So This is What Happened

“Runners! Take your marks!” 

Swooped across the track in a waterfall formation, we waited in total stillness for the gunshot, fifteen or so collegiate athletes, wearing spikes and two years removed from acquiring their driver’s licenses, and me, wearing road racing flats and two years away from an AARP membership. 

Not quite, but still. 

In a previous episode of this column, I signed up for my second track meet of all time (again, after a devious invitation from Lisa), seeking to avenge the disaster that was the indoor meet at Indiana University. This was an outdoor meet, and a small one to boot. The change of scenery boded well for me. Namely, a 400-meter track meant I had to run only twelve laps for the 5K instead of twenty-five. The chances of me running an extra loop were halved. 

This time around, I would race. This time, I’d abandon my roadrunner persona and assume my trackster alter ego with reckless abandon. This time, I would run gung-ho, or at least a moderated version of gung-ho, which was neatly reigned in by one of my running buddies who happened to be a former collegiate stud runner: “Don’t be afraid and don’t be stupid.” I glanced over at Lisa (who had decided on a whim to race the 5K) and Amanda, an elite high jumper who also happens to be a stud runner. This time, I had teammates. 

Don’t be afraid and don’t be stupid, I repeated to myself. A gust of wind exploded across the track. If ever I needed to hang with the pack, it was in the face of 30-mph winds. The indoor meet flashed before my eyes, a vivid nightmare of left turns and the inadvertently patronizing encouragement of a lone spectator. 

Don’t give up, sixteen!
Hang in there, sixteen!
You’re mom still loves you, sixteen!
Hey! Get off the track, sixteen! 

Another gust of wind, and I snapped back to the present. Following the directions of the race official, we stepped up to the line, a human parabola in sequential order. 

Silence. 

Waiting. 

BOOM

They say you should feel relaxed and somewhat comfortable for the first mile of a 5K, but 5K pace is never comfortable to me. Running 5K pace feels like being shot out of a cannon. Picture the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars going light speed. Better yet, picture the Winnebago in Spaceballs going plaid. 

“Perfect! You guys are doing perfect!” Coach Cary yelled from the sidelines. Lisa, quite comfortable at the speed of plaid, was leading the way at a ridiculously fast pace. Eight hundred meters in, Amanda and I were running in last. Nine hundred meters in, we began picking people off. Two miles in, we had run down about half the pack. 

“Keep your eyes up! Look at the runner in front of you!” Coach Cary yelled, catching me each time I tried to slip back into my road habits. “Stay right on the pack. Close the gap, kiddo. Stay on the pack!” 

I was hurting. I could tell I was running a good race—smarter and harder than I had run in Indiana—but still, the distance runner in me kept reverting back to marathon groove. My eyes would drop; Coach Cary would remind me to keep them up. I’d glance at my watch; he’d remind me to race, not pace. 

“You’ve got to make this last mile your fastest! Drive those elbows back!” Coach Cary yelled with a thousand meters to go. “Catch the girl in black! You need to catch the girl in black, kiddo!” 

My crotchety old marathoner self waged a Jekyll-and-Hyde battle with my newborn trackster self. My quads burned. I felt like throwing up. I tried to run faster. I have no idea if I did. 

“Drive those elbows back! Go all in! C’mon, kiddo! You’re all in now!” 

The final lap. The final straightaway. The finish line. I looked at the clock. 

Two seconds slower than Indiana. 

[…] 

Well. This is awkward. 

“You ran a good race, kiddo,” Coach Cary said as I walked down the football field, hands on my hips and still battling the lingering urge to puke. “You run this race in Indiana, you’re twenty to thirty seconds faster. No doubt. This wind was tough.” 

“Yeah.” I knew I had run a solid race. I knew the time on the clock didn’t reflect my 5K limits. I knew I could do better. I was proud of my effort. But I also wanted another shot. 

No one ever said tracksters aren’t greedy. 

Lisa (who won the race, by the way) chimed in. “There is a meet at Wash U next Friday. It’s one of my favorites.” 

“Really…” 

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times… 

“It’d be perfect for you,” Coach Cary added. “It has a much larger field. A lot of people to race.” 

