Saturday, March 1, 2014

My First Race (a 10K in 1984!)

I wore my dad's blue singlet.  I was excited to wear anything of his, but something running-related was the icing on the cake.  He treasured all of his race shirts.  He wore them again and again until they had holes in them, and then kept wearing them, telling us they were perfect because they were "air conditioned" with holes.  The rule in our house: you run it, you can wear it.  If you didn't run the race, you just looked at the shirt feeling a little green.  Even though his singlet was giant-sized and I was just little girl-sized, it fit perfectly.  It fell to my knees.  Like I said, it fit perfectly.  My dad had to pull the two thin straps back between my little shoulder blades with some string or grocery ties or who-knows-what.  I didn't care.  I was wearing a singlet.  A racing singlet.  His racing singlet!  For my very first race.

At the starting line, I looked up to most of the entrants.  They were bigger and taller than me.  None of my second grade pals stood around me in the small crowd.  My big sister did, but she was grumpy and sigh-filled and unexcited about being there.  She did not like to run.  I'm not even sure why she came.  She was not like me.  I was excited.  I was ready, ready, ready for the gun to go off.  Dad smiled down at us: "You can do this!  We'll just take our time and walk when we need to walk.  It'll be fun."

And so, when the gun went off, two little girls and one big Dad trotted off through the streets of West Point, New York.  She and I stood out because we were not tall, skinny, pimply, buzz-cut cadets.  And we weren't chubby, middle-aged, also buzz cut professors.  And we weren't one of the few frizzy-haired moms jogging along.  Just one dad and his two girls, taking our time along the pretty 6.2 mile course.  I kept my eye out for any other kids, so I could high-five them while also secretly sizing them up: could I outrun you?  The 1984 Olympics were coming to an end, and I was caught up in the excitement that trickled down from my dad's interest in and enthusiasm for what was going on in Los Angelos.

It was impossible not to think of Joan Benoit (now Benoit-Samuelson), the American winner of the very first women's marathon.  I heard about that win, and also listened to my dad recount how an exhausted female runner from Switzerland--I later learned her name was Gaby Anderson-Schiess--staggered through the last lap, determined to make it to that very first finish line on her own.  How gutsy!  How inspiring! And my hero, my idol, the woman whose picture was up in my bedroom: Mary Decker Slaney.

She was so famous then, with her big smile and perfectly feathered hair.  She had won a million titles, it seemed to me, but never an Olympic gold.   Everyone was watching how she did and what she did in the 1500 meters.  And there, at the height of her career, she had fallen short of her goal.  Literally.  My dad and I watched as, in the final lap of a long race, she tripped and fell dramatically.  Everyone was sure Zola Budd, the tiny girl from South Africa, had tripped her.  But no one really knew, despite the news replaying it again and again.  Poor Mary Decker-Slaney sat there and cried.  It broke my heart, and I felt like I could do a little in this race to make something right from her wrong.

These were the images in my mind as I ran the miles with my dad and sister.  My dad slowed his lope so we girls could keep up, but he didn't remind us of his sacrifice of a slower pace.  He was happy just to run with his two girls.  Or one girl--because, by some fun coincidence, the race course took us right past our own house on Winnans Road.  Mom was out there, sitting on the front porch, hugging her knees, yelling out to all the runners.  But when her family turned the corner, she jumped up and clapped enthusiastically, clearly impressed with her daughters' Olympic-like determination to finish the race.  But make that daughter's Olympic-like determination, because at that point, she decided that sitting and cheering was a better idea than actually finishing the race.

Now, it was just me and Dad, running along together.  We ran silently sometimes, just passing the time by listening to our own cheap, brand-free sneakers strike the pavement again and again.  And we chatted sometimes, with Dad peppering me with questions about school and my friends and the dog we were soon going to get.  He told me funny stories of his races which seemed impossibly and impressively long.  One was 50 miles!  I listened to every word.

And then, suddenly and surprisingly, we were close to the finish line.  The miles were full of so many stories and thoughts and ideas and images that the race didn't last as long as I thought it would.  This was my favorite part of running: the finish line.  I knew I wasn't the fastest, but I usually had the most guts (as Dad liked to say).  I could and did push through my tiredness and sore muscles and finish really well.  And there was Mary Decker-Slaney to consider.  I had her in my mind as I gathered the energy I still had left and gave it my all as if I was finishing an Olympic race, not just a fun run with my dad.

With my dad's big singlet blowing in the wind I created for myself, I went all out.  My legs charged and my arms pumped.  My too-long pigtails trailed after me.  And I finished strong.  I earned a medal and bright gold T-shirt that was, just like the singlet, way too big.  The race directors hadn't planned on kids running the race, so they only had adult sizes.  But that was all right with me.  It was my very first race shirt, a prize possession because I had earned it.

And I earned Dad's remark: "I'm proud of you, great Kate.  Good job!"

My race shirt fell long, my medal shone brightly, and my smile reached from ear to ear.


  1. A magical memory and great story. You really allowed me to be there with you, running the race.

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  3. I can picture this so vividly...and it brought tears to my eyes. I can see the pig tails and the big teeth we all had then, and your mom hugging her knees on the front porch. Beautifully done, Great Kate.