By Mariah Mottley
Our friend Tony had talked up the Boilermaker 15K, a highly popular Utica road race, during the Easter Egg hunt, when summer was still an abstract concept. He said there was lots of live music, and that the race ended at a brewery. Loath to be left behind on a fitness adventure, I agreed to train with Sean. I don’t skateboard, surf, or ski, but I can jog.
July now, the night before the race, we sat across from one another at the Tailor & the Cook, a farm-to-table restaurant purported to be one of the many bright spots in Utica’s culinary night life.
“Is that pedialyte?” I asked, squinting at the water bottle beside Sean.
The number of times I’ve seen my husband quaff a sports drink is the same number of many times we’ve left the children for a night in order to recreate. It was a weekend of firsts.
Our waiter, seeing Sean’s unappetizing beverage, regaled us with topographical details of the race route, mentioning two hills, one near the golf course and one just before the finish. These places were where the citizens of Utica would really rally for us when we got tired.
“You won’t believe how much they carry you along,” he said.
Sean stopped chewing, sweeping the restaurant with a sidelong glance that I recognized immediately as slow moving panic. He had just noticed that we were not at Viva Taqueria, in Ithaca, but in a new place, about to a do a new thing.
He leaned forward, his voice low.
“I’m having a feeling of … foreboding,” he said. “Tomorrow is going to be … different.”
I asked him what was foreboding about doing something new. He moved some duck around on his plate, regretting, I suspected, not ordering the vegan risotto.
“You’re really not nervous?” he asked.
“It won’t be as bad as losing my job,” I said. “Or being ignored by that literary agent. Agents. None of that is going to happen tomorrow. We’re just gonna run slowly, like we have been every weekend, only tomorrow we’ll be doing it with 20,000 people.”
“14.5,” he corrected me. “There are only 14.5 thousand people running the 15K. There are 4,500 running the 5K, 1,000 doing the walk, and over 6,000 volunteers. This year will be the 40th race, since the first one in 1978, which had only 876. 14.5 thousand.”
“OK, ‘Rain Main,’” I said.
He was really nervous.
But by the next morning, my confidence had gone. We were impostors. I was slow, slow, slow. A big race for me is when I am able to pick off walkers with strollers at our local 5K. Today we would run three 5K, back to back, and there would be no strollers.
Leaving our motel room, we saw a man already in his bib, headed to his car, his white beard neatly trimmed, leg muscles like rocks. Stricken, Sean asked if I’d noticed his T-shirt.
“It said Boilermaker 20 on it,” Sean said. ”Today is the 40th. He’s been running this race for 20 years.”
We were punching way above our weight, it seemed, as we collected our bibs and waited for the race to start. I tried not to think about how long we would be running, or how tired I might get.
The race began. Fourteen and a half thousand people is no joke. There were so many different kinds of runners, I had trouble processing what I was seeing, lost track of tattoos, of fluorescent tops. We ran past gas stations, through tree-lined boulevards, past the hospital, up into the golf course, into the downtown past run-down houses and vacant looking warehouses. The whole way, people lined the road, cheering for us, cranking noisemakers, playing music, handing out popsicles, cups of water, cups of ice, chanting and waving encouragements. They sat in chairs, stood, held mimosas, signs naming their organizations, and of the people they wanted to cheer for. They held their hands out for high fives from us.
When we began climbing the big hill near the golf course, the people with me began to walk. I did not. As I was fighting my way to top of the hill, I caught sight of a homemade sign that said, “If it were EZ, it’d be called your MOM.”
I had to read it twice, its message incongruous with the woman in the petal pink polo shirt and white capris holding it. Ha. It was easier to pick up my feet, easier to run the rest of the hill with a laugh building up in my ribs. Soon we were headed downhill. Your mom, I kept thinking.
By mile 6, I was tired. I didn’t walk though, still had some gas in my tank. At mile 7, we hit the last hill. The ground at the water stops was littered with crumpled red and yellow McDonalds’ cups which made soft sounds when I ran through them, like fallen leaves. Same with the popsicle wrappers. Mile 8 to 9 hurt. I was psychologically worn out from the unfamiliar terrain, the thousands of unknown faces. My feet hurt. There was a photographer above us in a crane. I wanted this to be over. More and more people were stopping to walk, but Sean and I kept running.
As we finished the final hill and headed down toward the finish line, I saw another sign. “Worst Parade Ever,” it read. Beside it, “I’m Proud of You, Perfect Stranger.” Sean and I crossed the finish line in 11,044th and 11,043rd place.
The waiter at the Tailor & the Cook was right. The people of Utica rallied to help me finish the Boilermaker. I hadn’t expected they would use sassy humor, and make me love them, those perfect strangers. That was new. Well-played, Utica, well-played.
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Originally from Manhattan, Mariah was educated in Massachusetts, Montana and Texas, often by failure. She lives with her husband and three children in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Mariah can be reached at email@example.com.