Thursday, November 5, 2009

Just the wind in my ears

I don’t know what sinister force drove me to enter that race. All around me, the warm atmosphere of Thanksgiving was being celebrated. While turkeys tantalizingly sizzled in ovens, I shivered at the far tip of Long Island.

Montauk Point greeted us with a cold, cruel wind. Angry manes of ocean waves broke against sandy beaches. During the warm-up, one runner attracted my attention. His footsteps were light, almost ethereal. The way he moved suggested many years of long-distance running.

My friend, Kevin, was warming up with me. “Who is that fellow?” I asked. “It’s John . He came here for the holidays from New York,” he replied. “What’s his 10K PR?” I persisted. Kevin started to say something, but a sudden gust of wind distorted his words. I heard something like, “32 minutes and change.” Yeah, that shouldn't be a problem, I thought boldly.

I was more concerned with what I should wear. Since it was overwhelmingly cold, I decided to run in wool tights, a long-sleeved shirt, and gloves. When a frigid gust of wind almost blew through me, I added a “singlet.”

The six-mile course circled around Fort Pond. About a dozen of us started. We turned left, straight into an icy headwind, and I found myself leading. There was no need to look behind me; long shadows were leading the pack.

Immediately I knew that someone was "stuck" to my back. I could see his shadow in front of me. I was irritated, since I resent being used as someone else’s windscreen. I quickly jumped to the right-hand side of the road, the shadow right behind me. With equal speed, I returned to the left side, the shadow clinging to me. In my many years of street racing, I had learned a few tricks. It was the right time to use one of them…

Unexpectedly, I faked a stumble, diving forward. Having been caught by surprise, the shadow running behind me hesitated and was hit with a strong blast of wind, which put him off stride. Quickly, I “recovered” and sped up, believing that I had him exactly where I wanted .

At the next bend, I cast a fast look in the former shadow’s direction. It was John . Now the wind blew from my right, and if I wanted to exploit its power, I would need to run with my right shoulder slightly tilted into it. From a bio mechanics standpoint, I thought, this form should be futile, but …

Feeling confident, I was regulating my breath when suddenly, John drew level with me. My first reaction was surprise, followed by a rush of anger a moment later. The anger fueled my burst of speed.

John "sat on me" and momentarily countered my escape. Now I really started to sweat. What's more, I didn't have any reserves. I had already run to the max, and every additional dash on his part would be a disaster for me. Fortunately, John started to fade as well. It was then that I tried my luck with another dash.

Why did I do that, knowing that I was at my limit? Because that is exactly what the psychology of racing is all about. When power fails, a game of “make believe” begins in order to manipulate and deceive the opponent. Every rough dash is a signal of sort: “I still have plenty left.”

Such a ruse is a double-edged sword. It is equally possible for the instigator to suffer from it. One should simply observe how the opponent reacts to the taunt. And my opponent seemed to have nerves of steel. When I gave the challenge, he answered with redoubled effort.

In this way, fighting each other and with escalating exhaustion, we commenced the second lap. I was plowing forward again, with him behind my back. This time I slowed down to a ridiculously slow jog – I almost stopped! Did it provoke him to take the lead? Not a chance.

It wasn't all that strange, because the dreadful wind grew stronger and maliciously blew fists of sand straight into my eyes. My spit came back like a boomerang straight into my face. The sand mixed with sweat to irritate my skin. Every inhalation ended with choking and stuck to the back my throat, making it every bit as hard to exhale.

The next curve came and I made another dash, finishing the challenge. Would this Via Dolorosa ever end? I was starting to have my doubts.

What the heck did I need this victory for? Was second place so bad? But second place is defeat and defeat brands the weak. I am starting baring fangs to this wimp, being born in me. In order to kick him, I forced myself to a last, desperate attack. There before me, I saw the only hill on the course. My strategy was to conquer the top in a mad sprint. I could die like a dog after that, so long as the defeated weakness of second place was left behind.

I only needed some motivation, some sort of psychological lift, and I could get the rest of my energy from my secret compartment. Then it came to me!! September, 1939. At Wolka Weglowa, Polish soldiers were preparing for the fatal attack aimed at breaking through to the capital city, Warsaw. In the middle of the night and out of bullets, they put their bayonets on their rifles. The enemy outnumbered them and was well-armed. The mission seemed impossible, and all they had was their faith.

Italian war correspondent, Mario Appelius , recorded the rumble as it grew louder. Singing, marked with desperation, erupted from exhausted throats, sending chills down the enemies’ spines. Suddenly, soldiers ready to die to protect Warsaw began screaming “Hooray!!!”

This exact vision of the Jazlowiec Uhlan Regiment making the impossible possible allowed me to make an insane attack, in spite of the agony and wheezing in my throat. I pulled it off! John started losing 5, 10, 15 yards, and at the top of the hill, we were both completely spent. Although the finish was still several hundred yards ahead, the rest of the distance was not much of a race at all.

At the finish line, I fell down with no strength left and almost fainted. My lungs seemed to explode. My face was covered with a mix of saliva, mucus and sweat, and my muscles trembled from exhaustion. After a very long moment, I dragged myself to the beach, simply to be alone. Kevin, who all the time had been running behind us, found me there. Congratulating me on the victory he said, “I didn't expect that you would win. John has a better PR than you.” “How come?” I asked. “It should be two minutes worse than mine!”

It turned out that John, who dominated most races in Central Park, indeed had the better PR. I looked at the stormy ocean. I thought for a moment then, saying nothing, I smiled. There was no need for words. There was only the wind in my ears...

Wojtek Wysocki

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