The Athlete Within

I signed up for my first 5K on a whim. Running a race was something I always dreamed of doing. I never imagined how long the actual race was, but could always picture myself crossing the finish line. I start a lot of things that I don’t finish. My husband once used an analogy of running a relay race to explain different people’s abilities in other aspects of life. You have the starter, or the person who’s good at initiating a project or something. The person who gets things going. Then you have the next person who receives the baton to run the second leg of the race. They pick up running where the starter left off. The third person has to be able to cope with change, because that’s the part of the race where the tough turns come in to play. And finally, there is the finisher. I am obviously not the finisher. I don’t even know if I qualify as a starter, unless a starter is the person who dreams up the big ideas and lets them collect dust in the corner of their mind.

So when I signed up for the Corporate 5K, I don’t know if I ever really planned to complete it. Of course I hoped that I would. I wanted to finally be proud of myself for following through with something, and not falling back on some lame excuse for dropping out at the last minute. I wanted completing this 5K to be my motivation to complete everything else I started, instead of looking in the rearview mirror at all the unfinished ideas that taunted me, reminding me of all the things I have failed at before. I’ve spent a lot of years thinking about what could have happened, what my life might be like now if I had followed through with some of the things I started. And I know that beating up on myself doesn’t improve my current situation, but self-loathing is a hard habit to break.

I had this amazing plan of training for the race (and possibly dropping a few pounds while I was at it), but I am a master procrastinator. So no training happened. Three days before the race, I picked up my t-shirt and race bib. I was flooded with excitement, but anxiety at the same time. What if I was the one person who couldn’t make it to the end? Who wound up having to be carted off the course in a wheelchair because of a Charlie horse, or side stitches? I had to finish. I didn’t care if I came in dead last. Okay, well maybe not dead last. But I would be okay with second to last, as long as I crossed that finish line. When was the last time I did any real running, or trotting in my case? I thought back to when I used to jog around Delaware Park, and decided to look up the distance online. 2.86 miles. Wow, I used to jog 2.86 miles? 3.1 miles isn’t that much further. I could totally do this. And then my sane self slapped my euphoric self in the back of the head and reminded her that we have not been to Delaware Park in well over six years. And a lot can happen over the course of six years. Like the addition of fifty pounds, or something like that.

I wasn’t giving up hope though. I still had three days. Who knows what I could accomplish in that time? A coworker who also signed up for the race (and was in far better shape than I am) offered to hit the gym with me for a few days so that we could encourage each other. That was just what I needed. Only, I didn’t feel like going to the gym. I almost sent her an email to tell her I couldn’t make it because my toenail was ingrown, or I forgot to put on deodorant. I received her instant message before I could even think of an excuse. There was a huge smiley face emoticon, followed by: “I am so excited!” I didn’t have it in me to let her down. Off to the gym we went. And it turned out not to be so horrible.

I took race day off from work so that I could prepare myself mentally, and so that I wouldn’t be able to use work as an excuse to drop out. When I arrived at Lake Eola, there were thousands of people there, many wearing the same slate gray t-shirt that I donned. It reminded me of playing sports in high school. I smiled to myself, remembering how awesome it felt to be a part of a team. Some of my team members wore walker bibs like I did, others wore runner bibs. The differences in our abilities didn’t matter. We were all in this together. Strangers exchanged smiles and small talk, shared tips, and made plans to meet at the finish line. I popped my ear buds in and turned on an audio book while I got some stretching in. I never used to stretch before jogging around Delaware Park, but I’m no spring chicken anymore.

I danced from foot to foot in anticipation with a group of folks who had become my friends in the past twenty minutes (including a nice lady that I met in the bathroom at Publix).People stood at the starting line in all manner of dress. There was a guy in a business suit, fire fighters in full gear, police officers in uniform, and even a wedding veil. When the time came, I shook the jitters out of my system and took off. Then I remembered my friend Jan, who runs a million miles a day and has even been featured in Runner’s World magazine. She told me that most people take off like they stole something in a 5K, only to be dragging by the end of the race. I slowed myself down to a pace I knew I could maintain. Or at least what I thought I could maintain. The terrain proved to be difficult. Have you ever tried to run on an uneven brick street? Not pleasant. I felt every single jarring movement all the way up to my shoulders.

Thankfully, only one of the streets was bricked. The rest were paved. My ankle was screaming at me about a half a mile into the race. It happened to be the same ankle that I tore a tendon in about a year ago. It never healed completely (and never will), so my husband wrapped it up for me as a precaution before the race. I prayed that it would eventually just become numb, and it did.

When I reached the one mile mark, a huge group of people holding up signs cheered us on. One sign said: “May the course be with you”. That was pretty funny. I couldn’t help but notice the absence of the water station that my map promised would be there. It would have helped if I read the map properly, because the water station was about another half mile away. And my arches were starting to burn. Can I tell you how painful it is to run with flat feet? Holy moly! I am rethinking my plans of participating in a half-marathon next year.

By mile two, my pace had apparently slowed. More and more people were passing me by at what felt like ridiculous speeds. Was I really moving that slowly? A cute little gray-haired woman who was wearing a knee brace gave me my answer in the form of a sprint. In a flash of periwinkle, she was suddenly yards ahead of me. Determined not to be passed by another senior citizen, I picked up the pace and alternated between a speed walk and a slow jog. The crowd seemed to grow thicker as I caught up with groups that passed me in the beginning. Looks like Jan was right on the money.

At the third mile, another group of people cheered us on from the sidewalk, yelling words of encouragement.  What I thought would be the easy part actually seemed like the longest part of the race. I think in my mind, I expected that tenth of a mile to consist of only a few steps. I kept looking for the finish line, desperate for it by this point. And then, it was there. I picked up the pace with my prize lying only yards ahead of me.

Crossing that finish line gave me an amazing feeling of accomplishment. I spotted my husband standing behind the temporary fence and flashed him a huge smile. The runners before had eaten all of the granola bars (bastards), but there were plenty of bottles of water remaining. It didn’t matter much. By that point, hunger and thirst had both left me. Even fatigue and pain were gone. All I could think about was the fact that I finally completed something that I set out to do. And I didn’t come in last. Even if I had though, that would have been okay. To quote a t-shirt I spotted on the way back to the car: “‘Dead Last’ is better than ‘Did Not Finish’, which greatly trumps ‘Did Not Start’ “. Well said, my friend. Well said.




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