In the classic movie Animal House, Bluto, portrayed by the late John Belushi, rallies his fraternity brothers to stand up for themselves after they are kicked out of Faber College. Recently, I felt a little Bluto-ish as I neared the finish line of the Alden 10K road race in Alden, Michigan, on July 25th. After one of the toughest 10Ks I had ever participated in, I was thrilled to finally see the end. Oh, the heat! Oh, the humidity! Oh, the three killer hills in the first two miles! As Bluto says towards the end of his speech, “When the goin’ gets tough…the tough get going.” I knew I would have to dig deep to cross the finish line. “Wait for me,” I yelled to no one in particular. It was my first time being last in a road race.
Alden is a gorgeous village along the border of Torch Lake in Northern Michigan. Lush rolling hills compliment the woods and open fields. As my son Matt and I arrived in Alden from Higgins Lake that morning, we noticed the pressing dark blue skies. Despite hoping for a short downpour before the race to cool things off, the sky held its steady gaze. Shortly before the race began, the sun burst through the clouds like a one-eyed panther staring down at a group of slowly roasting runners and walkers: 260 for the 5K and 92 for the 10K. We were off.
After a short uphill segment, the 5K runners and walkers split off to the left. Silently congratulating myself for being tough enough to tackle a 10K on a nasty summer day, I looked ahead at the hills ahead of me and told myself I could do it. By the time I approached the final hill in the first two miles of the race, I wondered if I should turn around and join those much wiser 5Kers. A woman pushing a child in a stroller passed me and said, “Only one more hill to go.” Why was she so perky when I was miserable? Perhaps she didn’t get out much. Was I even sure there was a child in the stroller? Was it a gallon of water? A keg of beer? Focus, Melissa, focus.
I tried to think positive thoughts, but it was useless. My calves felt like two sets of bad dentures. My hamstrings hummed like an out-of-tune guitar. I knew I would die of thirst before I reached the finish line. Skeletons danced before my eyes. Poor, poor, pitiful me. By the time I got to the top of the last hill and made the turn onto a dirt road, I realized there was only one woman behind me. She looked determined to beat me.
At the first of two water stops, I ran through a sprinkler, sucked down some water, and poured the rest of it on top of my head. Hot and smelling like last week’s roadkill, I had 4.2 miles to go. At least the dirt road went downhill. The reds, blues, and yellows of the runners far ahead of me flashed before me as they turned right and headed into the wooded area of the race. As I thanked the volunteer at the turn, I quickly turned my head. The woman behind me had gained on me.
The road morphed into a sandlot for grownups and off-road vehicles. What the hell? If I had wanted a beach run, I would have gone to Sleeping Bear Dunes. Step, slide, sink, step, slide, and sink. My ankles rolled to the left and right. Eventually the road became easier to navigate as it twisted through a tunnel of woods, ferns, and imaginary bears. In my nearly demented state, I believed that bears hiding in the woods were sucking up the runners who had once been in front of me. By this time, I saw only two runners ahead of me, and felt the hot breath of the woman behind me. I tried to run a little faster and catch up to the runners in front of me, but my body shouted no. I started walking. The woman who had been following my sorry butt for the first three miles passed me. We began battling back and forth for last place. I became insanely covetous of her purple tank top.
Before long, we were on paved road again. I spotted a few runners in front of me. I charged ahead and passed the woman in purple. It didn’t last long. I figured she was messing with me. She looked to be in her twenties. She probably kept saying to herself that she wasn’t going to let some AARP member beat her. At what I hoped was the final turn in the road, I thanked the volunteer sitting on the tailgate of his truck, and I confidently informed him that I was last. He said he would wait a few minutes to make sure. I hope he didn’t wait long.
As I hit the final stretch, a man on a bicycle rode up to me—the sweeper. Don’t fear the sweeper! Embrace the sweeper! I decided to chat. I learned that Dan rode his bike almost every day. I envied Dan on his shiny bike wearing a non-sweaty t-shirt. He looked clean. He smelled good. He promised to ride in the rest of the way with me. He probably wanted to make sure I would reach the finish line before sundown.
As I turned yet another corner, I saw my son in the distance near the finish line. He had finished the race far ahead of me, so he had been there a long time waiting for me. I turned to Dan and said: “He probably thinks I died somewhere on the course.” Dan laughed, sort of. A group of people sitting in their yard, presumably to cheer on the racers, seemed surprised when I ran by and bowed. I shouted, “I’m last,” and they clapped for me.
Near the finish line, I thanked Dan and said I had better give the last bit of the race my best kick. I nearly ran into a man picking up cones as I turned to approach the finish line. “Wait,” I yelled. “I’m still running.” At least the timer on the race clock was still running. Everyone else was gone. I ran to the water table. A volunteer told me they were out of cups. He handed me a jug of water. Ah, the nectar of the gods! I began searching for bananas, grapes, or any kind of food. I was starved. Matt told me that they had already hauled away the food. How could that be? I was less than two minutes behind runners 90 and 91. What the hell?
As Matt and I walked towards the awards area, we met up with my husband’s aunt, cousin, and some friends. Matt walked over to the results posted on the side of a building. Since I was starving, Aunt Barbara bought me a muffin from the Muffin Tin. It was better than the best steak in the world. I ate and drank from my jug of water. I would survive.
Matt soon discovered that he was fourth in his age group and had just missed out on an award. He wanted to stick around for the raffle to see if he had won anything. He walked over to the results again and came back with a smile on his face. “You aren’t going to believe this.” “What?” I said. “You were third in your age group. You get an award.” Apparently my age group, 60-69, only had three runners.
So there I was, outrun by 91 runners, two of which happened to be in my age group. No bears had attacked me. I had survived the hills. I had made it through the sand. The two women who finished in front of me both came up to me and wished me well. The woman with the stroller smiled and said she would see me next year. A cute little boy smiled at me. He had apparently enjoyed his ride in the stroller.
As we sat at the Alden Bar and Grille eating our post-race breakfast and drinking very tall beers, I realized that although exhausted, I was able to smile in a Bluto-ish goofy grin. Even though I looked like a squished snake who took a little too long to cross the road, I had completed another road race with my son. I had won an award. I also managed to win a free muffin and beverage in the raffle. It was a good day to be me. So what if I was last?