Well, I did it. Last Saturday, I completed my first official running event. Sure, technically I’ve run an organized 5K once before. But, in all but the most literal of senses, the man that ran that race over four years ago is dead and gone now. So I’m calling this one my first. And it went well. I beat my pace-goal according to my GPS (which also measured my run at 3.24 miles instead of 3.1), and nearly matched my goal perfectly according to the official race record (104). I’m cool with both. I didn’t expect to be overwhelmed with emotion simply by finishing a three mile run. But I oddly didn’t feel any recognizable sense of accomplishment at all. That is until I was actually leaving the parking lot on my way home.
Less than a mile from the race venue, I felt it. I wasn’t sure exactly what “it” was. But I certainly felt something change. And as I continued to drive away and it settled in, I realized that the actual running might have been the smallest part of why I needed to complete the event. And I don’t mind admitting that it was a somewhat emotional realization…or that it still is as I write this.
When I was growing up, we were predominantly renters. And like a lot of renters, my mom, brother, and I moved a lot. When I meet people that grew up in the same town, school system, and resulting overall social network all of their lives, I’m always curious about how that must have worked. I wouldn’t automatically say envious, but definitely curious. I wonder how much they took for granted that “see you next year” comment in their school yearbooks each year. I didn’t.
I attended four different elementary schools and three different high schools during my time trying to escape the public school system. And since that wasn’t a simple seven move consecutive run through the local school districts, some of those fine educational institutions were revisited during different housing changes. I’m not complaining. My childhood was far from tragic. I’m just trying to illustrate that I was “the new kid” in class A LOT of different times. And I think I got pretty good at it.
I obviously can’t speak for every kid that has ever had to uneasily wander into a new school for the first time, but I always found Lunch to be the absolute worst part. The class rooms were easy. No matter the school, they were going to tell you where to sit. They were going to let you know what work had to be done. And other than maybe an uncomfortable “introduce yourself to the class” moment on the first day, you generally weren’t asked to talk much. I was unusually tall, unusually early (5’11” in 8th grade) so I generally got to sit near the back. I’m lucky to have always been a fast learner, and with few exceptions, I always did well with whatever work was assigned. And I probably wasn’t going to talk very much anyway. The classes were easy.
But that goddamn lunchroom. Even after the almost identical experiences of all early elementary schools (where you march in single file with your class, eat lunch at the same folding table with attached plastic seats with your class, and march out with your class), Every cafeteria I entered after was still the same as the one before, only in different ways. You had the table of rich kids, the table of cool kids, the table of sports kids, band kids, delinquent kids, clique, clique, etc, etc. And then you had the tall skinny new kid scanning the corners of the room for his dream table: The table of NO kids, where I could hopefully be invisible. I fucking hated lunch. And by the time I settled into high school, I had pretty much stopped eating it. And I rarely, if ever, even walked into the cafeterias of the two high schools I attended during my junior and senior years. Who needs another piece of square pizza anyway?
If I wasn’t comfortable with something, I wasn’t doing it. And no one could make me.
When I walked into the Va. Beach Convention Center on Saturday, I was immediately 16 years old again walking into the lunch room at Summerville High School for the first (and only) time. I was wandering aimlessly through countless groups of people laughing and talking, some in festive costumes, some collectively getting their game-faces on for the 10 mile run, some just huddled inside to avoid the misting “rain” outside. There were clearly organized clubs and groups participating and a lot of what appeared to be families and/or couples running together too. That place is enormous and there were people EV-VER-REE-WHERE.
I did what this “new kid” has always done. I wandered the entire facility with a false look of purpose on my face. I went back to my car for a drink. I circled the parking lots a few times. I went back to my car for…something. I circled again. Wash, rinse, repeat. I probably walked two miles pretending to get ready for a three mile run. I got there an hour before the race, and the wandering seemed like a somewhat normal time-killing activity at the time. But in hindsight, I was subconsciously looking for that table of “no kids” again.
Only this time, I needed to stretch and warm up. So just “skipping lunch” wasn’t an option.
Twenty minutes before the start of the race as people began herding towards the starting line and the runners into their corrals, I was finally able to get over my ridiculous anxieties, do my stretches, and warm up a little by running short jaunts back and forth in the parking lot adjacent to the starting line. As the scheduled start got closer and closer, I felt better and better. Only minutes before eight o’clock, I finally entered the back of my corral and waited for the starting horn. If the convention center was the lunchroom, then the race was class. And classes are easy.
