At 8:30 AM I was standing at a table in Newcomb Plaza at the University of Virginia, writing a check to the race director of the Camp Holiday Trails 5K Race. A friend of mine I recently met through my roommate had told me about the event through a comment on my Facebook page on Thursday. I had the space in my schedule to enter, but was concerned I wasn't mentally prepared.
When I woke up at 7:30 AM, I looked out my second-floor window at the thermometer that hangs on the garden wall. 30 degrees. The part of my mind that's responsible for coming up excuses was pleased, because that was far too cold to run. My body would freeze, I thought. I wouldn't have a good experience.
Another excuse: I wasn't entirely sure if my friend was going to show up. We hadn't made concrete plans. But, I had made a decision publicly on Facebook, and people had wished me luck. So, I got up, stumbled downstairs, and thought seriously about simply watching the Battlestar Galactica finale instead. I put the kettle on, turned on the television, and then started watching the opening minutes of the show.
After waking up a bit, I got up, climbed the stairs, and got my running shorts on. I put on a fresh t-shirt, and put a long-sleeve t-shirt over top of that. I got my wool hat on, told the dog I'd walk him later, walked out the door and got in the car.
I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea how large a crowd would be there, or what the atmosphere would be like. Where would I park? Where would I leave my jacket? Would I have anyone to talk to?
In the past, not having an answer to the logistical questions would be enough to prevent me from going at all. And, I'm determined to not live in the past. So, I drove to the parking garage, walked up the stairs to Newcomb Plaza, and found the registration table. I wrote my check, but did not get a t-shirt because they'd run out. My friend wasn't there, but that was okay. I was going to run anyway.
Immediately, the energy of the crowd began to seep into me. I was watching to see what everyone else did. My fellow runners were a young group, though there were lots of people older than me as well. Most people had more advanced gear than I did. A lot of the women had leggings which looked incredibly comfortable. Most of the hats appeared to be synthetic, which I assumed meant they'd be a little absorbant. Many of the runners had changed into their white race t-shirts. Some were running around on warm-ups laps.
I did my stretches, and paced around to keep warm. Newcomb Plaza is blocked from the morning sun, and so I kept walking around inside Newcomb Hall to keep warm. When I came out once, I saw Jessica flanked by two men who were acting as her support group. I went over and said hello. We spent the next fifteen minutes talking about running, and I asked all kinds of questions.
The start of the race was delayed because the organizers had to come up with a last minute course correction. McCormick Road, the arterial spine that allows cars to navigate through Central Grounds, was closed because of construction to Monroe Hall. A gigantic crane blocked our way, and Mark Lorenzoni of the Ragged Mountain Running Shop told us through a megaphone that the start of the race needed to be moved to accomodate the fact that the detour added 600 feet to the course.
I asked Jessica and her friends what I should do. She said I should take my first mile slow, and then save my sprints for the end. One of the guys said I should start in the middle and the side of the pack so those who wanted to pass me could do so easily.
Lorenzoni told us we had to walk as a group to the new start point. We walked from Newcomb Plaza down the access road to University Avenue. Everyone was in good spirits, though I tripped over the feet of one of the people who was walking. He and another woman were wearing placards on their back which read: "We're Walking In the Memory of Boomer"
I cleared my mind before we started. Here I was, in this body that I've reclaimed ownership of, about to test it in front of all of these other people. Over 200 strangers walking along an access road, in an ad hoc fashion, all of us preparing in our way for what was about to start. Cars honked as they saw this mass of people at the corner of University and McCormick.
Someone held an orange flag up in the air. People murmured that we were starting on an incline. There was a dog very close behind me. Jessica had moved up to the front so she could get an easy start. I was calm, despite the aggravation of it seeming to take forever.
Usually, at the gym, I push a button and the conveyor starts moving. At that time, I'm a lone individual about to take an individual journey. As I've progressed through my training, I've been making adjustments to make it harder and harder. On Thursday, I started at the 6.0 incline setting to tire myself out at the start.
