52. Race Day

52. Race Day

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Race Day

Everyone in life is looking for a certain rush. Racing is where I get mine.
~John Trautmann

I began channeling Constantina Dita as I headed out the door for my early morning runs after the summer Olympics. In my head I thought of her as “Dita” and her name was a chant moving me forward when I got tired and wanted to slow down. In the summer of 2008, at thirty-eight years old, this Romanian mother became the oldest Olympic marathon champion in history. She wasn’t expected to win. The night she won, my husband and I watched her run. Pumping her arms, her mouth set, she was determined, and it looked like she was barely breathing. With more than 10 miles to go, she broke away from the pack and left them grimacing in her shadow.

The morning after Dita’s win was muggy. I left the house and told my family I’d be back soon.

“Just going for a quick run,” I said. It had rained the night before and there were mud puddles along the greenway that I had to jump over. The sun was coming through the clouds and breaking them apart, making the sky a Lilly Pulitzer kind of pinky orange. I ran slowly because of the thick, wet air and when I began to lag and wanted to walk, I thought of Dita and kept going. I’d watched her run past Tiananmen Square and instead of my own marsh grass and pluff mud, I visualized Dita’s foreign onlookers and China’s brightly colored buildings. Like Dita, I pushed my legs harder and swung my arms faster. As I came around my last corner, I heard the crowds cheering inside the Bird’s Nest and felt the desperation of the chase group behind me.

I started running when I was fifteen years old after I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. When I asked my doctor if that meant I couldn’t play sports (I’d been hoping for an excuse to miss field hockey practice), he laughed and told me exercise would help keep my blood sugars in check. So when the field hockey season ended, I started running. I preferred running alone because I didn’t want to go with someone who might be faster or want to go farther; I liked my own steady pace. I didn’t enjoy competition, and as a runner I didn’t have to worry about missing the ball or sitting on the bench. There was no crowd watching, no one to cheer me on, and so I ran to the beat of my own steady breathing.

As the years passed, I began to call myself a runner. I bought running shoes from a real running store, learned how to properly stretch and cool down. I was happy to discover that running improved my blood sugars and decided it was time to enter my first race. I sent in money for a 5K, Race for the Cure, but didn’t tell anyone. The morning of the race, as I neared the finish line, I pushed past my competition, my legs burning, and couldn’t wait to race again.

Slowly, I began collecting race T-shirts and recognizing faces at local runs. When a fellow runner mentioned she was going to a Team in Training meeting, I decided to go along. By the next weekend, I found myself at six in the morning standing at the edge of a downtown lake with a group of strangers. Our plan was to run eight miles. I panicked as the group set off at a fast pace, worried that I was not ready. What if my blood sugar got low? What if I couldn’t keep up? I didn’t look like a runner; I was tall and had big feet that seemed to smack the pavement instead of springing from it like my friend Mary. As my friend moved ambitiously to the head of the pack, I found myself in the back. I didn’t want to be in the back, so I kept my eyes on Mary and ran a little faster. By the time we reached our first water stop, I was solidly in the middle of the pack, breathing hard, my legs burning, but feeling strong.

Every week I drove to Mary’s house and we ran from one end of the island and back. I carried a rolled-up dollar in my shorts to buy a Gatorade in case I got low, or a small bag of Skittles that always melted by the end of the run. When I was tired and wanted to stop and walk, I looked for Mary’s legs tapping steadily along the trail in front of me, and that kept me going. Every Sunday from September to December, we met our group at the lake and ran farther than the week before.

By the time the marathon arrived, I stepped across the starting line confident that I would finish. Mary ran ahead of me, and I worked to maintain a steady pace alongside my aunt Sue, a veteran marathoner, who flew to Florida to run with me. With Sue and cheers from the crowd, I ran for four and a half hours, all the way to the finish line. I wore the medal around my neck all day, and when we flew home, I hobbled down the narrow aisle toward my seat on the airplane, surrounded by my family.

It’s been twelve years since that day and now I’m back to running alone. Every morning, while my family sleeps, I run the same familiar 3-mile route. As a thirty-eight-year-old mother of three, I can no longer imagine running a marathon; it seems like a memory from another life. I tell myself that I don’t have three free hours to spend on Sunday mornings running, and if I did, I would spend that time in other ways: wandering through the aisles of a bookstore, writing on my laptop in a coffee shop, or driving out to the beach and going for a short run along the sand.

But then I watched Dita run through the city of Beijing and something woke up inside me. Something told me it was time to race again. Dita’s gritty ambition reminded me of how good it felt to race, and that being a mother didn’t mean you couldn’t compete.

On Thanksgiving morning, I left the rental house by the sea with my three sons and headed to the beach for the 5K/1-mile Turkey Trot family run. Instead of running shirts, there was a turkey mascot at the starting line and raffle tickets for apple pies. Leaving the smaller ones behind, I stood at the starting line next to my eight-year-old son. When they blew the whistle, we took off together. Will and I started slow, I carried his fleece when he got warm, and I listened when his breathing got heavy. At the half mile mark my son turned to head toward his own finish line, and I continued down the beach with the adults. I wanted to look back and watch my boy compete, but it was my turn now, so I picked up the pace. I could hear the voices of Mary, Sue and Dita cheering me on.

~Amy Stockwell Mercer

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