The nightmare always starts the same way. I am running in the middle of the pack when I spot the row of port-a-potties and decide to make a stop. And thus the nightmare truly begins. I come out of the port-a-potty to find no runners, spectators or volunteers any where. Figuring I must have been further back in the pack than I had thought, I start running in the direction the race had been heading. That is when I realize I have five choices. The road splits like the railway exchanges on my son’s Thomas train table. I have to make a choice. As I make my way through a grandmother’s kitchen, climb up a ladder into the attic and have to slide down a twisty slide to get back to the race course, it becomes apparent that I have made the wrong choice. This obstacle course goes on so long I am completely surprised to find spectators still lining the course leading to the finish cheering wildly for me, the last runner. I know that I said the nightmare had started earlier, but as I cross the finish line and photographers snap my picture and Michael Jackson steps up to hand me the winner’s check I realize it has only just begun. Sometimes it seems to go on for days as I try to explain that I didn’t really win the race, I had gotten lost along the course and must have taken what turned out to be a very convoluted shortcut. Unfortunately, no one listens. Instead, the crowd starts accusing me of being the next Rosie Ruiz. The good news is I do eventually wake up from this dream and I am always grateful that it was just a dream.
So, earlier this year, when I found myself leading the pack of our local half marathon, I was very careful to watch for the arrows on the road, not head through any doors or stop at any port-a-potties. I was also very careful to savor the experience. With nobody in front of me to follow and no feet coming up behind, I felt as though I had the course to myself. The water stops were a smorgasbord of beverages and the cheers were all for me. I waved at the children and thanked the police officers along the route for being out so early on a cold, wet Sunday morning and I tried to stay focused on running a good race. About twenty minutes after the turn around on the out and back course, I started seeing the other runners. Some, clad in USNA shorts and tank tops, ignored me as they focused on completing their race but others looked at my quizzically, as though questioning my position in the race. As I made my way further back along the course, some started to comment on how fast I was running, how I was the first one they had seen. I started hearing “Wow, she must have headed out really fast.” This is when it became apparent to me that some of those who were behind me didn’t realize I had started with the one hour early start.
Yes, I was leading the race but only because the other early starters expected to take several hours to finish the course and needed a head start. I, on the other hand, expected to complete the course in the middle of the pack range but had begged my way into the early start the day before so I could get back to help with the food tables at the finish. Since I had never run an early start before, I was not prepared for the quiet and the small crowd. I was so unprepared that it wasn’t until the second mile that it occurred to me that the water stops might not be up and I might be completely on my own. I should have given my local running club more credit. They were more than prepared. Not only did they have the water stops ready but they had requisitioned volunteers to meet us along the trail and cheer us on.
As I approached the tenth mile, the crowds thinned out a little so they could be back with the real race but being a front runner for the first time in my life gave me all the boost I needed to run the last three. I ran as though I were Paula Radcliffe. I imagined the throngs who would meet me in the stadium, well not the stadium really but in the bus circle at the high school. I ran as though I were the winner of the race. As I approached mile twelve and spectators did begin lining the last mile and continued to comment on the fact I was in first place, I smiled and waved and had my moment of glory.
There are five pictures of me crossing the finish line with a grin that beats the Cheshire Cat. Several volunteers offered me bottles of water and Gatorade, people congratulated me on a good run and nobody accused me of taking a short cut to get there. I may not have won the race and Michael Jackson didn’t greet me with a check but overall, I would say it was good to be a front runner for the day.