Saturday, June 11, 2016

Finishing Last in My First 5K

My fingers are so swollen I can barely type. I feel sweat pooling in the small of my back. I'm still panting a little bit, and the bunion on my right foot is on fire.

All of those things started about 50 feet into the 5K race I entered today. I was only walking it, with a team of village employees, but it became clear right at the very beginning that my goal was going to be finishing the course at all.

My team, resplendent in our blue "It Takes a Village" matching shirts that we got especially for the Julie's Fitness Studio 5K during Whitehouse's annual Cherry Fest, joked around at registration that it was our job to be toward the back of the pack, watching out for folks. One was a lieutenant in our first responder forces, so technically that is his job. But the course was lined with members of our police and fire departments and other event volunteers doing just that, so he got to participate in all his fit glory.

I got to watch him and the others outpace me pretty quickly. Like, from the start line. We had been hanging out in some shade, but organizers moved us onto the street and into the sun and humidity and 87 degrees, told us that we would be walking around the village park, into the metropark across the state route, around the large quarry, up the main street of our little town, and then down and back the paved bike trail that used to be railroad tracks.

I felt like fainting right there.

I signed up for this race several weeks ago at the invitation of one of the village administration clerks. As a new village council member, I thought it would be an important show of solidarity. As a fat person, I thought it would be a motivation to exercise more and go on training walks and kickstart -- for the umpteenth time -- my overall fitness journey.

The first thing worked out quite well. The village employees are truly some of the best people around. The second thing never happened. I scrubbed my shower until my pectoral muscles burned so badly I couldn't sleep, but I didn't really do anything else physical during this alleged prep time.

I had known my husband was going to be ashore for Cherry Fest, so I signed him up for the race too. It was a fundraiser for Nature's Nursery, a local wildlife rescue, and the sponsoring business is owned by a high school classmate, so every entry supported good things.

My husband is in excellent shape. He came back from his ship voyage particularly "piped" this time, and he's always jumping on his bicycle to go to the hardware store or doing physical labor around the house. He could at least drag me off the course if I fell over.

At the race we met up with our great next-door neighbors, a retired couple who always keep a lovingly watchful eye on us, especially during sea voyage times. I was so glad that they were willing to walk along with us, because I immediately knew I would never be able to keep up with those long-legged employees in their blue shirts. I'd just walk companionably along with these senior citizens, thank you very much.

That worked out great for about half a mile. I was beginning to breathe heavily, and I felt shooting pangs in my shins. I couldn't keep up conversation. But the men had started swapping stories about being in the military, so it was fine to just listen. By the time we started circling the quarry, there was a large gap between us and the village team, still in sight but quite far ahead, and there were just two people behind us: a grandmother with a little girl in a sundress, moseying along.

That's when I knew it: I was going to be last. I was going to be dead last out of a group of at least 100 people, probably more. (A little girl in a sundress and her chaperone aren't people you consider as those you've beaten.)

On the far side of the quarry there is a stone gravel parking lot, and for some godforsaken reason everyone went the long way across the lot instead of up the shorter side on the partially patched drive. We briefly considered the shortcut as a group. They would have been willing to do it for me, because by now everyone knew I was struggling.

But I was kind of disgusted with myself for even suggesting it. It would have shaved off mere feet from 5 kilometers. So I decided that I was in this race, by God, and I was going to do the course as it was laid out. No cheating. I'd accepted that I was going to be last, and I couldn't make it worse by cutting corners.

By the time we were heading back up the main street, I was regretting ever signing up for this stupid event. Everything hurt. My wedding rings were cutting into my finger. (Because I am a vain dummy who thought that if someone saw a big rock on my hand they would at least judge me as being attractive enough to one person on the planet, instead of just a sweaty pig in a blue shirt huffing all over town.)

I started to fall behind my husband and neighbors. Just a few steps at first, then a few lengths, then officially not even keeping up with them.

It was so tempting when we came back to the front of the park, near where we started the race and approximately halfway through the course, to quit. Just quit. Go sit under a shady tree, watch all the festival-goers, eat some ice cream, and wait for the rest of the team to go all the freaking way down the paved path to Cemetery Road -- a cemetery! where I'd end up if I kept walking! -- and all the way back against the wind.

Somehow I got onto the path. My husband and neighbors kept turning around and calling out to me, "You OK?" I'd lie and say, "I'm great! Just slow!" The bunion throbbing in my shoe said something else. Something vulgar.

We passed runners who already had crossed the finish line, checking their wristwatches and fitness bracelets or lounging around in the grass. On the path lots of runners came by from the other direction, some looking just as miserable and uncomfortable as I was but very determined to finish. Oh yeah, and actually running. Some of them would smile at us -- the obvious laggers -- and wave or shout "Good job!" as they pounded pass. I saw a mom and her teenage-young adult daughter run by, and heard the mom whisper to her, "Almost there, sweetie."

I started to cry.

I had at least half an hour to go. I was confronted with how overweight I am, how sedentary my life is, how incapable I am of leading my children in physical activity. I started praying for the EMT on the four wheeler who was monitoring the course to come buzzing by again. My plan was to throw myself in front of it and blame him for why I couldn't finish the race. But I was wearing that damned blue shirt and it was just too unseemly a thing to do to another public servant.

There was nothing to do but keep going. One foot in front of the other. My husband and neighbors were so far ahead I couldn't even hear them anymore. I turned around once or twice and saw that the grandma and little girl in a sundress were still plugging away, but they were a good distance back too.

I was alone.

And that turned out to be just what I needed. I cried a little more. I started imagining that people would indeed celebrate me for not giving up. I started noticing the pretty wildflowers along the path, the corn coming up in a field, the tidy backyards of homes where all kinds of people live, slow ones and fast ones and fat ones and fit ones. We're all in it together. It takes a village.

At some point I stopped trying to check how much closer I was getting to the finish line. I didn't care. I'd get there eventually. I was going very slowly, sipping on the water bottle my husband had the good sense to prepare for me, even though the water had gotten quite warm. I didn't care about the inferno in my foot, or how the shirt was clinging to me, or how audible my breath was. I smiled and waved at bicyclists and couples pushing baby strollers on the path.

I thanked 8-pound baby Jesus in golden fleece diapers for the beautiful breeze.

As I neared the finish line, close enough to see that the clock timer was about to pop over an hour, I saw a group of people in blue T-shirts coming toward me. It was the village people. "We're here to finish with our teammate," one said. My husband crossed the line with our neighbors and then doubled back too.

I was pretty moved. I didn't cry, though. Maybe because I mostly felt like throwing up. But the race organizers were congratulating me and we were posing for pictures and laughing and looking for cookies and bananas and it all kind of just happened. I don't think it actually hit me that I had indeed finished the race until I got home.

I'm going to take a cool shower and then stay off my feet for a while. I'll do some laundry. Make dinner. I want to renew some energy to maybe go back up to the festival for a while, saving some for taking our 4-year-old to the fireworks display tonight.

Because that's what people who participate in 5K races do. They are normal people with normal lives who do physically active things as part of that life. I can do that.

I can be last. That's still in it, that's still finishing. And I am not alone.

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