I found myself at a one mile race last Saturday. As soon as I walked up to the starting area, I knew I was out of my element. The race was very small and the organizers were starting us in different waves. They would wait until the last person in each wave was done before sending out the next group of runners. I watched as the 40 and older men took off. There were maybe 30 runners in that group. While I waited for that group to finish I decided to warm up a bit. I knew I was going to run this race as hard as I could and though I never warmed up for a race in my life, I had a feeling if I went out with all guns blazing I could really hurt myself if my muscles were cold.
I looked around at the women in my wave. I was in the 39 and under female category. I've always said that I run a race for me. That I don't care how fast I am compared to others. But that has always been in a race that has had hundreds to thousands of runners. There were 22 of us. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when my mind whispered to me: You really could be last! My heart whispered back: Does that even matter? My pride shouted: YES! I didn't want to be last. There would be nowhere to hide coming in last with only 21 other races. Later, I found out that out of the 22 women, there were only 3 older than me. And I knew from enough races that older doesn't guarantee they would be slower. And yet the 18 women who were younger than me were significantly so. By a good 10-15 years. They all looked like college track stars. And me? Well, I looked like what I am: a 33 year old mom of 3 who loves running but isn't necessarily cut out to run a short distance speed race.
Take off your racing bib and bow out now, gracefully. While you still have some dignity left, my mind demanded. And yet stubborness held my racing shoes firmly planted to the ground. What would I tell Claire? That I gave up before I even started because I didn't want to come in last? What kind of example would that be for her? No. I decided to run it. I wouldn't be able to face Claire if I gave up before the gun went off.
As we shuffled to the starting line, a few other racers and I noticed a very young girl in the front. She looked around 10-11 years old and we joked (but were serious) that she would probably win. I joked (but was serious) that I'd come in last, but that I'd bring it in strong. They all laughed but looked me over with sympathetic eyes. Nobody wants to be last. The gun went off and I fumbled with my watch so I could keep an eye on my pace. It all happened so fast that I hit the wrong button and was now left without a way to track my speed. I was hoping for a 6 minute 30 second finish. Nevermind that I hadn't run a mile that fast since junior high. My most recent personal record for a non-treadmill mile was 6 minutes 59 seconds.
The little girl that we gave the front line to, seemed lost and a bit confused. She started zig zagging, looking behind her, uncertain. Three of us tripped over her as we tried to get around her little doe-like body.
I had no idea I should have a racing strategy. Whenever I run a half or full marathon I have an idea of how I want to run it: go out strong but not too fast. Pick up the pace at the end but have enough gas in me to finish it. With a mile race, I figured I would run with all personality and heart. That meant, persevering through pain and running on full speed. So for the first quarter mile, I was right behind the lead pack of women. I knew I had never run this fast in my life and my lungs were burning. For the first time, I ran a race without a smile on my face.
I hit the quarter mile marker and a man was shouting out our times. 1 minute 20 seconds number (my bib) 461! 461? That's me! I quickly did the math in my head and realized that if I finished at that pace I would have run a 5 minute 20 second mile. That's where my heart was at. Unfortuantely, that pace was much too fast for me. I felt like I was a wind up toy. Someone wound the key in my back to the tightest setting and let me go. I was off like a freight train. But just as I passed that quarter mile marker, the key wasn't as strong and my legs were betraying me as I felt like an invisible rope was pulling me backwards. No! My heart shouted.
The lead pack was putting significant disntance between us. Everything was a blur. Usually I take the time to notice specators, smile, and enjoy the moment. Not for this race. I had my eyes straight ahead and for once I had no music and no watch to keep me company. Keep going, keep going, keep going, the rhythm of my shoes chanted to me.
A racer was coming up on my right at the half mile marker. And a man shouted out my time: 3 minutes! If I double that, I would finish the race in 6 minutes. And yet that rope was pulling me back even harder. I tried to resist it but it was at that moment I realized I made a huge mistake. I didn't run the first part of the race with my head. I went out fast. Way too fast. When the runner finally passed me, I realized I couldn't hear anyone else behind me. I'm last. I'm going to be last. I decided to take a look behind me to confirm my fear. No, not last. I could see runners behind me. Did that matter? Yes. Should it have mattered? No.
Even though it was the shortest race I have ever run, I can't tell you much about the last half mile. My brain was turned off and I was on automatic pilot. Finish the race, was all I could tell myself. Push. I could see the finish line ahead and my one and only goal was to cross it running hard.
I have never felt so vulnerable in a race. So alone. So bare. I crossed the finish line feeling a sense of relief to be out of the misery I put myself in. Grateful to be done and out from under the microscope. I have mixed emotions about this race. Disappointed in my time (6:44, placed 13 out of 22 runners) and yet proud that I did something that I did not want to do. Humbled by the expeienece and yet grateful to have learned that I want to conquer a new challenge: work on my mile time. A goal that I hadn't even considered in the past.
As I ran back to the starting line, I was grateful to see my family. Claire was wearing her bib and the twins were ready for me to push them in the family fun run. I was grateful that I could look Claire in the eye and say, I did it. I finished my race. As I ran the next mile with her, I showed her where it got tough for me and encouraged her to keep going as it was getting tough for her. And I was able to share the lessons I learned: Don't go out too fast and don't give up. No matter what.
I tell our runners to divide the race into thirds. Run the first part with your head, the middle part with your personality, and the last part with your heart.~ Mike Fanelli