I was more nervous for this race than I’d been in a long time.
I’d run it before, a half-marathon in southern Washington State, a pretty, hilly course through a state park thick with evergreens and llama farms. But this time I hadn’t been able to focus on my training. My head was back at home in the boxes and cartons I still needed to unpack from my move. And I was fighting an injury.
My last long training run had ended with me hailing a cab. My Achilles’ tendon was bothering me. And by “bothering me,” I mean it felt like one of those bug zapper lights, emitting random jolts of electricity down my leg—zzzzzt. Step, step, step, step. Zzzzzzt. It felt like someone holding a joy-buzzer against my ankle. Not painful, just nagging.
Every injury I’ve ever gotten is from running—my hamstring attachment that sent me to PT, my tight QL, probably my shoulder, and definitely my Achilles. Frankly, I don’t know why I do it. Except that I do know why. Running is what I do when I can’t go to the gym, or want to meditate for an hour. I like to run in races, not for time but for the strange, solitary camaraderie that comes from sweating alongside 5,000 strangers to meet a common goal.
I nursed my calf all week—scraping it, rolling it, icing it, later applying heat. My sister and I brainstormed and decided that I should try compression socks, an idea I supersized by buying some wool running socks to keep my ankles warm. I worried about the weather, which was supposed to be cold and rainy–not good for a tendon already stretched to its max. I wondered what I would do if it started to bother me, and made contingency plans for each mile: if it happened at mile 3-7, I’d turn back. If it happened during miles 8-9, I’d call for someone to pick me up. If it happened after mile 10, I’d walk. I estimated my chances of finishing somewhere less than 50-50.
The day of the race dawned surprisingly sunny. I drove to the site with a heating pad around my ankle. Taking my place in the chute, I scanned the crowd.
The field was small, maybe a hundred runners, maybe less, and a new panic began to gnaw at me–the fear I had when I first started racing years ago. What if I came in dead last? I knew I would never be first, or even second or third or fourth, but I never wanted to be that person shuffling along just in front of the police car. Today, it was a distinct possibility.
I decided that it didn’t matter today. My job was to get across the finish line. To hell with pride, to hell with time. Just get across the finish line and retire from racing.
The first three miles were rougher than the first three miles of a race ought to be. I was tentative on my feet, running with a gait I knew was lopsided, favoring my damaged heel. I could feel my glutes burning just on one side, but I couldn’t bring myself to drive through my bad side. I told myself I’d open up a little bit if I made it to mile 10.
At mile 3.5, I passed a runner who wore a shirt that said, “Meatless Trainer,” and I thought she could maybe use some extra protein. At mile 4, I hit a fairly substantial hill and blew past the runners in my orbit, hearing OYM instructors in my head. “Lean forward, lift up your knees, keep your feet in the air as much as you can to feel lighter.”
At mile 6, I began to think I might finish the race. I was feeling strong and fast, my heel wasn’t bothering me at all. I used the uphill to accelerate past the field of runners in front of me, wondering why, in a state filled with so many hills, the girl from Chicago is the only one who knows how to run them?
At mile 8, I told myself that I had only my usual route to go—the one I take from my house around Humboldt Park, a five mile stretch as familiar as the treadmill room at OYM. I know every crack in the sidewalk, every tree. I know where along the route I need an extra push. I settled in, pacing myself alongside another runner, slightly ahead of my comfortable aerobic pace.
At mile 9, my Achilles twinged. Zzzzzt. I adjusted my form and kept going. I began to feel like I was running the race on one leg, the good one burning from exhaustion, stubbornly refusing to let the other leg help.
“Come on,” the other runner said. “You can do this.”
At mile 11, my ankle twinged again, bigger this time, ZzzztZZZZT, and I had to slow to a walk. I was two miles from the finish, and I had gotten farther than I thought I would, so walking was no big deal at this point. I looked at my phone in its arm band, and realized I’d run a 9-minute mile. I’d shaved almost a full minute off my time two years ago. Maybe I could keep going. I took a few tentative steps and I started to run again.
I found that if I turned my toes inward, I put less strain on my ankle, but I still had to walk a little here and there. I walked up the last big hill just to save myself any extra aggravation.
When the finish line came into view, I wanted to put on the gas, to charge forward at a full sprint, but I’d left most of what I’d brought along the course, and instead plodded along, one foot in front of the other, crossing the finish line at a jog, but crossing it nonetheless.
My legs felt like lead. I was cold. My lips and fingernail beds were turning blue. We stayed for the wine tasting after the race, huddled under a heat lamp. They announced the winners for the various races that day. My sister and her husband both placed in the 9K. As they began to announce the winners for my race, I had this vague fantasy that somehow my name would be called. I knew I would never take first, but flying up those hills, blowing past runners who never caught up with me, I nursed the idea that it wasn’t so far outside the realm of possibility.
They didn’t call my name.
“Wow,” my brother-in-law said. “You just missed the third place runner.”
I turned to him. I had no idea what my time was.
“Yeah. You ran 2:09, and the winner in your age group was 2:07.”
I stared at him.
“Son of a bitch,” I said.
All the nervousness, all the I’ll-just-be-glad-to-finish-pre-race prayers went out the window. I even forgot to be cold. If I hadn’t had to walk, if I’d kept going at mile 9, slightly fast but feeling good, I might have placed. In a race with so few people, there couldn’t have been that many runners between me and the woman who took third.
I immediately came out of retirement. If there’s anyone who can shave another two minutes off of her time with the help of some key friends and a foam roller, it’s an OYMer.
I got in my car, eager for a hot shower and a sandwich. My route would take me back along the racecourse, and as I accelerated out of the parking lot, I saw the last three runners, followed by the sheriff’s patrol car.
They were so very, very slow, shuffling down the shoulder, hats and visors pulled low against the rain that had started to fall. I’d crossed the finish almost an hour before, my race done just as the worst part of theirs was beginning. They knew they were dead last, placing one plodding foot in front of the other, the sheer will to finish the only thing that kept them going.
There was no way I could show them how impressed I was with them, these last three, finishing a race that they would always remember, each mind-numbing mile, each punishing step. I was reminded that earlier, before I was mad that I hadn’t placed, all I’d wanted to do was finish—just as they were doing now. Finishing what they’d started. Their race was the toughest, most physically taxing, the most mentally challenging, the most humbling.
Those three, as far as I am concerned, won the race. The rest of us were just on the welcoming committee.
I hope I see them next year.
About the blogger: Megan Judy is 8 feet tall and knows all the names of the forgotten gods. In her spare time, she’s a wife and mother, which is why she spends so much time at the gym–so other people can watch her children for a little while. She keeps retiring from racing but she doesn’t mean it.