I just turned around the first corner of a 5K run along San Francisco’s Embarcadero, when I enumerate the reasons why I may not be breathing normally: is it the humid air in the morning, some kind of chemical poison, or just my fertile imagination? I choose the latter, given that I woke up early to arrive here on time, and I could still be in one of those anxiety dreams in which you never reach your destination for some absurd reason.
In a sense, it is like a dream for someone like me to participate in organized runs, some of which have serious athletes leading the pack. I sign up on a web site, and they give me a bib number, a timing chip, and a t-shirt that I won’t wear at this race because I’m too cool and unique in my clothing style. Then on the day of the race, I have to get up and show up, but for a moment I am just as good looking as the top athlete at the front.
My friend Diana and I call ourselves running buddies, but she draws the line at participating in such organized runs. She says it is because it’s early in the morning, but I know she doesn’t feel comfortable in a crowd. We are introverts: crowds drain us of our energy, and it can be difficult to get anything from us in the morning. For me to participate in an early morning 5K or 10K, I need it to be at the end of an easy bus ride, with a plan to find coffee near the Finish line.
Running in such a semi-organized crowd is a bit like kayaking down a river: you go with the flow, watch for rocks (people who suddenly decide to walk in the middle of the road), and take advantage of currents (a tail wind, going down a hill, taking a hairpin turn on the inside). Sometimes I will find pleasure or challenge in following another runner, as in a chase, to quit the complacency of the flow.
Timing is now precisely measured by computer, so I may be ahead of someone who is actually faster, but started behind me. No need to pay attention to the crowd around me. I really look forward to seeing the numbers, my very own personal time, and how I placed within my age category. Lately I have placed second among the few remaining participants over age 60, in small races, and I like to brag about it. I wouldn’t run in a group if I didn’t get timing results, and yet I wouldn’t want to measure anything when I run alone. It wouldn’t be a game anymore.
“What about getting #1?” my friend Kyle asked me when I told him about my athletic exploits, while visiting Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Kyle Bryant has Friedreich’s Ataxia and organizes a series of bicycle rides called Ride Ataxia to raise funds for FARA. A few years ago, he and 3 friends formed a relay team to compete in the Race Across America, one of the most challenging cycling events I have heard of. There’s even a movie about him in that race, called The Ataxian. For me, that is the difference between a game and a competition. I never want to enter competitions, whereas I’ll be completely geeky about discovering that if only I sprinted at the end of a 10K, I would pass 10 or 20 runners who haven’t yet seen the balloon arch that says FINISH.
So what about that #1 position? I just think it would be funny, but I don’t really want it as a goal. Right now I am happy that running regularly has contributed to a healthier me, both physically and psychologically. The endorphin rush has given me a better outlook on life, and lowered my resistance to getting out for a run . There are hills ahead of me every time, but while one voice in my head says I should avoid it, another voice takes over once I see the hill and recognize it as something I’ve done before, calling for the larger muscles to take over. It’s like having a motivational speaker in your head, and you can’t figure what words were said that made you so enthusiastic at the end.