SOME RUNNERS enter the National Symphony 10 K race to win a trip to London or just to hear the musicians playing at the finish line. Others choose Fritzbe's 6.2-mile free-for-all, for the sheer joy of pigging out at a buffet afterward.And others run 20 miles farther, in the Marine Corps Marathon, for the glory.
I ran in my first 10 K for the long-sleeved T-shirt.
With neighbors to talk it up, any jogger can become a runner. And my neighbors assured me that a particular race was a great one last year. But this year, it was a race organized in hell.
Because it rained five minutes before the race started, humidity was a hundred percent. Then, just as we topped the first hill, the sun came out, steaming and baking us at once in what was supposed to be crisp, fall air.
On rolling terrain, weaving our way through a suburban neighborhood, we attempted to stay in the shade, which quickly diminished as the sun rose in the sky. The course ran through a new development, where only small trees were growing.
We dodged the cars and the cars dodged us.
Occasionally, unleashed dogs came bounding out to play.
Promised mileposts didn't materialize. An official would later claim that's why they mailed us a map of the course. But runners don't follow maps! What is this -- orienteering?
After a while, even the most seasoned runners didn't have a clue as to how many miles they'd gone, unless they were wearing watches. In fact, many were. And a few wore radio-headphones, and one sported a blood pressure monitor on hir arm, and another pushed his baby daughter in a three-wheel stroller.
Water stations were off the beaten track -- so far off that a dozen thirst-quenched runners raced up a wrong street and a motorcycle cop was dispatched to track them down and usher them back on course. Other runners later swore that there were no water stations. (At about mile four, I grabbed a full paper cup, attempted to run and drink at once, and breathed the contents up my nose. Coughing, I forgave the laughter; it came from behind me.)
Race officials called out split times. But they weren't standing at mileposts, so what did it matter?
One yelling, "25 minutes!" must've been afflicted by the blazing sun. That would be too short a time, for surely we'd run five miles. I heard the beating of feet behind me, and a man called out as he passed, "You're doin" great! Keep it up!"
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Three miles," he replied. To his rapidly moving back, I accused him of kidding me, and over his shoulder he assured me he wasn't.
I ran mad, cursing the missing mileposts.
I ran hot. I shall never again wear ankle socks.
A few blocks ahead of me, a man appeared to be handing in his race number at the finish line. Heck, there was something left in my legs! Sprint! Go for a decent time! But arriving at the spot where the runner had been, I saw he'd only been grabbing a cup of water. I asked the water man where we were. Five miles. And I had just sprinted my heart out.
Ahead, another hill to climb.
Wanting to throw up and wanting to die are frequent desires of novice runners. The lack of mileposts made it worse. My race-psychology plan was to tell myself "Just finish the race" after five miles. But I accidentally told myself that at three.
By five miles, when the runner's high should have kicked in, I could think of no reward, no puff-pastry pulling me onward, that would keep me from rolling over and checking out of the race. But I didn't know my way back to the finish line. I considered knocking on doors to ask for an inconspicuous detour to the recreation center, preferably to the back door. Ah, the loneliness of the short-distance runner.
A hill or two later, a policeman directing traffic pointed to the real finish line. "Go. You're almost there," he said quietly.
Dig. That's all you can do. Dig inside yourself to see what there is. And somehow there's something to make you persist. Inner combat is what it's all about.
The cheers as you come in aren't bad, either. I heard my neighbors saying, "Great run!" and the timekeeper repeating my time to my disbelieving ears. (A good deal better than my goal, which was "under an hour and I won't be humiliated.")
The runners gradually converged on the oranges and watermelons outside the recreation center. Complaining how poorly organized the race was, they spit watermelon seeds into the grass in disgust. Knowing each other from previous races, most of the runners traded war stories and marveled that an over-50 man, for whom the earlier two-mile fun-run had been a warm-up, came in second.
One of my neighbors announced that, based on inside information, he'd come in third for his age group and was up for a trophy. He made us hang around for the awards ceremony.
A good thing, too, for it turned out I'd won third in my age group. On the ride home, we analyzed the pair of trophies: "I think this is solid gold," he insisted.
And with the long-sleeved T-shirt, not a bad haul for a morning run.