Bent over, hands on my knees, I try to catch my breath.
I’m covered in sweat and just want to rip off the soaking wet tank top I’m wearing and be done with this evening. Scattered around the track are a dozen other runners that look just like me. Hot, tired, bent over and sweat pouring down their backs.
The whistle blows and we are lining back up for another round. I tuck myself in behind someone when the runner up front signals for me to come stand next to him. I hesitate and he waves his arm determined to get me there before we are off. “Let’s go! Up here!” All eyes on me, I weave my way to the front. Coach looks at me and says, “You really should be in group one.”
I’m wondering how this is even happening. The last time I remember running on a track I was 15 years old and looking for the weakest classmate I could find to compete with. I was so slow and so awkward, I hated PE uniforms and I was pretty sure it was all just a way to torture high schoolers. I was never picked first (or even in the middle) and I definitely spent a lot of time coming in last.
“Group two ready?!” And then without waiting for an answer, “Go!”
I tell myself to start slow and stay behind someone but before I know it, I’m pulling ahead, everyone else hot on my heels. Their breath and loud steady foot steps will push me once again until I cross the finish line. We’ll all be bent over trying to catch our breath in only a few more minutes.
Sunday was the last race of the season for the CARA (Chicago Area Runners Association) circuit and I swore I wasn’t going to go because Drew was out of town and I surely didn’t want to miss Abbey’s last soccer game just to run three miles in some random little town an hour away. But Friday evening rolled around and I found myself setting my alarm for 5:30am, enough time to get up and haul myself out to another race. I calculate that I can get back just in time to make sure Abbey’s up and dressed for her game.
It’s early morning and the heat and humidity have been replaced by changing leaves and cool autumn air. After a warm up I make my way towards the front of the crowd while the National Anthem plays. I find a spot off to the side and start all my last checks. Warm up shirt off, watch ready, laces secure… A familiar voice next to me says,”You really need to move up closer and get a better spot. There are lots of little kids in this race and you’re too fast for over here.” It’s the last of the season and I still can’t convince myself that these people are right. Then she says, “You can do 6:45 pace. Go run that.” Why do these other runners have so much confidence in me?
We wish each other good luck and the air horn goes off. Immediately the crowd is jammed with small children who were way too close to the front. One little girl stands still in the middle of the crowd as folks part the runner sea for her, confused. They were right, this is chaotic and I was too far back. I manage to get to the edge of the road to try and pass folks. Getting into my groove another friend passes me and I wish him good luck. He looks back at me and commands, “C’mon, let’s go!” He waves his arm decidedly and I follow. He was in group one all summer, can I really keep up? I’m not confident but I am good at taking commands. Turns out, I couldn’t catch him but he was always in my sight.
I just finished the best running season of my life. Age 44 has been good to me. But even more, the people around me have been amazing. They have believed when I didn’t, they have commanded me to move up when I was too far back and they told me what I can and will do.
“Pick up the 3:40 marathon pace band.”
“Run with group one.”
“You can qualify for Boston.”
Speed work, strength training, good shoes and long runs were the perfect combo to get me where I needed to be. But I would have never moved up front or convinced myself start out fast and strong without the people who surrounded me. They were the hands that pushed me into places I once thought I had no business being. Turns out, you never know until you really try.
Thanks running community. I’m not just saying this- you really are THE BEST.