Back in the day, which loosely translated means several years ago when things were better, I was an athlete. I could run 10 kilometer (K) and 5K races with regularity, with some degree of competence, and devoid of embarrassment. Although never the winner, I was one of those middle of the pack guys rather than the paper thin maniacs who always won the races in some terrifyingly fast time.
So I figured I could do a 5K race (3.2 miles) even at my age, which is not for public display. Yes, it had been 8 or 9 years since I did one of these races. And no, I hadn't trained much, maybe running once or two twice a week for the past two months.
All that being the case, last Sunday July 10, I participated in the annual Amber Pizzo Memorial 5K run through the greenery of Berkeley Heights, N.J., neighborhoods. Humbled and broken down by the aging process, I figured I'd start near the back and maybe work my way up as the race went on, relying on my competitive will and determination to push me ahead of many of the slowest runners and maybe catch some mediocre hot shot phonies who went out too fast and were suffering at the end.
After thoroughly stretching my calves, shoulders, and quadriceps for some 30 minutes, I felt primed when the race began. The horn sounded and I started my comfortable trot. Before the first turn at around 200 yards, the first of a bevy of mental disburbances set in. I was about 20 places from the last place participant. The crowd of 337 runners already clustered 200 yards ahead me, already curling around the next turn. They had lost me already. Not very nice of them. Show some empathy and sympathy.
Abandoned in the back with walkers and ladies pushing baby strollers, reality hit my like a slap in the face: The walkers were moving faster than I was running. I thought to myself: "Why run if you can walk and go just as fast? Running is more tiring." I may have been doing the running motion, swinging my arms, but my pace to any onlooker must have seemed comical. "Here's this middle-age man (maybe past it but who's counting) running slower than the walkers," they must have thought.
The good news is I was so far back in the hunt that no was paying attention. The action was among the fast runners. People gravitate towards real competition and winners, not doggers with boring and non-sensical, mind-numbing running paces.
Before the one mile mark, we encountered a slight hill. For anyone who has run these races, it's well know that hills are like dental drilling on your teeth: painful, chest scorching, leg lugging, uncool. So my lofty goals to finish the race without having to stop to walk screeched to a halt. I stopped running to walk, which was about as fast as my running but didn't torture as much. "You're almost at one mile," the college kids manning the water break stations said. Great, I thought, I'm not one third the way home and I have already had to stop. This is going to be an unpleasant journey.
Throughout the trek two ladies walked near me. Early on I had them pegged as the ones I had to beat to the finish. A lady pushing a baby stroller shot ahead of me at around the two mile mark and I gave up trying to catch her.
Running and walking the rest of the way, at consistent intervals, I developed a comfortable rhythm. I found my groove albeit turtle-like. I also pulled the deceptive move, designed to impress, of walking in between water stations where there were watchers, and then running as I approached to give the idea that I was running all along and hadn't had to stop to walk. The kids cheered as I went through and grabbed my cup of water and split it out after rinsing. Some 20 feet beyond the stations I would stop to walk again, feeling good that I performed and possibly deceived the crowd. There was a little boy about 9 years old walking about 20 yards ahead of me. At the top of one of those on-so-wonderful downhills, I figured I'd take him and destroy his will. I passed him. Within seconds, he shot past me. He must have glanced at my physique and pace and decided he would not lose to a man with my characteristics. Was protecting his psyche, I believe.
Down the stretch during the last mile, that boy extended so far ahead that I lost track of him. Maybe he was running from me because the mere sight of me scared him. I walked quite a bit near the end, and was ahead of the two walking ladies, but was afraid to look back and see how close they were. At that point had they pushed past me I would not have had the will or stamina to regain my lead. Like so many things in life that are bad, I didn't want to know where they were. It would have been too much information.
Peering into the distance, I saw the final turn and heard music playing near the finish line. To impress all those at the ending area, I started running again with more athleticism and gusto and speed than I had the whole race. I wanted them to think I remained strong until the end and had put forth a manly effort and was a solid athlete despite the naked fact that I was going to end the race 330th out of 337 and 170 out of 171 among males.
I have always thought it would be cool to round that last corner of a running race and have the crowd cheering me on the final strides much like when the first Olympic Marathoner enters the Olympic stadium to the roar of the crowd. That's exactly what happened and it felt cool though on a smaller scale than 80,000 or so in a stadium. Multi-colored balloons formed an upside down U shape. Runners (and walkers) knew they were done when they ran under it.
I ran through the finish line feeling like a middle line backer for the Jets. My time was something like 50 minutes. I knew the time wasn't good, nothing to Twitter ESPN about, so why seek out bad information? Later I found out I was 47 minutes, which means the race winner who finished in 17 minutes could have run the course nearly three times in the time it took me to complete it once. Sigh.
I walked a few steps and then felt nauseous. My body rebelled. Uncle Ralph appeared and punished me. While Ralphing I thought of pain and desperation. A few minutes later I felt the runner's high with endorphins firing through my veins, triggering bliss. I was an athlete once again.