It starts not with a gun, but with a whistle.
You won’t find a race with fewer frills than this one. No mile markers, regular water stops, pinned-on numbers, or electronic timing; one of my former track coaches holds a stopwatch at the finish time. There’s no tracking device to dissuade you from, say, walking off of the course, returning to your car, and driving off into the sunrise.
The annual holiday “fun run,” a five-mile race, is more cost effective than running the 5K version for the same price. Less money (though more sweat and angst) spent per mile. That’s my rationale, anyway.
My brother and I race every year. We trade off on who thought the hills were easy (“I didn’t dry heave until the very end,” I say victoriously) and who slacked in their preparation (“We need to paint our faces next year,” Doug says every time without fail). (Amount of people who show up to this race with face paint: zero. Amount who even consider it: one.)
When I check the weather at 7:00 am and learn that it’s 30 degrees with 18 mph winds, I figure that hey, I’ve got a shot at talking him out of this. Even the weather calls shenanigans.
Nope. Dog, meet bone.
“The first rule is that you can’t think about the cold,” he says as I tug a headband over my ears.
“You have to want it,” he tells me as I park the car several side streets away from the starting line.
“You have to take those curves – OH MY GOD IT’S COLD.”
I respond as any good little sister would: “Told you so.”
We line up at the start with a mixture of athletes in marathon T-shirts, high school cross-country members with skinny legs, a dog (and owner), and the token children dragged out of bed by their ambitious parents.
My confident brother’s now the one with second guesses. Lots of them. “I don’t know if I wore enough layers, did you?” He paces. “I hope my playlist is ready for this.”
I just hope I’m ready for this.
No “ready” or “set.” Nothing but whistle.
We pass through the neighborhoods, skirting around an ice patch. The wind’s calm and although my training has been flimsy, I feel okay. Collected. Settled in with a good country playlist for the tougher times. Halfway through, there’s the one water stop manned by an enthusiastic family. I grab a cup as the lead runner passes me on his way back. High school cross-country kid, of course. Doug stays in my line of vision for three miles, red shirt moving steadily ahead of me.
Here’s where it’s no joke – the final mile and a half, an uphill chug broken up by brief plateaus. I forget about where Doug is. I forget that I actually like running or any kind of physical activity. I forget that there’s anything but up, up, up.
But there is mercy: the final stretch of the race plunges downhill, in which I pick up my stride for the first time in 4.75 miles and let ’er rip.
The finish line is the only place we can be honest with each other before the heckling begins afresh:
“That wasn’t as bad as it could have been,” I say, panting but not in pain.
“Man,” he says, “that was cold. And we forgot the face paint.”
But the competition’s not over yet. Back in our childhood home, there’s another never-ending race – first person to the shower.
Though Diana Gallagher be but little, she is fierce. She’s also a gymnastics coach, writing professor, and country music aficionado. She writes about flipping-related activity for The Couch Gymnast, if you’re into that sort of thing. Her contemporary YA novel, WHAT HAPPENS IN WATER, releases in 2015 (Spencer Hill Contemporary). She’s represented by Lyndsay Hemphill of ICM Partners.