Bringing Up the Rear

It’s five minutes before the gun, and we are gathered at the
starting line to stretch. The Official Guide to the New Haven
Road Race claims that more than 5,000 runners from all over the
world are here. The New Haven Green is a sea of flesh. There
are yuppie mothers pushing toddlers in three-wheeled sport-utility
carriages and fat guys in their thirties nervously assuring their
girlfriends, "Yeah, I went through Marines basics, so I
should be able to handle this, no problem." There are also
ponytailed adolescent girls in voluminous sweatshirts that proclaim
their fidelity to the Saint Mary’s cross-country team; barrel-chested
body builders who travel in herds, smacking one another on the
buttocks for luck; and silver-haired lawyers compressed into
fifty-dollar spandex shorts and sporting denim baseball caps
from Eddie Bauer. Two fellows, their flesh like the sculpted
marble of Greek statues, speak to one another in a hushed and
menacing Slavic tongue. Some Frenchmen stand about in neon tank-tops
and too-short shorts, smoking cigarettes and spitting their Gallic
indifference to the ground. Music crashes out of elevated loudspeakers
to pump us up: Darth Vader’s "Imperial Death March,"
Survivor’s "Eye of the Tiger," and the theme from Chariots
of Fire. It’s working on the be-spandexed man standing next to
me; in an instant, he’s Luke Skywalker, Rocky, and those two
British sprinters, all in one. He wishes me luck. Thanking him,
I awkwardly explain that his good wishes are misdirected. "You
see," I say, "I finish last." "Excuse me?"
"I lose races."
I can act, I can sing, and I can dance. But I cannot run. I’m
"husky" (so said my blue jeans from the time I was
eight). And I keep a pace comparable to the rate of continental
drift. I’m slow. Yale-Station-Post-Office-slow.
My 4,999 opponents don’t let me forget it. The start gun is fired
and the runners stream by. The 20k race heads in a different
direction, so I never have a chance to look out, as the Guide
suggests, for Connecticut’s top distance runner, who is named-no
joke-Steve Swift. As we cross the 5k start line, the high school
kids pass me by, followed closely by the lawyers, the black-lunged
Frenchmen, and even, in a crushing blow to my self-esteem, a
fitter-than-I Yale President Richard Levin. I’m left to bring
up the rear with the beer-bellied ex-Marines and the three-year-olds
in their miniature hum-vees. I cross the finish line 32 minutes
and 19 seconds later, gasping, exhausted, and in 1,434th place.
This is out of 1,822 competitors, so even though I finish third-to-last
in my age group, I feel fully justified in declaring that I have
beaten hundreds of people.
At this point, I ought to be happy. After weeks of training,
I finally catch my breath, and the pain recedes. I’m still aware,
however, that my race is not yet over. In fact, the road race
season has just begun in southern Connecticut, and I have to
keep training to stay in shape. Of course, everything that can
stand between me and the track inevitably does. Late nights studying
leave me exhausted. I’m tripped up by a malicious case of the
grippe-no doubt a gift from the scheming Frenchmen who haunted
the start line. A battle with a microscopic but ferocious little
fungus keeps me stepping lightly for weeks, my wide strides reminiscent
of John Wayne’s dismounting his horse.
Yet while my body mounts a straightforward attack, my mind strikes
more subtly. Everyday comments remind me of my pending fate.
"Come on," says a friend as we rush to class, "we’re
running late." I get back hastily-completed homework assignments
with warnings that I’m "falling behind." Even in the
dining hall, I’m haunted. "Hey, pick up the pace,"
yells a voice in the slow-moving line. "Where’s the catch-up?"
demands another. I begin to wonder whether my slowness is somehow
beyond my control, an inertia imposed from above.
It’s race day again, and, on four hours of sleep, I climb onto
the g6 bus and head for Lighthouse Point Park-sleepier, heavier,
and undoubtedly slower than I was a month before. Knowing that
it’s going to take more than inspiring 1980s movie scores to
pump me up, I’ve turned to doping: I’m counting on a large coffee,
straight black, to get me moving. I arrive at the course and
immediately notice that this race-the ironically named "Memory
Walk 2000" to benefit Alzheimer’s research-is a more relaxed
affair. Fewer than 200 runners have shown up for this 5k. I think
that, just maybe, I stand a chance. But as we hit the course
(a half-mile of which some sadist has laid out along the beach),
nobody is walking. As I complete the first of two laps, I hear
cheers erupting from the crowd. I raise my hands in the air,
thumbs up, while the winners, completing their second lap, zoom
past to the finish. I trudge through another mile and a half,
dodging the road-raging three-year-olds throwing rocks from their
carriages. I place 155th out of 170. In my age group, I’ve fallen
to second-to-last.
The Yale intramural race takes place on a windy November day.
As I survey the competition, I lose my delusions. This is my
age group, and they’re serious. My teammates and I discuss our
high school years, how they all ran cross country races and I
ran out of breath. The race begins with a dash across the open
field, and from the beginning I’m bringing up the rear. 28:55
later, with sweat chilling my forehead, lungs burning, and hands
chapped red, I cross the line, dead last. There are no cheers,
no congratulations. There are hardly even any people: Half of
my own team has left, and the timekeepers gather up the line
marker as I cross it. I cool down and watch as the sun sets,
bringing an end to the day, the season, the year. There will
be plenty of races next year for me to lose. But for a while,
at least, I can relax and take it slow.


Matthew Underwood, a sophomore
in Davenport College, is on the staff of

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