A funny thing happens when you show up for a 5K road race in early February.
You get a knot in your stomach and your heart starts thumping as you pin your number on your chest as if you actually expect to do anything more than finish. You realize that no matter how old you are, we all return to field day when the gun sounds. You know you’re 60, but something inside you thinks you’re 12.
Where is this adrenaline and knot in your stomach coming from?
I was in decent running shape a few years ago, and now I’m not. No matter how much I “train” – and by that I mean jogging with my dog on nearby hiking trails – I can’t get my groove back. I’m slow, and getting slower. I didn’t realize how pathetic I look until I told a fellow dog walker I’m “running” and she said, “Good for you!”
This set off an internal dialog. What did she mean? Does she think I’m too old to run, or should I say shuffle?
I planned to do a 5K on New Year’s Day and couldn’t because I threw my back out playing too much Pickleball. So I set my sights on the IRIS Run for Refugees, a 5K in New Haven, CT., that raises funds for refugee resettlement in Connecticut. I like a good cause, and I couldn’t think of a better one given the debate over Trump and his Wall.
Apparently, a lot of other people felt the same way. About 3,000 runners of all shapes and sizes converged at the start line. It was the largest turnout in race history. Even U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal was there, saying he planned to show a photo of us to fellow senators to show some Americans support refugees.
As he addressed the crowd, I looked to my right and saw a 4-year-old girl with bright blue eyes in a jogging stroller. I thought about her, and what this country will be like when she’s an adult. I hope that we’ll have our priorities in order by then, that we’ll have all of this sorted out. But I’m not so sure.
As we took our place in the middle of the pack at the start, I noticed the diversity of the crowd:
- College kids from Yale University’s Trumbull College wearing Viking hats and carrying a huge flag stood in front of me. Note to self: get away from them as soon as the race starts unless you want to be speared or poked in the eye by the flag.
- Lots of young moms and dads with jogging strollers, including one behind me. Another note to self: get away from the jogging stroller unless unless you want to be rammed by it or worse, left in its dust.
- .Lots of people my age or older: Good for us!
- Tons of kids of all ages: proof that schools and parents are instilling a sense of activism and social justice in the next generation.
- People of all races and skin colors.
As the race began and we all inched toward the start line, I began listening to “Earth, Wind, & Fire Essentials.” If you want to tell your brain that you’re not old, listen to songs that you danced to at college frat parties. I can’t listen to “That’s the Way of the World” or “September” without feeling 18 again.
The music gave me a kick in my step, and I gleefully pass walkers during the first mile. I’m feeling pretty good until a roar erupts and the leaders pass by in the opposite direction. You’ve got to be kidding me.
I let out a weak cheer and then resume my plod, stopping midway during the second mile to take off my fleece jacket and tie it around my waist. I’m feeling OK until I look up and see a guy pushing a jogging stroller with another kid in a backpack ahead of me. Even a pack mule is outpacing me.
The third mile was ugly. I tried to run . . . and I just couldn’t at times. At one point, I said, “I can’t! I’m gassed” and a young woman turned around and smiled a me. She was walking too, so I guess she understood.
For me, running has always been a solitary thing, something best done alone. I have trouble keeping up a conversation because it always seems like someone asks me a question while we’re approaching a hill. And it’s hard to find exactly the right pace. Someone always wants to go a little faster or slower, making finding your perfect stride impossible.
I don’t enjoy these races for a few reasons. They make me realize how slow I really am. And they bring out a competitive spirit that has no business existing in a body that’s not built for speed. I try not to get annoyed as people go by me, yet I can’t help feeling a little peeved, particularly when people look like they don’t train at all.
But with the finish line (finally) in sight, the adrenaline and resolve returned. I began running again, refusing to stop and walk in front of so many spectators. When a young woman next to me began walking, I looked at her and motioned her to run again, as if to say “Oh no you don’t. You’re finishing strong.”
And she did. She began running and she didn’t stop until we crossed the finish line. I was so proud of her. I realized that sometimes, all we need is a little encouragement to get over the finish line. If I took anything away from the race besides my lousy time, it’s that. Sometimes, the smallest gesture means everything in the world.
My friend Christi greeted me at the finish line with words like, “You did it!” but my time was pathetic, even embarrassing. I’m not even putting it in here. If you’re that curious, look it up online. I promise you will have a good chuckle.
But as the Curmudgeon looked up the race results online, I studied my time. Yes, it was slow, ungodly slow. But I finished 36th in my age group. That’s something, isn’t it? I’ve reached the point where I’m making allowances for my age, cutting myself a break.
I suppose I’ve earned it, and at this point, I’ll take it.