Return to Racing

Check-in this year is mercifully indoors.

The day’s weather hangs on a precipice.  All it takes is a slight breeze or the sun going behind some clouds and it tumbles into an arctic chill.  I’m dressed to be comfortably warm in the middle of running.  I’m certainly not dressed to be comfortable in the meanwhile.

It’s the city’s Shamrock Shuffle — a fun two-miler around the downtown area before the parade.  We check-in and get our bibs and find our group of friends.

“The cheapskate in me wouldn’t even sign up for the race,” says one of our friends, as we talk about getting our money’s worth. “I’d just run alongside everyone for free.”

“Grab some green construction paper and some safety pins and hope no one notices,” my husband adds in.

Last year, sign in was outside, when winter was mild and meek and spring had subtly slid in.  It takes a while, but eventually I realize that my last race was the race last year.

“It’s good to be back,” I think to myself, even as I shiver at the starting line.

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In some regard, I’ve been running since I was a kid — since I would barrel out of the elementary school building and to my mother’s car and my mother would call me her little track star.

Perhaps more technically, I’ve been running since I joined the track team as a JV sprinter my freshman year of high school. I’d venture away from it in college (potentially too busy walking the roads of Boston to ever run them) before returning again, using my runs as meditation, as a reset, as proof that the body I thought of as oafish and clumsy as an adolescent was actually capable of great things.

I’d return and up the mileage and find a home in the world of mid-distance running.  I’d eventually be forced take a second break from running — this time after tearing a tendon, after going too hard for that marathon glory and not properly paying attention to when I was past my limits.  It would be a year before I’d return back to any type of running, with most of my runs staying under 6 miles — my mid-distance days left behind on the trails.

I haven’t done many races in the last few years. Perhaps it was because I got too caught up in all that was happening around me, going too hard and not properly paying attention to when I was past my limits and resulting in tearing something other than just my gracilis tendon.

But I want back in it. That’s all I could think of when I was getting my bib, preparing for the race, lining up with my expected mile pace.  I want back in.

I want that bundle of nerves as you wait for the gun blast.  I want that rush of being in a group, hurdling towards something bigger than ourselves.  I want that maneuvering around the crowds in the beginning, feeling unstoppable as you find your place in the long line of runners.  I want that feeling of supreme connection followed by deep contemplative solitude, when the runners have spaced themselves out and it could be upwards of a mile before you see another person cheering on the sidelines.

I want that feeling of doubt halfway in, of wondering what in the world did you sign yourself up for.  I want that forced focus on the present moment — the reminder that it’s simply a series of moments between now and the finish line and staying purely within the moment you are in is key to making it through.  And I want that feeling of delirious gratitude when you see the finish line and all sense of time is lost.

The elements are there in any type of run — the crisp sharpness & clarity of the world after the run is done, the hypnotic rhythm of your breath and the sound of your feet against the ground, the feeling of accomplishment when you finally finish — but it’s a different feel on race day. It’s a different energy, one that can’t be replicated by just running alongside those who paid.

Why do we pay to run? We pay for this feeling. We pay to prove we can challenge ourselves and rise above. We pay to be reminded that we are a lot more alike than we think. We pay to operate as a group and move as a single unit but exist as blazingly individual souls. We pay for the moment of glory, when you cross the finish line and can do nothing more than walk forward in stupefied stupor.

And I want all of it.  I want back in.

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Five minutes into the race and I fatigue out quickly.  I’m already wondering if I’ll have to stop to walk.  In that forced and wavering focus on the present moment, I fill each second with doubt — why am I so tired, why am I fatiguing this early, why is a two-mile jaunt wreaking havoc on me, am I forever relegated to the jogs around the block, the jots down nature trails, the occasional toe into mid-distance running.

I think all of these things until I hit the first mile marker and my tracker informs me that I’ve completed it in 7:41.

I haven’t run a mile in under 8 minutes in years. The last time I did, it was on a treadmill — an endeavor completed without the uneven terrain and wind resistance of the outdoor word.

It’s enough to power me through the next mile — through the encroaching exhaustion and the deep desire to call it early and just start walking.

I finish with an official time of 15:41.

May this be a wonderful and fruitful return to racing in 2017, I tell social media. It’s one more thing to return back to. One more daisy popping up after a long and brutal winter. One more sign that, while there will be no such thing as returning to normal (as if I would even want to if I could), some things can still make their homecoming.

Yes, I want back in. With every fiber of my being, I want back in.

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