Let's get this out of the way right now: Yes, I was the last girl chosen for kickball. I'll take that back: I was almost always the last girl chosen. Sometimes people had broken legs or sprained ankles, and I was chosen before them.
I was reminded again Friday night that I'm not an athlete, and that sadly, chances are pretty good that I will never be.
In 2008, Karen Coaldrake, a friend to many of us in the Johnston area, died suddenly. To honor her, a group of people organized the 5K for Karen, a walk-run in her honor. Friday night was the fourth annual, and as we have in past years, my husband, Kevin, and I signed up to participate.
Now, here's the backstory: Due to a combination of rheumatoid and early-onset osteoarthritis, my knees are a little unreliable. I underwent replacement of my left knee in 2008; my right one's not doing so great now, and hasn't been for several months. My former boss used to say she could hear me coming because I clicked; my orthopedic surgeon says I'm bone-on-bone and have even lost a little bit of height on that side.
So, given those facts, what did I decide to do? Walk in a 5K with my husband, who, despite the fact that he's not a tall guy, has a ridiculously long stride. When I walk -- which I do daily, two or three miles, believe it or not -- I cover a lot of ground, but tend to like to do it in my own time. And my own time is not fast.
Have I mentioned that I'm not an athlete? I come from sturdy southern-Italian stock, which means I'm genetically predisposed to fits of temper, a fair amount of gardening talent, the ability to talk with my hands, and relatively easy labors. It also means I'm rather endomorphic -- except that I can't even use large bones as an excuse. My wristbones are tiny; my waistline is not. I'm built for standing in front of a steaming cauldron of minestrone ... so it's really too bad that I never do that.
What do I want to look like? Rhonda, the mom of my stepson's friend Jack. Rhonda is about my age, and is nothing but sinew and muscle and brute strength. She's so amazing that I'd like to dislike her, but I can't, as she's really nice -- and she is also amazing to behold because she's the closest thing I've seen to the Bionic Woman. She runs something like 2,000 miles a day. For her, a 5K would take about the amount of time it takes me to irrigate my sinuses, and she could probably run it backward, while reading or singing.
But to me, the 5K is a huge deal each year -- not just because it honors the wonderful and magical Karen, but because it lets me pretend, for about 50 minutes, that I am on the way to becoming Rhonda.
So I left work a little early Friday night, changed into my "running clothes" (ha!), and set out for the venue. When we arrived, I put on my race T-shirt, greeted folks I knew, took some pictures for the paper, and tried to act as if I belonged. Inside, though, I carried on a one-sided conversation with my pal Karen. "Please don't let me come in last," I begged her. "Give me an otherwordly nudge from behind. Levitate me. Anything. Just. Please. Not. Last."
The starting gun sounded and the race started. All was good at first; Kevin and I talked with friends, greeted our kids' former teachers, laughed, joked, and kept up a pretty good pace.
But then we turned the corner, and the sun was staring us full in the face. Sunshine is all well and good, but not when you're walking uphill and trying to keep up a conversation while not letting on that you're sweating into your socks and gasping for breath. Which, by the first mile-marker, was what I was doing.
I watched my husband's stride and marveled at it. He was sailing along while I, only about an inch shorter than he is, was mincing like a geisha. But was I going to allow him to beat me? No way in hell. So I settled on a sort of walk-skip-almost-jog routine while trying to ignore the stabbing pain emanating from my right knee.
We passed a Casey's. I was burning up, longing for a bottle of water and a brief, shady respite. I considered stopping. But then I looked across Kevin to the other side of the sidewalk and saw that people had turned the corner at the 1 1/2-mile mark and were starting to come back the other way. My 14-year-old stepson was one of them, Justin Bieber hair firmly in place; he hadn't even broken a sweat.
At mile 2, the sun was still full-on and I was panting. Kevin, a few steps ahead, was carrying on a conversation with a friend of mine who was meeting him for the first time. I didn't have enough breath to introduce them. My walk-skip-jog-ouch!-stabbing-pain routine was beginning to fail me, and again I wondered how the knee and I were going to finish the route.
Then, blessedly, we were out of the sunshine and in the home stretch. Karen must have shoved me from behind at that point, because suddently, Kevin and I were neck and neck. We finished the route at around 50 minutes -- not good, but not last.
My face was purple. My knee was screaming. My hair was matted, my t-shirt had ridden up around my waist, and I had no idea where my sunglasses had gone. But still -- I had finished. I was not only Rhonda; I was Flo-Jo. The "Rocky" theme played in my head.
I looked around for my medal, as we had received them in years past. Imagine my chagrin when I was told that the organizers had run out. I ended up going back to the sign-in tent and whining to my friend Sue, who knew people -- and suddenly, my medal appeared. As Kevin shook his head in embarrassment, I looped the purple ribbon around my neck.
Chances are my right knee soon will go the way of my left, so I guess that in a way, the race was its swan song. As I admired my medal and drank some water, I thought of Karen, who started running at age 45, jogging from driveway to driveway in her cul-de-sac until she had the stamina to venture out into the rest of the world. And I thought: I’ll never be Rhonda. But at least, following Karen’s lead from long ago, I got off my a**.
And, wait a minute. Speaking of Rhonda, soon I’ll have two titanium knees, so if we’re going to be literal about all this, by next year I’ll be more bionic than she is.
5K for Karen 2012: Watch out.