This story was originally published in the March 2001 issue of Northwest Runner magazine.

I hear footsteps and…

I better run faster.  I have only three miles left to the finish line of the Lake Samish Half Marathon near Bellingham, Washington, but I can hear another runner behind me.  The sound is faint but it is unmistakable as I run up the slight incline on the road on the east side of the lake.  Just a half a mile earlier I saw a runner entering the short out-and-back stretch just as I was exiting it.  I had maybe a 30-second lead and now it is shrinking.

I push hard without looking back to see how close he really is.  My race strategy is “Never look back.  The race is in front of you, not behind.”  This was my successful strategy from my bicycle racing days of 20 years ago and it is still good today.

The footsteps are louder now, gaining with every step.  But I am still ahead with less than a mile to go.  I fly down the short, steep drop to the lakeshore.  Now there is only a half mile left.  Along the lake I run flat out.  The footsteps are right behind me, shrieking in my ears.  It is going to be a sprint to the finish.

Finally I see the finish line and kick it into high gear.  Let’s see him pass me now!

I cross the finish line ahead of this unseen opponent and think “Boy, that was close.”  I turn around to greet my competition.

There is no one there.  There is not another runner in sight.  My opponent is my own fear.  I was hearing my own footsteps.  The next runner is over a minute behind me.

It is now two weeks later at the Nookachamps Half Marathon near Mount Vernon, Washington.  I tell my Lake Samish story to Woody Harris, my running partner, before we start the race.  Three miles into the race Woody says “I hear footsteps.  Don’t you think it is a little early?”  Thinking back to Lake Samish, I am about to shout to Woody, “You’re running low on oxygen,” when I hear them too.

Nookachamps horse

But they are not footsteps.  They sound more like hoof beats.  Woody, ignoring my never-look-back rule, looks over his shoulder and says, “There is a horse 100 yards behind us and a runner in between.”

We crank up the pace a notch.  A half-mile farther the hoof beats are louder, much louder.  Woody looks again.  “The horse is only 50 yards back and there is no longer a runner between us and the horse.”

Suddenly Woody, who has been a half-step behind me and running between me and the center of the road, sprints past me onto the road’s shoulder.  I peek over my shoulder at the spot that Woody just vacated and see a very large brown nose.  We are now running with a horse beside us – a big horse, a VERY BIG horse.

Like a dog wanting to play, the horse nudges over in our direction and Woody and I find ourselves running on the road’s dirt shoulder.  What do we do?  Slow down?  Speed up?  Call for a cowboy?

Woody yells to the horse “Chase those guys!” pointing to the two runners another 100 yards ahead of us.  Almost as if the horse understands, it sees the runners ahead and gallops off to join them.  Problem solved – almost.

We watch the horse chase up to the runners ahead.  They stop in an attempt to get rid of the horse.  The horse stops.  Woody and I are about to catch them all.  Suddenly everyone starts again, including the horse.  We can now see ahead the flashing lights of the county sheriff’s car at the intersection with State Highway 9.  Sheriffs know how to rope horses, don’t they?

Apparently the horse thinks so because it abruptly makes a right turn and runs into a field to avoid the sheriff.  We go straight, cross the highway, and run into the small community of Clear Lake.  No more horse?  No such luck.

Quickly our horse (why can’t it be someone else’s horse?) rejoins us and then sprints ahead.  A course marshal at the next intersection yells “Follow the horse!”  We do.  We are now back on Highway 9 and our horse is stopping traffic.  It follows the course and veers onto a side street to follow another runner.  Ahead is an out-and-back leg where runners are going both ways.  This is going to be chaos.

In the out-and-back we see runners scatter to both shoulders of the road when our horse runs up to join them.  I don’t want to think about what is going to happen when we get to the turn around.  But with only 200 yards until we reverse direction our horse sees a herd of horses in an adjacent field and runs off to join them.

Finally we are free of our horse.  We turn around and there ahead, waiting for us, is our horse with four other like-minded four-legged friends.  Almost as if to greet us they race up to the side of the road as we approach.

I immediately flash back to the 1985 Skyline 50K in the San Francisco East Bay hills when I saw a runner get knocked down by a herd of stampeding horses.  It was a frightening sight.  But this time a barbed wire fence at the edge of the road stops the horses’ charge and we pass safely.  The excitement is now gone and we gamely set about finishing the race.

But from now on the sound of footsteps will take on a whole new meaning.


Author: runwithdougblog

I have been running since 1980 and have completed over 100 marathons and ultras. I run track, road, and trails. I am still having fun so I must be doing something right.

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