The Five-Kilometer Race

A note on the seething insanity of running

By Brian Doyle | April 4, 2014


Talk at the dinner table the other day turned to the parents’ previous athletic abilities, before they got old and creaky, and while the children had heard ad infinitum of their father’s deep and abiding love affair with basketball, as well as his minor accomplishments in this greatest of sports, they had not heard of his one abysmal experience as a runner. The mother, who had been a terrific runner in her youth and won medals in road races and floated through the holy air with the pace and grace of a gazelle, told the story of her husband’s one road race with unseemly glee, and I believe the children are still laughing two days later, which is embarrassing but understandable, as you will see.

It was a 5K race in Massachusetts—that’s 3.1069 miles, for those of you scoring at home—and believe me, I felt every inch of that last .1069 miles, which was, God help me, straight uphill. Why a race planning committee would choose to end a race with an uphill climb is beyond me. The dark evil of such a plan …

I started out fine, proud of my new high-top basketball sneakers, which made a satisfying thudding sound as I trotted along, trying to remember what my lovely bride had advised, something about pace and breathing pattern, but who could think of such things on such a sunny day, wearing such excellent sneakers, and weaving smoothly through the slower runners? It was only three miles, and I certainly ran three miles on days when I played a lot of basketball, so what could go wrong?

I threw up at the first mile marker, and then again at the second mile marker, that second one especially memorable because as I was down on my hands and knees a small boy, perhaps age 10, ran past and patted me on the back and said in his piping voice, You can do it, Mister! This got me up on my feet again, resolved to catch and thrash that child, and I staggered along for another mile, until I saw the awful alpine finish looming darkly ahead. I quailed, yes I did, right there by the side of the road, quailing like, well, a quail, but then a tremendous woman passed me, and I noticed that there was no one behind her, and I realized that if I did not attempt this Matterhorn I would finish dead last in this race, and be teased for the rest of my existence by my lovely bride, who has a quick wit and an elephantine memory, so I took off running.

I caught and passed the tremendous woman about halfway up the hill, which was right about the point where I thought I was going to die and have to be carted off the course by a knacker’s wagon, but then I saw, not 10 yards in front of me, the boy who had patted me on the back. With a last courageous burst of speed I fell slowly further behind him as we neared the finish line, and he trotted across fresh as a daisy, and I staggered across the line and had to lie down. My lovely bride came over and looked down at me and said something lighthearted, which I have done my best to forget, which I think has been good for our marriage, which I cherish more every day.

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