Dodging the cart of doom: the tale of a long, hot run

You know that kind of heat: you can feel your skin actually sizzling under the sun’s blinding rays.  But you don’t notice.  You don’t notice because your toes are painfully scrunched together with each pounding step you take, because you can feel sweat stinging the chafed skin from your tank top, and because you can feel the hooks of your sports bra digging into your back.

I am at Mile 8 in a half marathon and at this point in the race, I am only running for one thing.  I do not want to be the runner in the cart.

The dirty, cream colored box buzzes by regularly.  Two friendly looking guys with flattops and FBI sunglasses give me a thumbs up each time they pass.  I signal back, with a completely fake, achingly forced smile, and keep dragging my feet forward.  I will not, will not,will not get in the cart.

If you’re not a runner, the zippy little golf cart seems innocuous enough.  It serves a purpose – if you’re injured or dehydrated, this is your rescue squad.  There are good reasons to get in the cart.But…if you aren’t injured and aren’t dehydrated… the cart can be a symbol of impending doom.  The cart is the sweeper.  Road races that block off lanes of traffic for the sake of runners have set end times. Runners who are not across the finish line by the time the lane needs to reopen for regular car traffic are picked up by the sweeper. And when you’re picked up by the sweeper, you don’t finish the race.  I do not want to be the runner in the cart.

The day started off sideways.  I lay in bed at 5 a.m., scrolling through the email on my phone and pausing to read my horoscope.  It said:

ARIES, get ready for everything to go wrong today. Look inside yourself for the strength necessary to move those mountains out of your way. You aren’t going to get anywhere sulking, not that your sign is known for that. We all find ourselves in messes, but you also always find your way out. 

I immediately deleted it, thinking gleefully, “Not today!  Today is race day!”

But I should have taken it as a warning sign.

An hour later, I was standing outside Building 1 of the race-sponsored hotel with about 25 other runners.  The bus was scheduled to pick us up at 6:10 a.m., plenty of time to reach the Key Largo Bridge for our 7 a.m. race start.  There was a team of of college runners eager to see if they can beat their PRs (personal record).  There were a few couples, running together as part of their weekend-in-the-Keys activities.  I befriended Lori and Amanda, here on a girls’ weekend.  Lori is fun and outgoing, in her late 50s and Amanda is tall and lovely, in her 30s.  They were visiting from Michigan.  We were joined by Pete, a 6’4″ lanky guy from Fort Myers in his late 40s and Joan, who had to be at least 70 years old, looked like she had been a professional runner since she was two years old.  Amanda, Pete, Joan and I were the half marathoners of the group.  Everyone else was running the 5k or 10k distance.

But by 6:15 a.m., the bus wasn’t there.  It wasn’t there at 6:25 a.m. either.  A few of the runners are calling and texting the race organizers (no luck) and friends already at the race.  Finally, a race organizer was found and we were told the bus came by but didn’t see us so kept driving on.  So we must be standing in the wrong spot.  No.  No, we are not.  Then we were told we must have all been late.  No. No, we were not.  Finally, we were told they are sending a bus for us.  Now it is 6:40 a.m.

The bus finally showed up at 7:05 a.m.  We have missed the 7 a.m. start time.

When we get to the race, the organizers took our bags, promised refunds and said we can still run – which was everyone’s first question. We have to all start together at 7:45 a.m., a full 45 minutes after the 1000 other runners.  Many of the 5k runners are already back.  A few 10k-ers were trickling in.

Did I mention only four of us were actually running the half marathon?

I knew at that moment that I would be dead last.  I have never been last and I took a few minutes to process this.  I am not a fast runner. I have never proclaimed to be even moderately not-slow.  I am slow.  And I am comfortable with this because I don’t run for time.  But slow as I am, I have never been last.  In the bottom 30%, sure… but not last.  And here I am, looking at svelte Amanda, lanky Pete and uber athletic Joan and realizing… oh yes.  Today, I will be dead last.

And then, we run.

Two miles into the race, I get another warning sign.  This one is an actual sign: “Crocodile crossing, next six miles.”  Um, what?  I have to run the next four miles through a crocodile crossing… and then turn around and come back through it again?  Immediately, my brain scanned for all the data my walking-encyclopedia son, David, has ever told me about crocodiles.  Crocodiles are meaner than gators… definitely faster… and I’m sure he said something about their singular taste for human flesh, didn’t he?

My horoscope was not joking.  Not even a little.

Amanda and Joan were long out of sight.  I’m pretty sure they were faster than any crocodiles.  I paced about a quarter mile behind Pete up until mile 3.25, the 10k turnaround point, when he made a wide u-turn and started back at me.  As we passed each other, I yelled, “Why?” and he shrugged, “I get the medal either way!”

Now I was truly alone. There is no one behind me and the runners ahead of me are coming at it – returning from their half marathon jaunt. But I was feeling energized and accomplished.  I could do this. I had trained for this.  Being last didn’t matter because I still had plenty of time before the sunglassed sweepers in the golf cart came by and my only goal going into this half had been to beat the time of my last half marathon.

But now at Mile 8, my skin is roasting.  My toes are screaming.  My back is crying bloody tears.  I eye the flattops and FBI sunglasses in the golf cart… if they come by one more time, maybe I would get in.  Why not?  I tried.  I got a bum deal with the late start. It’s 15 degrees warmer and 40% more humid than the past three weekends when I trained. Who would blame me?

I would. I try not to think about the golf cart.