So, when the orange flag finally dropped I was ready and I shot up that hill as fast as I could. The route took an odd turn from the very start, as we turned left at the chapel and ran up the brick sidewalk that leads to the Rotunda, past some of the serpentine walls. At the Rotunda, we took a tight right and shot up the steps to the Lawn. I was giddy, as I knew this wasn't these things usually worked out. I ran on the grass, and jumped down the hills.
I noticed early on that I was beginning to pass people. I had no idea how fast I was going. All I knew was that I was running, and I was entirely familiar with the process of how my body was working together to perform what's an essential human activity. I was running. I was breathing. I was doing the thing that I have done since my separation, but this time, I wasn't running purely for exercise.
I've always avoided competition. I always tried to suppress the competitive urge within me because I've always wanted to minimize the disappointment that comes with not winning. When I was in third grade, my soccer team went 0-10. I was really good at kicking own goals, for some reason. Needless to say, I didn't keep playing in fourth grade.
Somewhere around this time, I lost touch with my body.
Running downhill on McCormick towards Alderman, I realized I've gained it back. After the initial crush of threading a pack of runners through a small passageway, those who absolutely wanted to win were well in front of me. I quickly told myself it was just a leisurely run and that I didn't need to push myself too much.
This was a time for me to do research on how other people run. Some people had incredibly large footfalls. Some people moved with no effort at all. These people pushed me to want to run even harder, so I picked up my pace a little. Jessica realized I was in front of me, and exclaimed: "Tubby?"
There was a dog behind me at that moment, as well, and for a second I imagined that the creature was chasing me, and ran a little faster. We turned onto a side street and started going down.
Downhill is a concept that doesn't exist on the treadmill. The best I get is when I put the incline down slightly. So, running downhill with people behind me is the closest feeling to weightlessness I've ever felt. I let my momentum do the work and I felt like I was free-falling. I let myself go a little faster, pulled ahead of the dog, and grinned like a loon.
Unfortunately, downhill usually means an uphill is on the way, and when we turned a sharp corner onto Bollingwood, I had to push myself harder than I usually do just to stay in front of the runners behind me. So, I tried to give it all I could, and up, up, up I went. My body was ready to comply, but not without damage.
At the top of the hill, the burps started. My body was pushing up to exhaustion, and I had no idea how much of the route was ahead of us. I was disappointed, because I wasn't in the race to win. I just wanted to try it out and have a fun experience. But, my body wanted to empty the contents of its stomach, and it wasn't going to take no for an answer. I threw up a little in my mouth, and spat it out. That wasn't enough. I stopped, pulled under a tree, and quickly finished the job.
Jessica ran past and asked if I was okay.
I joked, "It's all about the pacing!"
And then I started running again. Whatever needed to come up, came up, and I picked up the pace. I deduced that we had less than a mile left, and I made myself go as fast as I could. The weakness that came from the chest convulsions abated, and I took off. Back down McCormick now, and my mind started playing versions of the songs I listen to all the time on the treadmill. Each leg hit the ground one at a time. My existence in this moment was a machine designed to carry a payload of confidence to last into my future. I ran and passed as many people as I could. Back on the Lawn, I ran up the hills now, and felt that everything would be okay, just as long as I finished this race as best as I possibly could.
This was no treadmill. This was no practice. This was the real thing. Someone shot past me, and I was determined to not let anyone pass me. I didn't have much fuel left in me, and the finish line was all uphill. But, up I went, across the finish line and through a gantlet of plaza chairs that were placed in such a way that those who were done could pass through single-file past the man who was handing out slips of paper that gave us the order we finished in. I think I was handed a "42" though I may now be misremembering it. I gave my name at the results table, and headed over to the refreshments table. I downed an almond bar, one and half salt bagels, and a bottle of Life water. We stood up on the steps and waited patiently for them to raffle off the prizes and announce the winners.
My prize was that I had completed the race, and I beat my expectations. I proved that I have been able to change my life through exercise. I've been able to give myself a new frame to enjoy the rest of my life, and something to measure my progress against. I thank all of the friends who have encouraged me as this new chapter of my life plays out. And, I look forward to meeting those I don't yet know.