Long distances races don’t begin like a clean Olympic sprint. There are no defined running lanes. No established order. The runners cross the starting line in a horde, lurching forward like an army charging into battle. Unless you’re at the front of the line, you don’t start at your best speed. You walk, maybe jog, and wait for openings between weaving, stumbling runners.

I started the 5k in the middle of the pack. It was my first race since my knee injury. I didn’t want to push myself too hard, only to be passed over and over again as I limped through the rest of the race. I waited for openings, slipped between runners where I could, and kept waiting for my kneecap to pitch a fit. All I cared about was finishing without having to slow to a walk. If I could run the whole 3.1 miles, if I could keep my speed without the pain returning, nothing else mattered. What I didn’t expect was to end up in the most competitive race of my life.

I’m in there. Somewhere. I think.

The horde sticks together for the first third of a 5k. People love hosting races along narrow waterfront walkways. When that two foot gap opens between a clumsy competitor and the ocean, you think twice before going for it. Runners unused to longer distances put the pedal to the metal right out of the gate, matching other runners’ speed whether or not they can keep it up. Just past the first mile is when the crowd finally begins to thin. Fast racers pull ahead while the overreachers hit the wall and slow to catch their breath. For a mediocre runner like me, that’s when the race really begins.

The crowd stretched out like a jagged line across the course. Little groups of two or three runners bunched up, using each other to set their speed. My strategy has always been to catch up to one of those groups, hang with them for a minute, then swing around them when and if I decided I could beat them. My first two races went like that the whole way. Find a group, match a group, pass a group; until, in the last mile, the runners spread out so far that the only people I saw were the ones going full bore past me on their final sprint.

This race was different. This race was when I met my Nemesis.

I reached her group halfway through the course. As always, I found my spot behind them and hung with them long enough to build up the will to push past. I noticed something. Something unexpected. The woman in the group glanced over her shoulder. A flick of eye movement that only people who do not intend to be passed give. She knew I was coming. I put on some speed and passed on her left before slowing to my normal pace about ten feet beyond her.

I did the eye-flick myself, first over my right shoulder. All clear. Then over my left. Not all clear. She was there, pacing herself in exactly the spot I’d found behind her. She wasn’t letting me go. She wanted to race. A minute later she was ahead of me again. A minute after that, I’d passed her. We traded position over and over for most of a mile. I’d never had this before. I’d never had competition. Either someone was faster than me, or I was faster than them. Her, though? She was my equal. She was my Nemesis.

It was time to get real. I remembered Olympic commentators talking about race strategy. Rather than pass, I kept just behind her and pushed the pace bit by bit, forcing her to either give in or speed up to keep me behind. Every once and a while I’d break ahead of her, then let her pass again when she sped up. Either my conditioning was better, and forcing her to keep at my speed would tire her out, or she was the stronger runner and I’d never keep ahead of her anyway.

The desperate look of a man nearing the finish line and wanting to die.

We were running along the San Diego Embarcadero, a stretch of waterfront sidewalks connecting long strips of public parkland. The final leg of the race led through one of those parks, in a slow, curving loop around its circumference. As we turned into the park, my Nemesis made her move. She came up from behind me with a speed I couldn’t match. When she made it ahead of me she didn’t slow. She rounded a corner and kept going. I didn’t have a run like that in me. I was defeated. My Nemesis had won.

Or so I thought. Races are a strange thing. You never know what you have in you until the moment arrives and you reach for speed and strength. Sometimes you find it and it pushes you so hard and so fast you wonder where it had been the rest of the race. Other times, there’s nothing but an empty well; you just fade until you stumble across the finish line.

I don’t know if she pushed too hard and hit a wall, or if the speed I found was more than her own, but by the next curve I was beside her again. This time, it was me who kept going. I curved left, then right, not bothering to look back. If she was there, keeping pace, there was nothing I could do. It wasn’t until the last turn that I chanced a final look over my shoulder.

Nothing. I’d broken ahead. I’d made my move, and my move was just enough. I crossed the finish line alone. Half the pack had finished ahead of me, but my Nemesis finished behind. I hadn’t won a thing. It didn’t matter.

For the first time in my life, I hadn’t run. I’d raced.


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33 Responses to Nemesis

  1. Carrie says:

    This is so good. I really loved it. Perfect!! The last line is sheer awesomeness. :)

  2. Mel says:

    did you go to SD explicitly for a 5K, or was the 5K just part of the trip?

    These are the things that I think about.

  3. Mere says:

    Great post. The first play-by-play of a footrace that ever made me give a shit who won — and not just because I was hoping she’d eventually whup your ass (though there was that, too). Congratulations on the race — RACE! — as well as the finely-written blog entry.

  4. There is so much energy and emotion here. She wasn’t just your competition, she was your NEMESIS. It charges the whole piece with one word. And in the end, when you make the distinction between just running and racing—I got chills. Word choice is the boss in this piece and you rock it out. Erin

  5. I love, love, love a post about running. And this is a great one. I love the weaving of recreational running after an injury with the Olympic spirit and strategy. It gives me hope that I may run again after my butt injury, which plagues me as I write this. I love that your nemesis was a woman and I love that you raced. My favorite part of a race is when I stop looking behind me and just follow the lure of the finish line. (Because that’s where the bagels and bananas are waiting!)

  6. I love the distinction you made between “running the racing” and “racing.” So true and well expressed. I’m just glad your nemesis was not your kneecap. And thank you for shining a spotlight on those sadistic race starts. Is there some unwritten rule that they can’t be over 20 ft wide? And it is always chilly by the water. I start off cool and end up hot. My joints are never happy with that. Ellen

  7. Sam says:

    That moment in a race where you just know that you are going to cross the finish line ahead of someone that has been in your view through all the miles? Indescribable. But you did describe it, and beautifully. As a runner, I relate to this intensely. I have a race coming up at the end of September, and you inspired me to search out a nemesis of my own to push me through to the finish.

