Winning in Last Place

I’m registered for the Run Disney Princess Half Marathon in February 2016.  I went last year and didn’t get to finish (Read more here:  https://justwritewhatyouknow.com/2015/02/27/the-bus-of-shame-or-the-saddest-ride-at-walt-disney-world/).

I’ve been training for the event, and my pace has increased.  Although the minimum pace is a slow 16 minutes/mile, that’s been a real challenge for me.  Recently, I completed training runs at 15 – 16 minutes/mile.  I did a 10K in September with a slow 17 min/mile pace, but that was mostly in the dark.

Submitting a proof of time of finishing a race of at least 10K with an “acceptable” time helps one to get placed in a corral nearer the front of the pack at the Princess.  The goal is 3 hrs 15 min or less for a good corral.  Proof of time must be submitted by November 17, so I didn’t have much time.  I chose a race in Michigan based on the fact that it is near one of my “invisible” (not imaginary) online friends, and she invited me to stay with her.

As the weekend approached, I began to dread the race.  I hadn’t gotten in as much training as I hoped.  It’s a long (2.5 hours) drive each way.  I’m swamped at work, have been busy most weekends and evenings…and about a dozen other excuses.  Add that all to the fact that I was staying in someone else’s home, and my social anxiety kicked in.  I almost chickened out.  I made up my mind to honor my commitments, and I packed my bag Saturday morning, stopped at a local shop for a hostess gift

As I hit travelled west to Toledo and turned north to make my way into that state where “a rose never grows” (Once a Buckeye…) it began to rain just a little. The sun was shining, but tiny droplets were hitting my windshield.  As I looked toward the east I saw a beautiful, vivid rainbow.  A rainbow is a promise.  The rain soon stopped.  I drove farther and the showers began anew, with a brand new rainbow.

I was treated to three rainbows along the way.  I took them as a sign that I was going to have a fabulous weekend.

I arrived at my friend’s home and met her new puppy.  She nearly peed on my foot (the puppy, not my friend), which was a sure sign we were going to be best friends.  I had fun chatting with the grandkids and showing them videos of my own silly dog.  My friend and I ducked out for dinner, then came back, got into pajamas and stayed up late talking.  what a special lady she is.

I went to sleep in her very comfortable guest bed and woke in time to have a cup of coffee and some fruit to fuel up before my race.  My friend had planned to drive me to the race site and cheer me on, but when I realized it was going to be near freezing and that one of the grandchildren had an ear infection, I told her to stay home and I’d be back.  I dressed in my favorite yellow long-sleeved tech shirt with my hippie runner headband that says “I’m so far behind I think I’m in first place.”  I topped off the ensemble with my kaleidoscope tights, my favorite running skirt and bright orange shoes.  My friend’s son asked me if this was a “color run.”  I explained that this was the “Big Bird Run,” and by golly, I was doing my best to look the part.

last headI made it to the race site with plenty of time to spare.  I found a parking spot right in front of the building.  Things were definitely going my way.  I felt great.  I felt fast.  This was MY day.  I picked up my packet, looked at the race shirt, and grabbed the information sheet to read more details about the 10K.  It said, “timing will stop at the 80 minute mark.”  My heart sunk.  I knew I would probably come in about 95 – 100 minutes.  My last race had been 105 minutes.  The one before that 115.

Although the sun shone brightly, I felt as if a dark cloud covered the sky.  I felt inadequate.  I pinned my race bib on, and contemplated what I should do.  I thought about trading the 10K bib for a 4K bib and just having a “fun run.”  A 10K is a lot of work for me.  I decided to try the 10K and just have fun – I would run it as a “fun run” and bring some sunshine to the back of the pack.

At the last race that I ran, although I was slow, I was not last.  There were quite a few runners who were even slower than I am.  As I have improved, I have stopped worrying about finishing last.

