Schooled (The Long Run 2011 May)

Little girl 1T minus 4 minutes and counting. Time to toe the line. In most races my “line” is somewhere in the second or third row, behind young men and women in team singlets and racing flats so loud as to violate noise ordinances in neighboring jurisdictions. And then there’s the kids: those pre-pubescent Prefontaines and Paula Radcliffes whose parents are calling for them from the back row, unaware that their little overachiever has apparently been spending recess training with a college track team. Kids in the front row of grown-up races are kids about to get schooled.

For my part, I’ve never reveled in tutoring the Nickelodeon crowd. They just happen to be in my way…by the quarter mile mark. It’s about then their hatchling bodies stop running on enthusiasm and Lucky Charms and they start looking green from all that humble pie they’re eating. You can’t help but smile at their opening brazenness. The first two minutes of the race will cut them down to size (as if a four foot tall body should ever need that)…until the next race. But eventually their judgment will solidify, like some late-hardening cranial suture.

Anyway, it’s t minus 2 minutes and counting. I size up the competition. What’s this? Another four-and-a-half foot interloper. But this isn’t just any lost child. This one has a two-foot-long blond pony tail. Oh, what I failed to say before is that these fledgling Roger Bannisters are almost invariably male. Boys will be boys, but girls usually won’t be, um, boys.

T minus one minute. The boys aren’t budging from the front row. Neither is the girl. This is her story and apparently she‘s sticking with it. Another child casualty. I imagine how those New Balance and Asics tracks are going to look on her clean t-shirt.

Ten, nine, eight….hands are poised on watches…seven, six, five…nervous glances are exchanged…four, three, two, one…mayhem! It took until 1954 for a human to run a four minute mile. And judging by the first few seconds of this race, 30 of us are going to run one today. I wonder whether anyone called the folks at Guinness? A minute into the race and the four or five runners who look like they actually might run a four minute mile are in the lead, untouchable as always. And right behind them are (you guessed it) the kids. Already one can see their form faltering, arms windmilling, steps making a racket like snowshoes on asphalt. For them, the finish line is less then a track-length away. Sure, many of them will finish the actual race (a 5k), having fallen in with Mom or Dad somewhere along the way, but their opening speed has been significantly checked, halved and halved again. A minute and 30 seconds into the race and three little guys are in my rear-view mirror. A minute more and it’ll be a big-kids-only race. The next kids I’ll see will be pocketing extra bagels at the post-race carb-load. Three minutes into the race and the casualty roll is complete: seven little boys sent to the back of the line. The coast is clear. Just me and the open road and that pack of runners up ahead. That’s where I need to be. With my first real effort of the race, I close the gap. Before I know it I’m in the wind-shadow of a half-dozen male and female runners who had lined up near me at the start, all of them over 5-and-a-half feet tall. I judge that I can take this pack, and when I do an unexpected sight greets me: ten yards ahead is a blond ponytail, no longer hanging but streaming behind a diminutive female athlete in a clean t-shirt. No tread marks. I worriedly check my GPS sportswatch. I’m at the appointed place at the appointed time. It’s she who’s out of place.

Undaunted, I marshal my resolve to pass her. What else can I do? I have to remedy this situation before the first water stop. My wrap-around shades won’t give me the kind of anonymity I’ll be needing if something doesn’t change…in a hurry. (It doesn’t occur to me at the time that all the pride I’m lugging might actually be weighing me down.) Water stop one. There’s Gatorade. What kid can pass up Gatorade, right? Wrong. She glides right through. What’s wrong with this kid—other than the fact that she’s making me look bad? Whatever happened to respecting one’s elders? There are runners in front of us and a lot of runners behind, but no one else matters. I’m sure she knows I’m there; my labored breathing has denied me the element of surprise. Whatever her race goals were, I’ll wager she’s ditched them now, all so she can make me look bad. I’m sure of it. Or is it that I vanquished her dad once and now she’s out to avenge his memory? Water stop two. I’m ten paces behind. She gets an ovation. I get…wait, did someone just throw something at me? This is shaping up to be the worst day of my life. Finishing chute. The moment of truth. How much muscle power can that 70 pound frame pack? There’s no way the girl can have a finishing kick. I bring mine on, such as it is. Too late. My timing is off. I finish two feet behind that blond ponytail.

If it’ll save my pride, I’ll swear that was the fastest an 11 year old girl ever ran a 5k. I’d prove it, but nobody thought to call the folks at Guinness that day.

(Epilogue: This race took place in approximately 2003. In 2013, Jen Bremser–the owner of the blond ponytail–ran a 16:48 5k as a track & field star for Air Force Academy. Somehow knowing this makes me feel better.)



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