Monday, November 16, 2009

The Race No One Saw

Until this story happened I didn't know Megan Prandtl (I've changed her name), although I'd seen her running around town. But even a brief glance at her smooth stride is enough to tell you that you are seeing a good runner. On this day, I found out how good. From the Running Journal, June 2009.
To start at the end, this is the moral: Sometimes a door stands open, unseen until it closes. That’s the way of life. An opportunity sometimes passes before it’s even known to be one.

Megan Prandtl (not her real name) could have been a scholarship runner. I ought to know; I saw what she did.

You step through the revolving gate in the chain link fence that surrounds Tennessee Tech’s Tucker Stadium and you find yourself standing on a nine-lane track encircling Overall Field. It’s the place I go to run intervals. A standard track, one lap is 400 meters long, a quarter mile.

It was 400-meter intervals I’d been practicing on that June morning, pressing hard for a full lap, followed by a one-lap recovery of easy jogging, doing the hard laps in a time of 1:30. That’s not too fast, but, then, I’m old and I have to take that.

The morning was pleasant, and I had the track, the football field, the stadium—the whole shebang—to myself. I’d finished the repeats and was jogging through a two-mile cool down when two college-aged men entered the area. They stood around on the infield near the 400-meter start/finish line, doing nothing much, putting in time, maybe considering some exercise. One was lean and wiry, the other pudgy. The wiry one was wearing baggy black shorts; he peeled his shirt off. They waited.

Then I saw her, a young woman, gliding across the parking lot, running tall, head and shoulders visible above the parked cars. She wore earphones and a sandy ponytail that swished about. In her hand was a water bottle. Her stride was easy and fluid—a Tech varsity runner, I figured. She soon joined the two guys in the infield.

I watched as I jogged. The three milled around, kicking the turf, making plans, mulling things over. Something was going to happen.

I soon decided I knew what it was. The wiry boy had a problem. He’d maybe shot his mouth off and talked himself into a corner. It had gone too far, and now there was no backing out. Only his legs could save him. And those legs looked too short, their appearance made the more so by his droopy pants. The pudgy one was going to be the timekeeper.

The short legs, the baggy shorts—they were clues. And I’d seen the woman float across the parking lot—another clue. I knew where I was putting my money.

They lined up, waiting while I approached the start line. That way I’d be past the line and out of the way when they came around. So it was going to be 400 meters then, a 400-meter battle between Man and Woman.

I drew near, the timekeeper signaled, the racers bolted. An audience of precisely two caught its collective breath, captivated by the sight.

I didn’t know Megan then, but on a recent jog she told me how that race had come about. The wiry man with baggy shorts had been a co-worker of hers. At work they’d been talking about running, something he knew Megan enjoyed. I guess he liked to tease her. He’d bragged that he could beat her.

“Was he a runner?” I asked.

“No. Thing was—what got me—he just thought he could beat me, you know, without even knowing…”

“You mean, because you’re a woman?”

“Yeah, yeah, exactly.”

Five seconds after the race started he was a wiser man. Megan snatched the lead at once. Going around the first turn she stretched the gap, piling yards on him like cordwood. Down the backstretch she opened the space to maybe 25 yards by the time she hit the 200-meter mark where the second turn begins.

She was sailing. The man’s legs whipped the baggy shorts into a flapping fury. He was running hard and ugly with all his might, hoping Megan would fade in the second half. It seemed to work—at least enough to stop the piling on. Around the first part of the second turn he managed to halt the deficit. Then he began to take back yards. He was game, but it was getting late.

The danger was that Megan had initially run too fast. Perhaps she was beginning to slow. If so, really, it was quite slight, I think. When she came out of the turn and entered the final straight, her posture was tall, gallant, her stride still fluid. I realized she wasn’t spent at all. The man gained very little after that point. His fate was sealed. As they sailed down the home stretch, the space between them froze, passed before the empty stands like a discreet entity, tangible and inviolate, attached at each end to a runner.

Megan beat him by 20 yards.

After the racers recovered their breath, the three walked around the track, laughing and talking, still friends. Continuing my jog, I pulled alongside.

“That was pretty fast. What did you run that in?” I asked.

“One-ten,” she said; her eyes said it too.

“That’s pretty fast.”

That’s pretty fast—a varsity runner all right. Three months later, she won a local 5K. I’d jogged the race’s companion10K as part of a 30-mile training run for an ultra marathon. After finishing the 10K, I continued on my jog without meeting her. Later that day, my route, by coincidence, took me down the street where she happened to live.

She and her mother were out for a stroll. I stopped to meet them. Megan has large striking eyes. I asked her if she’d won the 5K that morning. She had, of course. Was she a Tech runner? No. She’d already graduated from college, one out west, she told me.

“Did you run in college?”


No! I was astonished at that answer.

“I just like to run,” she said.

“But you could’ve had a scholarship! Saved Mom some money!”

She could have won a college scholarship, something she never realized or considered. That door is closed now. Anyway, as she says, “I just like to run.” In the end, maybe that’s the larger opportunity.

Despite her potential for speed, she doesn’t like speed training, preferring long slow runs instead. A few months later, I saw her taking those long runs more often than normal. Her easy stride and swinging ponytail graced the streets of Cookeville as she trained for the Boston Marathon—a dream for any runner.

1 comment:

  1. If only in my mind, I saw her win that race, too. Thank you, Dallas.