Summer vacation is for drinking homemade sangria in a red Solo cup on the beach, going out for Soft Serve while the sky turns pink, building epic sandcastles, jumping waves, happy hour on the third floor deck, and racing at sea level.
My family (including my parents, my sister, her family, and one of my cousins and her family) rented a house at Bethany Beach, Delaware, and while I was looking forward to spending time some of my very favorite people, meeting one of my nephews for the very first time, and putting my feet (and the rest of me) in the ocean, I was also eagerly anticipating a local 5k I discovered with a little help from Google. I even convinced Dan to do it with me.
Race morning, I was up early with my oatmeal, a cup of coffee, and a picture in my head. It was the time clock at the finish line glowing 22:00. I’d never finished a 5k faster than 22:35 before. Nothing about my training (if you could call it that) should have led me to think it was possible, but I’d had some good results lately; I ran the 5k run portion of a recent Stroke and Stride in 22:40, which led me to think it couldn’t hurt to try.
Even as we got into the car at 7am to drive across the picturesque Indian River Inlet Bridge from Bethany to Rehoboth, the air was hot and thick. Between the weather and this article, I was inspired to wear nothing more than a pair of shorts and a sports bra. My legs felt fresh as I began my warmup, which made me happy. Meanwhile, I found the cleanest, freshest-smelling, port-o-potty maybe in the whole entire world, during my warm-up, which I took as a good luck charm.
Dan and I explored the old, tree-lined neighborhood that backed up to the main road as we jogged at a relaxed pace for about 15 minutes. Toward the end, I did a few strides, and we made it to the start line at 7:57, just in time for the 8am start. Cutting it this close almost gave me a heart attack, but I had pre-race race jitters to begin with, so who knows what was really going on.
I lined up toward the front. I checked out my competition. Around me were mostly men, some who looked fast, some who didn’t, and a handful of women who didn’t look especially fit. I weaved my way to within a couple of feet of the timing mat. I wondered for a second who I was to line up so close to the front, and then asked myself who I was I not to. I pretended I belonged exactly where I was, standing there in just a pair of nylon shorts and my reversible sports bra (pink side out) like I was the type of runner who was used to letting her midriff see the sun, who didn’t think twice about standing in spitting distance of the start line.
The gun went off. We rushed across the timing mat, onto the main street. Within a hundred yards, we turned right, into a neighborhood, down a slight incline. Trees created welcome shade. I had already dropped the blonde woman who had started by my right shoulder. The only other woman in sight was at least 10 yards ahead. I thought about surging to catch her, but I knew that if I was meant to run with her, I’d reel her in later. Otherwise, I’d blow up if I tried to run with her now. Better to be patient. I glanced at my TomTom. My pace was 6:20. Much too fast. I wondered if I’d already squandered the chance to be patient. I kept running, checking my pace every so often. 6:40. 6:55. 7:11. I stopped looking at my watch and focused instead on the road.
Effort strong and relaxed. Breathe hard. Gaze steady. Face relaxed.
We turned right, leaving the neighborhood, heading toward the boardwalk. There was no more shade and the sun was punishing even at a few minutes past 8. I heard breathing in my right ear. I was sure it was Dan. I quickened my step ever so slightly. A few beats later, a non-Dan guy passed me. I heard another runner breathing behind me. This time, I was sure I recognized the rhythm of the breath and the sound of the footfalls as Dan’s. He’d already told me that if he couldn’t stay in front of me, his plan was to stay on my shoulder. I surged. Still, I heard him in my ear.
Toddlers wandered dangerously close. Parents told older kids to wait to cross the boardwalk. People cheered. Some told me I wasn’t far behind the first woman. I appreciated it but knew they were wrong. I couldn’t see the woman ahead of me anymore. We hit the first mile mark. I looked at my watch. It was dead. I didn’t need my watch to tell me I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing. Running right at my edge. Holding back just enough to avoid running out of gas before the finish line, going hard enough to wish I was much closer than 2.1 miles from the finish line. Wondering why I was here instead of having a cup of coffee back on the porch of our rental house or making sandwiches to take to the beach like a normal person on vacation.
I heard Dan making friendly, upbeat conversation right behind me. I wondered why he wasn’t more stealthy. I wondered if he knew this was a race, not a coffee-klatsch. I reminded myself not everyone runs a 5k like their life depends on it.
I focused on getting to the next orange cone. And then the next. And the next one after that. And finally the turn-around. Ice cream, flip flops, donut-shaped inner tubes, homemade candy, lined the boardwalk to my left. Waves crested and crashed on the sand to my right. I focused my attention ahead. Nearly the entire race fanned out behind me, which I could now see coming toward me.
The boardwalk turned into a road and I saw cones to my left and cones ahead of me. Now my breathing was ragged and I felt the trace of a chill on my cheeks. Just before I ran right right past my left turn, a volunteer lamely motioned to the left and told me I need turn go left, instead of continuing straight. I made a sharp turn which resembled more of a U-turn than a left, but thankfully I didn’t miss it entirely. I was back in the shade, now headed slightly uphill when an older, much faster gentleman approached, said something encouraging and then passed me. Dang, he’s fast for an old guy, I thought.
Just keep running.
My breath was coming out in wretched wheezes but I was less than a mile from the finish now. The older man in front of me faded into the distance. There was no one, at least no one I could hear, chasing me. I knew I wasn’t supposed to feel cold but I told myself to worry about that later. For now I just needed to keep pushing until the finish line. I turned left back onto the main road. Almost done.
I can do this. Yes I can. Yes I can. But it hurts. It’s supposed to. Keep going. Keep going.
The clock comes into my line of vision. It reads 21:48. I am going to make it under 22 minutes. I can do this. I can do this. My breath is coming out in choked gasps and I can keep doing this because I am almost done. I cross the finish line and I look and the clock says 22:00 and oh my god I have never run a 5k this fast, ever, and I am so glad I took a minute to imagine this moment over oatmeal this morning. They say the body cannot go where the mind has never been. I think maybe they’re right.
When the results are posted, I’m the eleventh finisher, second woman. My official time is 21:58, a 7:04/mile pace.
I never did accomplish my Stretch Vacation Goal—a game of mini-golf—but that’s ok. I did this.