“Hey, lady,” she said, in a friendly way. “I’ve been watching you, every race.”
There was respect in her voice. I looked over. She was young and fit, and had a sweet smile. I learned later that her name is Rachel, and she is 29. I have been running as long as she has been alive.
“That’s quite a compliment,” I wheezed, as she moved past.
And as my legs churned on, my mind spun back — 10, 15, more than 20 years ago — to a trail along a high bank of the Mississippi River, in St. Paul. I was out for a summer training run, preparing for the 1993 Twin Cities Marathon, and I was watching a runner ahead of me, a woman in a sports bra and shorts. She looked to be in her fifties: Her hair was grey and — while she was obviously fit — the skin over her muscles wrinkled and sagged as she moved.
But she was running beautifully: taut and rhythmic, strong and graceful. And as I watched her, I thought: I want to be you when I’m middle-aged. I want to be you.
Yesterday’s outing was the last of an annual four-race winter series put on by my running club, and arguably the toughest: a hilly 10K that this year challenged runners with single-degree wind chills and snow- and ice-packed roads. When we toed the starting line, a scant 7 seconds separated me from a fierce 59-year-old I knew would push me hard for our age-group win.
I wasn’t sure where my competition was as we crested that last hill, and rounded a curve that opened onto a long, blessedly flat home stretch. But I had something left, and I didn’t want to leave any of it on the course. So as we entered that last half-mile, I picked it up, and drew back alongside Rachel. She made a wonderful, indescribable sound — a mixture of surprise and delight — and quickened her pace to match my own.
“Let’s go, girl,” I said.
And we did. I was balancing at the lip of my anaerobic threshold , my lungs working at the edge of their ability to keep pace with my legs. And, then, in the last hundred yards, faster yet, into oxygen debt: the short-lived land of no return.
“You go,” I gasped as the finish line came into sight.
“No,” she said. “Let’s finish together.”
And we did.
I hugged her in the chute, then moved away long enough to again breathe, to bring my heart back into my chest and my stomach out of my throat. I looked back at Rachel; her friends were hugging and congratulating her. And I had my age-group win.
But it was Rachel who mattered more, and that memory: Me, more than 20 years ago, watching that older woman running strong, hoping I would be like her when I got to be her age. And Rachel, yesterday, watching me.
I can imagine another race in the far-away future, perhaps 20 years hence. I won’t be there, but Rachel will, and still running strong. And a young woman will draw up alongside her.
“Hey, lady,” she’ll say. “I’ve been watching you.”