It took me about ¼ of a mile to navigate my way through my corral and get to a place where I could run at my normal pace. And once I was finally able to settle into my rhythm, it was all downhill from there. I got to simply enjoy the run. Sure I had to navigate a few other small groups running at different speeds or obstructive formations. But overall, I just ran my run. Even being overcast, the rain stopped before the start, and it was turning into a pretty nice morning in my grey-appreciating opinion.
There were some pretty fun costumes to admire on my way through. Even after the earlier rain, there were still a few sections of supporters along the way clapping and cheering everyone on as we passed. And I couldn’t help put throw a nice thumbs up and “thank you” to the period dressed carolers singing at one of the turns; one of which looked so much like an ex-girlfriend’s mother that I had to double take pretty hard before making the turn. Weird, right? The point is I was having a good run. And it appeared that everyone else was too.
As I approached the final stretch just inside of the convention center, I could hear my name being announced as I crossed the finish line with my usual hippopotamus-like grace and style. The finish line led each runner immediately through a back and forth channel of tables and volunteers in order to collect his/her finisher’s medal, a bottle of water, a banana, and a commemorative pint glass. And as I exited that gauntlet, I was surprised to be greeted by…who else? My mom, who had gotten there just after the race started and managed to film me galloping across the finish line.
I had not invited anyone to come with me, so I obviously didn’t expect her. This running thing has been a pretty private therapy for me and like almost everything that I do for personal reasons, I do it alone. But it was nice to see a familiar face in that crowd as I found myself covered in sweat, with my hands full of swag, and again entering the biggest “lunch room” full of strangers I’d seen in years. And like the amazing mother that she is, she congratulated me, briefly asked about the run, held my stuff while I got myself settled, and then she politely went back to her regular scheduled Saturday…already in progress.
She’s the greatest.
The race was over. I finished in 26 minutes and 30 seconds, with an average pace of 8:33 minute/mile. I was aiming for an 8:30 pace, and my GPS measured the same total time but over 3.24 miles, giving me a pace of 8:11 min/mile. I’m guessing that between slight GPS accuracy discrepancies and the weaving I had to do to navigate other runners, my pace is probably somewhere between the two. But it doesn’t matter really. I did what I needed to do, whether I knew it at the time or not.
I needed to prove that almost 20 years after being released into the real world, that this new kid can traverse the goddamn lunch room. I don’t need to loiter in the gym’s bleachers watching music videos on TV like I did every day of my junior year. And I’m not looking for an empty table either. I’m going to charge right in there, get my fucking lunch (race packet) and head to class (the race), where I will do what I’ve always done: Perform the best that I can with hopes of being able to leave early.
And I’ll do it again too. Not because someone is making me, but because I want to.
After the race, I meandered quietly around the after party long enough to enjoy my three free Sam Adams Winter Lagers, hear the typical beach cover band play some vanilla rock songs, watch a five year old girl running stronger than me as she finished her 5K in less than 45 minutes (imagine how many steps those short little legs took in that time), and chat briefly with a man I recognized from work who had just finished the 10 mile run. Then I split.
I’ll work on my after party etiquette on another day. After all, I skipped my prom too.
I cannot begin to fathom how many wonderful experiences I’ve surely stolen from myself by refusing to be “uncomfortable” long enough to try something new. And if there is a Guinness record for collecting the most regrets, then maybe I’ll be famous someday. But while I try to clean up and neatly stack my life’s load of regret out of my way heading forward, I can at least say that I now have something I’ve never had before. I have a new PR for the 5K.
It’s a runners’ thing.
There are so many reasons to tell yourself that you can’t run, or you can’t run that fast, or that far. Nine out of ten times, it’s all noise. Go run. Or go walk. It might not have anything to do with what you actually accomplish in the end. It’s really just a way to get from one place to another, totally under you own power and with only yourself to credit. And while you may know exactly where you’re starting, I’m not sure if any of us really know where we’re going to be when we finish.
I know I don’t have a clue anymore. So I’m going to keep running until I find out.
While I’ve got your attention, if you have any appreciation for country-ish singer songwriters, check this out. I have been listening to this record all day today and I love it. Her vocals range between, and sometimes blend, a young Loretta Lynn and Natalie Maines. And while I haven’t been able to fully absorb every song in one day, her song writing is very solid. Some of it a little bit along the Ryan Adams vein, and she can definitely spin a nice sad one…which I always like.