THE RACE I ALMOST “WON”
Saturday, I will be running the 10k Nike Human Race, held at Candlestone Inn in Belding, a small town northeast of Grand Rapids. I haven’t run here in probably 20 years, at another 5k/10k race. A few things stand out in my mind about that race so many years ago.
The race I ran in this town 20 years ago was a 5k. There was also a 10k but I preferred the 5k distance. At that time, I was running 5k races in the low 20 minute range, and I had become particularly strong at that distance due to running with my son in his stroller most of the summer. At that time, we didn’t have the fancy jogging strollers. No, I was pushing him in a type similar to the Gracos they still have now, with the swivel wheels, etc. Nothing aerodynamic about this buggy, but it was all I had and once again I was ahead of the curve running with a baby in a stroller. Needless to say, the uphills were a total grind, but it did pay off in faster race times. I still remember my son saying as I was gasping for air, “Run faster Mommy.” And even though I was running way faster than I do now, I still had to slow down some on the corners to avoid a rollover accident.
I don’t remember the name of the race, but I know it started and finished at one of the local elementary schools, put on by veteran runners, whose names I don’t remember and have to wonder if they are still running or even alive any more. A group of us from my gym were regulars at the area races, racing probably at least every other weekend, and one woman probably most weekends. She was young, unmarried, no kids, and was fast. She could easily win a race outright and otherwise won her age group every time. She too preferred the 5k distance.
The 10k started 15 minutes ahead of the 5k, and I don’t remember anyone who probably did the 10k, although I’m sure if they said they were there, I’d remember. I didn’t see anyone from my age group lined up for the 5k, but while I raced frequently, I still did not know everyone in my age group either, and there was always the chance someone would move into a new age group at any given race, or even cheat. And being 20 years ago, I honestly don’t remember every detail of this race, but there are some that are clear and stand out in my mind.
It was finally time for the 5k race to start. No chips back then, probably someone with a whistle or starter’s pistol starting the race, and pins to hold our numbers on. Race belts were not known to me then. I didn’t even own a water bottle or holder!
Off we went, down a long, winding driveway leading from the school to the street. I was running at a fast enough pace to be close to the front, but still not fast enough to see the lead runners by the time they reached the street. Sue, the fast one, was up front with the fast guys.
Once I reached the street, the lead group could no longer be seen, even though I was with the next group behind them. At that point in the race, you are raring to go, and not thinking of anything but one foot in front of the other, trying to get a good start and fall into a good pace. I don’t think the race course was marked by arrows on the road, which would explain one thing significant that happened. Since there was a 10k and a 5k race, at some point there was a split for the 5k. Volunteers or maybe a police officer pointed the way and we went wherever they pointed.
The race was held, as I remember, in mid to late September, one of those early fall days where the nights are cold and the days can be bright, sunny, and even quite warm. Those are the types of days when the bees can’t quite figure out what to do: they become lethargic during the cold nights, but become crazy and almost frantic once the sun comes out and starts warming the day. At probably the last mile of the race, a bee flew under my sunglasses. I whipped them off and shooed it away before it stung me, then regained my composure to continue on with the race. I was almost done, I remember that, and didn’t want to stop. My time was going to be okay, not great, but okay.
As I was approaching the school, the end of the race, I knew I had to dig in and climb that hill back up to the finish line. Just as I turned onto the hill, one of the volunteers starts clapping and cheering. “Good job! First woman!” I’m thinking it must be the first 10k woman so steal a glance behind me. No one coming except some guys. I’m puzzled. As I get closer to the volunteer he again yells out, “Great job first woman, right up to the finish. You’re almost there!” At this point I’m thinking, is he talking to me??
I dig in and push to the finish. My time was under 23 min. but don’t remember the exact time. No one says much at the finish line except congratulations, etc. At this point, I'm wondering how it was possible I won this race. I'm definitely wondering what happened to Sue.
I head into the school to recover and cool down and wait for the awards. It’s the usual scene after a race, with people discussing their races, their times, whether they were disappointed or pleased, etc. Back then, there were no elaborate post race spreads. We probably had popsicles, maybe apples or oranges, and water. That was it. Good enough.
Eventually, the results were posted. I didn’t try to push my way into the crowd initially but hung back waiting to see if I really did win the women's race. In the back of my mind I still didn't believe it and figured there was a mistake somewhere. Still, I never expected what happened next. Sue, the fast one, came over to me and said, “They have you winning the race! But I should have won because they directed us onto the 10k course and we were probably 2.5 miles into the race before someone discovered it and sent us back to follow the 5k course. So I probably ran more than 5 miles today.”
I was stunned and don’t even remember what I said. I do remember the huge trophies for the winners. Apparently, the mistake was reported to the race director, some further calculations were done, and my trophy was stripped from my possession! I did end up winning my age group that day, receiving one of those generic medals I’m sure everyone has somewhere in their race memorabilia.
The next thing I clearly remember is another woman in my age group, supposedly, who took second. I remember standing up and saying to someone because I was so outraged, “She’s not in my AG! She’s in the one below me!” To this day, I still run into this woman, and to this day she continues to switch between one age group and the next, apparently whenever it works to her advantage. Even though I’ve reported her, nothing has ever been done. And she has never dared to "beat" me when doing her switches because she knows I know.
My after thoughts on the race that day, which really occurred to me today for the first time. Even though there was a mistake in course directions, technically I did win the women’s race and should have been awarded the first place trophy. There is no way to accurately or truthfully determine what the times of the wayward runners would have been had they actually followed the 5k course. And while it wasn’t their fault, neither was it mine. Oh well, easy come, easy go. Had I thought this clearly back then, who knows? I didn't feel I deserved it based on my time. If this happened today, would I feel differently?
I don’t expect tomorrow’s race to even remotely resemble that day, but I hope the course is just as beautiful and challenging as it was back then. I will just run my pace and hopefully enjoy the day.