Seven days later, guess who was lining up in her third track meet of all time? (No one ever accused me of being a quick study, but goshdarnit, I’m persistent.) 

The meet at Wash U was big, just like Coach Cary had said it would be. The track swarmed with athletes and coaches. Chartered buses streamed up and down Forsyth as teams poured into the parking lot and flooded the field. There were one hundred forty girls signed up for the women’s 5K alone. The men’s field? One hundred seventy. There were four heats of the women’s 5K. I was in heat three. 

“Gimme your watch,” Coach Cary said, holding out his hand and waiting expectantly. 

“What? No!” The race started in ten minutes. 

“Yep. You’re racing, not pacing. You don’t need a watch.” 

“But…” 

“C’mon. Give me your watch.” 

I unstrapped my Garmin and handed it over. “What if I go out too fast? Or too slow?” 

“I’ll let you know. You just stay with the pack. Track is all about feeling it. I’ll be yelling at you from the sidelines. I’ll make sure you’re not too fast. You’ll be fine.” 

We began walking toward the start line halfway around the track. 

“Remember all that stuff I told you?” he continued. “Keeping your eyes up, hanging with the pack, staying relaxed, feeling the pace, focusing on the girl in front of you? Forget everything but two things. You can’t think about all that while you’re racing. Pick two things and focus on those two things only. Got it?” 

“Two things. Okay. Yeah. I got it.” 

“Good. Go get your hip number, kiddo.” 

Memories of Indiana washed over me again. 

Don’t give up, sixteen!
Hang in there, sixteen!
You’re mom still loves you, sixteen!
Hey! Get off the track, sixteen 

I walked up to the check-in tent. 

“What’s your name?” a man with a checklist asked as he began scanning the roster. 

“Amy Marxkors.” 

“Marxkors… Here you go.” He scratched off my name and handed me two square stickers. “Right shoulder and right hip. You’re number sixteen.” 

Sixteen… I thought as I slapped the stickers on my singlet and shorts. The girls were already lining up. I took my spot on the waterfall. The race official rattled off the traditional pre-race liturgy. 

“Runners! Take your marks!” 

Two things. 

BOOM! 

I ran. I ran on feel. I ran with the pack. I kept my eyes up. When the race started to break, I focused on staying with the lead pack. At times, I was right on top of them. At others, I was clinging for dear life. 

Two things. Two things. Eyes up. Stay with the pack. Eyes up. Stay with the pack. 

Not once did I look at the clock. 

“Perfect, kiddo. Perfect!” Coach Cary called. He cut across the width of the football field, back and forth, catching me twice per lap. “Stay with the girl in purple!” he yelled when I started falling off the lead pack. “Catch the girl in purple!” 

“Stay on red! Stay on red!” I heard another coach yell a second later. 

I realized I was “red.” I realized other girls were pacing off me. I realized I was far from last. 

I realized I was racing. 

The girls in the lead pack made their move with a thousand meters to go. 

“Alright, kiddo,” Coach Cary yelled, “They’re racing now. Stay on them!” 

I tried to move up. Instead, I started dropping off as the leaders kicked into another gear. The lead pack surged forward. I clung to them for dear life, flinging and flailing, focused only on not letting them get away. I had no idea what pace I was running. 

With eight hundred meters to go, I clocked my slowest lap. 

“C’mon, kid! You’re all in now! Drive those elbows back! Drive those elbows back!” 

I tried to run faster. I tried to kick. I don’t know if I did. Two laps to go. One lap. I glanced up at the clock for the first time as I crossed the finish line. 

And then the race was over. 

The English poet George Herbert once said, “Living well is the best revenge.” Perhaps, just this once, I could make a slight alteration to the adage and state that running well is the best revenge—even if it takes three tries. 

I texted Mr. Speedy Pants the results as soon as the race was over. Finally—finally—I had hit my goal. 

It’s about time, he texted back. 

I smiled. Ha. Tell me about it. 

I may not be a fast learner, but I learn eventually. And a quiet success is just as satisfying as a loud, flashy one. After all, as the saying goes, a PR by any other name would feel just as sweet. 

This one just happened to be by twenty-one seconds.


Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious RunnerHer second book, Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Storywill be released in 2014.  Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.

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