"At first I thought that was a beer in your hand!" one runner says as he eyes the stubby antenna of a GPS receiver sticking up like the neck of a bottle from my left fist.
"I wish it were," I reply. "I could use one now!"
We're near mile 12 of Riley's Rumble: 13 miles 192.5 yards of hills, humidity, and heat --- and also of happiness, hard healthy work, and high spirits for more than 500 finishers plus the volunteers who serve as organizers, race officials, course marshals, cheerleaders, and water station managers. Our route includes challenging climbs as we follow country roads up from the Potomac River, dip back down at intervals to cross rustic streams on one-lane bridges, and wind our way upward again to ridge lines. The weather is better than it might have been. There's a lingering coolness from last night, a layer of high clouds to keep the sun under control, and intermittent light breezes. But it's nonetheless a warm and damp summer morning, and we feel it. And did I mention the hills?
"Half Marathon" is a poor-stepchild second-class-citizen name for a foot race. But what else can you call a 13.1 mile run? "Mara" sounds like a little girl's name. "Thon" brings to mind beach sandals, uncomfortable underwear, or maybe a science fictional monster. "Rath", taking its half out of the middle, is far too angry in tone. Maybe there just isn't a good name for 21+ kilometers. No matter.
Riley's Lock on the C&O Canal gives this race its name and its starting point. Early morning fishermen are startled to see first a trickle, then a flood of cars that fill the parking lots and overflow onto all available space in nearby fields. Runners change clothes, double-knot shoelaces, walk to the river and along the canal towpath, quaff water and sports drinks, stalk nervously around the area, and line up for last-minute porta-john visits. Three friends join me a few minutes before the race. None of us have been training much, but we figure that we can go slow, turn around to shorten the distance if we feel like it, and generally have fun. We chat together as the throng gathers.
Then it's 7:30am and we're off. The crowd is dense; it takes us about a minute to get to the starting line. Finally we're able to break into a jog. Early this morning I changed my GPS batteries, but apparently the "new" cells I used were actually stale: a warning indicator tells me that I don't have much power left. I take waypoint coordinates and stopwatch splits at every mile marker, but have to shut the receiver down otherwise and keep my fingers crossed that it doesn't fail.
Two comrades wisely turn back after a couple of miles and steep grades, leaving one buddy and me to plod onwards. My lucky shirt is saturated with sweat half an hour into the run, so I take it off and carry it wrapped around my arm. We turn a corner at a tiny country church and cemetery, the sight of which offers opportunity for weak humor about how we are starting to feel. A rooster belatedly crows. A pair of llamas caper in a field as we run by. Their shaggy brown coats look stiflingly hot.
The course is an out-and-back one with a turnaround at the 6.5 mile point, so after forty minutes we get to cheer the leaders as they blast past us on their way back, setting a pace almost twice as fast as we can manage. Water stations every couple of miles offer welcome relief. I walk for about a minute in every ten, trying to schedule my breaks for uphill segments. A tractor-trailer truck creeps along the narrow road toward us. Some fast runners pass it.
Around mile 8 my fellow traveler's leg muscles start to cramp, so we slow our pace and experiment with brief backward walks, doubtless to the amusement of those who zip by us. I begin to feel pain on my right foot, and fear that a blister is developing.
At mile 11, after my friend insists for the tenth time that I go on ahead, I do --- and the final segment of the race is a brisk downhill jaunt, regaining all the potential energy that we stored up during our climb two hours ago. Then it's onto the dirt road that leads to the finish line on the other side of Seneca Creek from our start. I have to watch my step and avoid potholes and loose stones that could too-easily trip an exhausted runner.
Finally, the finish line ... a welcome drink of cold water ... a walk along a narrow path back to the start ... sliced watermelons ... oranges ... cookies ... more drinks ... and post-race fellowship as people share stories and stretch their legs.
I go back and meet my comrade, whose legs are already beginning to recover from their ordeal. We eat and talk together. Both of us feel pretty good, even though we've each set much faster times during the first halves of full-length marathons. When I take my shoes off I discover a lima-bean-sized bubble of blood under the skin of my right foot. Fortunately it's unbroken.
I put on sandals and capture more GPS latitude-longitude information for the start and finish points. On the way back to the car I meet another friendly runner. She and I chat about our race experiences, training programs, goals, achievements, and frustrations ... which leads us, believe it or not, into a discussion of poetry. She tells me of inspirational verses she has written about running. The conversation is a delightful end to a morning of strenuous exercise.
But for those who prefer numbers to emotions, herewith the coordinates and times recorded during Riley's Rumble, 27 July 2003:
From a least-squares fit to the above:
(see the Montgomery County Road Runners at http://www.mcrrc.org for official race results and additional information ...)