The First Race
Under 42 minutes. A 10K road race finish time achievable by few. The annual Shelter Island 10K run, now in its 33rd year, attracts many accomplished runners determined to meet or exceed this corporeal challenge. Emaciated Ethiopians, sporting palpable rib cages, join the annual island celebration bringing with them their svelte enthusiasm. Olympians from years past attend hoping to pass the torch to the next generation of cross country stand outs. Runners’ high is contagious and spreading like wildfire with no cure or extinguishable stream in view. The race setting on the east end of Long Island this Father’s Day weekend is perfect. Shelter Island on a bad day is warm and welcoming; on a good day, it is gloriously golden.
The runners congregate in competitive comradery accessorized in faded tank tops boasting participation in races of yesteryear. They wear taut nylon running shorts with deliberate splits up the sides. Dimpled cellulite on over exposed thighs is sparse and toned physiques prevail. Many perform little jogging dances in place to loosen up anxious muscles. Supportive spectators drag coolers of sloshing cold beverages looking to stake out a shaded spot of asphalt where they can temporarily erect their oasis for panoramic observation.
The race foghorn announces the start of the event echoing like the muffled screech of a sunning sea elephant basking on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway. The crowd is visibly quiet. But, only for this moment. Endorphins release in a cloud of invisible unity. The runners are off….
August 2011 We are shuffling our feet in the dusty gravel of the college parking lot outside of our daughter’s freshman dormitory in Livingston County, NY trying to postpone the inevitable. Her only sibling, nine years her junior, fighting back the tears, is not doing a manly job of saying goodbye. “Thanksgiving is just around the corner” we cheerfully offer trying to ignore our cargo shorts and flip flops. Visibly deflated, he is taking the college drop off hard as he views this rite of passage as losing his best friend. We suppose the long ride home and the empty days looming ahead of us.
February 2012 Home for winter recess , our daughter, with her hair piled in a loose bun swallowing her forehead, stands at attention in our living room and announces: “Melissa, Jean, and I are going to run the Shelter Island 10K in June.” I recognize this save-the-date motive as a maternal cue to forward the Shelter Island Race registration information when it becomes available. I am good that way. My daughter knows this.
May 2012 “Touch me. Take me to that other place….” A more confident college sophomore arrives home for the summer. With just over a month to train for the Shelter Island 10K race, the evening routine of going to the track is quickly solidified. Our Nike clad son hones into the daily cycle, latching onto his sister in an attempt to recoup two college semesters worth of unintentional neglect. She welcomes the company and they leave for the track together just before dusk. They are gone for about an hour, including the ride to and from. This happens evening after evening. They talk; they run; they talk. The running ritual is important to both for different reasons. Our daughter is training for a road race; our son is rekindling a relationship. It is questionable who is more determined to succeed. The track serves as an open air retreat destination; it represents a refuge removed from the overly stimulated, electronic device dependent, emotionally void world that exists outside of the track environment, namely, home.
“The track is spongy”, our son proclaims upon arriving home from their first run. Our daughter grabs a water bottle and vacates to her room. During the course of the next month, the two depart daily to the local high school in quiet unison like a couple of squawking birds migrating down South for winter hibernation. Their mutual tenacity to succeed is spontaneous and contagious. Some days they go for gourmet Italian ices after their run.
A few weeks before the race I tell myself that I should go to the track and watch them run, to gain insight. I never make it there. As much as a part of me wants to go to the track and cheer them on, a deeper part of me does not want to interfere. Whatever is occurring during these private training sessions is working on a multitude of levels; it is cathartic. Our daughter seems pleased with her increase in stamina, and our son is elated that he has his only sibling back in his life. At the track, they are fueled with adrenaline in their clandestine sister/brother world of personal escape.
June 16, 2012. Father’s Day. The Mashomack ferries us from Greenport to Shelter Island. Greeting its destination dock with a squeaking jolt, the weathered vessel empties its passengers into the Heights. Among the windblown crowd is a group that looks as compatible as the Gilligan Island stowaways. The most pronounced of the assemblage are three familiar college aged 10K hopefuls with the preregistration race numbers safety pinned to the four corners of their sorority tee shirts. Accompanying them is one preteen boy and a set of middle aged parents. The group is us.
“Can I run this race? I saw a booth for late registration when we pulled up.” Our son spills out the question with his right fist jug handled on his hip. He is breathing heavily. He is insisting. He is yearning to run. Simultaneously, we surrender, find the registration booth, and sign. We watch our son evaporate into a crowd of athleticism. With a month’s conditioning under his belt, he has earned his way as a participant in this gutsy event. His May journey is taking on a new sense of purpose.
By way of background, my now arthritic husband rand the first Shelter Island Race in 1979 at 23 years old. To be on Shelter Island in 2012, thirty two years later watching his two children run the race makes for an especially sentimental Father’s Day. It is better than a homemade card proclaiming “Behind every good kid is a great dad.” It is better than a professionally wrapped gift. From a Father’s Day perspective, it is as good as it gets.
While waiting for the race to begin, we roam the vast Fisk field, the makeshift promenade for the race end festivities. Usually a sparsely populated island, today Shelter Island is exploding with temporary inhabitants. The song, “Don’t Stop Believing” is blaring from a loudspeaker. Long, plastic folding tables display an array of healthy refreshment opportunities: water bottles puddled in cooler perspiration, freshly cut orange quarters and granola bars are all shielded from the sun by colorful canopy tents. A Mash style first aid station off to the side waits in anticipation while emitting a minty medicinal BenGay aroma. Families are sprawled on blankets in picnic fashion. “Call Ahead” urinals are tastefully erected flush against the backdrop border of arborvitaes. Sticky babies in strollers nap. Strategically staked miniature American flags adorn the last mile to the finish line and serve to enhance the Rockwell day embracing us. Months of preparation and speculation are coming to a head. It is prom night on Shelter Island.
Cross country outliers, my husband and I quicken our pace to the finish line and carefully posture ourselves, cautiously optimistic that our daughter and her sorority sisters might greet the finish line sooner than later. Encouragement from the crowd resonates in the forms of clapping, cheering, and whistling. Bathing in sweat with their feet barely touching the ground, the cacophony of early achievers slap their seasoned running shoes on the pavement before they turn the corner onto the grassy turf. Their unified force is as rhythmic as a fetal sonogram. Their methodical momentum carries over in surges.
Squinting, we position our heads in the way of fanned tree branches to shield the flickering dusk sunlight from obstructing our view. A spattering of clouds splashes the sky like oversized white confetti. Unsuccessfully, we scour the herd of runners for three college aged hopefuls promoting sports bra logic and following through on a pact they made after one too many pitchers at The Yard of Ale back in January. Our mutual parental gaze wanders to a blurred herd of footsore human congestion.
Although in clear defiance of the Gladwellian 10,000 hour rule, the outcome can neither be denied nor construed as anticlimactic. Is he an enigma or a conditioned contender? An unwavering competitor or just a player on a B team having an exceptional day? In the throes of spectator amazement, we watch our fledgling son effortlessly swirl across the finish line in breech position securely centered in the group of first comers. His arms swing and his body moves forward. The digital clock timer at the finish line perched high in the sky reads: 41:46. Under 42 minutes.