The turning of the wheel

wagonwheelWe were laboring up the last hill yesterday, past the Mile 5 marker, when a young woman drew alongside me.

“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.

grouprun

Photo by Jeff Kearney

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.”

 

last photo

Photo by Jeff Kearney

 

 

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3 comments

  1. Indeed, my friend. Indeed! Thanks for reading.

    Like

  2. Susan Lukwago · · Reply

    Oh this was and is so enjoyable to read! Life. Life. It can be wonderful

    Like

  3. This made me all verklempt. Perfect capture of a poignant moment.

    Sent from my iPhone; I’ll say it now: Damn auto-fill!!

    >

    Like

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