Race the Train

Last weekend saw the running of the Spring Equinox Half in Fort Collins, CO, on a flat, fast course. At mile 1 lurked a railroad crossing. Seven and a half minutes after the gun went off, a train rolled in. Now, if you run, you know that it is reasonable to expect runners on the course around 7:30 at the first mile. You also know that a well-run half marathon can cost $75-100 or more in entry fees. Not only that, but training is an affair that occupies entire months of your life. It’s a commitment and an investment.

The pack that I was running with was about 100 meters from the crossing when we heard the bells start to ring, and saw the crossing arms descend. We could make it, if we sprinted. We sprinted. We made it. The only thing is that it had to be a split second decision. In that time, I did not think about what would happen if I tripped or fell. I didn’t think about the fact that I was taught, since a very young age, to never never, ever ever, cross a railroad tracks after the crossing arms are down. I didn’t think about the inescapable fact that I was taught to never race a train. In that instant, I was so focused on racing that the risk seemed appropriate.

I pity the course-marshall, the man in a bright orange vest — a volunteer — who was assigned to guard the course in that spot. Witnessing and preventing suicidal behavior was not in his job-description. I could see his discomfort, even from my narrow race-focused perspective. He was bobbing like a parakeet on a branch, clearly torn about whether he was ethically bound to try and stop us. I was the last person he let pass before he leapt in front of the oncoming runners, shouting “STOP!” He sounded quite stressed. I didn’t hear screams, or the sickening crunch of bone. I did hear the train almost immediately after, closer than I’ve ever heard one before. I felt a disturbance in the air as it passed. And I kept running, dialed back down to race pace, and considered what just happened.

Obviously, that wasn’t one of my brighter moments. But in the middle of a race, it honestly seemed the only course of action. The only alternative on my mind at the time was spending 15 minutes twiddling my thumbs behind a barrage of coal cars,  and certainly not being flattened by a freight train.

It’s a thing that happened, and I want to share because it doesn’t make sense. Before that race, I would have told you that there was no reason I would ever race a train at such close quarters, unless the wellbeing of someone I loved depended on it. No one’s livelihood depended on that race.
Racing literally puts your mind in a different place. It’s personality altering. I promise, in the real word I am not single-mindedly focused on slaying the competition. I also don’t race trains.

So think for about yourself: do you love to run? Love to race, to prepare, to plan and set PRs? Do you love the chance to cut free and run from someplace stupidly primal? Be honest with yourself, because you, too, might have raced the train.   

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