On a chilly, gray, Sunday morning in April, I found myself standing in the rain, in a black plastic poncho, amid the pink and white cherry blossoms in Branch Brook Park, with 1100 other people, ready to run my first ever 10k ‘race’. Ready to move.
My plan was to keep a slow, steady, consistent pace. So slow and steady that I was almost in step with my speed-walking friends. A 15 minute mile pace. If I managed to keep jogging the whole time, it would be the longest distance I had ever run in my entire life. To be honest, I wasn’t really expecting to do it. And I would’ve been perfectly happy to run 3 or 4 of the miles.
With the simultaneous blasts of an air horn and a confetti cannon, the crowd in front of us began to head up the first hill. We were on the move.
Almost immediately, I noticed a woman on the side of the road. She was jumping up and down with a pompon, cheering at everyone that passed. As I approached her, she looked right at me and yelled ‘You can do it! You’re almost there!’ We were 2/10 of a mile in! Almost where? I guessed that she was talking about the first underpass which was just up ahead in my sights? I was almost there.
So I kept moving. Jogging and talking and feeling the energy of all of the other people who were moving in unison, running this annual Cherry Blossom Race for the first time since the pandemic began. Most of the first mile is a blur.
Just before Mile 2 began, the two-way road we were on split, our lane curved to the right and became a one way. This was always referred to as ‘the back of the park’ when we were young. A very curvy road lined by mature, high rising trees on either side. This lovely Olmsted Park is the greenest most beautiful part of my city. I learned to drive on this winding road.
A man running near us was talking about the White Lady Tree. It was an enormous oak tree on one of the dangerous curves in the road. The logical story is that in the 50s and 60s it had been hit so many times by speeders that they painted the bottom of the trunk white as a warning to drivers. Legend had it that a young couple had a car accident on their wedding night, and the bride was killed. After that she spent her nights haunting the area in her wedding dress, looking for her groom. We spent a lot of our teenage hours hoping to see her. The road was redesigned in the 90s, removing the curve. The painted tree lasted a while longer, but it’s gone now.
I could see through the trees to the other side of the park. The front-runners were on their return already. Their mile 5. They would finish in less than half the time that we would. Maybe even a third of the time. Keep moving.
In Mile 3 the road came back together, and we were running on a two way street again. Jogging south as the front-runners came northward towards us in groups. A man slowly running along side me pointed to them and said, ‘We will get to the end too. We will cross the same finish line as them.’ ‘Will we?’ I joked. ‘It’s not the speed that counts. It’s the miles.’ He said. And then he repeated himself ‘It’s the miles that count’. I said ‘Let’s take that a little bit further. It’s not not the miles that count, it’s the smiles!’ I don’t think he appreciated it though. He was very serious. I smiled at him anyway. And kept moving.
Shortly after that I noticed a man with an artificial leg running towards me. A running blade. Inspiring, I thought. ‘I have nothing to complain about,’ I said. ‘I just saw a one legged man running his heart out.’ I can do this, I thought to myself. Keep moving.
At some point in Mile 4 we heard people talking about a 93 year old man who was up ahead. My friend told me that he was a regular race participant. Always there. As I grabbed a plastic cup of water from an county sheriff’s officer, I could hear a sound up ahead. A low, guttural, rhythmic sound. It was the 93 year old man, grunting with every exhale. I set a goal in my mind to catch up to him and talk to him. When I got up along side him I said, ‘You’re doing great!’ His eyes widened from the nearly closed squint, he looked toward me but through me, and just kept jogging and grunting. ‘We got this!’ I said to him. And I kept moving.
We came upon the official entrance to the park, the Ballantine Gates, in Mile 5. I grew up a stone’s throw from this spot. I have moved through those gates on foot or in a vehicle a million times. I know the ghosts were ready to move through them today. I tried to stay in the moment. Jogging and making conversation. Trying to remain present as we ran past the tree I always sat under as a child, whenever I was sad. Past the place where my friends slept when they were kicked out of their houses for the night. The memories trying to drag me away from the moment. I felt heavy. Old. Weary. Keep moving!
In Mile 6, people were yelling to a runner named Blanca. She seemed to be shaking her head at them like she wasn’t Blanca. I thought they might have had the wrong person. They ran up along side her and were cheering and filming her. She didn’t react to them at all. Didn’t speak to them. She just kept chugging along. She crossed the finish line right before me, flanked by her supporters, and cheered on by people waiting for her.
Crossing the finish line was a powerful and emotional moment for me. I could feel it all building up inside of me and the tears began to escape my eyes. If I weren’t surrounded by friends with whom I was about to interact, I might have fallen onto the ground and sobbed.
The past few years have been beyond challenging. Challenge upon challenge. Beyond traumatizing. Trauma upon trauma. For most of us. For all of us. For me. There were times when all I wanted to do was stop moving. But I kept moving. So slowly. Not always so steadily. But moving.
I looked back and I saw the man who told me that it was the miles that counted, as he approached the finish line. Pompon Lady was yelling at him, ‘You’re almost there!’. He was smiling.
We walked back to the parking lot. I was waiting for the woman to get in the car next to me, when I realized it was Blanca. ‘Congratulations Blanca!’ I said. She looked at me as if to ask how I knew her. ‘I heard them cheering for you!’ I said.
She got very close to me, her face two inches from my face. She spoke very quietly without even moving her clenched lips. She looked as stiff as a statue as she leaned in even closer and said ‘Yes, they were cheering because I was just diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But I did it.’ ‘Oh wow,’ I said, ‘Congratulations! Good for you!’ Her eyes were smiling. ‘Keep moving! Keep moving! You have to keep moving!’ I said as she got into the car.
I sighed as I got in to the car, and we sat for a moment, talking about Blanca, before we drove off. So moving.