Thoughts from the Back of the Race

If you were among the dozen or so who first crossed the finish line in the Door County Half Marathon in Peninsula Park on May 2nd, this is not for you. Turn to another article in the Pulse where you might find advice that will make you greener or a notice that will take you to a gallery opening.

This is a view from the back of the race, eyes that on straight stretches of road in the park saw what looked like a crowded midway of a carnival, except rather than milling, these people were moving rapidly in one direction from a common purpose, as if either in flight or pursuit. And rather than tents and carnies and booths and rides, the runners were hemmed by trees and occasional views of the bay.

Now that I am in my 65th year, decades of running have made the sport second nature to me but at the same time have taken a toll. When I enter a race, I feel much like I did when I was a kid at a county fair with only so much pocket change:  I knew I had to spend it wisely.

Subsequently, I began Saturday’s race at a slow jog, waiting patiently for the crowd of runners to thin out. From experience I knew that I had plenty of time and miles ahead of me for racing. And I had spectacular scenery around me:  a lighthouse; an historic cemetery; a golf course; bluff views of Chambers Island, Horseshoe Island and boats; woodlands, meadows, hiking and biking trails.

But even more entertaining, I had a sea of humanity around me, and as it became less dense, I moved slowly forward in the race, and found the view of people changed even as the scenery did.

A fashion writer would have grist for a lengthy article on what runners wore. Some were clad in high tech clingy wicking synthetics that announced a Serious Runner, a few of them accessorized with holstered belts for beverages and race snacks. An occasional runner was in what might be street clothes, as if entering the race was a last minute decision. One woman ran in a black t-backed clingy tank and what from a distance looked like elbow-length gloves:  Audrey Hepburn does a marathon? Another guy wore colorful print knee socks. A few guys braved the cool temperature without shirts.

But most of us looked miscellaneous, huddled masses given to the race, yearning to make it to the finish line. My long-sleeved t-shirt was from an Oneida race held before some of Saturday’s runners were born.

More intriguing than the running costumes were the running styles and the body shapes. Those harriers who were directed to other pages of the Pulse, are uniform in their trim athletic silhouettes, powerfully efficient gaits, effective training and inborn talent. Not so, those of us with a view from the back of the race.

As a retired distance running coach, I found myself wanting to give tips to high-step runners who bounced along the road, or runners who kicked their feet to the side as they ran, or runners whose arms flailed as if shooing insects. But I kept silent, thinking that maybe I was fortunate in that I couldn’t see my own form as I hurried along the race.

Because I am by nature skinny my build predisposes me to running, even if my athletic talent has never brought me to the front of a race. However, all around me I saw runners running against their body types. Some of these race horses were Clydesdales, and one might ask, “What are they doing here? Why are they trying to race?”

The answers to these questions are found in thoughts from the back of the race. Runners experience a sense of community in the commonality of their experience, as much as if they were living in a village or an apartment complex. They share a common goal, as if they had children enrolled in the same school or as if they worked for the same corporation. And they are all part of the determination that takes immigrants to a new land, that builds nations, that not only survives but prevails.

The race might be difficult, especially if we are not as light as we might be, not as fit as we might be, or in some cases, not as young as we might be. But we can run 13-plus miles and live to tell about it. Not everyone can.