LONG BEACH HALF MARATHON MESS
So what does it mean to be 65 years old? I pay NO attention, I mean I pay no attention until I get a reminder such as, “You’re too old to keep up.” Example: I pay NO attention to my age as long as I beat my 52-year-old running partner, Marie in practice runs and races.
In 2008, we both qualify for Boston. We run together for the first 13 miles but then, I take off and didn’t see Marie until that night at Legal Seafood. Yeah, I come in before Marie, but I brush aside the congratulations. Winning is INSIGNIFICANT to me as long as I win.
This September, Carol, 47, our unofficial coach and Marie’s housemate, puts Marie on a slam-bang training program. Marie gets a new short haircut, loses 10 pounds and leaves me in the dust in every single practice run.
THAT is when I begin to notice with painful clarity that, yeah, I’m a senior citizen, thirteen years older than my running partner who is way stronger than I am. A nagging sadness enters my consciousness,
“Maybe I can’t train with you any more,” I tell Marie.
Still, Marie, Carol and I sign up for the Long Beach Half Marathon on October 11, 2009. We drive together to the Long Beach Convention Center for the Expo, an event held prior to every race where runners pick up the numbers we pin on our shirts and the computer chips we attach to a shoelace to record our times.
We enter the doors of the Expo to find at least half of the twenty-thousand runners shoved together in front of the tables full of cardboard boxes holding our numbers. I give my name and age to a young volunteer with a conservative 007 part in his brown hair and he hands me a paper “bib,” with my number i.d. for Sunday’s run.
I turn from the table, just in time. The crowd is closing Carol and Marie from sight. I scurry over and trail after, while Carol scoots from booth to booth trying on caps. Every cap sits stubbornly on top of her head, resisting all efforts to pull down. She’s 5’3,” petite with a head size in proportion. Are all other runners pin-heads? Finally, one white ball cap slides over her forehead . She buys it and steers me to the booth with the meridian dots.
“I don’t believe in this meridian baloney,” I tell the muscular young guy in the booth. Ignoring my negativity, he orders, “Stand on one foot, stick your arm out.” I obey. He touches one meaty hand to my outstretched arm. I tip over. He slides a meridian bracelet on my wrist. “Now stand on one foot.” This time I am steady as a fence post against his hefty push. I pay him $20.00 cash and leave with a “Meridian Pack,” six shiny foil discs I can’t wait to stick on the backs of my watches.
The meridians don’t work for dinner. My husband and I eat out because the house painters who were supposed to finish in a week are going on three. Mother’s Kitchen, a never-fail provider of high quality pre race carbs, fails. After a forty minute wait, my quinoa arrives gathered in frozen lumps beneath my curried lentils. “Please put this back in the micro for a few minutes,” I ask my tattooed waiter.
Out to the parking lot, we jump into my trusty ’98 Toyota 4-Runner. I strain to turn the key. No matter how much we rock the steering wheel, the ignition stays frozen. Two hours and a $200.00 ignition later, we drive home.
It’s 10:00 p.m. by the time I set out my singlet and running shoes. I attach my chip to my shoe, “Vanessa Gomez,” it reads, “27-years-old.” I focus on the number printed on the bib, “11439, not my 12439. Under the number, Vanessa requested her nickname, “P-NUT,” be printed. At 5’2” I could be P-NUT, but I am NOT.
I dodge stepladders and drop cloths on my way to the computer. I find a contact number for the Long Beach Marathon. A female voice recording says “I will be checking my messages Tuesday, GOOD BYE.” That’s two days after the race.
I email Carol and Marie, I got the BIB and CHIP of some 27-yr-old.”
I tell myself, “I’ll be there plenty early to fix the problem.” We plan to meet at 5:00 a.m. at the Von’s parking lot in Irvine and drive on together.
I climb the stairs to the loft over the garage where we sleep until we get the house back from the painters. I set the alarm for 4:00 a.m., hop in bed but wake in a panic and look at the clock. I see 5:00 a.m. My brain refocuses to understand it is 11:25 p.m., I got the big and little hand reversed. I reset the alarm a bit earlier.
When the alarm goes off, it really IS 5:00 a.m. I must’ve reset it wrong. I call Carol and Marie.
“Go on without me,” I tell them.
As I pull on my socks, my cell chimes,” We’re on the freeway, comin’ to get you.”
Minutes later, they pull up and I jump in. Carol must have driven at 95 mph to my house, a speed she continues along the 405 and 710, zipping into the last space in the lot by the Long Beach Convention Center.
We all jump out of Carol’s car and I look for someone to exchange my number. The only “official” ANYWHERE” is a DJ, hired to play ear-splitting music at the start. We give up the search and take our places at the end of a long line for the port-o-potties.
I pin on Vanessa’s number, resigned to impersonate a 27-year-old “P-NUT.”
The starting gun goes off. We’re still in line. We rush our business in the paperless port-o-potties and scramble to the start. We take off minutes after the “gun” but our chip will record our true times. Even starting late, we dodge, hop and nudge the dense crowd of other runners.
