By Sarah Combes, Oklahoma Sports & Fitness
I stand with trembling legs in the center of a crowd of people, waiting for the race director to give final instructions, and for the gun to sound.
I see father and son, mother and daughter, couples, rivals, strangers, and acquaintances all milling about, talking and joking; readying themselves for this run. I wonder which of them are first timers, like me, and are they as nervous? I see some that have obviously done this many times; they stretch, they check their watch, and wait. One looks, of all things, bored of waiting. No nervous ticks mark her movements, and she doesn’t glance around at the rest of us. Another looks as though he and I share the same nerves. He’s tied his shoes several times in the last five minutes.
My legs feel weak, but I am anxious to get my feet moving. I repeatedly remind myself, "I've trained for this." Granted, some have trained much longer and harder than others (and some are running this course to train for bigger, longer races).
We are prematurely sweating from the early morning humidity taking its toll. It is a fairly small race, with no more than a hundred competitors or so, but the pressure to finish feels heavy on me, and more stifling than the heat of our bodies pressed together.
An unspoken whisper runs through the mass of voices and we turn towards the starting line. A few high fivesspread through friends, and gentle nods among competitors.
The starting gun sounds. Some give a whoop and take off, while others simply let their bodies unfurl and push them away from the starting line and other runners. The rest of us are slower on the uptake, but soon it doesn’t matter.
I feel alive. I’m running with people who love running, and I wonder why it took me so long to work up the nerve to register for one of these. We push through the cloud of smoke blown our way from the gun, and only clear road lies ahead of us.
Some pull ahead, others lag, but most of us are in the middle. I am among them, and the unrhythmic steps of so many people are loud in my ears. The cheers of families and friends are background noises to the blood in my ears and the thump thump thump thump of my own feet beneath me. The pavement feels unforgiving underfoot.
The burn in my legs comes soon, but I crave it now, and it doesn’t hurt anymore. Knowing that the soreness won’t come back in full force pushes me harder. I welcome the ache a good run can bring; I want to hurt in the morning because it means I pushed farther than before.
Eight minutes in and I am panting. The warm, sticky air feels suffocating, and my shirt is soaked through with sweat.
At thirteen minutes, I have passed the halfway marker. Others slow to a walk, cooling down before picking up their pace again. My lungs drag in air slowly, painfully, but I don’t stop and don’t slow.
Nineteen minutes in, I close my eyes and envision the finish line. Some runners are undoubtedly already there, walking around, drinking a bottle of icy cold water. I push my legs to move faster, knowing I want to finish strong.
Just over twenty-four minutes in, I can see the finish line. I know that in just a few more strides, I will be able to stop the burning in my lungs and in my legs, and take a big breath. I cross the finish, and trot a few more steps before resting my hands on my knees. I watch drops of sweat from my face form a small puddle on my shadow. It would feel good, but I resist the urge to collapse and double over. Instead, I raise my arms, opening my body as much as I can, and squint up at the sky, managing a deep breath.
A volunteer offers me a cold bottle of water, and I take it, grateful for the blessedly cool liquid.
One of the experienced runners approaches me and asks if it was my first race. Just how could they tell? He reassures me that it will get easier every time, especially when the fall races roll around. I allow a grin to slide onto my face as I shake his hand.