I don't often get the opportunity to eat dinner with an elite athlete. (My husband, upon reading this, might point out that I often eat dinner with him. Given this, when I refer to "elite athlete" in this post, for the sake of clarity I'll simply exclude the one to whom I'm married.)
This past Saturday, however, I found myself sharing a table with Abraham Chelanga, the winner of last year's Cleveland Marathon. I don't know how these arrangements occurred, quite frankly, except that Joel and I had signed up for the pre-race pasta dinner before this year's race in Cleveland, our table had extra seats, and lo and behold, a small cluster of Kenyan runners needed a place to sit.
I'd love to report that we're now fast friends, but given the language barrier, we only mustered fragmented small talk, the highlight of which was when we referenced our friends who live in Nairobi. Besides, when you're a recreational runner like me, there's not much value to add to a conversation about running with world-class marathoners. "So, you finished your best marathon in 2 hours and 8 minutes by running 26 consecutive sub-five minute miles? Cool. My worst half marathon time was 2 hours and 6 minutes. I think we share some things in common."
When Joel and I retired to our hotel room later that evening, we immediately Googled Abraham and found his statement on the pending conditions for this year's event: "Whatever the weather, the race must be run."
Wise words, Abraham. Wise words indeed.
Because, of course, nobody expects a race in the middle of May to be characterized by chilling temperatures in the 30's, rain, bouts of snow, frequent bitter onslaughts of hail, 20-30 MPH winds, and thunder, for good measure. But that's what went down on Sunday morning when the starting gun sounded, and for miles we slogged through the elements.
Personally, I think the hail was the most exciting feature, like having your face vigorously exfoliated with pellets of ice which, I'm sure, would cost a pretty penny in a salon. The worst aspect was running with sopping wet feet, but I noticed that this, too, serves a purpose: when your feet are numb from cold for the final 10 miles of a race, you thankfully can't feel any blisters forming.
As Joel and I thawed and drove home after the race, we told stories of our individual runs: the hill on which he felt he was moving backwards with each step instead of foreward, the cavernous pothole that I stepped into that swallowed my foot in water up to my ankle.
Right then, I knew our stories would intensify the more we told them, like how a fisherman's tale of the great catch adds inches with each spoken rendition. By the time we crossed the Pennsylvania border the sun shined periodically between brief bursts of rain, and I wondered if the race's conditions actually had been as bad as I thought.
Had I just imagined the morning's brutality?
But then I stumbled upon outside corroboration by reading the account of Ralph Lowery, 65, who had been running for 5 decades and had raced the Cleveland Marathon 39 times. "I've run in unbelievable races at times in my life," he said.
"This is the worst weather I've run
into... It felt more like survival than a race. It was definitely
the most challenging thing I've run in, including Pikes Peak."
I'll take his word for it. That run was a doozey.
But, like Abraham noted, whatever the weather, the race must be run. And, sometimes, the worse the weather, the better the stories to tell.
Did I mention the hail? You should have seen it. It was this big...