Three fingers of analysis when two will do.
Last night I received a text from the New York Road Runners, the organizers of today’s Ted Corbitt 15k race, a warning that the weather for the run was being monitored. The first snowfall of 2017 was due for New York City and, according to the official Weather Channel app, it was going to start around 3:00 AM and not stop until late afternoon. I ordered another drink, sure of the 9.3-mile race’s imminent cancellation. Ah, the innocence of last night’s tipsy babes!
At 5:00 am this morning, I threw open my bedroom curtains, positive I’d see a blanket of white covering my downstairs neighbor’s garden. Alas, Mother Nature played Martha Stewart last night, only lightly dusting the pickets of the backyard fence with a tasteful hand. It’s a good thing? That remains to be seen, now that there’s nary a flake of frozen condensation in sight. So here I am in my starting race corral, my head as cider-groggy and sleep-deprived as my limbs are stretched and warm (I’m not a complete amateur).
The Ted Corbitt is my last race of 2017 and the one to fulfill the 9-race requirement for guaranteed entry to next year’s New York City marathon. The course is two loops starting from the northern part of Central Park, a shorter one then a long one. It seems cruel not to start with the longer loop, but I’m feeling sprightly as my wave takes off from the starting line and heads towards the west side of the park. My asthma keeps me in the back of the pack when distance-running but as a former sprinter I have a tendency to start strong.
Around Mile Two, a young woman dressed as a banana waits on the sideline to give the runners high-fives. My strong sprinter’s start has already begun to bite me in the ass, as always, but her enthusiasm draws me over and smacking her gloved palm gives me enough of a psychological boost to keep moving. A truck drives by just before the sharp turn onto the 72 St. transverse and someone shouts at us through a bullhorn to keep left. The elite runners from the first wave are already approaching to lap us. A moment later, a group of five men runs past me, a tight pack moving in perfect unison like a ten-legged perpetual motion machine. They continue south along the path of the second loop as I head east. I realize the sky’s grey granite has finally cracked and tiny specks of snow are falling in earnest.
At Mile Three, I’m back on the east side of the park heading north. Men and women from the early waves rush by my right side while I lope along the edge of the inside track (I’m not a complete amateur). I watch them pass and remember my days on the high school track team. The longest distance I ran in competition was 200m and I pitched a teenage bitch-fit whenever I had to run a mile at practice. I’m proud and a little astounded that I’m running 9+ today. Still, I remember what it was to really open up on the track, to dig spikes into rubber and get up on just the balls of my feet and fly. I didn’t know if I was running away from something or towards something else, but in the moments I reached peak speed I felt unencumbered and real.
Suddenly memory merges with the present and I break away from the slow lane to run at full speed in the middle of the path. I’m careful not to get too close to the faster runners approaching the end of their race, but I pick one and try to keep pace. He notices me and throws me a sidelong glance. I give a half-shrug and half-smile and try not to think about how I’m twenty years out of my sprinting days. “Come on,” he breathes, “We’ll carry you to Mile Four.”
As soon as we make it past the four-mile mark, I shout my good luck wishes and signal to the runners behind me that I’m slowing to a walk. It was a stupid move but for one glorious quarter-mile (or less, probably less) I hurtled alongside a far better athlete than myself and felt invulnerable. Now I could feel the blood actually moving through my brain tissue and was hitting my inhaler like Mikey in The Goonies but for a moment, not even my asthma could touch me.
I speed-walk the next mile, which takes me by the finish line as I start my second loop around the park. Once past the finished runners wrapping themselves in heat sheets, a velvet curtain of quiet is drawn around me. The park is a snowy tintype and I smile. I steel myself to dig deep for the back half of the race, which will feel longer and be wetter, colder and more arduous due to my too-fast start and recapturing of lost youth. I know I’ll finish, though. The snowflakes now are fat Charlie Brown clusters of fluff, almost floating in the ozone-scented air.