I came in 989th in the Shelter Island 10K, and they even gave me a medal!
You’ll have to forgive me. I’m new to this whole running race thing. I had no idea there would be a throng of sweet little kids giving out medals and hearty congratulations at the finish line to people who came in 989th.
This past Saturday dawned bright and clear on Shelter Island, with just a light breeze to hint at the impending remains of Tropical Depression Bill, which would pour down on runners all evening long.
My mother moved to The Rock two months ago, and it just so happens that her house is just two blocks from the starting line of the Shelter Island 10K, so I really had no excuse, not even lack of training, to not stay over at her house and participate in the run.
I’d gotten a good night’s sleep. I was well hydrated. I walked the dog around the block a few times to limber up. The weather forecast looked pretty nice. And then the clouds came in. And then it poured on the poor kids running laps out on the field. And then we realized we were in big trouble.
We thought it was clearing up when the starting gun went off in front of the Shelter Island School at 5:30 p.m., but we were too nervous to check the doppler weather way at the back of the starting line, where I waited with all of us who expected to finish near the back of the pack. We were here. We’d be running whether it rained or not. There was no sense in knowing what we’d be in for ahead of time.
After we took our hats off for the national anthem, Olympian Meb Keflezighi gave us all a pep talk. He told us we’d enjoy the camaraderie of running in the rain. I believed him. I’d spent all week worrying I’d be running in oppressive heat. I never even considered the alternative.
But what I really didn’t consider was the hills on this course. I drove it Friday afternoon before the race, but the dips that you notice in a car aren’t quite the same as the ones you feel running with your feet. I remember reminding myself to pace myself down Paard Hill and up Cobbetts Lane toward the Manhanset Firehouse, but that’s it.
As we headed down Route 114 off the starting line and then left on St. Mary’s Road, my jaw dropped in amazement, watching what looked like a massive snake made up of more than 1,000 human beings, spread out on the road ahead.
The church bells were ringing at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church. The congregation was outside, on the wet lawn, ringing cowbells and cheering us all on. My heart overflowed, and so did the sky.
Town Supervisor Jim Dougherty had his garden hose trained on the crowd of runners at the top of Paard Hill, but we were already wet when we got there and he knew he’d been outdone by nature.
At the first downhill, my feet couldn’t stop. They pulled me ahead, ignoring my planned pacing, unable to slow down. Looking like a damn fool, I found the edge of the road and did everything I could to slow my legs on down. I thought the uphills would be a problem, but I never counted on the downhills doing me in.
This is the same problem that cyclists who spend all their time on Long Island face: we don’t have hills. What we call hills are bumps in New England, and they’re imperceptible to Rocky Mountain natives. Even little Shelter Island has better hills than the North and South forks. So there.
The one reminder everyone I know gave me before I headed out on this fool’s mission was to pace myself, but it wasn’t the pacing that I found difficult. What was difficult was remembering to run when you’re surrounded by so many beautiful sights, and by so many sweet cheering people.
Sweet cheering people were everywhere, from the woman wedged between two giant privets on her bicycle on Shore Road, ringing her bell and encouraging runners not to stop, to the lone woman on her front lawn somewhere between mile four and five who promised I was almost there, to the the couple huddled under their umbrella just before I turned back onto Route 114 who clapped their hands and told me that it was the 50 or so of us left on the course who needed the most encouragement, not the runners at the front of the pack who were by then safely back in the high school gym warming up.
As I reached Joey’s Mile, the heavens opened wide. A stoic young man dressed like a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle handed me a cup of water. I couldn’t drink. My hips were terribly sore. I dumped the cup over my head and blinked at the thousands of American flags ahead. Each flag stood there in memory of another soldier killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
There were 6,851 flags. I gritted my teeth, thanked god I still had legs and lungs, and ran on. The last mile felt like a decade of war going past, painful and familiar and repetitive and never quite getting there until, suddenly it was over.
I crossed the finish line in an hour, 14 minutes and 21 seconds. It was a long time for the sole spectator I’d dragged out to watch me race, but it was a personal record for me.
And, oh yeah, I have this nice shiny medal. That’s pretty darn cool.