The First Race
The First Race Under 42 minutes. This 10K road race goal is achievable by few. The annual Shelter Island 10K road race, now in its 33rd year, attracts many accomplished American 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 a 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 glorious. The runners congregate in competitive comradery accessorized in faded tank tops boasting participation in races of yesteryear wearing taut nylon running shorts split 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 observation. The race foghorn sounds like the muffled screech of a sunning sea elephant basking on the side of the Pacific Coast Highway. Endorphins release in a cloud of invisible unity. The runners are off…. It is the end of August 2011 and we are shuffling our feet in the 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 exclaim 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 ahead. Home for winter recess from college in the early part of 2012, our daughter stands at attention in our living room with her hair in a loose bun swallowing her forehead 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 Shelter Island race registration information when it becomes available. I am good that way. Our daughter knows this. With May arrives a more confident college sophomore 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 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. 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 from the refrigerator and retreats to her room. During the course of the next month, the two depart to the local high school daily in quiet unison like a couple of birds soaring 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. As much as a part of me wants to go to the track and cheer our children 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 private escape. On June 16, 2012 the 3:30 p.m. North Ferry departing from Greenport empties its passengers onto Shelter Island. Among the crowd is a group that looks as compatible as the Gilligan Island stowaways. The most pronounced of the assemblage are three familiar female college aged 10K hopefuls with their 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 registrations when we pulled up,” our son spills out the question with his right fist jug handled on his hip. He is insisting. We surrender, find the registration booth, and soon after completing the entry form, watch our son evaporate into the crowd of athleticism. With a month’s conditioning under his belt, he has earned his way as a participant in this gutsy event. By way of background, my now arthritic husband ran the first Shelter Island 10K 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 Fiske field, the makeshift promenade for the race end festivities. 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 canvas canopy tents. A Mash style first aid station off to the side waits in anticipation and emits a minty medicinal BenGay aroma. Families are sprawled on blankets in picnic fashion. 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 posture ourselves near the finish line, cautiously optimistic that our daughter and her sorority sisters will greet the finish line sooner than later. Encouragement exudes from the crowd in the form of clapping, cheering and whistling. Bathing in sweat with their feet barely touching the ground, the cacophony of early runners slap their seasoned running shoes on the pavement before they turn the corner onto the grassy surface. 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 tree branches to shield the flickering dusk sunlight from obstructing our view. A spattering of clouds splashes the sky like 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 during happy hour at The Yard of Ale back in January. Although in clear defiance of the Gladwellian 10,000 hour rule, the outcome can neither be denied nor construed as anticlimactic. In the throes of spectator amazement, we watch as our Nike novice, our smiling son, effortlessly crosses the finish line in breech position securely centered in the group of first comers. The digital clock timer at the finish line perched high in the sky reads: 41:56. Under 42 minutes.