I've removed my pants (no, this isn't that kind of story) and I'm stretching my legs in the car when I look up and Jill is looking at me.
I bound out the door to the friend I've known since I was five. "Buddy! I was going to call you, but I didn't want you to see how slow I'm going to run," I say.
"Buddy, you have no idea how slow I'm going to run," she says.
Jill is prepared. Spandex. Bandanna ("so people know I'm a girl"). iPod strapped to arm. A mileage tracker. Heart monitor.
Me: Stony Brook Southampton sweatshirt (I see a few people glancing at it, probably wondering, "Is that three places?"). Gray shorts. Old sneakers. iPod in hand with one headphone that produces static. Festive Peruvian ankle bracelet for a touch of class.
Good ol' "Coach," everyone's favorite cowboy, blows the whistle. Runners congregate -- men, women, high school girls, young boys, hats, Spandex, shorts, green T-shirts received that morning.
"Oh, God," I say to Jill, to no one in particular.
When I run down Montauk Highway, I pretend I'm in a race. Or in the gym. Or that someone's watching me and that what I do will impress something upon them. Sometimes I tell myself stories unrelated to any of this. Sometimes I imagine myself telling stories to others that are unrelated to any of this.
Today my mind empties.
You're running to Hampton Bays, I tell myself a few times. Funny, to think of practice when in practice I think of race. But soon I stop thinking. I have a story to tell myself but I don't want to listen just yet.
Today I hear music and see hill.
"Have you been training hills?" Jill asked in a voicemail a few weeks ago. I called her back to say that although I run down the road and back, somehow I'm almost always going downhill. Or flat. Or up the most subtle of ascents.
Duchess Road has the first of the six or seven inclines we'll take today. I enact the strategy I've come up with on the spot:
Run as quickly as possible to get it over with.
South Gate rises. We'll run down here later to the finish, legs flying down the hill. It's the most imposing slope of the course. But it's only the second. And as Robert Frost noted, there are miles to go.
Families and racers who have finished the 5K and one mile clap and cheer. "You got this!"
Something starts to cramp about 25 minutes in. You got this, you're halfway there, I tell myself while Billy Joel starts singing "Uptown Girl." My goals are low: to finish somewhere in the fifty-minute range, hopefully no longer than an hour.
Ashley Lane rises through trees around three miles. A hill, isn't that nice? I take this one slowly, as do the older men and the fifteen-year-old-ish boy ahead of me.
Or, at least, half of it slowly. Bon Jovi's singing about being a cowboy and as soon as he sings, "Oh, and I ride!" and the instruments crash together --
There she goes.
I'm not sure where Jill is anymore. "The worst is over!" the woman at the water table calls. I smile.
More hills. Okay. Only fifteen minutes to go. I hope. "I wouldn't ask this of you," Coheed and Cambria sing. The man in front of me looks hardcore. Now next to me. He's got the Spandex. But as I pull ahead, I know that the one thing I've got is that I'm young and that today, my knees are working exceptionally well.
I take the final hill a bit too fast. My thumb hits the iPod to play "Learn to Fly," which for whatever reason always provokes this joyous emotional response and the ground is flat and I see the sign for South Gate but I start to choke - and again - Oh, God, don't throw up -
Now I hear the words I never heed: Take care of yourself, Di.
"I'm lookin' to the sky to save me..."
Oh, but I will always burn far too much.
Now my legs are sprinting I've passed the woman who seemed so far ahead Coach at the finish I think that's Danielle's sister pointing me to the line go go go go go -
This is just what I imagined.
I don't throw up.
I find Jill in the Miller Avenue Elementary School gym, which now smells like sweat from all the runners drinking water and eating cookies post-race. Girls in Cortland sweatshirts, my alma mater -- literally, they're everywhere, and I want to say something to them but feel silly -- write on the cards posted on the wall. Mine's on 81st place. I don't know the exact finish time but it was somewhere around 44, 45 minutes.
Jill and I joke. Random people walk over to me to say, "Nice finish!" We watch the marker move. I've won more than enough medals in my day -- my mom finally put them in a drawer because they were overwhelming the shelves -- and of course it doesn't matter, but I really would like to be in that top six of 22 to 29-year-old females...
Mr. Anderson's daughter holds the red marker, looks down, looks up, writes "F-4" on my card.
"Let's go get your medal," Jill says.