Jennifer Hudak has her B.A. in Creative Writing and her Ph.D. in Literature. She has taught English, Composition, Creative Writing, and Women’s Studies; and while she has left academia and currently teaches yoga, she sometimes reads a poem to her class after savasana. When she’s not running or practicing yoga, Jennifer indulges her obsession with healthy cooking and baking. She lives with her husband, who knows how much she needs to go for a run when she’s feeling stressed, and her two children in Rochester, NY. This is her second contribution to And I Ran. Read her first here.
It was the morning of my very first 5K. I was lingering close to the starting line with my husband and two children, watching the other runners prepare. Many of them were warming up by jogging down to the end of the block and back. Some of them were even running sprints, dashing like gazelles to the corner and the loping back to the starting line. I cowered by my family, incredulous. Why were they using up all of their energy now? Wouldn’t it take every ounce of their strength just to cross the finish line? Or — and now it dawned on me — was I hopelessly, completely out of my league?
At 8:55am the runners all began to gather by the starting line, and I turned to my husband. “Just remember, I might finish last,” I said, trying to laugh.
He gave me a quick squeeze. “So what?” he said. “We’ll be waiting for you at the finish line no matter what.”
My kids gave me one more hug for good luck, and then I trotted to join the pack of runners. Someone with a megaphone made a couple of announcements, and then, before I knew what was happening, I heard the peal of an air-horn and the race was on.
All around me runners were dashing ahead, passing me right and left — and the race had just started! Soon I was looking at the backs of nearly all the runners, and they were quickly moving farther and farther ahead. Weren’t they supposed to pace themselves? Save their strength?
I’ll show them, I thought. They all started off sprinting, but soon they’ll get tired and I’ll catch up.
I kept telling myself that, and telling myself that, until I could barely even see the last of the runners ahead of me. I was alone, at the back of the pack.
* * *
Talk to anyone who’s thinking about running a 5K for the first time, and you’ll hear some variation of the same theme: “I don’t have to finish first… I just don’t want to finish last!”
I thought about this all spring while I was training for my race. I’ve never been a runner. At 4’9”, I certainly don’t have the legs for it. Running has always been torturous for me, even as a young child. I was a chubby kid — not horribly overweight, but certainly not lean. I was also hopelessly un-athletic. In 5th grade, my gym teacher signed me up for a group called “The No Thank You’s.” As a member of “The No Thank You’s,” I was excused from class a couple of times a week to meet in the gym and talk about healthy food choices, which I liked. I also had to meet with the group before school once a week to go on a jog through the neighborhood. This I did not like. I have a vivid memory of watching all the other kids running ahead, getting smaller and smaller in the distance, while I struggled with painful side cramps. I don’t remember how many times I actually endured those excruciating runs before my mother finally pulled me out of the group.
So I’m still not quite sure why I told my husband and children, on December 31, 2009, that my New Year’s Resolution was to run a 5K in 2010. Maybe I was looking for a new challenge. Maybe I just wanted to prove to myself I could do it. Once I told my family, however, there was no backing out. I had to start running.
I enlisted the help of a marathon-running friend, who graciously took me on my first successful non-treadmill runs. She assured me that I had a lovely stride, that my pace was good, and that I was doing great. I could hardly believe it: I was running! I was actually lacing up my sneakers and running, and amazingly, it didn’t feel that bad. In fact, it felt great.
It quickly became apparent, however, that just because I was running didn’t mean I could run fast. In fact, I was terribly slow. I struggled to run a mile in under 15 minutes. But at least I was running. In a burst of optimism, I signed up for a 5K race that was scheduled for August. I paid the fee and got my t-shirt. I announced my plans to my family, my friends, and on Facebook. I was really going to do it: I was going to run a 5K.
On the phone, I talked to another friend who’d been training for a half-marathon. She talked to me about staying hydrated, about pacing, and about breathing, and then I admitted to her that I was afraid I might come in last. She laughed and said, “Chances are, that’s not going to happen.”
I understood that she was trying to be helpful and encouraging, but secretly, I was bothered by this. “My legs are really short,” I told her. “My stride is a lot shorter than most people’s. There’s only so fast I can go.”
"It doesn’t have anything to do with how tall you are," she assured me. "Don’t worry. You won’t be last."
I tried to be buoyed by her faith in me, but actually, all I kept thinking was, But what if I am last? What then?
And I realized that what I most needed was to hear someone tell me, “Yes, you might come in last. So what?”
So I hung up the phone and told myself, “So what if I come in last?”
And I said, it again: “So WHAT if I come I last!?” It felt good, like a mantra. And while part of me kept hoping that my friend would be right — that lots of people running the 5K would be slower than me, and out of shape, and that I’d surprise myself by finishing toward the front of the pack — a deeper part of me knew that wasn’t going to happen. And so I kept repeating, “So what if I come in last?” Over and over, until I could laugh about it, until I truly began to believe that coming in last would be okay.
And then I found myself running the race, watching all those runners getting smaller and smaller in the distance up ahead, and it was almost a relief, because I was going to be last, and it was true: it was okay. I kept running. I kept running even as I realized that the police car was trailing me now, crawling behind me, because his job was to stay behind the very last runner, and the very last runner was me.
I saw the three mile marker ahead, and one of the race volunteers shouted out, “You’re almost at the finish line!” I looked ahead and saw my husband and children waiting for me. When they spotted me, my children started jumping up and down. As I passed them I grabbed their hands and they ran the last tenth of a mile with me. We crossed the finish line together, surrounded by people cheering me on, congratulating me, and handing me cold bottles of water. I glanced back at the race clock. My goal had been to complete the race in under 45 minutes. I crossed the finish line at 44 minutes, 16 seconds. I have never felt stronger, more powerful, or more athletic than I did at that moment. Even though they turned off the race clock after I crossed the finish line. Even though I was last.
* * *
A couple of months later, I was at a wedding, and a family member mentioned that she wanted to try to run a 5K. “I just don’t want to come in last,” she said. I had to laugh. Because what I realized that summer was this:
In every race, someone has to finish last.
It’s not a huge, unspeakable embarrassment. In fact, no one cares. Not one of the other runners remembers that I was the one who finished last. And all my friends and family remember is that I said I’d run a 5K and I did it.
And a couple of days later, when my aching legs felt better, I laced up my sneakers. Because I’m a runner. And, fast or slow, runners run.