20 seconds. In the end, it came down to that little. Less than two seconds a man for the 12 men, all over 40 years old, who ran on Captain John’s New Hampshire Athletic Alliance super master’s division team Sept. 16 and 17 at Reach the Beach. We ran from Cannon Mountain to Hampton Beach, 191.92 miles in 20 hours, 48 minutes and 31 seconds, and came in second in our division by 20 seconds. We finished 9th overall, out of 338 teams. We averaged 6 minute 30 second miles for the whole distance, exactly the pace the Captain had asked us for, and in the end, statistically exactly the same pace as our chief competitors. 20 seconds.
And sure, 20 years from now, I’ll mention that 20 seconds when I tell this story. (You spouses and friends know how insufferable distance runners are about telling their stories … over and over and over again.) But it’s not the 20 seconds that really counted at the end of it all. It’s not why I ran or why I think any of these guys ran. Sure, we wanted to win, but when you get down to the guts of it … we wanted to chase, to hunt, to be hunted, to hurt, to sacrifice, to strive — not just against the intellectual and emotional mountains that 21st century man climbs every day as he makes his living in front of a screen, at a desk, in an office somewhere as he struggles to be a good steward of the gifts he’s been given, his family, his business, his community — but with muscle and sinew and bone against the very substance of the earth itself. It is an ancient, primordial striving that is, well, the guts of it – and at the same time entirely, wonderfully distinct from the intellectual duties and obligations that mean the difference between success and disaster in “real life.”
Running is transcendent.
And for me (though I don’t presume to say for all of us) it is a form of prayer. And when on a team, running may become a material expression of the implied brotherhood, unity of source, at the beginning of the “Our Father.” We will do this thing together; we are of the same stuff, for the same purpose.
It is amazing that the Cap’n was able to pull together a team of 12 men, all of whom, despite or perhaps because of their years and experience, could commit to arriving at the starting line ready to run … fast. The fact that there was only one other super masters division team close to us underscores that point. Yes, everybody came with his own baggage, injuries, worries, mitigating circumstances – I sure did – but everybody came to run.
The kind of training it takes to get to the line at this level is the kind of training it takes to get to the starting line at a marathon. Not everyone makes it – injury can slip like a slim, cruel dagger into the strongest, best runners. As it did with two of our original teammates, much missed on race day.
But were we truly a team as we gathered in the parking lot at Derryfield Country Club in Manchester at 10 a.m. on the morning of the race? I doubt it. Not all of us knew each other well, and some were just meeting for the first time. But by the end? I have no doubt that we were a team. Only a deeply intense experience could fuse 12 people into a team in such a short period of time; which may explain why these relays have grown so popular; they are to men’s friendship as geological time and pressure are to coal.
I won’t try and recap the whole race here – that would take a book, and a broader perspective from more sets of eyes than I have in my own poor head. But I will share, to close, a moment from the race I recall that may begin to describe how that striving begins to fuse men into a true team:
In dark hours of early morning, you come up out of the night along the shoulder of the road toward a small constellation of blinking red lights, bobbing white blotches of headlamps, disembodied skeletal outlines of runners, all shadow except for the reflectors on their vests. You don’t feel like you’re running that fast anymore, but you are, at least compared to the star people you’re passing, slipping by them in the dark, rhythm of your breath and footfalls fast, labored but as tight and sharp and controlled as the wickering fletching of an arrow flung from a bow toward an impossibly distant target. You must, to those people you are passing, seem to be flying. You may remember, in past years, feeling runners come by you at that pace and wonder at how they could be moving so fast, so late at night, after so many miles, and yet they are. And now it’s you: and you are on the hunt. Or you are being hunted. Either way, this leg matters. Because everyone else’s leg will matter to him, and what you do on this leg will determine the significance of every other leg, and you will not be the one who lets somebody else’s gasping, white-hazed, lung-searing, eye-bulging, nightmare run be in vain. You will run that hard, and you are running that hard, and you, an arrow loosed miles ago from eternity’s own bow, go on up the dark road, with the smell of apples and lake and night and fall in New Hampshire in your nose, and a scorching in your lungs, and a tearing in your eyes, and a true, pure desire in your heart.