Last spring, to help raise money for a non-profit, I ran two legs of a relay in the Vermont marathon. I love to run, and a big race gets me really charged up. Though I was only slotted to run the third and fourth leg (not the entire 26.2 mile race), I have completed three other full marathons, so I went to bed with images of breezing through my miles, handing off the baton, and accompanying our final runner to the finish.
The shuffling of other runners woke me at 5:30am. I hadn’t slept much, and seeing snow on the ground out the window almost sent me right back to bed, but by 6:30am we were driving the 45 minutes across slick winding roads up to Burlington. We gathered near the start 20 minutes before the gun. One of the great things about the Vermont marathon is that the course is designed to loop back through a central area. As a result, spectators can stay put and watch the runners pass through downtown again and again. Only one section loops way out and doesn’t double back through downtown. That was the leg where I would finish. As a result, I needed a shuttle bus to bring me back into downtown after I’d completed my miles. It was a miserable day. Hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm, I watched the initial runners set off in a light rain. Someone discarded a plastic garbage bag that had been keeping them dry, and as the rain came down harder, I put it on. The temperature was 38 degrees.
I cheered from the sidelines along a street filled with shops and restaurants. The crowd was enormous. People stood crammed together on the sidewalk and also packed into every business establishment. I wedged myself right up against the metal police barricade in order to have a front row view, but I quickly became cold, and returned to my car early to prepare. I peeled off my soaking wet (formerly waterproof?) jacket and considered my layers: sports bra, wicking long sleeve shirt, wicking short sleeved shirt, and heavy duty wicking full zip jacket. I would need them all. I could have used a hat and gloves too, but it was too late to find any. Adding my plastic garbage bag as weather repellent, I stretched out and headed to the checkpoint to await the start of my 12.5 mile journey.
Runner after runner passed, but I didn’t see a familiar face or a familiar race bib. The cold and wet seeped back in as the crowd of runners awaiting their teammates increased. I had little room to move and more than once someone pushed me into the street as they moved through the crowd behind me. After waiting for nearly 30 minutes, the hand off finally took place, but my legs felt heavy, awkward, stiff. My back and arms ached. It was a bad start. Today tennis or shuffleboard seemed a more sensible way to spend my time, but after three miles I settled into the river of runnersflowing down the main boulevard through the cheering crowd. My contentment didn’t last.
We turned off the wide open road and weaved through a narrow trail right alongside the lake. The wind kicked up and seared through my soaked layers. I began again to consider the benefits of ping pong and badminton as other runners elbowed and nudged me into puddles or jumped in front of me breaking my stride and forcing me into the brush. When a girl slightly ahead of me turned and spat on my leg, I was sure my trash bag some how doubled as a cloak of invisibility. After cresting a hill and viewing the swarm of bobbing heads both beyond and behind me, an odd feeling overcame me. I was caught in a tide of 8,000 runners, but in no way did I stand out. In no way was I unique, important, or notable. I felt incredibly small, insignificant, and alone.
In any sport (as in life), negativity is your worst enemy. Once I stared feeling sorry for myself, things went from bad to worse. My whole body hurt, I was nauseated, and my mind began reading mileage markers wrong causing me to think I was in my last mile at least three times. I have run races when all I wanted was food or water, but today nothing was more precious to me than when I handed off the baton with a mere 5 miles to go until the finish line. All I wanted in that moment was to stop running.
I hobbled to the shuttle that would take me back to the center of the race, and collapsed into the first available seat. Now that I had finally stopped running, other needs pressed on me: I needed dry clothes, I needed to lie down, I needed water, I needed to pee. When I looked up, I was stunned to see the man sharing my seat looked nearly identical to another friend of mine who was hard at work nearly 1,000 miles away. I was cold, miserable, lonely, in pain, and the one person I would most like to see wasn’t there, but a doppelganger appeared in his place (probably my mind playing tricks on me again, but at least this time my hallucination was more helpful).
Jerry and I chatted during the bus ride & walked together to the finish area to find his family and my team. He told me that he used to compete in triathlons, but then he got married, had kids, and after doing a single 6.5 mile leg of the race today, he felt more beat up than ever before in his life. Nostalgia for the good old days reflected in his eyes as if it occurred to him for the first time that he would never be a triathlete again. He had a different life now, better in some ways and worse in others, but he was enjoying tackling the new challenges brought on by all the changes.
Talking with Jerry reminded me that no one had forced me to show up and run in the freezing rain. I had been invited to participate, and I ran on behalf of others who could not run, My friends were waiting for me and once we were warm, dry, hydrated, and relaxed, the bad weather and negative experiences would be forgotten. Only our personal victories would remain. I stopped noticing the cold wind and my sore knee (except while navigating stairs), but I did notice the rain had stopped. I also realized that each of the 8,000 runners on the course had her own struggles and challenges in life, each had a reason for lacing up his shoes each day, and each would take something different away at the finish, but not one of us was alone. On this day, especially, we were in it together. Like the snow that covered the hills that morning, we looked identical bunched up in a group, but as individuals, each of us was unique.