I dreamed that I had overslept, missed the race, and was so mad about it. When I awoke that morning, I knew I was ready.
The temperature was in the low 30s, which worried me but I chose not to think about it. I dressed in layers. Smoothed Vaseline on my face and hands. I stayed true to what works during my daily runs: I ate a banana, drank a cup of coffee and sipped water, but not too much. I made sure my playlist was downloaded to my phone.
I was a lot more worried than I thought I would be, or probably should have been. I told this to a friend the night before. “You’re worried because you’re ready, and you know you’re ready, and you’ve challenged yourself and want to succeed.” Her words solved my quandary. My goal was to finish in under 40 minutes, which is a slow pace for a skilled runner but a healthy pace for me. And I knew I could do it.
The race started at the 69th Street pier in Bay Ridge and wound along Shore Road to the Verrazano Bridge and then back again. As I waited, I ignored the icy winds and focused instead on comparing myself to the competition. This was an all-women’s run and so there were lots of groups of women — women in pink tutus likely running for some admirable cause, girlfriends together running their first race, and packs of young whisp-thin women with all the right running gear. And then there were the solo runners, including me, who I imagined were also competing against no one but themselves. The horn sounded and I was off.
I hung towards the back of the pack but felt myself carried ahead by it anyway. I let the faster runners bolt ahead of me. I steered around people slower than I. The Verrazano Bridge was before me, the Shore Road walkway under my feet, the water of the Narrows splashing against the rocks. As I looked up at the grey sky and took in the vista around me, an unexpected small sob caught in my throat. That was the bridge that was my north star as a child, the constant backdrop whether I was walking along Eighth Avenue to get to junior high school, riding my bike with friends in Sunset Park, or, years later, heading toward home from Newark Airport. The bridge is home and childhood and history and family, the reminder of generations of my people who lived and loved and labored in its shadow.
I pulled my eyes from the bridge to look down at Shore Road’s asphalt path. I remembered all those weekends my family spent riding our bikes, flying kites, having picnics along the small patches of green, my mother packing pillowy soft peanut butter and jelly sandwiches cut into fours, a tall thermos filled with sweet iced tea, a picnic blanket, the four of us, living in the city but finding a small pocket where the city was around us but not upon us, where you could close your eyes and the sound of cars along the Belt Parkway almost sounded like the ocean.
My eyes filled again and I shook it off, focusing on the music in my ears, the wind at my back, the runners whom I passed and who passed me.
I reached the halfway point, raised my arms to celebrate being closer to the end than the beginning, and turned around. The wind was strong but its chill did not bother me. I knew it would slow me down, which was the greatest irritation. I looked up and saw the downtown Manhattan skyline, punctuated now by the Freedom Tower. But in my mind’s eye I could see the city as I saw it as a child, and knew exactly where the Twin Towers used to be and should have been. No matter how many years go by, I don’t think I’ll ever become accustomed to our skyline’s new geometry.
I kept moving, fighting against the wind that seemed hellbent on making me work for victory. When I saw the marker indicating the last mile, I tried to be optimistic rather than sluggish. Others had told me that once the first two miles are done, adrenaline will fuel the third. But all I could think was that I was ready for it to be over. I could see the finish line but it was annoyingly far away. And so I started focusing instead on small victories. I’d reach one park bench and then aim to reach the next. And I got closer and closer, and I could see the pier, and see people, and see a small body in an orange coat waving his arms and jumping up and down, and knew that had to be my 7-year-old son. I raised my arms again, this time to wave and accept their excitement. I smiled. I sped up. I saw the race clock at 38 minutes and realized — I am going to do this in under 40! I sprinted to the end. I did it: 38:37.
Motherhood, marriage, career — I think to survive we create routines and schedules that we can rely on to propel us through the day, the week, the month, the school year. And while I find comfort in routines, I realized they are restrictive. My life has come to resemble an assembly line, filled with the same responsibilities and priorities and gauges of success. It’s comfortable. But in that comfort lies an undercurrent of fear. What happens if the routine is rocked? What happens if something throws off my delicate balancing act? I spend a lot of time reassuring myself that as long as we continue calmly along the charted path, everything will be fine. And it will. But nothing will ever change, either. I won’t change.
On Saturday, I changed. I took a challenge, overcame a fear, found a strength deep inside that allowed me to aspire, plan and execute. And it left me thinking — what else in my life have I surrendered to routine? Where else am I not striving toward something better? Where else am I telling myself that the same-old is okay because it’s safe and sure?
The answer? Many, many places.
And so yesterday I started to write a business plan for a new writing endeavor I want to launch. I signed up for another race, the next one a 5-miler. And I’m feeling more alive than I have in a long time.