My last post was a little heavy, so I’ll lighten it up this time around with an excerpt from a piece I’m working on. Everyone remembers their first race. And I’d like to share mine with you.
I fumble with my shoe laces and struggle to bring them together in a secure, double knot. My father tells me to stretch so I listen. Without his instruction I become lost in the swirling anxieties know as the pre-race jitters. Gingerly, I lean up against a young oak tree and pull my heel toward my butt to stretch my quad. I can feel the muscle extend and contract, and I continue to pull upward on my foot until the tightness subsides. It is my first 5k. I want to vomit.
The early morning breeze gently brushes across my face, cooling the perspiration gathering at my brow. It is October and the trees are itching to shed their leaves, and a few have already started to transform into red and yellow hues. An electrifying jolt of excitement pulses through the air as runners warm up and prepare for the race but all I can think about is how afraid I am of this apparent “starting gun” and its sound shattering the peaceful morning. Twisting and turning, my stomach wrenches my gut upwards and I wonder if the 5k is even worth all the discomfort.
I am only ten years old. My knotted, brown hair is pulled back tight in a ponytail and my light blue windbreaker engulfs my scrawny figure. Suddenly, a megaphone rips through the chattering runners and spectators, beckoning us forward to the road where the race will begin.
When I step up to the starting line the other runners tower over me like monstrous skyscrapers lining a city sidewalk. Immediately, I am lost in their shadows. Even though I have my father and Erin at my side I cannot help but feel alone in the sea of racers. I gulp in a deep breath of air, trying not to feel overwhelmed in the waves of vibrant racing jerseys and running flats. With shaking hands I finally peel off my jacket and toss it next to the road on the grass still shimmering in the waking sun’s rays, chilled with the morning dew. I am wearing a sleek running suit my father bought, one for me and one for Erin, while he was away on business. Still, I stand knock-kneed like a lost toddler searching desperately for their mother in the crowd.
Finally a man with a long, white beard walks out onto the road to face the antsy mob of runners. He has a bike at his side and his helmet sits askew on his head, the nylon straps hanging loosely beneath his chin. An enormous red and white megaphone is held inches from his lips as he announces the instructions for the start. Everyone is moving: jumping up and down, doing their final stretches and shaking out their eager legs. The start seems inevitably and torturously drawn out and we mirror a tumultuous ocean, rolling and vibrating with anxious movements.
And then a hushed silence falls upon the runners as we realize the starting commands are only seconds away. I grow tense like the rest, straining for the ready, set, go and then the siren is wailing and everyone lurches forwards like a released rubber band. The churning in my stomach dissipates as I run; my feet pounding the pavement at stride with my sister. I am encompassed by the encouraging cheers of spectators yelling as they see us off for our three mile voyage. Adrenaline seizes my body and it pumps wildly through my veins with each greedy gasp of air. My father is lost in the frenzy of runners, no doubt somewhere up ahead, and my sister is already surging ahead of me, pushing what seems an inseparable gap. It is just me and the black asphalt, and I accept the challenge offered by the ticking clock at the finish line.
There is a certain innocence in one’s first race, and as I turn the corner onto another road I look at the pavement stretched before me, speckled with runners moving relentlessly forward. None of these people know who I am and they had no expectations of what sort of time I should run. The only pressure could come from myself and I had no care about each mile split or whether I was going to break a certain time at the finish line. My only goal is to finish.
I am nameless to these runners and even though I don’t realize it at the time, I should have been extremely gratified by being anonymous in the crowd. I could breeze though the race without being judged. But from the moment I crossed the finish line I would create a baseline – a time I always had to strive to lower and improve. There is no turning back after the first race. There is always something to prove.
A tall orange cone marks the turn-around point and it finally appears ahead, glimmering like a beacon. The others now begin flying down the opposite side of the road, leading with the efficiency of an easy stride and focused composure. Soon Erin is navigating the hair-pin turn around the cone and we exchange looks as we pass, with the mutual understanding neither wants to waste our breath with words of encouragement. When I finally turn I face the homestretch jeering at me with the challenge to hold myself together and finish with some sort of vigor and strength. But my senses become numb with every step and I no longer notice the activity of others around me.
Exhaustion settles into my bones and my arms begin to swing in haphazard fashion while my legs become blocks of cement. As my eyes glaze over with the repetition of my stride, I stubbornly push through the mental wall, focusing on a wiry tree in the distance growing closer and closer. At the end of the road my internal fuel tank teeters dangerously at empty but I slowly pick up the pace anyways until I am sprinting, my body screaming for the finish line ahead. The small crowd cheering propels me forward and then nothing else matters. I am across the finish line as one of the top female finishers.
I walk aimlessly, my ragged breath rattles my frame. I look up and watch the wispy clouds swirl in endless circles against the turquoise sky.
© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved