Standing at the start of this morning's 5K race and finding it an easy task to count all the runners participating, I was hit with the dreaded realization: I was going to be last. There were less than 50 people there and all looked pretty fit.
The Norfolk police officers who were riding their bikes around the course were going to be following me. The one-mile runners who couldn't start their own race until the 5K was finished were going to be waiting for me.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. My mom loves to tell the story of the race she did where the guy in charge of picking up cones on the course followed her. She came in last but still won a medal and was thrilled. And a few years ago, I ran the first 9 miles of a trail half marathon where the guy in charge of taking down the orange ribbons that led the way ended up passing me (I dropped out). My theory has always been, even if you come in last, you have beat all the millions of people who are still sleeping and never even started the race.
Still, no one who runs four days a week and trains her little heart out wants to be last.
When I arrived at the race on a very cloudy morning, with skies threatening violent storms ahead, I was immediately put at ease by the wonderful Lions Club members who organized the race. They were so sweet and I could tell they put a lot of effort into the race and the cookout that would follow. I prayed the rain would hold off for them.
So, standing at the start line and thinking about the idea of coming in last, my heart was still full with the fact that the $20 I paid would go to a good cause. My bigger worry at the moment was that the Lions Club didn't get enough racers in order to come out ahead. I hoped they made enough money to make the race worth it for them.
The race began on a high school track. We were to run a lap, then go out into a neighborhood, where we'd make two laps, then return to the track for a lap and a half. As I started around the track, my fear was soon realized: I was the last runner by a long shot. I then started to worry that I would be so far behind I'd get lost.
Once out in the neighborhood, I passed a woman. Then another. Then, a woman in a green tank top who was slightly ahead of me decided to wait for her friend (the second woman - in a purple tank top - I'd passed). So that was three! Then I passed a fourth.
So I was feeling pretty good. I'd passed four people, I wasn't last, and I was making pretty good time. And I hadn't stopped to walk. My goal was to finish without walking.
Well, then, around Mile 2, Ms. Green Tank Top and Ms. Purple Tank Top came crossing over ahead of me. They were taking a shortcut. And no one was stopping them. As they turned onto my path, I realized they were now a good 10 yards ahead of me. All of a sudden and without doing anything wrong, I had dropped back to third-from-last.
"Cheaters!" I wanted to scream to the Lions Club members, pointing at Green and Purple. But, come on. This was a race for a charity and it wasn't like I was going to win. I'd have to be the bigger person.
That didn't stop me, however, from speeding up a tad. And shooting a few glares at their backs.
And then passing them AGAIN.
Yes, I did, and I was thrilled. I finished the race without stopping, I passed four people (two of them twice), and I did it with my best pace since October.
Afterward, I sat on the sidelines to watch the 1-mile race. I wanted to see those crazy fast runners and cheer them on. I watched them speed by and I clapped. Then, they were followed by a huge crowd of people carrying canes and walking with partners. Many of them were blind. Some had other disabilities. I cheered louder and stronger.
I had planned on staying just to watch the speed demons finish (the winner did in 4:35). But I enjoyed watching and cheering on the others more. They were the true heroes. They had taken no shortcuts. Yet they were winners, all.
POSTSCRIPT: So, turns out there were only 41 runners (and I think two were technically walkers). I came in 35th! And I came in second in my age group! (Though, er, there were only two of us in my age group.) No matter!