I have over five miles to go.  My mind wanders a bit to pass the time… how much I’m going to enjoy eating after this race (yes, food is usually the first thing I think of rewarding myself with even though I am never hungry after a run)… how this weekend, finally, I am going to try snorkeling… how I hope my cat, Chairman Mao, is back to walking normally after falling off the 2nd floor landing a few days ago, crashing to the first floor (he is not a graceful feline)… more random, every day and work related  thoughts pass through my mind as I try not to focus on my skin, my feet or my back.

I make it to Mile 9, doggedly pushing myself forward. My time is going to hell. I am squinting into the sun, sweat blinding me beneath fogged sunglasses.  And I see in the distance, on the empty stretch of concrete… another runner.  Is this possible? A woman in a bright pink shirt is ahead of me.  I can see her… and I couldn’t see her a few minutes before so I must be gaining.  Can I catch up with her?

Big energy shift. I can catch up with her.  I can talk to her. If she’s struggling, perhaps I can help her.  And she won’t know it, but she will help me… we could walk together, for however long we need to.  After all, two people walking across the finish line together is less pathetic than one… especially the very last one, right?  As I narrow the gap, I feel lighter.  My feet trudge a little less and skip a little more. I am less than a quarter mile behind her.  I wave away the FBI sunglasses in the cart – whydon’t they let me be? – and I focus on the runner in the pink shirt.  I am almost there.  But the sunglasses are ahead of me.  They stop the cart.  The girl in the pink shirt climbs in.

“No!”  I cry out loud but no one hears me.  I have no voice to yell because I have to breathe to keep running.  I keep moving but I in my mind I am saying to her, “You didn’t have to do that.  I am right here.  We could have gotten through this.”

I now realize that it hurts more to stop and walk than to keep up what has to be a lumbering, monstrous running gait, so I just keep going.  It’s not like anyone can see me.  Just after Mile 10, alone amid concrete and mangroves, three miles has never seen so excruciatingly distant.  And then… I see movement ahead.  Can it be?  As I approach, I can see that a dark silhouette. She is walking.  She runs for about ten seconds, then walks again.  My energy surges back, and so have the loving thoughts of, “We can walk to the finish together!  We can help each other!”

As I come up behind her, I take out my ear buds.  I raise a hand to wave at her and open my mouth.  As I come aside her, she glances up with a closed, defeated face and immediately looks back at the ground.  I say, “Hi!” and slow down.  She does not acknowledge or respond.  In fact, she quite determinedly keeps her head down.

So, I keep running.  For about three minutes, I am feeling mighty motivated – after all, I wasn’t expecting to see anyone at all.  And then I start to feel the sun again, my feet, the open wound on my back… I scramble to think about something, anything else… about the laundry piling up at home…  how many weeks has it been since I’ve taken Sika to the dog park… a hot, juicy gyro smothered in tzatziki would be really delicious…

But this is not enough.  And this is when the self talk happens.  Out loud.  I am in the final stretch.  I can do this.  I trained for this.  I hear my voice over P!nk in my ears.  I need to hear myself.  There is no one else there to cheer – or goad – me forward.  Those damn sunglasses are back and I wave them away with bared, gritted teeth and a feeble “thumbs up”.

I remembered what my friend Karl Johnsen, a dedicated runner, told me when I first started running several years ago: “It’s all mental.  Your mind will want to quit well before your body does.  Don’t listen.”

I remembered what my coach, Sandra Gonzalez, said in the weeks during my training: “I know you’ve got this, you’re working so hard at it.  Remember, you are an athlete.”

I remembered what my DGC partner, Shirley Ramos, said, “You should blog about this.  Training is mental and emotional dedication.  You should talk about that – it’s inspiring.”

I remembered what my son, David, told me just the day before: “You’re crazy…  Maybe I should do one with you next time.”

Inspirational people don’t quit.  They don’t get into the cart.  Now I am worried about my time and the sweepers in the sunglasses, but I keep dragging myself forward.  It’s sort of a run.  If you squint. Maybe more of a loping.

The last mile and a half of the race is the arc of the bridge.  Full disclosure: at the base of the incline, I stopped running.  I know my limits.  I walk – as fast as I can push my burning quads – up the incline.  It’s not steep.  I used to live in Massachusetts – I know hills.  But this is Florida and it’s the steepest incline I’ve seen in three years.

At the top of the bridge is the final water station.  I take a Dixie cup of Gatorade from tired volunteers dressed as pirates and look at the view.  This is why I came.  To run the bridge. To see the mangroves and the egrets and gleaming water.  Which was now blinding me with the bouncing glare of the sun.

So I run.  At least this time, it’s all down hill.  Right to the finish.

If you haven’t run a road race, this story may not make sense to you. If you do, then I think you’ll understand what I learned last Saturday.  When you join a race, you feed off the collective energy.  The excitement of other runners – some who are super competitive and some who are just happy not to be in the medic tent.  The generosity of water station volunteers, who dress as pirates and Spiderman and Wonder Woman to cheer you on.  The goodwill of the spectators, who want to see a specific loved one stumble past but who yell a few kind words to anyone willing to make eye contact.  This is a communal event.  And that excited energy, that mental and emotional boost, make all the difference on race day.  I started 45 minutes late with 25 awesome runners… but it wasn’t the same.  We missed the big start.  We missed the energy surge.  When we took off, we were stressed and irritated.  And the crowd – and the other runners – were confused.  We were going the wrong way.

I scraped my motivation from every corner of my mind to finish a race that was supposed to be a gentle Saturday morning jaunt across the beautiful Key Largo Bridge. I didn’t beat my last half marathon time, but by the time I crossed the finish line, I didn’t care. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I ran a 13.1 mile mental race, and I won.

I am not the runner in the cart.

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