A Run Down Memory Lane, Part 1: Breaking the Tape

This blog has made me a little more nostalgic than usual, and I’ve decided to share some of my musings…hence the new post category, “memory lane.” Most recently, I’ve been remembering my first track race.

I was 7 or 8 years old. I wish I could remember the exact date, but there’s not really anything Google-able about results from the Marysville Jolly Jogathon from 20 years ago. I do know that this had been a family event for at least one year, and that we had “team” uniforms…that would be t-shirts with our names on them. That tee is one of my favorite childhood relics.

In the year (or two years) previous, I had competed in events designed specifically for the younger generation. The standing long jump. The wheelbarrow race. I actually held a triple jump record for a number of years, something I owed more to the fact that I was the only 5-year-old who could successfully hop, skip and jump than any innate leaping ability. Anyone who knows me will laugh: it was DEFINITELY not owing to any innate leaping ability. (My dad, the collegiate track star and high school coach, spent weeks teaching my brother and I before the Jogathon.) That record is something I remember fondly…for however brief a time, I was a field event star. 🙂 Side note: Why is it that distance runners so rarely get respect? I’ve been around track & field (clearly) my whole life, and I respect the field event personnel for their power. Whether long jump, pole vault, javelin or shot put, it’s incredible to see how high/far athletes can throw themselves/an implement. (Side note to the side note:  It’d be even better if all of these incredible performances, particularly on the professional level, were unassisted by drugs. But I suppose that’s me being idealistic.) I respect the sprinters for the raw speed that is their gift, and for mastering the extra-tricky blind baton handoff. That’s just cool. The vast majority of these respected teammates, however, think we distance runners are just plain nuts. You run 10 miles a day? You’ve GOT to be crazy. I know some sprinters who view the distance events as intermission — no one really cares about the events themselves, but they provide the star performers (the sprinters) a chance to rest up between the 100, 200, 400 or sprint relays. There are, of course, exceptions to this. I’ve just never understood why the people who occasionally sprint with parachutes behind them, fling spears around, or have to remove sand from sensitive areas after every practice always think that I’m the crazy one. Maybe it’s the mileage that scares people. Or maybe we’re ALL a little loopy.

Back to the Jolly Jogathon. The year in question, I decided that I wanted to run a “real race.” No more of this kiddy stuff. I was going to run ONE FULL LAP around the track (440 yd). My parents tried to talk me out of it—after all, 440 yards is a long way for a little kid, and the meet was just for FUN. Besides the triple jump tutorial, I hadn’t done any special training! But I was insistent. I would run the 440. There was something marvelously grown up about being able to run all the way around a track instead of just down part of a straightaway. Besides that…I had a dream. I was going to do something magical. I was going to win. I was going to (gasp!) BREAK THE TAPE.

There were several obstacles standing squarely between me and this goal, all of which I can see clearly now but was oblivious to then. (1) The track races in the Jolly Jogathon was NOT merely for people in my age group. There were high school and college athletes competing in the same race as me, an elementary school girl. (2) I had no real concept of how far 440 yards actually was. From up in the stands, running a lap didn’t seem that far! (3) It would later be determined that I have exactly zero fast-twitch muscles. Nada. Zip. I am a born tortoise, and thus woefully unsuited to sprints.

None of that stops a 7-year-old with a dream. Mom and Dad allowed me to enter the race (probably chalking it up to a valuable “life experience” at this point), and I toed the line in a spirit of entirely irrational optimism. The gun went off, and the race was on. Everything was going according to plan, until I rounded the first curve and realized that most of the other runners were in the final straightaway. Suddenly, one lap seemed like a long, hard road. My dream of breaking the tape was abruptly shattered, and I did what most little girls would do…I saw my mom and I started to cry. I started to pull off the track, but Mom said no.  I had entered the race, and I would see it through. I couldn’t quit just because I was losing. I have no idea what the time was for my first 440. I do know that it’s incredibly difficult to coordinate breathing, crying, and running at the same time. I imagine that I also got a heaping helping of “pity claps” from a sympathetic crowd. I have no recollection of finishing that race…just of being supremely disappointed that I wasn’t the one who got to break the tape.

And then I got bigger…and faster…and moved up a couple of distances…and by the time I was in high school, I had the opportunity to win several (ok, it was maybe more than several, but I’m trying not to sound conceited!) races, and I learned that the whole “breaking the tape” scenario is better in fantasy than it is in reality. In 75% of the races I’ve ever won, there was no “tape.” Just the finish line, and crossing it first is a thrill all in itself, believe me. But no tape. No icing for the cake. In the remaining 25%, the races with “icing,” the tape wasn’t actually a tape at all! Just a piece of string held across the track by a couple of volunteers. And often, there’s no recreating the famous Pre picture because one of the volunteers lets go of their end of the string too soon. Apparently, there have been instances of wornout runners getting tangled in the string and hurting themselves. Which is no good at all, and is best avoided…and also probably explains the general absence of tape or string. It’s just too much trouble.

But it’s what kids dream of! I like the Kia commercial where everyone is counting down to a buzzer beater…the chef in the restaurant, the businessman throwing wadded paper away, the girl playing basketball in her driveway (see the commercial on YouTube). The buzzer beater is just a moment people like to recreate. For runners, it’s breaking the tape. New York Marathon style. Usually edging out the defending champ/obvious favorite. Amid deafening cheers. Um…and…laurel crowns? I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one who’s fantasized about such things. I seem to remember several workouts that ended with a couple of people recreating the “stretch for the finish line” scene, sometimes in slo mo. Now THAT’S entertainment. In fact, the enlivening value of these re-creations (whether purely in my own head or between training partners) is almost certainly of more emotional and psychological value than many an actual tape (or string) breaking experience. Now the New York Marathon, though…THAT would be something.

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