July 9, 2009
Media Challenge Race #3
I had been unaccountably anxious going in to this race. Maybe it was nerves, or an allergy, but there were oddball dreams. One was about finding my father's dentures in the basement, and then another about a woman whose daughter was kidnapped and never seen again, except many years later, in a blurry video image. I got to Central Park last night fairly early, thinking I was probably late. Start time was at 7, and I wanted to leave time to warm up, find other people on my team, and figure out what to do - since I had no idea how or where this race went, and had never met my teammates. Also, I had never in my life run in the evening. Or with a team.
I went to the benches specified in the email I got from my team captain, and found a runner already sitting there. I thought he looked just like L., a lanky Parisian I had known in college who had studied math and philosophy. Over our long and intermittent friendship I methodically annoyed him with my interest in sleeping with his girlfriends (in another era I would have died like Lermontov, except L. was a fencer, so my death would have been messier). After graduation he studied massage therapy, then got a PhD in something mystical, maybe biology or computer science, and then business, and I lost track of him a few years ago. He might be in India running some kind of startup, or managing someone's money.
So I struck up a conversation with the man with L.'s face, whose real name turned out to be the same as mine. Naturally he was there for the same race as me. We chatted, and waited for something to happen. It was a beautiful evening, the air slightly cooling, the sky clear. The Sheep Meadow was full of people on blankets writing breakup emails, or talking about their operations, or plotting crimes while plucking absently at the grass. When our polite conversation had run out of steam I wandered a few steps away to stretch until other runners began to show up.
The Media Challenge is a series of 3.5-milers, in the spirit of friendly competition between New York media companies. Many of the people gravitating toward our bench wore t-shirts from NewsCorp, New York Times, ABC News, McGraw-Hill, etc. There are cordial rivalries and minor scores to settle I suppose. Myself, I found the prospect of running with coworkers exciting and it also made me tense. Racing has always floated blissfully free of my daily life, but this race would seep somehow into the highly-charged circus of my office. And whose office isn't a little intense this year?
Three and a half miles is a short distance, and therefore a painful one. Once the starting horn went off I spent the first mile leapfrogging other racers and casual joggers to get some room. This was an informal event, meaning racers had to flow through the slow metabolism of the Central Park evening crowd. I dislike crowds, so I ran the first mile at about 5:45, probably too fast. My chest quickly began to hollow out, my breath was strangely dry and irritated my throat. I settled in alongside a man wearing compression socks and a woman who seemed to be running with him. They pulled a little ahead of me and I just stayed a few feet back so they could make all the decisions about how to dodge the joggers. I found myself thinking about a Canadian woman I had met through L. several years after college. He was with her when I bumped into them by chance at a gallery in Tribeca. The Canadian and I were together for 6 months or a year. She was a sculptor and heiress from Montreal and we fought about everything. Her work was concentrated and wonderful. That year the Knicks were in the playoffs (such a very long time ago), and when I cheered at Larry Johnson's three-pointer from behind the line, she said, "I wish you were that excited about anything I did". I had to admit she had a point, and while I did get that excited about her sometimes, we only lasted a few months more. I saw her about a year afterward. She had dyed her hair blonde and was discovering hallucinogens.
I started to feel a stitch in my side. I looked at my watch - we were running around 6:20 or 6:15.
Gradually a runner in a green singlet pulled up to our group and began to pass us. This was too much for me, so I finally ditched the cute couple and drafted behind him. I had just repeatedly played the video of Usain Bolt finishing the 200m in Lausanne in less than 20 seconds, so I imagined myself following the green man and then out-kicking him at the finish with crazy long Bolt strides. At this point my heart was grotesquely engorged and my spine creaked like wicker. The green man and I were running 6-minute miles. By the time the finish finally came into view I had lost the desire or the capacity to beat him, but when I heard someone else breathing hard behind me I put together a kick and held on to my 7th place finish.
Immediately after the race I felt my body finally begin to loosen. I chatted with other finishers, including Brenn, the guy in the green Edinburgh singlet, who in fact was on my team. I was relieved I hadn't wasted energy trying to beat him. I met teammates Sue, Gregg, and Richard, and would have loved to go for pizza with them afterward, but wanted to get home for dinner with the missus. Our team did very well, taking top rank, and in a good position to win the series of five races. I had even met one of my personal goals.
The evening was still calm and lovely. As I walked to the subway I stopped and stared at the polished obelisk of the Time Warner Center. I was sure that I had not escaped whatever I had been fleeing during the race. But now the subway, now my house, now my wife and daughter, and a good night's dreamless sleep.