Summer weather is here, and along with it are coming healthier eating habits (thankfully no longer craving hot coffee and things to dip in it) and a greater appreciation for exercise. The Girls on the Run 5k yesterday really kicked my gratitude into high gear; I’m so lucky to be a part of this.
I woke up at about 6:30 on Saturday morning to the sounds of rain pouring on the roof above me. Dim gray light was reluctantly coming through the window, and the last thing I wanted to do was get out of my warm bed. I hit snooze until I no longer could, rolled out of bed and into my running clothes, and opened my front door.
It was raining cats and dogs. The kind of rain that does not allow your eyes to see more than two feet away. The kind of rain that gives you a perfectly good excuse to spend the entire morning in bed, or at least curled on the couch with a book. I looked at the couch, sighed, grabbed my umbrella and headed for Shelby Bottoms Park.
I had planned to run to the park since it’s less than a mile away, but considering the rain, I drove. After I parked, I huddled with all the other women under one pavilion. It was incredibly crowded, but we were all grateful to be dry and excited for the race. I was talking with a woman who told me that race day was like this two years ago, and it didn’t stop. The race had been cancelled, and two days later, floods took over Nashville. I hear about these floods weekly here – the street where I live was nearly completely underwater, and I live on a hill. I was afraid for a moment that the same thing may happen; I’d never seen it rain like this in Tennessee. But magically, out came the sun and dried up all the rain, nearly instantly. The girls arrived just as the sun was winning out.
My running buddy had been switched since I ran the practice 5k. It had been a third-grade comedienne in training named Clara, but since the coordinators hadn’t matched up buddies last time according to their speed, some of the women couldn’t keep up with their girls. As a result, they switched some things around and I was paired with Ellen, who’d run the practice 5k in 36 minutes. Her tenth birthday was coming up in a few days.
I met Ellen just as her coach was spraying pink dye on her black cornrows. She was thin as a rail with dark skin and eyes, dressed in pink from head to toe. I was introduced and she glanced up at me, then to the ground.
“Are you fast?” she asked quietly.
“Fast enough.” I told her.
“Can I run fast?”
“Run as fast as you want; I’ll run beside you.”
She seemed happy and excited to start. I’d brought a bag of little gifts for her and Clara – a stuffed koala, an apple, a football, a pair of fun socks. She looked inside and looked up and, in her soft voice, gave me the most sincere thank you I’d heard in a long time.
We stretched as a group, then Ellen and I taught each other our favorite stretches. We did a couple of lifts I’d remembered from my dance days over and over, at her insistence. She was so thin that I’m sure I could have thrown her into the sky and she’d have blown away, but we had a race to run. She grabbed her new koala and we walked to the start line.
Ryan had come to support and run with us. His dark curly hair and green race shirt (from my half marathon last week – apparently whoever ordered those shirts had a very different impression of what size a small should be) made him easy to spot among the sea of woman runners in pink.
“Guess what I saw today?” he asked us.
“What?” asked Ellen, suddenly shy again.
She smiled and looked at the ground. She asked if we could get closer, then without waiting for a reply, she wormed her way through the crowd, past the people who looked like they were there to win themselves a local 5k, up to the very front.
As soon as the gun went off, we were sprinting faster than I’d ever tried before. I had just thought something along the lines of “this is not going to go well for me” (and I learned later that Ryan had the same thought) when Ellen stopped mid-spring to tie her shoe. I stopped with her, and as fast as she’d sat down, she was back up and passing every runner in immediate sight. I was keeping up, but just barely.
“Last time I ran this for practice, I was in first place” she told me, not even out of breath. “Well, no, actually it was a tie. I tied with – “
Her eyes landed on something just ahead of her and she lit up. “Her!”
The waved as she passed the girl ahead and was obviously very happy she’d done so. Ryan and I were running in the grass beside the trail, under branches, wildly trying to keep up.
Thankfully, she eventually got tired. She stopped to walk and seemed disappointed about it (is this what I do?) but we were also in the process of trying to name her koala, which distracted her enough to energize her for another run. We ran in spurts like this throughout, Ryan and I trying to get her to run at a reasonable pace and succeeding very little.
“Do you every think about becoming a professional runner?” I asked her.
She beamed. “That’s my only dream.”
The future Olympic sprinter came out again about half a mile from the finish line. A could of joggers had passed us, cheering us on as we walked. When Ellen realized how close the end was, we ran like lightning past them. In the last stretch, my grown woman legs had nothing on her little girl ones; she beat me to the finish line, her little koala (newly christened “Nova”) clutched in one hand.
She was exhausted, and I don’t blame her. When I hugged her, her little body was limp. We walked around until we found her friend and her school’s coach, then after checking her in, Ryan and I left for home.
It was quite a different 5k experience, obviously, but I had more fun doing it than any other race I’ve run this year. I love being able to talk with kids and connect with other people who love it too. I’ll definitely be keeping up with the program – as far as volunteer commitments go, this one is certainly close to my heart.