After years of eagerly watching my sister’s games from the sidelines I turned 8 and joined my first city league soccer team. I played for the next nine years and while I always enjoyed the sport I never considered myself much of a runner. (I ran well in seventh and eighth grade but those years were the exception to a quite general rule.) After high school I stopped running with the exception of college intramurals soccer games and the occasional Ultimate Frisbee game. Things turned for the better when I arrived at the Missionary Training Center in Sao Paulo and was assigned to a companion who enjoyed running. We agreed to divide our wealth of exercise time between the volleyball court (my preference) and the track (her preference). The MTC had a short oblong outdoor track and it was on that slippery surface that I first ran for 30 minutes straight. Of course soccer requires a lot of running (mostly rib-splitting stop-and-go sprinting) but I never thought I could run for that length of time without stopping. It was an accidental yet exhilarating baby step onto a health and wellness crash course.
After leaving the MTC I served in four different areas in Brazil. I gained a ton of weight in my second area and sweated plenty of it off in my third. I still had a lot of work to do in my final area, Rio de Janeiro, and the city infused me with a renewed desire to exercise. I was lucky to room with three other sister missionaries including my MTC companion. We lived a few blocks from a popular boardwalk running path. On any given day one of the other sisters and I would wake up at 6:15, hastily change into running clothes and head out the door. These mornings were special. I wasn’t accustomed to seeing the sun just after sunrise. Temperatures routinely climbed to 80 degrees even before 7 am. The swelling heat was an extra incentive to get out the door before 6:30. We would run to the tip of the boardwalk which afforded a wonderful view of Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) with its strange cloud cap. We could never figure out if the helmet-shaped cloud was the result of pollution or natural precipitation. On the very best mornings we would run back to the apartment and see Francisco, one of the newest church members, walking to the subway on his way to work. He would cheer us on as we sprinted toward our apartment building entrance on the corner of a busy square. It was always easier to make it to the end when we saw Francisco.
When I returned home I moved in with two friends from junior year. We were all seniors and had recently returned from our missions. We would go to the BYU indoor track and run together. I was glad to have friends who shared the hobby. I began to understand how running could release stress and help break through snarled thought processes. While my pace and frequency constantly fluctuated one thing remained the same: I wasn’t satisfied unless I had run for 30 minutes. Whenever I had my eye on the clock and wanted to stop I would think back to the clock at the MTC and I knew how upset I’d be if I stopped short.
Fast forward a few years. I’ve always claimed that the reason I’ve continued running is so I can eat all the pizza I want. At some point pizza ceased to be my incentive and instead I craved the feeling I got from running. Last month I was on the phone with my mom and she mentioned that my next trip home would coincide with The Human Race, a major annual event in Sonoma County. She had made it a habit to participate in the race and she told me I should try it out. The thought of running a race gave me a little anxiety. The fact that the Human Race only offered two course options – a 3K (1.86 miles) or a 10K (6.21 miles) – gave me even more anxiety. I knew that running 1.86 miles a few feet above sea level wouldn’t be much of a challenge but I was completely intimidated by the thought of running for an hour straight. (I’ve been dogged by a ten minute mile ever since high school.) My mom pointed out that I would have a whole month to get ready and I became more optimistic. I got on a regular running schedule (one that had been dominated by television viewing splurges and social whims during winter) and set my sights on Saturday, May 7th.
Before I knew it the big day arrived. On Saturday morning my parents and I got up at 6:30 and jumped in the car at 7:15. We found a parking space and walked to registration. My dad was loaded down with a camping chair and a few cameras as my mom and I dashed to the registration tables to get our racing bibs. We handed off our sweatshirts and walked to the start line waiting area. I got between the “9 Minute Mile” and “11 Minute Mile” signs and tried to stretch but the tension was fierce. There must have been thousands of people there and I quickly lost my mom in the crowd as she walked back to the walker’s starting area. My sister and dad warned me that it is easy to get carried away and start running too fast at the beginning of a race. Before I knew it the clock struck 8 and the race began. As I tried to find my groove and move with the crowd I reviewed the course map in my mind. It circled Lake Ralphine and Spring Lake. I had worked at Spring Lake as a Summer Camp Counselor for the YMCA and knew the route included several series of hills. I dreaded each one of them – both concrete and imagined.
The race started out as a game of finding my pace, then shifted to avoiding other peoples’ feet, then settled on finding the white mile marker signs. The first major ascent was a little imposing and as I rounded the bend I heard a curious sound – a school choir singing “You Can’t Stop the Beat” from Hairspray. I was so happy to get to the top of the hill and very grateful for the musical encouragement. “Mile 1” came much quicker than I had imagined and although there were many ups and downs along the way I really enjoyed myself during the race. During the third mile I caught up to an older woman. We were high above Spring Lake, right in the area where I had worked as a counselor. She looked out at the lake and said, “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” I agreed it was. Running in a herd of people definitely makes it easier to keep going. Beautiful scenery beats the monotony of any indoor track. Combine that with low elevation, perfect weather, and summers of memories to sift through and you get a perfect race morning.
Eventually memory lane got a little more exigent. The beginning of the fourth mile led us through campsites and a roller coaster of hills and dips. I didn’t control my speed on the descents and as a result I had a hard time getting a full breath of air in my now side-achy lungs. When the biggest, baddest hill lay just yonder I knew it would be the test of the race to make it up without stopping. Why on earth this particular hill had to be in the middle of the fourth mile is anyone’s guess. As if my contracted rib cage and constricted lungs weren’t bad enough, the “mind game” aspect of the race kicked in as I watched people pass me up the hill. “Why not stop? No one would care if I stopped,” I thought. But I knew one person would care – ME. “You can’t stop the beat, dall nargit!” Propelling one foot in front of the other I got past that mountain of a mole hill and spied another set of hills. Luckily there was a strategically placed race marshal cheering us on. She said five beautiful words, “Last hill, guys. LAST HILL!” I wasn’t entirely sure if I should believe her but just wanting to believe her helped me pick up the pace and demolish the last few knolls.
Sadly our time in the Spring Lake area came to a close and we exited through a wonderfully downhill residential street. “Mile 5.” Bam! I tried to make a mental calculation of lapsed time and came up with 47 minutes. I searched and searched for a street sign reading “Summerfield Road” which marked the beginning of the final mile stretch. I never saw it but when we entered a series of turns down residential streets I could almost smell the finish line. By this point I was booking it. It was frustrating to not be able to see a long line of runners marking the course ahead of me (because we were turning every block or two) but I spotted the “Mile 6” sign and knew it couldn’t be much further. Finally I saw a blessed orange “Saucony” race sponsorship flag and I knew I was about to make the final turn. A group of people had nearly caught up to me and when I got out of the right turn and saw the balloon arch over the finish line I made a dash for it. Some chick managed to pass me about 30 feet before the finish but I was so spent at that point I could only keep the same pace. I glimpsed the clock (1:03:28) and couldn’t help but leap over the finish line in joy and exasperation.
As is the case with nearly everything I do, I was my own worst enemy. (Funny since I’m pretty sure I’m also my #1 fan.) While I have a tendency to overcomplicate things and tangle my trains of thought I am happy to run and work out the mental knots one by one. When I run I only have one job to do: Put one foot in front of the other.
For more Human Race photos visit The Press Democrat: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/article/20110507/ARTICLES/110509567