So there I was, running through Mill Park in Columbus, Indiana, with a few thousand other people on Saturday morning, just enjoying the early miles of a half-marathon.
Then, about 1.5 miles into the race, we came to screeching halt.
A frickin’ train was blocking the road.
What the hell??!!!
Up ahead, I saw runners cutting to the right, going off-road onto the grassy area.
I saw others dodging between the train cars, climbing ladders and jumping over the couplings.
Some people were even crawling under the train, near the wheels, while the train’s warning bell was clanging furiously.
I watched the flurry of activity and decided this race wasn’t worth risking my life or limbs. I certainly wasn’t going to crawl under a train. Or over a train.
But I was pretty sure I could go around the train. And by this time, that’s what most people were doing.
It wasn’t an easy detour. This was a road race, but hundreds of runners were bush-whacking through the woods to get around the train.
I followed a stream of runners walking up to the edge of the tracks. Then we turned right and walked on the gravel for 100 yards or so to get around the train.
I stumbled a few times and stepped on a few heels of runners ahead of me. Sorry, runners. I didn’t put this train here.
This was definitely the strangest, most unpredictable twist in a race I’d ever seen. It probably added 30-60 seconds to most runners’ times.
I wondered if this race was cursed. Last year, the lead runners were directed off the marathon course by bike volunteers.
What else could go wrong?
AN EARLY DAY
The day started off bright and early. I got up at 4 a.m., a half-hour before my alarm went off. I was rested and excited.
This would be my Day of Testing.
After nearly five years of suffering from a sore iliotibial band in my right leg, I was finally running a long race again.
I had been training for four months, pushing my injured leg to the limits with long runs, hill repeats and even a little speedwork at the track.
For months, I wondered: Could I still run fast? And far?
Sure, I had plenty of long races in my past: 10 marathons, 16 half-marathons, a brutal 50K trail race, and lots of short races and relays.
But that was in my past.
I was sick of moaning about my bad luck and my injured leg. I had wasted more than four years complaining and feeling sorry for myself. I had gained weight and gotten grumpy.
I missed the workouts, the races, the endorphins — the joy of running.
In the spring, I said I was going to get back into action, injury or no injury. I would train smart and hard, nurse my leg back to relative health, and run a fall half-marathon. No matter what.
I spent two months rebuilding my base. I did intensive stretching. I threw in lots of bike rides and trail hiking.
Then I did long runs of 10, 12, 13 and 15 miles. I ran a 15K trail race in 85 degrees. I ran a 10-mile leg of a 100-mile trail relay in the middle of the night.
Gradually, I built strength. And distance. And confidence.
Now it was race day. I would know if I could cover 13.1 miles at a respectable pace.
My goal was simple: get to the finish line without dying. And do it under two hours.
A work buddy, Stephen, had spent a few Saturday mornings with me this summer, doing long runs. I talked him into running the race with me.
Last week, he finally signed up. I was happy. It’s always fun to run a race with a training partner.
At 5:15 a.m. Saturday, Stephen pulled into my driveway. We would travel the 70 miles together to the race. About the way there, we were gabbing so much we missed a turnoff. Would that be a bad sign?
GETTING TO THE START
Stephen is 15 years younger than me, and plenty fast. I’ve run marathons faster than him. But for some reason, he is a speedy at the half-marathon. He runs them in about 1:30.
My fastest time for a half-marathon is 1:38 (for an average pace of 7:28 a mile), but that was 10 years ago.
Stephen wasn’t planning on running a fall race and hasn’t been training super-hard this summer. So he set a modest goal (for him) of 1:45.
We parked the car, got our packets, checked our gear and made our way to the starting area.
I took a quick photo, but it was still a little dark, and the camera got a fuzzy picture:
At the starting line, fast Stephen got into Corral A. Slow Trail Boy got into Corral B.
A TV helicopter buzzed in circles overhead. The countdown began. The horn went off. Corral A runners took off.
My corral then stepped up to the starting line, and about a minute later, the horn went off again. We crossed the mat. I started my watch.
Up ahead, I could see the Corral A runners turning a corner.
I had no desire to catch them. This would be a long morning. I was going to run my own race.
We ran a few blocks and turned a corner, and soon found ourselves entering a quiet, shaded area called Mill Park.
We ran along a pretty road, under the trees and through a covered bridge. This looked like it was going to be a quaint, charming day.
“STOP THOSE RUNNERS”
A minute or two later, we approached the first mile marker. I knew that to finish under two hours, I would have to run a 9:09 pace or faster.
I passed the marker and hit my lap button. 8:39. Lots of energy and bounce. The morning was nice and cool.
Then I heard it up ahead: a train horn. And not a friendly little toot, but a long, angry blast. It lasted for at least 30 seconds.
Then I saw it. The train blocking the road.
Why it was there, I had no idea. But I knew I needed to get past it.
The engineer was walking up and down the track, alongside the train, yelling at runners to get away and quit climbing the ladders. As I ran around the train, I heard a cop shouting: “Stop those runners for a minute so we can get this train through!”
