The title is a nod to Paul at Message in a Bottle for his brilliant description in the opening paragraph of a scene that happens about daily at our house. Usually it happens when the kids are racing to do something and one smells defeat and realizes the only way to save face is by calling off the race. She shouts “It’s not a race”, as in “I don’t know why you care so much about getting there first because I always hurl down the stairs at breakneck speed.”
The whole calling off races thing also happens regularly in my own head, and is why I heard my dear husband say “It’s not a race” every time I warned him to look for me towards the back of the pack in a race I ran last weekend. Because really, it wasn’t a race I had any chance of winning.
You know who won? A 22 year-old Kenyan with a 4:50 pace. You know who came in second place? A 30 year-old Kenyan with the same pace, but a two-second later finish time. Two seconds.
I did not win this race, nor did I break any personal records. I thought I might, but my pace on this 5-mile race was almost identical to when I ran a 4-mile race last June, which is in the 10 minute-and-some-change range. The Kenyans could have doubled around and run the course twice and still would have beat me.
Running is humbling stuff.
I do not feel a part of the whole running scene. I’ve tried. Last spring I joined a running group that meets at a local track and started out the slowest runner and remained that way until it got light enough in the mornings to return to solo running. Once the group hit the streets when the track was iced up, and I found myself running alone in the dark with no idea which street the rest of the gang had turned down until they doubled back around.
As a friend pointed out, someone has to be slowest. I will probably go back to running group in late winter to find motivation and work on speed. As the same friend pointed out, think how good I make the second-slowest runner feel. I am just doing my job as Top Caboose.
Plus, I love to run! I love the surge of warm energy that flows through my body for hours afterwards. I love the freedom I feel when I only need to worry about myself. I love listening to music and skipping through songs without running it past a committee first. I even love the burn in my legs and lungs when I’m chugging uphill because I know I get to run down one next. It is greedy, selfish alone time and I love it so fucking hard I want to stop typing and go put on my pink sneakers.
I could just stop running races. I could just run on my own and go from finishing in the bottom 25% to the top 100%. I’m not doing this for the free soft pretzels or t-shirts, though those are nice perks and the races always benefit good causes. The most compelling reason I sign up for races is they motivate me to keep running.
And even finishing in the bottom 25%, this last race felt comfortable, if not easy. The course was a winding mix of flat and hills through local streets I’d never been down before. I enjoyed the scenery of old houses and smiling neighbors and kids ringing cow bells on front porches and generally feeling alive and part of something bigger. I can honestly say I enjoyed myself.
I’ll take a break from races until next spring at the earliest. I already signed up for a big bridge run next fall, but that has special significance and it’s a chance for me to run with my younger (faster) sister. I’ve thought about trying a 10-mile run in the city, but I honestly don’t have time to train for that with my work and family schedule. Not this year, and again, it’s not a race. I will continue taking my sweet old time because that’s kind of my thing.
I wish I didn’t realize how slow I run compared to most people, but I also believe there’s a lesson about perseverance and acceptance and humility that I haven’t quite learned yet.
I want to share this picture my husband took as I neared the finish line this weekend. The course ended with a lap on the same high school track where the running group meets. Something about hitting the soft, familiar surface with crowds of cheering people and the end so close in sight gave a dizzying high. I saw my husband and two girls in the stands and felt like I was running home.