After I started running at 14, it was probably inevitable that I would eventually start competing in races. Most of the people in the small running community in my town did. Some were very competitive, but most of them did it for the social aspect. Running was a pretty solitary pursuit back then, and it was a chance to see (and measure yourself against) others.
We would gather at a usually chilly spot, often by the lakeshore, because so many of us ran there that we knew the course. We were cold because running tights and leggings had not yet been invented, so most of us wore shorts and waited to warm up. There were no chip timers, so we stood poised with our fingers on our Timex Marathon watches. Then we were off.
A few volunteers usually staffed the course, calling out mile times. If race organizers were feeling fancy, there might be a table halfway with cups of water, but usually not. At the finish, we milled around waiting for the medals, which you got if you placed in your age group. There was usually a cotton t-shirt too, with a design created by a local artist.
The usual cast of characters showed up at most of the races, with the occasional ringer from somewhere else; someone visiting family or in town to check out the college. At a glance I could usually tell if I would place in my age group or even win. At one race I was recruited by the university cross country coach to join the team. The competition that day wasn't too stiff, but I had ended up winning.
Because we basically knew everyone, some shenanigans occasionally resulted. The same cross country coach and his girlfriend, both runners, had a bad breakup. "I never want to see your face again," she reportedly told him. Taking her statement literally, and knowing she would be at the next race, he showed up at the starting line with a ski mask obscuring his features. My dad, running by someone he didn't recognize, would inquire, "are you over 40?" in order to size up his age group.
When I moved away, I ran a few races but it wasn't the same. My dad, who was faster and always finished ahead of me, wasn't there. I felt pressure to do well that I hadn't had in my happy running community. Races were more organized and had better medals and shirts, but somehow it wasn't as fun.
I'm glad I had my racing days. I met a lively group of runners in my hometown, and shared races with my family. I joined a university cross country team. I learned how to do speed work. I realized that at times, I was actually a fast runner. Sometimes I reminisce about my fastest race ever, an 8K in which I almost, but not quite, finished ahead of my dad. Although I haven't raced in decades, and prefer a trail in the woods to a starting line, I'm happy for the memories.
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