81. To Finish the Race

81. To Finish the Race

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

To Finish the Race

Good things come slow — especially in distance running.
 ~Bill Dellinger

I’d moved to the back of throngs of shorts-clad humanity. “Excuse me, how fast do you run?” The answers ranged between eight-and nine-minute miles. Too fast for me. I kept slipping toward the back of the pack.

I’ve always wanted to be a fast runner. I’m not. I’ve tried speed drills, fartleks, you name it. I can’t seem to break a ten-minute mile and on long runs I’m closer to twelve. You’d think this would embarrass me right out of running altogether. Nope. I still love running. On my own, training, I have no idea that I’m slow. I used to say dog slow, but my dog can run me into the ground. I don’t like to insult her.

I used to weigh three hundred and twenty pounds. I don’t anymore. Running is responsible for part of my weight loss. Slow I can deal with. It’s better than being where I was — unable to walk up a flight of stairs.

I looked around. Nervous folks trying to look cool in their new clothes, race numbers pinned carefully. A group of women wearing tutus and tiaras danced around to my right. Nearby, what looked like a family surrounded a laughing woman who seemed to wear her bald head like a prize. This was my speed. I settled in to await the start of the race.

I nervously looked at a man to my right. “Have you run this before?”

He nodded. I figured he was too focused to talk. I bent down and retied my shoes for the eighth time that morning.

“I… run… a… lot.” Slowly and carefully enunciated, the words plopped around me like the raindrops that began to ping the street. I looked up.

“I… like… run.”

Half of the man’s face formed words, half remained slack. His right arm plastered to his side, except for fingers that curled out in an odd direction.

I smiled and stood. “I like to run too.”

Half of his face curled into a dreamy smile. Separated by many years and life experiences, we shared a moment of understanding. The struggle to run is worth it.

The gun banged in the distance, almost three blocks away. There was probably a countdown, but that far back in the pack, it was impossible to hear it.

Nothing happened. My end of the race always starts with a slow shuffle that eddies around, then sweeps you up and carries you along. “I don’t know if I can do this.” My voice cracked.

A woman dashed around us. “On your left.” She surged through the crowd, a thoroughbred among Clydesdales.

“So… fast.”

I smiled at the man to my right. I often start my races just like her. Moving around others. Fighting to be farther ahead. Forgetting that I am only racing myself. I often speed out of the gate and end up walking halfway through my races. Not today. Today I was going to stay at the back of the pack and run the entire distance. I’d trained for it. Prepared myself for this very race as if it was the only one. Ten miles. The longest race I’d run to date. I was going to triumph. I knew it.

The shuffle turned into a trot, then a jog. My companion fell behind me now. His shuffling gait distinctive and inexorable. Admiration filled me. I don’t know if I would continue running if life handed me a hurdle so high.

Spreading out like wind-tossed leaves, runners headed into the first mile, settling into their paces. Each person looked determined and strong. The rain fell in hard drops that stung my skin. The effort already felt like too much. The miles stretched out in front of me, seeming to get longer with each step. I looked at my watch. Slower than I’d planned.

A hill defeated me into almost walking. Tears stung my eyes. “I am not going to walk. I can’t walk.” No matter how loud I said it, the desire to slow down and give my legs a rest became increasingly compelling. Head bowed, I crested a high hill plodding into a walk. I’d failed. I did not run the whole race. Why bother? What was the point of going on?

The man who’d suffered the stroke passed me. A smile on his face, determination in his gaze. His gait awkward but steady, he ran on. He was not calling a time out. “Come… on.” His good arm gestured to me.

Yes, I am a slow runner. People wonder why I even bother. They can almost understand the running, but the reason I race eludes them. This man got it. He clearly saw what I did and shared my love. Sucking in a deep breath, I began to trot.

I finished one mile, then another. The last block, the last turn, the finish line and my family waiting for me in the rain. I’d done it. Ten miles.

“You’re beautiful. Congratulations.” My husband pulled me close and for once, I did not tell him he was wrong, or make a disparaging comment about my face and body. I accepted what he said. I was beautiful. As beautiful as all the grateful and exhausted people that crossed the line that day.

I watched my running companion shuffle across the finish line as a large group of people swarmed him. One man was his mirror image, probably his son. I gave him a thumbs-up and he waved in reply, then was swallowed by the joy-filled crowd. We’d done it. Finished the race. An outward symbol of an inner struggle. Medals clanged on many of the necks we passed, each a testament to an accomplishment.

~Nancy Liedel

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