Lots of luck, I thought. We’ve been training for months. This is a big race. The train can wait.
Eventually, we all got over, under or around the train, and kept pushing down the road.
So what happened?
Well, it’s a strange story. A few hours later, I would visit the website of the local paper, the Columbus Republic and find out it was a stupid mix-up, apparently not the fault of the race organizers.
According to the story, the city and race officials had been in touch with the railroad for weeks to alert them to the race, and had been been repeatedly assured that trains would avoid the race course all morning.
But of course, that didn’t happen. A young railroad supervisor took it upon himself to send a short train through the intersection. He thought the train could beat the lead runners through the intersection.
He was wrong.
Later, I found a couple of videos later that captured the scene.
First, check out this one, of the train pulling across the road. Runners are racing to beat it at the crossing:
Then watch this video, which shows the stopped train blocking the crossing, and runners scrambled over, under and around:
You can see Stephen at 0:07, scampering over a coupling.
SUN IN THE FACE
The next few miles were a blur. Part of it was because I was still thinking about the train. Part of it was because I had never run this race before, and had only been to this town a few times, and didn’t really know where we were going.
This was definitely not a home-court advantage. I followed the runners ahead of me, stopping at the water tables, turning corners when they turned. We crossed a few bridges, circled back into downtown and trotted down a few scenic side streets. My mile splits were all roughly between 8:30 and 8:45.
In the old days, that would be as slow as molasses. But I was happy with it today. Even the second mile, with the trail delay, had taken me only 8:42.
Soon, the course got a little less scenic. We ran past warehouses, factories and closed shops. It was a dead zone with long sight lines and not much scenery.
Then we ran two miles down a four-lane highway, with no shade, the sun in our faces. It started getting hot.
The weather forecast was calling for a high of 80 degrees today. My goal was to get to the finish line before the sun rose very high.
I passed the seven-mile mark (which I counted as my unofficial halfway point) at almost exactly an hour. It was time to push a little harder.
We ran on, with some slight hills and lots of twists and turns. We ran past a cemetery, houses in various states of repair, some busy streets, some quiet back roads.
My splits remained steady at about 8:40 per mile.
At 9.5 miles, the full-marathon course turned right for a wide, sweeping loop to the east and north. I felt glad I would not be doing that today. I was starting to feel the miles in my legs. I was also running out of gas. The banana and cup of coffee I had eaten four hours ago had worn off long ago.
I was glad I was going just 13.1 miles today. At the split-off, I ran straight ahead, with other other half-marathoners, then turned left a few blocks later.
“YOU CAN DO THIS”
We ran west, then north. For about a half-mile, I ran alongside two women. One was encouraging the other to stay strong. “Keep your head up. Just two more miles Tell yourself you can do this.”
I was telling myself the same thing. Every few minutes, I looked at my watch and doing frantic calculations. At mile 11, my watch said I had been running an hour and thirty-five minutes.
I thought to myself, if I can ramp up the pace just a little bit, and take the next two miles at an 8-minute pace or better, I might be able to beat 1:50 (my stretch goal).
Unfortunately, my legs didn’t respond to the challenge. I pushed as hard as I could, but still ran at an 8:40 to 8:50 pace. If anything, I was slowing down.
I didn’t beat myself up too hard. This is what I get when I don’t do a lot of tempo runs or 800-meter repeats, I thought to myself. Next time, I will push harder on my training. Next time, I will have the right stuff — maybe the old stuff I used to have.
But it was still pretty good. If I could just hold a sub-9 minute pace, I would easily beat a two-hour finish.
I turned the final corner. About a quarter-mile away, I could see the finish line and hear the loudspeakers.
I dug it out and pushed as hard as my old, crippled legs could carry me.
I crossed the finish line and looked at my watch. 1:53:18, for an average pace of 8:39.
I did it. I beat my goal by more than six minutes. I was a distance runner again.
DIESEL ENGINES, BIG AND SMALL
A volunteer gave me a medal. Another snipped the timing chip from my shoe. Someone else gave me a bottle of water.
I walked through the finish area and spotted Stephen. He said he had finished in 1:45. “We both hit our goals,” he said. We toasted each other with bottles of water.
Then we took a quick photo.
The medals were cool. They had an engraving of a Cummins diesel engine. Cummins, based in Columbus, was the major sponsor of the race.
We cooled down for a bit, then went back to retrieve our gear and change out of sweaty clothes. Then we said our goodbyes.
Mrs. Trail Boy was coming down shortly to meet me. When she arrived, we walked around the sidewalk parties and took in the sights.
Then we walked down the road to the Cummins headquarters to see real diesel engines on display. It was impressive.
Then we swung over to Bloomington, about 45 minutes away, to see our son, a freshman at Indiana University. It was great to catch up.
Finally, back home, after a long, joyful day.
It was the end of a long season of planning, training, and racing. And then a few adventures involving a train, the sun and tired legs.
Now it was time to rest.
I had an adventure with 13.1 miles. And a train. But my race hadn’t been derailed after all.