Finished the Race, Didn’t Win

“Mama? What happens if I get lost on the race?”

It was 9:30 pm, the night before our Gillies 5K, Derek’s first race. The alarm was already set for 5:45am for me, and this kid needed sleep.

I allayed his fears with a reassuring explanation that “you just follow everyone in front of you” and that the running community is a “large, encouraging and helpful group.”

At the morning alarm, I got up and readied myself before waking the kids. Kathleen would run her own race. We had run this one two years before and this was maybe her fifth 5K. She knew the ropes. I envisioned Derek and I alternately jogging and walking together, with the mindset of having fun and not worrying about time. 

The kids were grumbly and crabby, but I put on that enthusiastic smile worn by pageant contestants and hoped this experiment wouldn’t end in disaster. There would either be smiles or tears at the end, no in between.

We gathered at the starting line, admired the red, white and blue costumes, commented on people’s shoes and timing devices, and after the Star Spangled Banner, we were off.

By the first curve, meaning in the first tenth of a mile, both kids were out of my sight.

Gone.

In my head I thought, Just run faster! You can catch up to him!

I admit I live in that fantasy world where I believe I would suddenly have superhuman strength to lift a car off of my kid, or chase a speeding, windowless van. Of course, I would bound onto the hood and swing my body with the agility of a cirque du soleil acrobat into the driver’s seat, take control of the wheel and save my children– and for some reason in this scenario, I’m always wearing work pants.

But that fantasy was brutally popped. I sped up, to no avail. 

Now Plan B: Well, he’s got to burn out and start walking! Then I’ll catch up to him!

As I ran, I checked every single kid running. Derek was wearing his Tigers hat, but I couldn’t just rely on that. I mean, he may have taken it off. He may have dropped it. Every blond head was scrutinized like a face on a milk carton. Whatever happens, I CANNOT pass him. He would freak out. He would start crying. In fact, in my anxiety-ridden mind, he was somewhere up ahead, looking around and realizing he was alone, and crying, wondering where his mom was. 

With every turn, there were police officers and I studied them, expecting to see Derek being consoled while they looked in vain for the horrible mother who was too weak to keep up with a seven year old.

At the 1 mile marker, my app told me I had run the mile in less than 10 minutes– way faster than my normal average. At a mile and a quarter, my lungs were burning and I was already feeling my form fade. I walked, admitting defeat as a runner and a mom. I just couldn’t make up the distance. And my poor boy was all alone. Traumatized with no one to help him in what would be his first and last race.

The water station at the halfway mark provided a new place to look and I scanned all of the little faces and peered behind the adults. No Derek. I shrugged off the offered cups. I didn’t deserve water.

The last mile was through the woods on a trail. I was sure he would be too afraid to go into the woods on his own, and would step off to the side, searching the hundreds of faces for a mom who was woefully behind.

Yet in the woods, I found that somehow I had run past anxiety and started to calm myself down. He was fine. The running community IS an encouraging and helpful community. The race had a well marked route. Volunteers and officers were at every corner pointing the way to go. He was fine. He was fine. He was fine. This mantra went through my head in time to my breath.

But when the 3 mile marker approached, that bitch anxiety caught back up. It whispered, “What if he isn’t there when you finish? How will you find him? Everyone will see you as a complete failure.” 

The scenarios started playing. I would cross the line, see Kathleen and she would look in alarm when she saw Derek wasn’t with me. I would contact the organizers who would radio the police officers to look for him. I would need to hold it together so Kathleen wouldn’t panic. Would I call Bill immediately to let him know what a monster I was? Or wait until I knew some answers? What if Derek was hurt? What if I hadn’t looked closely enough at all of the runners and passed him? What if I passed him while I let my guard down in the woods? I should have stayed vigilant. I should have been able to catch up with him. I should never have encouraged him to run this. It’s my fault, it’s my fault, it’s all my fault.

The finish line approached. I ran the last steps, absentmindedly took the medal held out to me and frantically scanned the crowd.

And there they were.

Faces red, medals in hand, goofy grins, side by side.

I turned toward them and as I released the breath I didn’t even know I had been holding, I could have sworn I felt a slap on the back to my head. “Gotcha!” And I knew anxiety had won again.

But next time, I’m going to outrun that bitch.

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