WEST POINT — It’s 7:43 a.m. on a Saturday. Where am I? Sleeping? Working? Face down in my pillow while my 3-year-old plays bongos on my head in an attempt to get me out of bed?
No. All the above would make way too much sense. I am in West Point, running over the respective Pamunkey and Mattaponi River bridges with more than 100 other masochists as part of a 10-11 kilometer (k) race. The course takes me over each bridge twice as well as through the scenic downtown West Point. While all the aforementioned landmarks are fun things to see and experience, running over and through them is not my preferred sightseeing method.
Not only am I running 11 kilometers for no apparent reason, but I paid a company $45 for the privilege. But hey, I also get a shirt, a koozie and a dust collector…I mean finisher medal that will sit on a bookshelf for a few years until my wife puts them in a box with all my other dust collectors.
While I admit that the notion of paying money to do what humans have done for free and/or out of necessity for hundreds of years (maybe longer), might not make sense to reasonable people, organized races are something that I have come to love throughout my adult life. Here’s why.
First off, I like having something concrete to work towards and later brag about to friends and family who don’t care. You cannot so subtly flex on them by wearing a race t-shirt. No one will ever comment on your race shirt, but just know that deep in their hearts they are in awe of your ability to run several miles for no reason. I take that back, the only people who ever compliment race shirts are people who were at that race and therefore have the same shirt. Take those opportunities to congratulate each other on your shared accomplishments, before carrying on with your day.
In all seriousness, signing up for races gives me something to train for mentally and physically. I know that at the very least, I don’t want to get to the day of a race having completely blown off any kind of preparation. I just cannot bring myself to do that… anymore. I was enough of an athlete growing up to hold myself to a certain standard. Well I hold myself to that standard until I fall way short of it, but that’s when I remember the old *fill in the blank* injury that recently started acting up again.
Working towards a goal, whether it is an actual time or just finishing a race with a minimum of embarrassment, keeps me in shape enough to not worry as much about my heart attacking me when I get older. Pass the gravy.
The primary reason I love participating in races is that there is a wonderful sense of community and support in this seemingly solo sport. While I am sure there are competitive people at these races, people who take stock in being faster than other runners, I’ve never noticed them. Most of the people who run my pace are only looking to be faster than their previous selves, or at the very least not have to stop and tie your shoes again a mile into the race.
I find that runners when amongst their own are very welcoming and encouraging of each other. Whether its the lady with dozens of marathons under her belt, or a beginner who is looking for a healthy past time, runners think its great that you’re out there and we are rooting for you to hit your goal, whatever it may be.
It is that sense of camaraderie that attracted me to the sport in the first place. In ninth grade, I joined the Peninsula Catholic cross country team. Not because I was fast or even because I liked running, but because it was a community. The head coach at that time, Chris Davidson, built more than a decade’s worth of conference championship teams based on the concept of inclusion and support.
For reference, in high school cross country races, only the first five finishers for a team count for points, everyone else just gets hardy hand shake and and cup of room temperature, off-brand Gatorade.
Chris not only recruited kids like me, who were built for comfort and not for speed, but he tailored individual workouts to their abilities in order to help them achieve goals. So that even the kids who never placed at a meet, had something tangible to be proud of after the season was over. He also built a culture that valued every team-member, whether they were breaking course records or they were just happy to finish 3.1 miles without walking.
So I hope to see you out there one of these days. After the race we’ll stretch and hydrate. Maybe even swap exaggerated stories about what we saw and experienced on the course. Then we’ll compliment each other’s new race shirts.