The morning of Race Day was dry, on hindsight miraculously bookended by mornings so stormy you’d have second thoughts driving out unless you had to.
But I was oblivious. As I left the apartment, the sky black as night and a too-early breakfast of snack bar and cocoa sitting heavily inside, I suddenly remembered my race bib (the one with my four-digit race number and timing transponder) and went back in to retrieve it.
Good thing I remembered. I couldn’t run the 10 km race without that.
I drove into the old heart of town where the roads were not closed for the race and after a few misses and U-turns, finally drove up a dimly lit ramp to a carpark of a dingy old building. In the parked car, I turned on the lights inside and felt around for my running shoes. Nothing. You see, I had worn slippers meaning to change into my shoes which I thought I had carried with me out of the house. I felt again, in the driver’s side, the front passenger’s side, even the back.
Uh-oh. Can’t run the race without *that*.
I had about 45 minutes til the second start of the race for the final wave. I called home and asked for the shoes to be driven over, yes, at half-six on a Sunday morning. A second call was made to a fellow racemate not to wait for me at the start point. Miracle of miracles, he remembered that his wife’s old pair of Saucony’s were still in the boot. Second miracle of miracles, we share the same shoe size.
(Actually the third miracle of the moment was realizing that he could have driven his other car to the race, but for some undefined reason, chose to drive the seven-seater instead, where her shoes had sat disused for, oh, months.)
So I found myself at the start point on the highway by the sea, in a sea of runners. Most of them looked like 1) long-distance runners in their compression tights and rainbow-coated Oakleys worn casually backwards , 2) students who were cross-country runners, 3) national servicemen, and 4) canoeists, triathletes, and similar.
“It’s not the shoes,” I tell myself. “It’s the runner.” Right?
Four months ago, in another race, I was gaily chatting with friends a few metres from the start point, wearing hot-pink race shoes, raring to go. This time round, I was alone, a few hundred metres from the starting point, and in borrowed shoes.
Everyone else was in groups, ear phones in, limbering up. No one was listening to the emcee who, assisted by decibel-shattering dance music, was vainly drumming up enthusiastic responses to his calls. Everyone clearly just wanted to start running.
The crowd started moving, slowly, and we were off. Things were fine until the anticipated second-half, when I had to summon up my will to focus on the running, on pacing people ahead of me. Water stations looming in the distance helped. By the time I saw the gigantic bright yellow “8 KM” banner on a lamp post, I was asking myself: Does that mean the start of 8 kilometres, with another painful three to go, or does it mark the end of 8 km?”
My addled brain wearied itself trying to stay positive and kept going over the markers I’d already passed. There were too many U-turns on this race route, disheartening and repetitive. There was one point I wondered if I had accidentally gone onto the route meant for 15 km runners. The balls of my feet chafed, my running vest was drenched, I wiped sweat off my cheeks with damp palms and I noticed my face felt cold. I stopped looking at my watch to keep from discouragement.
“You of the indomitable spirit!” I said to myself. Out loud. Nearby runners were too deep in their own zones of pain or concentration to turn around. It wasn’t working. I tried again. “Run like hell and get it over with!”
Finally, I saw it. The banana-yellow bouncy-castle of an arch that was the finish line. Suddenly, I picked up my stride. Lifting my legs high like a gazelle, I ran with leaping strides and found myself dashing towards the plump balloonish arch. I ran faster and faster. I guess that’s what race veterans would describe as a “strong finish.” Except it was only for 200 meters.
Past the finishing point, I was handed, in this order, a bubble-wrapped object whose weight suggested it was a medal, a bottle of isotonic water, a banana, and a white face towel. The towel was cold and wet, and I hesitated to place an icy tip against my cheek or my neck, which was drenched and shivering.
I entered the yellow tent, where it seemed hundreds of runners were milling about, and though I was alone, I hardly felt lonely or more glad.