Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Step Behind

Over the past few years, I’ve had a few leg injuries that have prevented me from running the Annapolis 10 miler, my favorite summer race. So this year, I spent all summer training properly so I’d be in good shape for the run. But, when my alarm clock screeched at 6 a.m. on race day a few weeks ago, I hit the snooze. Twenty minutes later, I jumped out of bed. My fiancé, Alex, and I loaded up on carbs and electrolytes and hit the road. On Route 50, the road hit back with traffic. A long line of cars crept onto the Rowe Blvd. exit. As we inched toward the Naval Academy stadium and the start line, passenger runners were jumping out of their cars and sprinting to the stadium. I briefly considered doing the same thing, but remembered it was my fault we were late.

Sitting at a traffic light a block away as the clock ticked closer toward the 7:45 start time, I tried to reassure myself and Alex by saying, “They’ll start late with this many people on the road.”

As we wound around the stadium in a long line of cars toward the entrance to the parking lot, I thought I heard a horn blast, but told myself it was just my imagination. Our adrenaline was pumping and we’d already resigned ourselves to the fact that we’d have no time to stretch our muscles and would have to sprint to the start line and join the end of the pack. There was one car left in front of us to make the left hand turn into the stadium lot. The driver wasn’t paying attention and missed the signal of the attendant to hurry into the lot. Just then a police siren blared coming in the opposite direction. I suddenly felt sick.

The police escort led the way for a herd of runners. We were on the course and stuck in the middle of the stampede along with all the other late comers. As we sat, feet pounded the pavement around us. Like wild horses, runners streamed past our cars, dashing between them in a chaotic mess to find their own personal space and a chance to move ahead in the pack.

It was the first time I’d ever wished for tinted car windows. I couldn’t make eye contact with anyone. It was like a bad dream, the race bib pinned to the front of my shirt making me feel naked.

“She’s wearing a number. She’s a runner,” I heard one guy shout. That alerted everyone, and opened the flood gates for a steady flow of remarks and insults. I pulled my knees up to my chin and hugged my legs, trying to hide the evidence. “You better get comfortable” someone yelled. The looks were just as damaging as the comments and I began to worry that we’d be recognized later, on the course. By this point, we’d been seen and scorned by at least 8,000 of the 10,000 runners. After about 10 minutes, which felt more like 30, we got a small break and the attendant screamed for us to turn. We peeled into the parking lot, jumped out and ran toward the stadium.

The start line had already been disassembled and the finish line was being hoisted. Wearing sheepish grins, we sprinted by the workers. As we rounded the corner down onto the street and turned onto the same stretch we had just been parked on, we caught sight of the police car escorting the tail end of the runners. We were sprinting at a heavy pace, but it felt as if our feet were stuck in cement, our adrenaline and panic throwing off our momentum. Though the car was probably moving at less than five miles per hour, we didn’t catch up and overtake it until at least the third mile marker. We sped past walkers, and against our better judgment passed up the holy water the church was giving out at the first water stop. Any cheering at this point from the crowd was more of an embarrassment than encouragement.

Back in the pack, we were finally able to blend in and enjoy the sprinklers residents sat out and the water they hosed us down with as we ran past their perfectly manicured lawns, the orange slices that they offered up, the Gatorade the Naval Academy cadets passed out at water stops, the music blaring from boom boxes on the lawns of supporters, and we all raised our arms in surrender for a squirt from children with Super Soaker water guns along the course.

By the 5th mile we had already passed some of the people who had jeered at us in our car earlier. They didn’t seem to remember except for one runner who ran the whole race juggling. He asked if we’d gotten stuck in traffic and said he remembered us from earlier. Since he already had five balls up in the air, I figured he didn’t need anything more to contend with so we held our tongues and quietly jogged past.

No comments: