I am not a runner. I hate running. Even when I was in my best physical shape, running beyond three miles was out of the question. But I miss being in shape and want to turn back the clock a bit on my aging and so I’ve reintroduced myself to cardio workouts with the goal of being able to run three miles a day again.
As part of my goals, I registered to run a 5K this past weekend here in Las Vegas. It’s the opening event of the Rock n’ Roll Marathon. I knew I was not ready to run the entire course, so I resigned myself to walking most of it and running here and there. All told, I probably ran a half-mile, at most. My time sucked. My place in my age bracket sucked. But I finished. That’s all that really mattered to me.
A Day at the Races.
At the race, one of the local hotels gave out flashing glow sticks to participants. I didn’t get one. I needed to focus on finishing without looking pathetic, I reasoned. Carrying this flashing baton through the course would not help me focus. In hindsight, I should’ve grabbed one. These little props became something of a bonding object for runners on the course. People would bump glow sticks through switchbacks and make positive remarks to fellow runners. It was pretty cool to witness.
And then I nearly screwed it all up. One girl was slapping glow sticks with everyone running toward her. She held hers out in front of me, even though I didn’t have one. Cool, I thought. This kid was extending her camaraderie to me. What a great, cool gesture. So I reached out as we intersected…and slapped that glow stick out of her hand and kept running.
As I heard the stick hit the deck, I looked back and saw her chasing it down. “I didn’t mean for that to happen!” I said out loud.
A couple running about 10 yards behind me saw this play out and couldn’t contain their laughter. “Great,” I said to them. “Now I look like the asshole out here!”
They laughed. I ran, mostly out of embarrassment. It’s what I do when confronted with a situation where I know no other solutions. I run away.
A Modest Goal: Finish Before You Do
All through the course I was flanking two female walkers who were either 10 yards ahead of me or 10 yards behind me. It was like we were trading places every half-mile or so. It was right then that I set my only goal (beyond completing the course without being carried out of there on a stretcher). I told myself: I will finish before you do. I have no idea where they started, but I needed something to push me, so I used these two unwitting participants. And the chase was on.
I caught up and passed them about a mile or so into the course. They were probably only 10 yards or so behind me, but I wanted to be out front for awhile. I thought I was way ahead of them at the midway point when I was getting some water (spilling water, mostly, as I was getting jostled by runners). Prior to the water station, they were behind me. Next thing I know, they were well ahead of me by about 30 yards. I spent the next mile or so reeling them in.
About 100 yards from the finish line, I had them lined up. They were about 5 yards ahead of me and I knew I could take them in the last 25 yards. I began to ready myself for my move.
And then they started running.
“What the…???” I thought to myself. We’re 80 yards from the finish line and they’re pulling away from me. I could feel my one-and-only goal slipping away from me. I had no choice but to get on it and began running again. They kept running, too. “Faster. Faster. Faster,” is all I could say to myself. Sure, it wasn’t really that fast, but I knew I had to outpace them if I wanted to “beat” them.
“I want a girl with shoes that cut and eyes that burn like cigarettes…”
Cake’s Short Skirt Long Jacket was playing as I neared the finish line. There’s nothing particularly motivating or inspiring about it, but I love the beat and I love the lyrics. And I enjoy listening to it when I’m doing cardio work. On this night, it would be the victory song.
Right about the time Cake’s singer is telling us he wants a girl who gets up early and stays up late, I made the move. With about 40 yards to the finish line, I caught and passed my target. All race long, I flanked them to the right, but my path was blocked toward the crowded finish line, so I had to accelerate, slip through about two or three runners and overtake the girls on the left.
But they were still running! I had to continue legging it out to the finish line, which was my plan all along. I’d like to say raw adrenaline carried me to the end, but that would be a big, fat lie. I was dog tired, but I needed to accomplish that one, little goal. It wasn’t a sprint, but it was the fasted I’d run on the entire course that night.
And it was a close finish, too. If you look at my finish line photo (quite a sight, if I do say so myself), they are flanking me by about 10 yards.
This was my second 5K. Even though I’m not much of an athlete and my knees and ankles need a full 24 hours to recover, there’s a reason why I’m enjoying these events: the positive energy. Sure, there are some seriously athletic people out there. In fact, I watched the starters of the race finish in less than 16 minutes before I even started. But everyone I encountered before, during and after the race is happy, excited and having a great time. And best of all: everyone is encouraging all the participants, cheering them on throughout the course. No one is making fun of someone who has less ability. No one is body shaming anyone. No one is mad at the slower runners.
If only every day were so positive.
A Shared Experience That Becomes a Lifelong Memory
For me, the real story happened before and after the 5K. I met and spoke with people from all over the country who flew into Vegas for this event. That’s half the fun of taking part in this event. People you don’t know and will likely never see again have a shared experience that will become part of a lifelong memory shared with friends via social media and with co-workers when they hang their medals and bibs on their cubicle walls.
I first met two young women who were, like me, en route to the monorail to get to the course. One was from Flagstaff, Arizona and the other was from Minnesota. “This must feel like summer weather to you,” I said to the Minnesotan. They both were running the 5K (“probably going to walk it, though,” the Arizonan said.) and participate in the 10K on Sunday morning.
“We did it last year,” said a senior woman in a group of three ahead of us in line at the monorail. “And then we got drunk and signed up for it again this year!”
I’m sure she was joking, but this exchange captures the general mood I encountered ahead of the race: everyone was loose, having fun and anxious to get there.
I lost all of them at the monorail, which was packed to capacity and then some. New riders at every stop had to squeeze and get intimate with their fellow riders. I imagine this is what it’s like during the morning commute in New York City. Even amidst an overcrowded, uncomfortable train ride, nobody complained.
This was my starting point. Knowing 11 other groups would have to start before we could even get a whiff of the start line, I surveyed the crowd. It’s an interesting bunch that takes part in events like a night-time run in Las Vegas. There was a group of Canadians who, after the singing of the National Anthem, sang Oh, Canada. They received a genuine and loud ovation from the participants.
As expected, several people wearing costumes were on hand: A family dressed in Superman/Supergirl costumes, more Elvis impersonators than I could count, groups with matching shirts, I saw Batman more than once, and lots of women (and men) wearing tutus.
Prior to the race, I struck up a conversation with an older fellow to my left. “Are you running tomorrow?” he asked. After I said no, he told me this is his fifth half-marathon of the year, “and my last,” he said. “I’m 70 years old.”
He did not look 70! I don’t know what 70 looks like, but he was in pretty good shape, as you would have to be to compete in multiple 13-mile races in one year. He joked that he does it so he can get the medal—and free beer—after the race. He went on to tell me he’s had trouble getting motivated since his wife died five years ago. “I dedicate all my races to her,” he said.
Jeez. Talk about motivation. Here I am, huffing and puffing to finish a 5K and here’s a guy who runs half-marathons because he has trouble rolling out of bed every day since his wife died. I am a weak, weak man.
After the race, I struck up conversations with several participants over one, simple subject: college football. It was a did you hear about….who won the….what’s the score of that game? sort of chat. Within one group, I encountered Alabama fans and Iowa fans. The Alabama fan was born and raised in Michigan City, Indiana (where I used to work at the Blue Chip floatin’ Casino). It’s a small world, sometimes.
The point of all this is not that I did something semi-athletic. The point is I took part in a huge, social event and surrendered to it. I will never see any of these people ever again, but they all played a big part in a my lasting memory of the 5k at the Las Vegas Rock N’ Roll Marathon.
Sure, I got a medal—and a beer!—but that medal represents more than the 3.1 miles I huffed and puffed across to get it. For me, it’s about the positive energy I gathered in Saturday night and intend to use as a motivation to keep moving on a path toward next year: a half marathon.
You’ve been warned.