I was turning 50 and had never run a road race. It was time.
I found the perfect four-mile event sponsored by our beach association in Rhode Island. Anything organized by our beach association typically involved beer and standing around, so I figured this would be more like a sloppy saunter than an actual race. Super easy. "Easy like Sunday morning" easy.
In fact, it was a Sunday morning in August that I slipped on my shorts, a baggy T-shirt and some beat-up Reeboks and headed to the beach store at 7:55. That would give me a few minutes to hang with my fellow runners who, like me, had probably put on some Fudge Ripple weight over the summer and were hoping to burn off a few calories while still having a little fun.
That's where my plan went south. Not south as in the South Beach Diet, which I should have started weeks before, but south as in: Uh-oh, what the hell have I done?
No Fudge Ripplers here, just 15-20 ab-tastic runners with colorful wicking wear and digitized gear strapped to their toned arms. The only other person who looked to be in my 45-55 age group was a gray-haired guy who ran down the road like he was leaving (Who could blame him? These people were scary!), but then circled around and sprinted back. So my one chance for a schlubby buddy was actually getting in a run before the run. OK then.
I sucked in my gut, regretting my late night of carbo-loading, and strode over to the sign-in table. Once there, I tried to joke with the organizer who wore a steely gaze under the brim of his fancy cap. "I assume the other old slowpokes are on their way?" I said. "Probably just waking up now?"
Mr. Fancy Cap studied his clipboard. "Actually, if you're Sandra, then you're the last to sign in."
Seriously? The race hadn't even started, and I was already last? With that, I formed a one-point plan for the rest of the day: Don't be last again. I had no idea how I would pull it off with these Gatorade-chugging gazelle babies, but I simply had to.
A few moments later, Mr. Fancy Cap explained the four-mile route—a loop along farms and fields that I knew well from the walking, with spurts of slow jogging, I'd done that summer. Then he gave us our ready-set-go.
And did they go! Every single one of those gazelles bolted down the road, around the corner and out of my sight, leaving me staring at the empty stretch ahead. Twenty yards into my race and I was not only going to be last, but I was going to be last by a lot.
I thought about quitting. I mean, it would be easy enough to veer left to my cottage and bury my shame in a plate of bacon. I could even pretend I had a leg cramp and do some fake stretchy thing then limp back to where the race began, moaning about potassium levels. But I didn't.
I didn't get to be almost 50 and not learn a few things about perseverance. I'd survived enough crap in my life to know I could get through four miles of hard road. I also had two teens who I was always urging to step out of their comfort zones and test what was possible. So I drew a deep breath and heaved on.
About one miserable mile in, I saw what was either a miracle or a mirage: a wiry, 20-something, well-geared woman who was flagging right in front of me. "The heat," she gasped when I trotted up beside her.
"Yeah," I said, making myself not smile. "Brutal, huh?"
She said she was a Phys Ed major at the University of Wisconsin, but had never trained in hot weather.
"We can pace ourselves together," I suggested. Tying for last place wasn't really last.
She nodded and said her name was Mandy. Mandy and Sandy. Off we went, walking, then sometimes walking slightly faster for the next two, 89-degree miles. Considering that she was 19 and had a stride that equaled two of mine, I was actually doing better than she was. The heat didn't get to me, but she was a hot mess.
When we reached the Seaview Market, I knew we had a mile to the finish line and suggested we run it in. Mandy nodded, jogged a few feet, then bent over and puked on the grass between the road and corn field.
She nodded. While I considered staying with her, I didn't. Mandy would be fine. I knew that. And it would be good for her to be beat by a 49-year-old slow, but determined Fudge Rippler. She would learn what she, too, could someday do.
I booked it along the road and soon enough was turning into the home stretch, depleted. That's when I heard it: the unmistakable sound of a baby gazelle's footsteps.
I don't know where it came from. Almost 50 years of fighting, of chasing, of trying, of sometimes winning but often losing? I dug deep for the little I had left and ran like I was being chased.
When Mandy crossed the finish line a few steps behind me, I threw my sweaty arms around her. "Thank you," I gasped. She had no idea why.