At mile 2, runners spread out. We settle into a 9:40 pace under cool grey skies, my favorite running weather. The course winds around Shoreline Drive, through Marine Stadium, giving us airy views of ocean and one long stretch of beach.
I keep up with Marie, even leading a surge when I spot a senior female runner ahead. Could she be in my 65-69-year-old age group? I pull out reserves I never knew I had with the sight of grey hair, saggy chin or blue veins.
Along the course, I steer clear of the crowd, nervous that a big hand will reach out and grab my spandex, an accusing voice booming, “You’re not P-NUT!”
Carol finishes ahead of us and encourages Marie to finish fast. With supreme effort, I huff and puff a few paces behind.
As I cross the line, I look at the official clock. It reads 2:04. I punch my Garmin pace watch at 1:59 but do not believe the time. Marie reminds me,
“We were at the port-o-potties when the gun went off.”
“Maybe 2:02,” I say, “I’ve been so slow in practice runs, no way I broke two hours.”
To myself, I chant, “THANK YOU, THANK YOU THANK YOU.” I thank the universe that I completed 13.1 miles and no longer have to work my stubby legs.
Carol goes for coffee. Marie and I spot a guy with a plastic I.D. hanging from a lanyard. We ask where the official runner’s tent is. He points across a grassy field,
“See that white tent, ask there.”
We elbow droves of other runners who wait in the grass for the free massage or chiropractic eval. I’m inside the white tent. Tables hold stacks of notices for future races. Shiny-faced young people greet us, longing to sell us a trip to the Hindustani Marathon but they look blankly at me when I tell them I’m not P-NUT. One sales rep sends me next door to the red, white and blue tent. There, I see stacks of medals in the shape of the State of California ready to be given out to winning runners. Nobody’s in charge but one volunteer tells us, “ Go to the finish,”
“Thanks,” I say, “that’s where we started.”
Finally we end-up at a tent with a long table full of lap tops, opened toward faceless humans seated on folding chairs. I spot a lone person standing. She’s late twenty’s wearing a heavy sweat shirt and navy ball cap pulled over her eyebrows. If the computer line-up looks like robots, the sandy-haired young woman appears grim. I smile.
“Hi,” I say brightly, fingering the number pinned to my shirt, “ a volunteer at the Expo yesterday gave me the wrong number. I should be lllllll but he gave me lllll It’s Vanessa Gomez’ number and she’s 27. I’m in the 65-69 age-group.”
The blue cap turns slightly my way, looks at me tensely and says, “YOU took the wrong number,” then turns back to face the plastic backs of the lap tops.
Now, this is the wrong way to talk to a nice little old lady.
I TAP Blue Ball Cap on the shoulder in a way she can feel the tap, not an assault, a wake-up.
“No, I didn’t TAKE a wrong number. Your volunteer GAVE me a wrong number,” I project my voice into her right ear.
She tips one shoulder toward me, shoves a clipboard my way, and turns her back. The lined chart asks the number I got and the number I should have. Nobody else has signed it. I am the only runner in 20,000 with a problem.
I am convinced she handed me the clipboard to shut me up. She will never look at it after she gets rid of me.
I collar her,
“I usually place,” I say with emphasis, “unless you fix YOUR mistake, YOU will have to redo all your awards in the 65-69 female age group.”
Then I turn to Marie, my loyal friend, an ex-nun and say, ‘Piss Ass,” describing the nasty young woman whose slit eyes, once again, have turned away. I borrowed that term from my dad’s WWII Army Air Core vocabulary. I’ve never used it before, but then, I never had the appropriate moment.
My calm sweet-tempered friend agrees. She takes the clip board from me, prints my name under my number and Vanessa Gomez under the other number and we leave.
I console myself with with tender crusted pizza and the privilege of introducing my son Ben to Marie and Carol. Ben joins us at the pizza parlor as his studio apartment is on the race course. We make the pizza disappear as Ben dredges up every unflattering story of my mothering techniques he can remember, thus evaporating any shred of respect my friends may have had for me.
Carol and Marie drop me off home in the early afternoon. The after-race glow is worth the pain of the all-out-effort. I’d been “back-of-pack” in the practices, yet I kept up with Marie during the race. She won. I lost but the joy of racing vanquished feelings of being old and out of contention. My time wasn’t great, but I expected that.
My husband and I wax our cars, go to dinner. It’s 9:00 p.m. by the time I get upstairs to the computer. Two messages appear in the email, one from Carol’s blackberry and one from Marie’s. Vanessa’s number comes first, then my name, 1st place with a time of 1:59.
I’d broken 2 hours, something I’d only done once before in my 30 years of running. I take back the name I called Blue Ball Cap and think,
“My speed must have come from the disc aligning my meridians.”
The Long Beach Marathon never sent me my California shaped medal. I continue to train with Carol and Marie. We ran the New York Marathon last November. I came in 10th in my age group. I look forward to the passing of four short years when I’ll be in the 70+ age-group. Maybe Marie will run circles around me by then but I plan to pick up more first place ribbons, speeding up to pass ALL 70+ year old ladies in sight. In the meantime, Carol, Marie and I will run Chicago in October, 2010.