How a marathon-runner supporter on a bicycle had to fight Tour de France fantasies while meeting the ultra-blister needs of an elite, 7:43-pace runner.
When my brother-in-law, Brad, asked if I would support him on my bike while he competed in the Blue Ridge Marathon, I agreed without hesitation. The race is centered in Roanoke and the course consists of three mountains I’m accustomed to climbing on my bike; just not all in the same day.
Brad has “cardiovascular triumph” etched in his genes. His father and brother are runners, his sister is a fitness zealot and Brad, a 2-hour-37-minute marathoner, follows suit.
Moments before the marathon began, I met Brad at the starting gate and stuffed a backpack with two water bottles, four packets of GU—a gel energy substance—and an extra pair of “heavy” shoes weighing in at 12 ounces. Brad packed the shoes as a last resort, dreaded soles that would be slipped on only if he knew he had no shot at winning or getting a personal best time.
My job was to carry the backpack stuffed with aid to different checkpoints along the race route. It was vital that I give myself enough time to reach our agreed upon rendezvous, dismount, whip the pack around and deliver whatever was needed.
I started pedaling 10 minutes before the runners took off. As I approached the top of Mill Mountain I saw the two-bike police motorcade leading the first runners. You’ve got to be kidding me. I was pedaling six mph, and the runners passed me with sickening ease.
With a pace like that I’m going to need to crank it up a notch, I told myself. I’m on a bike for God’s sake. I took off for our next rendezvous. My intention was not to race, but caught up in the hype, the race supporters and volunteers cheering from the mountain’s flanks, I was officially in the Tour De France zipping from checkpoint to checkpoint.
The next phase of the race pitted the runners against Roanoke Mountain, and after being passed by runners averaging 9 mph, uphill, I decided there was always next year; I couldn’t climb at their pace.
With two mountains under his belt, Brad approached the third and final climb up Peakwood in South Roanoke, but the damage had been done. More devastating than ascending on foot, the descents took their toll on Brad’s heel, which had blistered into what looked to be a grayish, soggy pancake.
“I may need those shoes in a minute,” he said. “I’ve never had a blister like this. Ever.”
My role as supporter/grim reaper on wheels came to fruition as he exchanged shoes and I stuffed his eight-ounce Asics into the pack. What only an hour ago was a mission to win the race was now a battle between flesh and pavement to even finish.
By the time we reached the climb up Peakwood, around Mile 18, my legs were shot, my bike felt like a Harley.
By Mile 23, the pain proved too much for Brad. My sister and their two children were waiting at the bottom of the hill near a medic tent. As we approached, race medics sprinted towards us: “Are you all right, what hurts!? We need to get you to the tent.” As it turns out, healthcare is affordable—you just have to run up and down hills for 26 miles. I debated joining Brad in the tent to have a mole looked at on my forearm.
While they bandaged Brad’s foot on the curbside, my three-old nephew pulled down his pants in the middle of the street to show me a bruise on his knee. I figured he wanted to be like Daddy and join the wounded, but he had legitimate reason to be upset as I later learned that my dad, caught up in the excitement of the race, chucked an empty water bottle at him as he passed while following the pack on his bike.
The race was back on. With heavier shoes and a doctored heel, Brad continued, determined to finish. I rode alongside him on the flat portion of the race and accepted paper cups of water from the extended arms of race volunteers. Maybe the water was reserved for runners—too bad—by mile 24 all reservations were canceled. I slugged back the liquid then instinctively looked for a trash can. There weren’t any, only scattered cups, a literal paper trail following in the runner’s footsteps.
I had found the only place in the world where it’s not only acceptable to litter, it’s encouraged. “Don’t worry about it,” a supporter shouted. “Just toss it. We’ll clean it up later.”
My wife, Dana, is an environmentalist. Recycling, gardening, composting, unplugging unused outlets – you name it, she does it – or doesn’t, depending on the kilowatts burned. I’m onboard with the eco-friendly lifestyle, but this new fleeting lifestyle was exhilarating. Like a reformed smoker inhaling the scent of the forsaken cigarette, I too needed release and I got it thanks to the cluttered asphalt of mile 24.
“Do we have any GU left?” Brad asked as I rode alongside him. I stopped for a moment then caught back up with him and handed him the gel. “Hmm, Vanilla – this is a nice one.” It was as if a waiter had just returned with a 2008 Cabernet—his breathing wasn’t labored, he was relaxed, ready for another 24 miles.
The final few miles of the race were flat and led the runners through downtown Roanoke and alongside the Norfolk Southern Railroad tracks. The crowd doubled then tripled in size the closer we got to the finish line. I could hear a man’s animated voice over a P.A. system announcing the runner’s names as they crossed the finish line.
The event again became my Tour de France, my lap of the Champs-Elysees. It took everything in my power to slow to a stop just before the final 100 yards, before the frantic supporters’ cheers and congratulations, and then walk along the outside of the gate to meet my family at the finish. No, I was not a runner and yes, maybe I had two wheels, but feel how heavy this bike is. And the backpack!
A few minutes later Brad crossed the finish in 9th place with a time of 3:22:00. The winner posted a time of 3:01:38. After averaging 7:43 minutes a mile for 26.2 miles, Brad removed his shoe to reveal his Achilles heel. Examining it, he shook his head in disgust. Onlookers shook their heads in disbelief that he could even finish the race, let alone finish 9th.
We met for dinner and well-deserved alcohol that night. My left knee was aching, but I concealed the pain for fear of sounding like a prima donna: “Yes, Bryan, tell us all about your knee hurting, considering you were on a bike.”
As Brad limped from room to room with a beer in hand, my sister pulled me aside and said, “Brad came up to me after the race and said he was so embarrassed with the time he got. Can you believe that? After the blister and everything!”
My post-race comment was far less potent as I whispered in Dana’s ear: “Next time we’re at the store, we really need to buy those little paper cups.”