Running on the Wrong Side of the Tracks

I’ve run over 40 marathons, so I’m not a rookie. I’ve read most of the training programs out there. I know the names of all the workouts. I know about building mileage and tapering and having a race strategy. But no one ever mentioned what to do if you’re stopped by a train during a marathon.

Here’s the scene: Portland, Oregon on as pretty a day for running a marathon as you can imagine. Crisp air, blue skies and plenty of sunshine. I’m leading a group of runners who want to finish somewhere between five hours and anytime on Sunday. We’re having more fun than anyone should have on a marathon course, when suddenly…

At about mile six we see lights flashing and the crossing gates coming down. Understand, although this is early in the race, we’ve all got out game faces on, we’re focused, and we’re talking to each other. In other words, no one is really paying much attention to the fact that there is a train coming until a volunteer placed himself in between us and the tracks.

I don’t know what you think you’d do if you were stopped by a train at mile six of a marathon, but I’ll bet you’d be wrong if you guessed. I’ll tell you what I did. I just stared. For an instant I couldn’t make sense out of it. My mind wouldn’t process the reality of standing with a group of over 100 marathoners with my waist pressed up against a train crossing gate. I could hear the train, I could see the flashing lights, but I couldn’t take it all in.

Most of us just stood there. Some, who apparently were having more trouble grasping what was going on than I was, ran in place. Now, I might run in place while waiting for a traffic signal to change, but this was a train. This was a slow train. Running in place didn’t seem like the answer.

It finally occurred to me to stop my watch. After all, I’m already slow, I don’t need to add the minutes I stood waiting to my time. But I didn’t stop it right away, so I wasn’t sure how long I’d been waiting. And that’s when my own lights started flashing. The train wasn’t an obstacle, it was a gift.

First off, since no one knew exactly how long we had to wait for the train to pass, the amount of time each of us subtracted from our official time was a matter of good guessing and pure fiction. Some say we only waited about five minutes. I say is was more like an hour and 20 minutes. Look, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. I’m taking off an hour and 20 minutes. There’s no other way I’ll ever run a marathon in under four hours.

And secondly, when the train finally passed, it was as if we were in the lead pack! What an amazing sight. A marathon course stretching out in front of me empty. No wonder the fast runners like to be up there. Marathons look very different if you don’t have thousands of bodies ahead of you.

It was worth the wait just to have the experience of coming to a water table and not having to elbow past the crowd to get a cup. I had no idea. Apparently, if you’re in the lead pack, you can actually choose which cup you want to take, instead of grabbing the first one you see.

The joy of leading didn’t last long, however. Soon those that had been stopped behind us were making their way past. I wondered if that’s how it feels to the leaders when they are run down by the second pack. I thought, briefly, of responding to the challenge of those pushing the pace, but thought better of it and settled into a comfortable waddle.

In time, we closed the gap on those who had missed the train. It wasn’t that we were going that much faster, it was just that they had begun to fade while we all had a chance to catch our breath. I went on to have one of the best marathons of my life, even without the exaggerated time subtracted.

So for me, marathon training has now taken on a very different meaning. I don’t think that I’d want to stop 10K into every marathon, but it sure made this one more memorable. I know that I’ve never before had the chance to turn around and see the faces of those running behind me. I know that I’ve never had the chance to talk so personally with a small group of runners either.

Best of all, it was fun to see the smiles on all the faces as they realized they were watching a column being written right before their eyes.

Waddle on, friends.

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