The last time I raced I injured myself badly. Waiting at the starting line I felt growing irritation for a pack of college kids who had clearly decided to run that day as an afterthought; I gathered from their jawing that they were not runners, and also that they had been at a kegger ’til the wee hours of that crisp spring morning. I was pissed for no good reason–good for them for doing something constructive on an early Saturday morning. That is how I should have felt. (It is moments like this when it is so easy for me to despise myself.)
I was in my early forties, and not a serious runner, at least not like the sinewy track club runners who show up ahead of time and run the entire course in their bootie shorts and racing shoes just for a warmup, and then push like crazy during the actual race. I was not one of them, but running for me had emerged as a way to deal with anger, to feel better, to help me face my days and weeks and months with a difficult child and family. This particular race course happened also to be my maintenance run: I was familiar with every inch of it, every variation in the pavement, every twist, turn, and subtle change in elevation. Foolhardy though it was I decided to put these kids in their place. And while I knew they would run like the wind for the first mile or so, I had gauged about where I thought I might pass them, which is precisely what happened. And then, feeling fleet of foot and far younger than fortysomething, I pushed hard for the last three miles to the finish line. I had never run like that before and it felt so, so good.
Until a little while later at home, when I swooped down to snag a slippery bar of soap from the shower floor. At that moment I felt a small piece of soft tissue in my right knee move in a very unpleasant way, and then stubbornly refuse to go back where it belonged. In the end I found myself consulting an orthopedic surgeon who happens also to treat the University of Tennessee’s football team. I knew I was in good hands, but I did not enjoy his message, which was this: You are getting too old to behave like an idiot when you run. Change your ways, or suffer the consequences.
Seems those kids had effectively put me in my place. I tucked my tail between my legs and swore off racing the day I left my orthopedist’s office, because evidently I am incapable of turning off the competitive twitch fiber, and I wanted desperately to preserve my ability to continue running.
During the intervening years running has occupied a huge place in my life. I have reflected on why I am driven to run and the answer to that question is muddy. Some motives are good, not least of which the ever growing and beautiful bond with my German Shepherd. Running gives us happy outside time together, gives him the exercise he needs. I am also aware there are less constructive reasons I run. It is risky business for me. I have a chronic foot injury that has never fully healed because I have never given it the chance. I teach ballet for a living and more than once have barely made it into class because this injury is exacerbated by an activity I should probably step away from for a while. I can quit any time I want? Not so much. The universe is evidently watching, because I may have to abandon running until particular circumstances in my life change–a story for another day.
So it was with some reservation that I bravely suggested this particular local weekend race to Handsome Chef Boyfriend, who is a consummate runner, but also a healthier and more intelligent runner than I by a long shot. He made me promise a few things if we were to do this, chiefly that I would undertake this race not to compete with the runners around me, but to enjoy the day. I wanted to test myself, to see whether I could do this thing without worrying about being better than somebody else.
This last week fits squarely into the ten worst of my life thus far. The week ahead will be better, but there are big tests staring me down, and they will continue to unfold over weeks and months. HCB and I ran well. His younger sister came to root for us; a steel drum band belted out cheerful versions of familiar tunes for the runners as we sprinted across the finish line–ironic, I thought, that happy people in floral shirts should be playing this music at this moment in Vermont. There was no swagger, just a strong farming community of people out enjoying summer’s last day. Chilly morning clouds at last gave way to abundant sunshine, and things felt right with the world, at least for a while.
There was no exclamation point at the end of the day, but a nice, unassuming period, which is fine by me. And the gift of beautiful, locally grown mesclun greens from the race sponsor. Plucky little greens. Squaring my shoulders for big tests, hoping to bring some pluck.