I looked around the parking lot.  These were serious runners. Although it was less than 40 degrees out, there were guys in short shorts foam rolling on the freezing concrete.  I was the only “fat girl” (or guy) running the race.  My confidence started leaking out.

I gave myself a pep talk.  I looked at the sky and thanked God for a beautiful day to run.  I gave thanks that I was in no pain.  I sang happy songs to myself.  I cheered as the 1 mile and 4K races started, but I really wanted to cry.

The blue sheet that told me they would stop timing before I finished had asked slower runners to start int he back, so I made my way to the very end of the pack.  The starting gun cracked, and I watched EVERYONE move away from me.   It was like I was moving in slow motion.

I hadn’t gone a full block when the police car pulled behind me with its lights going.  It was going to be a long 6.2 miles.  This was an extraordinarily well staffed and marked race course.  There were multiple police officers or volunteers at every single intersection.  I decided to thank every single one as I went by.  Each one I thanked said, “No, thank YOU, and you’re doing GREAT!”  I didn’t believe them, but I appreciated the encouragement.

My police escort would slow down then catch up with me again.  I passed the 1 mile marker and volunteers with stop watches were giving out splits.  I could barely believe them when they said, “13:49.”  That was my fastest mile ever.  I was still in the very back, but I had the boost I needed.  My running watch was set to chirp every 45 seconds.  I would run as hard as I could until I tired and then cut back to a jog until the next chirp.

At mile 2 I was just under 30 minutes.  At mile 3 I realized I would break my personal record for a 5K.  By mile 4 I was tiring, but I caught up with the two women I had been following.  We would trade off places for the next mile.  At mile 5 the timekeepers asked if I knew if I was the last one, and when I answered “yes,” a young lady asked if she could run the last mile with me.  “I’ve never run a mile before,” she said.

Together we ran that last mile.  I was tired, but she kept telling me I could do it.  I told her I hadn’t voluntarily quit a race yet, and I wasn’t about to start.  As we ran, I told her that I had lost over 100 pounds since I began running in March 2014.  “Look at you now,” she said.

We rounded a corner together with the finish just ahead.  The timing clock was still going.  I came in at just 91 minutes – by far my personal best.  I asked the time keeper if they were still submitting times although 80 minutes was past, and he said “yes.”  I thought “I’m going to Disney World,” and I recovered a tiny bit of spring to my step.

I collected my free banana and my bottle of water.  I thought back to the rainbows that decorated my journey the night before.  Everything about the race conditions Sunday was perfect for me.  I love to run in the cold.  The pavement was dry and mostly flat (except for the highway overpass).  I had my own police escort – I alternated between joking with volunteers about being chased by the police and telling them that I was a very important dignitary who needed personal protection.

I finished dead last, but I finished.  Finishing wasn’t the difficult part – starting was the real problem.  Once I convinced myself that a time was just a number and decided to have fun and show thanks to all of the people who volunteered to stand in the cold on a Sunday morning, I had a wonderful time.  I won.  I felt honored to finish in last place.

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The good people of Roseville, Michigan made me feel like a winner.  Nobody made me feel like I was inconveniencing him by being slow. The elite runners didn’t look at me as if I was somewhere I did not belong.  I was a runner.  I was part of a community, and I was doing something I could not do for many years.

We runners have a saying:  “Dead Last Finish > Did Not Finish > Did not Start.”  I won in last place.  I won big.

I returned to my friends’ house for a shower and a hot bowl of chili.  We visited some more and said our goodbyes and I began the long drive back home.  What had started as a day full of anxiety and self-doubt became one of my proudest moments.  Later I would review my Facebook feed and be reminded that five years ago that day, I had been sworn in as a lawyer, another achievement I never believed was within my ability.

I gained a real sense of accomplishment this weekend.  I submitted my proof of time.  RunDisney says I will finish the half marathon in 3 hours and 22 minutes.  I know I can do better than that.  Those balloon ladies aren’t catching me this year, but if they do, I’ll smile and thank them for volunteering their time on a cold, dark morning.

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