Off the top of my head, I can think of five races that I’ve run in. The first one a 60-meter dash in fourth grade, the second a three-kilometer race a couple of years later, the third a 100-meter race in high school, the fourth a 5-kilometer run in Harbor Beach, Michigan, the year after, and the fifth,a relay in my second year in business school.
I was never a great runner. I like to remember that I made it to semifinal in that first race and I also tell the kids I ran in the final in the high school 100-meter race.
I don’t tell them much about the other races. A friend likes to quote Clint Eastwood to me. He often says, “a man’s GOT to know his limitations” and as far as running is concerned, I know exactly where my limits are.
They’re exactly 200 meters from the starting line. Anything beyond that means trouble.
Now, I learned this lesson early in life, so when my new friends at the business school, the ones I had played floorball with in the school gymnasium asked me to run a leg in “the Academic quarter”, an annual university festival in downtown Helsinki, I was a little hesitant.
Basically, the race was a relay in downtown Helsinki, with seven runners trying to run as far as they can in fifteen minutes. If the 15 minutes aren’t up when the anchor gets to the Senate Square, they keep on running.
I knew I was doing just fine on the floorball court, but I also knew the other guys on the team were runners. Or at least ex-runners. I was an ex-hockey player, which is not the same thing. I also heard that some of the guys on the team were talking about winning the whole thing, which made me even more nervous. I didn’t want to be the one who drops the baton, literally or metaphorically.
However, it turned out that they needed me to get their seven-man team together, and I definitely didn’t want to be the guy who kept them from entering the race altogether, either. So I said yes. I also said that I wasn’t much of a runner, and that I didn’t want to be the first or the last runner. And that, if possible, I’d like to run the shortest leg of the race.
“Sure, that’s perfect. That’s fine,” they told me, and I was on the team.
The race was in the spring, and there was still a little snow on the ground which made it impossible for me to train for the event. But I thought that with natural talent and some willpower, I would not only survive the race, I would make my teammates proud. I was certain that as soon as I was in the race, I would find the energy and the stamina to run those 390 meters from the Olympia terminal towards the Market Square.
All downhill, too.
I was at my starting point, early, so I’d be ready when the leading teams came to the first change. Naturally, I thought I’d see a familiar face there. I did some stretching – but not too much – and made sure to tie my shoelaces extratight, because I always had problems with that.
The first teams came and went but I didn’t see any familiar faces. And suddenly, there were a lot of faces, none of them familiar. I had trouble finding my teammate. We had agreed on a spot where he’d find me, but I had thought we’d be making the change without a lot of outside distraction.
I heard somebody yell my name, and I crouched a little, and when my teammate slapped me on the back and wished me luck, I took off like a bat out of hell. My legs were pumping, my arms were pumping, my face was relaxed and my cheeks were, well, bouncing up and down.
In the first 50 meters, I passed by a few runners, but I didn’t play any attention to them. I was focused, I was in the zone. 100 meters, doing well. It’s downhill, and I was running on cobble stones and tram rails, so I was trying to be careful. In other words, I was very focused.
200 meters, all well.
250 meters: I could feel the lactic acid in my thighs, and I couldn’t help but notice that my posture wasn’t as good as in the beginning. Instead of leaning forward, I was now leaning backward. I was still going as fast as I could, but unfortunately, it wasn’t very fast anymore. However, I could also see the end, my finish line. Time to use some of that willpower.
That’s when I saw two runners zip by me. Some of the runners I had past by a little earlier were now running by me, but this made everything a little tougher to swallow because they were dressed up as bananas. Two giant, yellow bananas passed me on my left.
I was furious, and with under 100 meters to go, I decided to race the bananas. I’d show them. Beating them was my new goal. Legs pumping, arms waving, I would leave everything on the street.
And then another guy passed me and doing that, he sucked all my willpower out of me, and robbed me of my stamina. He wasn’t just running faster than me, he was running faster than me while pushing a wheelbarrow in front of him.
I found my teammate waiting for me on the traffic island, as agreed. I slapped him on the back, said “go”, and watched him take off.
I heard later that my team had got off to a good start but one of my teammates running the early legs had slipped on some stairs and fallen down.
“Without that, we would have been close,” they told me.
I didn’t mention the bananas – or the wheelbarrow.