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I lay in that semiconscious state between sleep and wakefulness. Lying still in the post coitus  embrace of cool sheets draped over my nude body I felt good, a feeling that occurred more and more rarely theses days. The half smile that pricked up the corners of my lips was simultaneously sardonic and sincere. Today, so far, had been a pretty good one.

The shower splashed in the background as my mind drifted back thirty years. It had been in the spring of 1986 when I’d run my first road race, my little sister Anna daring me to race her in the Kiwanis Club of Olney, Maryland’s 10K. Anna was an Army Lieutenant home on leave and she’d thrown down the gauntlet, “What’s the matter bro, afraid your little sister’s going to beat you?”

I wasn’t much of a runner but I’d been taking a martial arts class at the YMCA and my instructor had urged the class to spend time on fitness, always stressing that the best way to defend oneself was to run away. When I’d told her that I was going to run my first 10K Amy had smiled and said, “Hey! That’s great!”

I replied that I hoped to finish in under 48 minutes and Amy had cocked he head to the side and added, “Good luck. I’ve been doing ten k’s for years and that’s a pretty lofty goal for a first timer.”

I’d felt a little offended. As part of our conditioning Amy had the class run two miles on a quarter mile track about once a month and I’d managed to finish in front of most of the two dozen adults who raced around the oval. I had felt pretty sure about my ability to go three times the distance and still run sub eight minute miles but when Anna and I had shown up for the Kiwanis Club race and the announcer had said over and over again that slower runners needed to start at the back of the pack I’d dutifully gone back about two thirds of the way, leaving over 600 runners ahead of me.

Anna had started about half the way back as she’d done quite a bit more running than I and was hoping to place in her age group. We’d fist bumped before separating and then after a recording of The National Anthem was played a shot was fired and the front of the race took off running. It didn’t take me long to figure out that I’d put himself at a terrible disadvantage by starting so far back. The first minute of the race I plodded slowly, shoulder to shoulder as the racers wound their way out of the park and onto the residential streets of Olney. After about a mile the crowd thinned out some and I was able to easily step around competitor after competitor and though the human obstacles physically  slowed me down a bit in places, mentally and emotionally they continuously urged me to greater effort. My legs and lungs were burning but so was my desire to break the self-imposed forty eight minute barrier.

Unlike later years when I would race with a digital watch, a timing chip and where there might be race course volunteers calling out race times at every mile this time I labored with nothing but my desire to do my best and to try and catch up with Anna. The course had mile markers against which we could measure our progress but without a stopwatch I couldn’t gauge if my goal was a reasonable reality or just a fantasy. As the miles clicked by I noticed that I was passing fewer and fewer runners and that the sea of heads in front of me seemed to remain much the same.

Just around mile marker four a runner passed me, something that, because I’d started so far back in the pack, hadn’t happened before. As the woman went around me her form was beautiful and her footfall so light as to be nearly silent. I decided to try and stay with her, to use her as a pace vehicle, and my slapping footfall seemed hideously inept as my loud ragged breathing became even more labored. I matched her stride for stride and during a downhill stretch even managed to pass her but as we crossed mile number five she again stepped out from my shadow and then started to ever so slowly ease away from me. “No,  I don’t think so,” I gasped to myself as I dug just a bit deeper in my fight of flight.

The race course approximated a square and the park came into view. Fearing that I would vomit and feeling the 200 plus per minute pounding in my chest as a fearsome agony I managed to slip around the woman with whom I’d been sparring for the last few minutes and step across the finish line directly ahead of her. Spent, in desperate need of water and a toilet I clenched my anal sphincter and waddled to the toilet where I gasped for air and explosively cleared my bowels.

My legs, my lungs and my anus burned from abuse but after pushing off the toilet, using my hands and arms to assist my cramping legs get me up from the seat I was well satisfied with at least one aspect of this race. The race clock had read 40:51 when I crossed the finish line, a time well short of my 48 minute goal, and to add a little extra icing to the cake I found Anna at the finish line looking back at the long line of racers that were just finishing. She’d started in front of me and figured she’d finished there as well but somewhere along the course I had passed her. I had a hard time not gloating to my sister  especially when I found out that the woman whom I’d dueled back and forth with for the last third of the race had won the women’s division. 40:41 had turned out to be a pretty respectable time.

The shower didn’t run very long, after all the fit, forty something woman who shared my hotel room had showered very recently but this time instead of hurrying to our waiting bed, fresh water dripping off our flesh, she came in calmly, wearing one towel wrapped around her body and a smaller one wrapped around her hair. My weekend jaunt to Tampa had been relatively spontaneous. I’d met the woman, at least ten years my junior, at a Wizards game and after two weeks of dating she’d asked if I wanted to join her for a trip to Florida. Surprised, flattered and available I’d said, “Hell, yes!”

