On the start line, we’re simultaneously winners and losers
...and sometimes we're neither
On February 10, 2002, I ran the inaugural Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham, fighting excruciating cramps on an unseasonably warm day to finish in over four hours. I had no idea that some 20 years later I would be at the pointy end of the field at that race, year after year, cruising at a sub-6 minute mile almost effortlessly.
I also had no idea I’d be doing that on a bike.
But isn’t that the way every ride or race is, just taken to an extreme? At the beginning of every ride, the possibilities spool out endlessly – with endings we’re aware of and untold others we’re not and will never know.
This was the final year for the Mercedes marathon. While that first year I fulfilled a promise I made to myself, the thing I value even more is having served as an escort for the leaders for the past several years.
Because our cycling team is sponsored by Mercedes-Benz U.S. International, which has a plant near Tuscaloosa, we’ve been asked to serve as escorts for the men’s and women’s leaders of the race for the past five or six years.
The course is one lap for the half marathon and two laps for the full. As a result, when the leaders are on their second lap, they overtake runners just finishing the half. And those runners usually aren’t expecting anyone to come up behind them at a 5- or 6-minute per mile pace.
There is no other way I would ever be at the front of a competitive race. But because of this role, for the past few years I’ve been just off the shoulder of the women’s winner of the race around the whole course. It’s an indescribable gift to see the race through a winner’s eyes.
As we ride with them, we let runners ahead know that the leader is coming up behind them so they don’t inadvertently step in front of them. And we let the crowds along the course know that the women’s leader is passing by.
The cheers from the groups of volunteers at the aid stations are loud and predictable. And the folks who are out in support of a family member or friend will cheer the leaders on, too.
But the cheers that moved me most were the ones from other women running, young and old, who see one of their own excelling, and who happened to have the good fortune that day to run next to the winner ever so briefly. There was so much emotion in their “go girl!” and “you got this!”
Serving as an escort was a possibility I never would have considered 20 years ago; in fact I didn’t even know it was possible. Yet it existed, just beyond my knowledge.
It’s sort of like the thought experiment in quantum mechanics called Schrödinger’s Cat. In the most simple terms, the thought experiment says that a cat locked in a steel box with a vial of poison, that may or may not have been broken, is simultaneously both alive and dead until it is observed. I know, I know. Don’t ask me to explain quantum superpositions. I can’t.
I DNF’d at a gravel race a few weeks ago, but I guess at the start line I was both a finisher and a quitter simultaneously. It just depended on what we observed at the 50 mile mark. And this year, five miles into the marathon I had a flat I couldn’t fix and had to stop. Hundreds of miles of gravel on that tire and I get a flat in downtown Birmingham. Who saw that end coming?
Thinking back to that marathon in 2002, I was both a runner 20 years into the future and not, simultaneously. As it turns out, once observed, I was something completely different.
I guess sometimes when you open the box you discover that not only is the cat still alive, it’s not even a cat anymore.
Three minutes of video with the 2020 women’s leader: Video