with my new friend as I passed him, well aware that it would take my fastest 5K of the day to break 1:15.
And so it was, in a race with nearly 2,000 runners, I ran the last 5K completely alone. The next guy ahead had a 30+ second lead on me at the 15K split, which was nearly 200 meters. I was tiring but I was also thinking about what I was doing and how much I had missed it. Racing - not just about the interpersonal interactions along the way of "competition", but the more intrinsic value of self-realization and putting one's self in the hurt box. The agony of clawing your way forward; the pain of enervation coupled with the unrelenting reality that you're not quite done yet. At mile 11, I knew I had a chance of breaking 1:15. At mile 12, I still had a "chance", but it was going to take my fastest final mile+ of the day, and there was no one around to propel me forward. The man ahead still had a decent advantage and what was behind me didn't matter; the race is in front. As I write this, I realize that I never looked back. It's an old adage in XC racing, never look back. It tells those behind you that you are fading, you are dying. You are worried about who is coming, not who you are catching. I was chasing time. I was running through mental checklists of what ancillary muscles to engage, what minor things I could do, to squeeze out every bit of energy and vitality. All that mattered was what was in front of me. And as the finish line approached, I saw the red LED lights from the clock ticking up, at their steady, metronomic march. And seizing a strength and effort that only has a place at moments like these, I did it. And it hurt so much. But the satisfaction of proving to one's self that you can do it is the best feeling in the world.
After the race, I attended the USATF awards ceremony, the baby of the room. Indeed, it was a strange place to be, but also humbling. Beyond the ever-changing Age Grade calculators that get refined to provide some "objective" comparative measurement across the ages, no such magic is needed to know that when a 73 year old woman runs a 1:42 and a 73 year old man runs a 1:32, it is amazing. A 61 year old man ran 1:19. Incredible! And in my age group, the leader of the day ran 1:09:46. Just incredible. The fitness in that room, this collection of faces, with the youngest of us 40, and the oldest nearly requalifying for Masters for a second time, was something to behold. And as I sat there, eating my pancakes and staring around the room, I couldn't help but think, "I want to be like them when I grow up."