  8. Kenja says:

    I love this! So many runners seem to portray the race as a solitary sport where the only person they compete against is their endurance. I love that you really made me care whether or not your Nemesis would pass you, if your knee would hold out (and by the way, I wouldn’t have minded an update on how your knee was at the end of the race) or if you would hit a wall and finish limping. I also like that you provided your strategy about running with groups to pace and then moving on. You also described the crowd and its gradual thinning perfectly. Great post!

  9. christina says:

    awesome. just awesome. i’m not into running or racing at all, yet i really felt connected. like a camera strapped to your head.

  10. Woo. Good for you. I’ve had those experience in bike races. Someone is slowed down in front of you — you muster all your energy to pass — only to have them pass you again in the next minutes. You can’t stay within two bike lengths because of drafting penalties. I’ve unfortunately had this gone on for miles. I’m not so great that I can bury them behind me.

  11. Mamarific says:

    I have never run a race, but you just made me feel like I have. And I think my knee is about to “pitch a fit”, as well!! Great post.

  12. This was so fun to read and I’ve never ever raced! You captured this so well and I loved the last line!

  13. stephanie says:

    I enjoyed the “pace” of your story. I was right there with you. Good title, great last line. I enjoyed looking over your shoulder at your nemesis, certainly a metaphor, as well, for whomever or whatever we feel we compete with in our lives.

  14. You really do run in cargo pants! Great story, well told. I ran exactly one 5K in my life, for charity, and it took me forty-five minutes. One for each year of my life at that time. :)

  15. Ado says:

    Oh I love that last line: I hadn’t run, I’d raced.
    Wow – what a great description. I am not a runner and frankly have always wondered about what goes on inside the big herd. Nice to know. (-:

  16. Mayor Gia says:

    WOOHOO! Good for you! I couldn’t tell how it was going to end…

  17. YES. I loved this. When it comes to sports and games and whatnot, I’m crazy competitive, so i totally GET this. I’m glad you beat that chick.

  18. samatwitch says:

    Congratulations on a great RACE, Eric, and a great, very descriptive post. I hope your knee has not given you any trouble since.

  19. Larks says:

    This post is a great example of how really good writing and story telling is what makes a post. Mostly when I read posts about races they’re like, “OK. So I ran the Charity 5k I’ve been talking about for months. This chick was fast but I passed her. Here are infinity pictures of me all sweaty post-race. Here is me telling you about my running shoes in an effort to subtly sneak in a sponsored post. Now let me tell you about my blisters.” And then I make a mental note not to buy those sneakers out of pure spite and fall asleep. But this was awesome! A Nemesis! Zounds!

    On an unrelated note I’m so impressed that you actually applied strategy to a 5k. When I do them my game plan is to keep up the pace I’ve been doing in training, not get knocked over, and not die.

  20. I have never been a runner. Every time I try, I end up hurting myself, so I’ve decided it’s just not for me. But, wow! You made me feel like I was right out there with you! Great job!

  21. Jane says:

    My safety in running has always been that I could just run against myself, as you said. That lets me be where I am and not worry too much about comparing myself to the rest of the pack. Your post made me think, though, about how having a “nemesis,” someone who was very close to you in ability, spurred you on. I’m thinking now how that applies to other situations in my life where I’m struggling to get better. It makes me wish I had a cleaning “nemesis” or an organization “nemesis,” so I could be spurred on to add that little bit of effort but not feel overwhelmed by the people who are miles ahead. Of course, Yeah Write is full of my writing “nemeses.” :)

  22. Bill Dameron says:

    So, was the nemesis this unnamed woman, or was it really yourself, hmmm…Well done, I really enjoyed the race to the finish on this one.

  23. Kathleen says:

    It takes a gifted writer to tell a story about running and keep it engaging. This was so suspenseful. I really couldn’t see how it would all play out till the ending. Nicely done, sir! And congratulations on beating your nemesis.

    P.S. I’m a runner too (three 1/2s, one full) but I’ve never done a 5K. I think the whole racing aspect of a 5K intimidates me because I’m really slow. I prefer longer “races” because I don’t actually have to race. It’s just me and the pavement. I finish when I finish. I’m happy with that.

  24. IASoupMama says:

    If sports writers wrote like this, I might actually care about reading about sports. I love the tension and suspense!

  25. Great story!! Very good pacing (pun intended). Loved the outcome.

  26. Laura says:

    Congratulations! I’ll be looking out for you at my next race!

  27. SO GOOD, you! Loved this, and not just because I pretend to be a runner sometimes. Really great read. I’ve never “competed” against anyone but myself during a race either, so I loved this perspective.

  28. So good. So effin’ good.
    I loved every word.

  29. Great story, well told. Love that Nemesis was a woman and that you (barely) kicked her ass, knees intact. As someone who recently broke the 20-minute mile (Usain is really, really nervous about that; he just hides it well), I’m awed by anyone who can run MULTIPLE miles. In one outing.

  30. Great post. We really only run against ourselves… and a nemesis if we can find one… or make one up. :)

  31. I always wonder how people stay competitive in those big races. I guess you find a challenger and battle them to the end. Congrats on your victory!

  32. Peach says:

    Wow. You truly made every word count. I was so nervous, feeling like I was right there with you! What an accomplishment for you, not only to overcome the injury but to discover your nemesis as well! Enjoyed this so much!

  33. Moi says:

    Wish I could still run!

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