When Stephanie had said that we were flying down on April first I’d momentarily feared that this was some cruel April Fool’s joke but her snuggling behavior on the flight down had gone a long way to reassure me. My anxiety did go back up a bit when Stephanie asked, “You did bring your running shoes like I said, right? We’re signed up to do a 5K on Sunday.”

I’d looked at her, raised an eyebrow and asked, “You’re kidding; right?” She hadn’t been and there is no doubt that this morning’s race had been a strong impetus in my stroll down memory lane regarding my first 10k. I’d been 25 years old when I ran 6.2 miles in forty minutes and fifty one seconds. This morning I’d gone half the distance, just 3.1 miles, and it had taken me twenty eight minutes and eighteen seconds. My youthful body had deserted me and with it much of my enjoyment of life.

I’d gone to the race because it included a weekend with Stephanie. I had about as much interest in racing as I did in hitting my knees with a hammer, an interesting alternative that no doubt would make them feel about as they did at the end of our five-k experience. Still, it had been fun to dig in and try. The start of the race had been eerily similar to my first in that the woman I was running with was younger, ran a lot more than I did and was starting closer to the front of the 600 deep pack than I was. The announcer called ready, set, and we went.

I’m not sure that calling what I do “running” is a legitimate use of the word. I plod, maybe  I jog then walk, and if I’m feeling really tough I’ll “sprint” then walk, if we can call anything that I do a sprint anymore. The race course in Florida was flat-duh!- and an out and back course mostly on The Pinellas Trail. I could see Stephanie trotting away in her cute, little, clingy pink tee-shirt and I watched as she passed racer after racer. Then I noticed something. I was passing racers too.

Okay, maybe the term “Race Participant” was a more apt description of a lot of these folks. Some were really large, some were really slow, and quite a few were both. Even though I knew I wasn’t running very fast passing people gave me a little shot of the old competitive juices and so I dug deep. I dug so deep that I caught up to Stephanie at a bit under one and a half miles. She called out, “Go, Gene, go!” to my struggling backside and I, with nary a breath to spare, flung my hand up at the elbow in silent response. I was racing, baby, and victory was my goal.

The course cut a U-Turn at 1.55 miles and I saw that I had created a small gap between Stephanie and myself. I waved again and concentrated on trying to catch the runner ahead of me. At the two mile mark I saw a runner start to edge around me on the left. It was a young woman pushing a baby jogger and I dug in deep but could not stay in front of the petite blonde who was not only running faster than I was but was doing so while burdened with a child in a stroller. “Lo! Behold! I am warrior!” I thought sarcastically.

The bad news increased soon thereafter when Stephanie stepped next to me and said, “Looking good, Gene! Keep it up!”

I am not sexist. Woman beat me at sports a lot but until the last few years I had been able to run five kilometer races in well under 24 minutes. My youth gone, my strength failing I dug in. I would do my best to finish before Stephanie and I would do what I could to catch up to baby jogger mama and stay with her. I again silently waved to Stephanie and picked up the pace as I ran in hot pursuit of Madonna and child. The finish line was less than a hundred meters ahead when I slipped around the mother and child duo. I ran across the finish line and kept walking, legs burning, lungs seared, knees apoplectic in protest. I walked perhaps fifty feet before returning to the waiting and smiling Stephanie, “Good job,” she said, offering me a water and flashing a pink index card in front of me. “Look!” she added, “I placed in the top 25 women.

I nodded vigorously and managed to say, “Good for you. I need to walk.”

She really was happy with our race. Once inside the hotel we showered together and then we tumbled into bed. It had been a good day, not because I’d finished in front of Stephanie but because she’d spurred me on to greater glory, first in the race and then later when we were alone. Of course now that we’d finished both romps I was exhausted and needed a nap. She just smiled down at me, dropped her towel, slipped into her clothes and, walking down the hall to the ice machine, brought me some ice for my knees. “Here,” she said, sitting on the edge of the bed, handing me two plastic sacks with ice in them and kissing my lips, “you’d better ice those knees before you fall asleep.”

“Thanks, beautiful,” I whisper as my eyelids tug downward. Stephanie is a beautiful woman and I hope she keeps pushing my limits in a good way because that’s what healthy competition is all about, isn’t it? Life is definitely better when there’s that special little spark. We all need to fight to make sure it doesn’t go out.

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