It’s 8:57am on Thanksgiving morning, and I’m standing with a crowd of men, women and children — most of whom are over or underdressed — at the starting line of the Upper Saddle River 5k, a local race organized about 20 minutes from my hometown in New Jersey. Some are taking selfies and smiling, while others are shivering in their singlets and talking race strategy with whomever will listen.
There are two taller men in the front of the line — one is wearing an Ironman hat; the other dons a Dunkin Donuts beanie symbolic of the New York City Marathon. Earlier this morning, I watched a trio of middle-aged women wearing seasonally-appropriate hats shaped like turkey legs waiting in line for the bathroom. There are also tons of kids in front of me, whom I know will start the race sprinting and eventually slow to a walk because they do not understand pacing at all.
Every time I enter a race distance shorter than a half marathon, I find myself in awe of the two extreme personality types short distance races attract. There’s the blatantly, non-apologetic fun runners who may or may not be dressed in costume, and then there’s the super-serious, I’m-going-to-win-this-thing racers. I usually teeter somewhere between the two, hoping to have a good race and place in my age group without getting so wrapped up in the course or the idea of fast running that I spit on a neighboring runner (oh yeah, that happened to me!).
The beauty of the 5k is that it’s over quickly. However, if you’re actually racing, you need to push yourself from the moment the gun goes off through the finish line. There is a level of pain and a whole lot of heavy breathing. In this particular course, there were also a lot of hills.
While the 5k just might be my least favorite race, it’s also a distance that tests and challenges me. It scares me. The truth of the matter is, I know I can toe the line of a marathon and finish it, regardless of how much I’ve trained simply because of the way I live my life and the physical shape I am in. But in the 5k, I know that the moment the gun goes off, I’m going to need to hustle and push past mental and physical barriers to finish within a time I am proud of. The second you stop fighting is when you lose the race. And while of course I know I can run 3.1 miles relatively easily, I would rather finish with no regrets.
There’s a lot of things in my life that I can’t control, and much more that I try to control and fail helplessly at. There’s a lot of uncertainty in my life right now, and I get extremely anxious thinking about what the future holds. I find myself fighting for a lot of things — approval, happiness, opportunities, the feeling of being in control of my life — and I fail often. I fail more than I care to admit. Yet this 5k, as simple and short as it is, was an opportunity for me to face a small fear of mine head on. I knew exactly what awaited me — pain, anguish, gasping for air, the feeling of potentially vomiting — yet I went after the prize of finishing something I could be proud of, anyway.
The gun went off, and I found myself immediately sprinting up a hill. Oy. A woman elbowed me during her ascent, which pissed me off but motivated me to stay as close as I could to her for the next three miles.
I eventually lost her, but didn’t let my pace, or my attitude falter. I passed women, and men, and others passed me. A “serious” racer spit in a moment of what can only be described as uncontrollable speed (lol) and my shoes caught the path of his saliva. Without headphones or music to mask the sound of me sucking in air desperately, I was fully aware of how my efforts were taking control of my body. I tripped once on an uneven road surface, but continued to charge up and down the rolling hills of the course.
After completing the last hill, I knew it was a straight shot to the finish line and begged myself to hold on. I saw two women ahead of me, and thought maybe could pass them. I couldn’t, but surged anyway. I waved to my sister waiting about 200 meters from the finish line, and finished the race feeling slightly sick and gasping for air — but also with the satisfaction of leaving it all out on the race course that I so desperately had been craving.
It may be a silly way to find relief, but somewhere on that course, with the turkey leg-wearers and the hock-a-loogie spitters, I found my peace of mind. I felt content, at last. It won’t last forever, but for a moment, I earned it. And that’s all that matters, at least for today.