(This story is getting a bit long, so time to break it up. Folks are always complaining how long my stories are. I apologize ahead of time, but just try to think of it as several stories in one, as most tales are anyway).
Part IV – In the Heat of the Night
After the first mile, only two things concerned me: staying cool and maintaining the pace. In order to do the second, it was imperative to do the first. With nine of us running, we had very little time to get our core temperatures down before the next run. We were averaging less than 6 minutes a mile, so basically we had just over 45 minutes from the end of one mile to get ready for the beginning of the next. The most efficient way to do that was through the strategic application of ice on those areas of the body where the blood is the closest to the surface with the most flow. Thus, we discovered that the wrists and the neck are the best places to cool off the quickest. Also, I found that putting ice cubes inside my hat and letting them melt down my face and neck was exquisite. Without ice, we could NOT have continued past the first three miles. No way.
It seemed I had just started to feel almost normal again when my name was called to get ready. My running mates had all managed to continue their quick times, so it seemed that in spite of the heat we were going to be pushing each other to keep on keeping on. I recognized that that was the true nature of a relay race like this – athletes pushing each other, for the “team” and for personal satisfaction. It was a beautiful concept and all, but we were basically at war, and as such, we continued our individual battles against the sun’s blaze as we fought to keep our paces from flagging.
My second mile passed, about as effortlessly as the first; in fact, it was a second faster than the first at 5:15. What was missing after mile number one was the surge of energy we had previously picked up from the initial excitement of kicking off the relay. There was very little fanfare after that, so from mile number two on, it was all legs and lungs.
The afternoon passed mechanically. Each runner fell into the routine that best suited his makeup. As for me, immediately after each mile, I went to the coolers full of ice and water and chilled off. While icing down my neck and wrists, I guzzled water and Gatorade to replace the gallon of sweat I had just lost. Normally, in any other competitive race, after running a mile or any distance for that matter, I’d simply rest and THAT would be the primary consideration. Not so in a 24-hour relay in the height of summer, because there was a whole lot more to think about.
This morning I spoke to my brother on Yahoo Messenger asking him if he had read anything yet on this post. He had, and being a damn good runner in his own right back in the day, he remarked that he didn’t know how he could possibly have kept himself loose for each mile for that long. He hit the nail on the head. THAT was one of the toughest considerations of the relay, and because of it, I could never really rest between each grueling mile. I’d drink and ice down and then I’d walk around to stay loose; we all did. Every other mile or two I’d mosey over to the nearby college gymnasium to visit the restroom, which by the way, was air-conditioned. Needless to say, we took a lot of potty breaks.
The hours and the miles rolled on. The heat took its toll on all of us, but after 8 miles, one of the runners had to pull out. I was surprised that he lasted through the hottest of the day, and it was only as the sun finally winked out that he called it quits. If you look at the mile times, and I will include them in the next post, you might be surprised that he was the only one to fall out. Heat prostration is deadly, and even when it doesn’t take you down all the way, as it begins to roll you up, it tears away the will to do anything but lie down. The primary symptoms are queasiness, then nausea and absolute weakness and malaise. Go back and look at the ages of these fellows; most were between 14 and 16 years old! I doubt if I could have found 9 runners in my squadron of marines who could have done what we were doing, and these guys were young kids, although obviously pretty amazing ones.
After 10 miles, just five of us were maintaining paces in the sub 6-minute range. I was managing to stay around 5 minute 15 seconds per whack, only George and Jesus were close to me, although not quite as fast. The other runners began calling me “the running machine,” because I kept pumping out almost identical miles. I liked the nickname and I wanted to live up to it. I knew I wasn’t the best miler out there, but I wanted to establish myself as the most consistent. Even after 15 miles I was still “the machine,” but as the clock counted down into the very wee hours, I made a serious mistake.