I didn't go into last weekend expecting to learn a lesson about sportsmanship. I haven't really been thinking about that concept within the context of endurance sports since I stopped racing ironman events. I haven't verbalized it much, but one of my dislikes about the sport of triathlon is all the wasted brain cycles worrying about draft zones and passing/fallback rules. Running is much more pure, and it takes an obvious and egregious error of judgement to gain an advantage unfairly.
The subject of sportsmanship came up out on the SD100 course this last weekend and I wanted to share some of the details before I forget them.
First, the raw details. At Paso Picacho, mile 64-ish of the course, the 2nd placed male runner, Dylan Bowman, arrived ahead of the previous race leader, Yassine Diboun. Dylan asked for a split to Yassine and was told he was now the race leader. This sent a bit of a panic in motion, because Dylan was very concerned that he might have somehow cut the course, but felt very confident that he had followed all the markers correctly. His crew did all they could to make sure he calmed down and got him on his way. Next in was Yassine, who was similarly shaken by knowing that he had gone off course for a bit and run some extra miles. He, too, needed encouragement to keep going and put aside this mistake. At this point there wasn't anything else to do for either of these two guys but to forget the past and run towards the finish. That's what I always love about running, clarity of purpose exists with every step, and the majority of problems we encounter in a race are the ones we create for ourselves by failing to execute properly.
My longtime friend, Rod Bien, was in 3rd place at Paso Picacho after some rough periods earlier in the day. At the next aid station, Sweetwater, he had recovered and was trying to close the gap to 2nd. By the next station, Sunrise 2, he was only a few minutes behind Yassine, who we managed to catch (as I was pacing) just before Pioneer Mail. The three of us arrived at the aid station together, with 13 miles to go.
The next bit is what surprised me the most, what I found was the most unusual aspect of the evening. Rod actively encouraged Yassine to follow, to stay with us, and to not drop back. Yassine wasn't dead or even dying, but he was willing to accept that Rod had made up time by catching him, and therefore willing to concede 2nd place without much of a fight. I believe Yassine was on pace for a big PR but haven't confirmed that, this is all off fuzzy memory from the discussion which was really shouting over the wind in the dark of the night on rocky trail. Rod was clearly strong on the climbs, but Yassine was running very well, especially for having been in the lead of the race for a substantial portion of the day. As a result of his own toughness, and with a little bit of encouragement, Yassine finished together with Rod, side by side, having run the final 15 miles together. Interestingly enough, when prompted at Sweetwater, Yassine said he didn't want a pacer, and yet when given the opportunity to run with Rod at the end, he accepted without hesitation. I think that says a lot about the positive energy and unwillingness to fail that flows through Rod's veins and makes him such a magnetic personality.
When I spoke with coach Krissy about this, she wasn't fazed at all. In the moment, I must admit I had a mixed reaction to it. On one hand, I saw how incredible a memory this race was for Rod, and also for Yassine, I believe it was a 100 mile pr for both of them and the course is not one that anyone might consider "too easy". I wholeheartedly agree that a shared memory with a friend is substantially more indelible than a selfish memory experienced alone. That is one big reason why I love pacing or being paced, it's so much more than just running, it's a shared moment in four dimensions. On the flip side, I have 27 years of seeing Rod's competitive side and it has sharpened similar competitiveness in me along the way. I was confused that he would encourage Yassine to stay with us. Now, to be fair, it wasn't as if Rod slowed his pace to accommodate Yassine, it was definitely Yassine who became re-invigorated by the extra energy of running with us and picked it up a tiny little bit. I think this was the final pendulum swing from the sequence of events on stonewall peak that took him from 1st to 2nd and fractured his focus, but that is all pure speculation, I'll hope he enlightens me in his blog.
My vision of how things might unfold after picking up Rod at Sweetwater and seeing how strong he was running, was that we would try to catch Yassine, pass Yassine, catch Dylan, and dig deep for a chance at the win. Let me be clear that both Rod and Yassine ran harder than I could imagine, at times they dropped me, on a course I know very well and with 75 less miles in my legs. I also don't think anyone could have caught Dylan as he wound up finishing over 10 minutes ahead, it would have taken a minute-per-mile faster pace to overcome that gap, or otherwise completely ignoring all of the remaining aid stations and still running maybe a half minute per mile faster, all of which is very hard to imagine. So, in actuality, Rod gave up nothing by encouraging Yassine to stay with us, if anything he added to his cocoon of energy by having a 3rd runner in the pack. It was, without question, a good decision, just one that I was surprised by.
I've run with others in races a fair bit, sometimes as a pacer, but also as dual-athletes. The side by side athlete experience is different than the pacer/athlete experience, it's more raw and uncensored. It helps to be chasing someone, especially if both of you are chasing the same person. The closest memory I have to that is a moment on the Queen K in Kona where I was chasing down a fellow San Diegan, Michelle Gwozdo, who had dusted me on the bike and was running strong about 10 minutes ahead. I encountered the next female in her age group and the two of us pushed hard to bridge the gap, although it wound up being too substantial to close, so we both had to accept that Michelle was just too awesome to catch that day. Ironically, Michelle got in touch with me not too long ago about her interest in running her first 50k at Noble Canyon. Perhaps that is what helps regurgitate that memory of her.
I suppose a key aspect of enjoying a shared effort with a fellow competitor is that the competitor must pose no threat to my goal. And I suppose the key lesson for me to learn and realize is that ultras in general, and 100's in particular, are far more about the clock as adjusted for the conditions of the day and course, than about the people in front of you. Road marathons are so predictable that as competitors we spend an inordinate amount of time focused on position, particularly in relation to people we want to beat. Being out on the trail after dark is a bit different, the glory of the podium is entirely internal and ultimately irrelevant. There are no bragging rights and so few inflated egos. Ultrarunning ist mostly about running as well as we can on the day of the event, regardless of anyone else. How we measure that effort is often by clock, but also, fairly often, by feel as well since the clock doesn't tell the whole story. Position is a nice carrot, a garnish, but not the main course.
I suppose that lesson is still soaking in, as it's not completely learned or understood yet, and that shows in my inability to describe it. Perhaps, as I attempt my first 100, I will absorb this perspective and learn to embrace it.