On the other hand, running is totally not stupid sometimes.
The Saturday prior to the Country Music Meltdown, Cheryl was signed up for a 5k. It was an inaugural race, a fundraiser for the Nashville Sexual Assault Center. At the time Cheryl had sent in her registration, she was still coming back from an on again/off again injury.
“I don’t care about my time,” she had said. “I just want to support the cause. I just want to be there.”
And she knows something about that cause. Attacked at knifepoint in her own apartment when she was only 20 years old, Cheryl, like thousands of other women, has spent a lot of years coming to terms with and dealing with the range of emotions and fears that sexual assault creates.
Why do we run? Most of us will shrug and generally say something either vague or sarcastic or weight-related. But, for women in general and assault victims in particular, there is something invaluable about taking control of one’s body, getting strong, moving fast, feeling fearless. If you asked Cheryl why she began running a few years ago, she might suggest that it is nearly impossible to avoid running when living with someone as nerdtastically obsessive about running as Yours Truly. But I know there’s more to it than that.
So as race day grew closer, and Cheryl’s injury suddenly disappeared, she changed her mind about not caring about her time. She began poring over charts and graphs and predictor formulae. “Who is this McMillan?” she demanded in an email one afternoon. “His calculator says I could run 24:40.” Her previous PR, on an icky day with far less training, had been just at 25 minutes. I suggested she toss McMillan out the window.
“But then what pace should I run?” she asked.
“It’s a 5k. Just run on the edge of hurling,” I offered sagely.
“Okay, but what pace would that be for me?”
We went around with this for a while, and then I had an idea. Why not pace her? Cheryl thought this was a fabulous idea which, in retrospect, seems odd considering my absolute void of ability when it comes to pacing myself. However, with the help of a (shudder) Garmin and the knowledge that I was responsible for someone else’s time, I figured I might be able to help Cheryl do something insane like run even splits for a few miles.
Race day morning was rainy (shocker), but mild and windless. As Cheryl and I jogged around to warm up, I noticed that I didn’t recognize anyone at the race. No one was warming up. The crowd was pretty small.
“You could win this,” I said.
“As if,” Cheryl replied.
We noticed that the race started downhill….a big downhill. However, way at the bottom of the hill was the finish line and the clock. What? After some frantic and dorky questioning on my part, we discovered that the race began on a downhill, ran a big totally flat loop, and finished without having to come back up the hill. Whoa. Serious PR course. Perhaps the fastest course I’d ever seen.
My plan was to take Cheryl out at 7:45 for the first mile and see how she felt. If all was well, we’d continue at that pace as long as possible. I figured she’d begin fizzling a bit in the last mile like I always do. I was wrong.
For most of the first mile, we ran with an older man and another woman. The four of us consistently passed all the other women. Just before the midway point, we began pulling away from the woman who had been with us. At a turnaround, I could see that there were two other women, maybe 50-100 yards back. They looked tired, hanging-on-ish. Cheryl didn’t.
“You’ve got this,” I told her. “You’re already going to have a huge PR. You can win it, too.”
Cheryl just nodded. (After it was all over, Cheryl informed me that I jabbered incessantly the entire time. I’m sure that was pleasant.)
At mile 2, we were exactly on a 7:45 pace. Behind us, I noticed that one of the women was getting closer. At 2.5, I told Cheryl that we were going to have to pick it up just a bit. Otherwise, that woman would catch us.
“I don’t care,” Cheryl gasped. “I can’t.”
Even so, she did. The 3rd place woman dropped back noticeably. For the last half mile of the race, I lied non-stop about how close we were to the finish. I pointed out the imaginary corner where we would turn and see the end. In reality, I didn’t have the vaguest where we would turn. I’m pretty sure this is an ill-advised coaching technique, but it seemed brilliant at the time.
But then, there it was. A small crowd, the finish line, the clock, and the only other woman pretty far behind.
“This is it! You’re going to win!,” I said, probably 340 times.
Fifty yards from the finish, Cheryl faltered and said, “No, you should win it,” and tried to fall behind me.
“No! You’re the one racing. Stop being polite.”
“Then, together,” was all she could manage to say. She reached out, and we finished hand in hand, Cheryl two steps ahead of me.
Later that day, as we rehased the entire race for the seventieth time, I mentioned that I was impressed that she actually picked up the pace in the last mile. That’s something that’s hard for even the most seasoned runners. I wondered how she did it.
“Well,” she said, thinking for a second, “I just remembered why I was there.”
Yeah, running’s actually not stupid at all.