I am on mile three. She’s about twenty feet ahead of me, that girl with the pink and orange striped socks pulled up to her knees, the socks I’ve been following for the majority of the race. I have no idea if I’m doing well. Is this fast? It feels slow. It feels like it’s just been Socks and I for about an eternity. Why don’t they give mile time splits? Maybe it’s good that they don’t. I hate those damn socks.
The girl with the socks is really a woman, probably in her thirties like me. Ever since Newman’s daughter, fresh with the first flush of feminism, corrected her brother for calling someone a “girl” instead of a woman, I’ve been worried I’ll slip and do the same thing. I don’t want to lose any cred with Newman’s twin daughters, whom I really must learn not to call “the girls.” I didn’t think you could get more feminist than me, or at least that’s what I’ve heard from too many sources throughout my life. I’ve seen waves coming in at the beach, though, and I know how each new one washes in on the heels of the previous, swallowing and bumping up against it even as it soaks up its power. I’m on a wave that’s sliding gently back toward the ocean, and I’m as happy to take notes from this new generation as I am to slip easily along the shore, spreading myself wide to settle into warm, welcoming pockets of sand.
Woman woman woman I repeat in my head in time with my pounding feet. I’m gaining on her, but I don’t really want to pass her again, not yet anyway, so I let myself sink into her rhythm for a moment, lowering my head when we move from shade to sun. She knows I’m here, though, and her shoulders get tenser as I encroach. She is wearing tight black shorts, unfortunately revealing the outline of her thong and some butt-jiggling. I wish I weren’t close enough to notice this. I should know better, by now, than to judge a runner’s ability by outward appearance, but between Socks and the very heavy-breathing man with the hacking cough directly behind us both, I feel like I should step it up a bit. Just the socks alone are confusing. Who wears socks like that if they’re serious about a race? I have to re-tie my laces six times before I start a race. Socks like that would drive me crazy.
I think of Newman, picture him sitting on the sideline at the finish line where I left him twenty minutes before the race started just so I could fret and stretch and tie and untie my laces alone. I see him with his newspaper tucked under his arm, clapping and flashing that “I’m proud of you” smile I’ve seen him give his kids and students a thousand times. I think of the moment when he asked, this morning, if it was alright if he came to watch, of how I felt tension leave my body, of how I realized then I’d been worried he wouldn’t want to. “I love to watch you,” he said, and I remembered this blog post that I read last year that taught me to use that language with my child. How really lovely it is to be on the receiving end of such a thought, I noted.
I may not make it to where Newman is waiting. I don’t remember wanting to stop so badly last year. Last year, I didn’t know the route and how much was ahead, how long that last push is and how what looks like a tiny hill feels like a mountain after three miles. Last year, I ran my annual PR for road-running at this race. This year, I’ve felt challenged during every long foot of this run, so I’m either working harder than usual or I shouldn’t have taken a week off of running. Maybe I shouldn’t have had two glasses of wine with dinner last night. Or mabye I shouldn’t have indulged in the Italian meats and cheeses appetizer that sent me to the bathroom three times this morning, the last trip five minutes before the race started.
I liked how the race started today; with only three hundred or so runners, I didn’t have to fight for a place near the front or feel guilty about faster runners getting stuck behind me. The race fanned out nicely right away, and I started faster than I usually do. I found and passed Socks around the three-quarter mile mark, when things usually settle and I always seem to find myself alone, a mob ahead just out of reach and a crowd behind that I can’t let catch up. Passing Socks wasn’t as easy as it appeared when I first set sights on her; she fought back and passed me back. Ok, so here’s someone to push me. I have to be able to keep up with her. Just stay with her. Just stay with her. We’ve passed back and forth about three times so far; I wanted to talk to her each time. Come on…Stay with me…Don’t leave me behind…I can’t keep up… I have no breath for actual talking, but I’ve spoken to her repeatedly in my mind and keep latching my eyes to those socks to keep moving.
We are making the second to last turn, and I can hear the bagpipes. That’s the sign that we’re close, about a half-mile left. We have just passed a group of five or six teenagers who are cheering on the runners. “I love your socks!” one screams, and I groan internally. I have nothing left in me, but as I pass, I hear “woo hoo, I love your sneakers!” and it makes me smile because my relatively new bright pink shoes still feel great, bouncy and bright under my concrete feet. I throw a thumbs up to the teens behind me and start to pick up the pace, slowly zeroing in on Socks.
I pass her as we come down Main Street and know she has plenty of time to pass me back. I make the last turn and start the slow incline toward home. I see Newman, whom I know is seeing me with a terrible face, my eyes pleading and desperate for him to know how very, very hard I am struggling. I, queen of the kick in my high school glory days, can barely shuffle forward, it feels like, and the finish line is still so far away. Socks, Socks, Socks. Stay in front of Socks, I think, and I don’t let myself look back but push, push, push my way home and trip my way over the line only to find that I’ve shaved a full minute off the time I ran last year.
And suddenly my feet feel light, and I am walking toward water and orange slices and bagels and friendly faces, and it’s morning and it’s spring and I’m alive, and the whole damn world feels alive with me.
Monday morning update: I just walked into work to be greeted by a colleague who helps coordinate the race. I won a trophy in my age group! That has never happened to me before, and it makes me giggle. I wish I could thank Socks for pushing me.