For a woman of a certain age, and of a certain sedentary disposition, the suggestion that she run a 5K was not merely ridiculous; it was rude!
Fine that her silly husband dressed himself in his skimpy gym clothes and trotted around with other barely dressed people, acting half his age then coming home sweaty and boasting, with another ugly tee shirt and sometimes an even uglier medal around his neck. A finisher medal. She’d quickly latched onto that. He got it merely because he crossed a finish line. He didn’t have to distinguish himself. You could walk the whole distance and they gave you a medal for it! How can someone boast about that?
Got him out of the way for a couple of hours and, sure, he was moving again and getting some fitness, even doing his training runs, and she supposed that was worthwhile. But he was still silly. A man of his age! He should be puttering around the garden, rustling the pages of a newspaper, scoffing at young people. Not joining them for a track meet.
So when he suggested that she should join him one time, put on her sneakers and some loose clothes, then huddle with the herd at a starting line, well, she had no words. That was his thing, his hobby, his particular embarrassment. She’d wanted no part of it and certainly wasn’t going to “run” a 5K with him. To even suggest it!
Was she being insufferable? Maybe. But she was stationary. She wasn’t made of the stuff suited for sports. If he was silly, she’d be embarrassing. People would point at her and laugh. The red in her face wouldn’t be from exertion, that was certain. Worse, she’d confirm that she was a middle-aged woman, past her prime, and she’d no longer be able to ignore it. Then she might as well start looking for a retirement home, settle into a big, soft chair and just watch mindless television for her remaining years.
“It’s called The Bourbon Run,” he’d blathered, as though he had not an ounce of compassion in his heart nor an ounce of sense in his head. “Sponsored by one of the liquor companies. Maybe they’ll be giving away samples.”
Drunk with delight, he chattered away. Just down the way in Martin City, he said. Neighborhood streets. Flat course. Free shirt. And then maybe brunch. It could be fun.
She swatted his balding pate with her newspaper. Bothersome old fool.
But when it was time for him to register for the race, he asked one last time if she wanted to join him, and something unexpected happened. She said, “If it will make you stop asking me, then yes!”
And that was how she found herself standing in a gray drizzle, in a strip mall parking lot before a liquor store, huddled and shivering with the fifty-or-so others who were foolish enough to sign up for The Bourbon Run, waiting for it to start.
The time for complaining, she supposed, was over. Mostly. She was here and she would do this thing and then she would never, ever do such a crazy thing again.
“I can’t keep up with you.”
“You’ll do fine.”
Neither had illusions. His running was more trotting, and he admitted it. But even his trotting was more than she could manage. He’d leave her behind after the first block. And maybe it was better that way. Let him have his fun – was it fun if it looked like agony? – and that way he’d not see her plodding pace, her shame, her particular embarrassment.
Then she heard him say “Here we go,” and the pack started moving. Serious runners, casual runners, youngsters, moms with strollers, even a few people their age. All moving around her.
“What kind of parent would bring children to a bourbon run?”
She tried trotting beside him, tried matching his pace, but it was impossible. So he turned around. He trotted backward and threw his goofy grin at her. Then he trotted in circles around her as she moved so slowly forward.
And all about the herd was surging past. Even the moms pushing baby-laden strollers were passing her and she knew that it wouldn’t be long before she was dead last in the line. Not just back of the pack but last of the pack. If she thought she could, she would have just turned around and retreated to their car, where she wouldn’t be wet and wouldn’t be cold and wouldn’t be seen.
The sky was bleak and gray, the drizzle set on intermittent. Errant wind snatched at her cap, the cap he’d assured her she’d want to wear.
“Go ahead,” she made herself say. “Run your race. Don’t hang back here with me.”
“More than anything!”
And so he did, trotting ahead with the rest of the herd, which she could see was already stringing itself out. Some of them far up the road, others not yet so far, but all of them moving, all of them well ahead of her.
This, she thought, was the biggest mistake of her life. A police car, with its lights flashing, was parked crossways in the middle of the intersection at the first turn of the course. The officer was holding back traffic and waving to the runners. But it was really she who was holding back the traffic. Throwing a delay into their Saturday-morning errands as she walked – walked! – through the intersection, the last of the racers they had to wait for but still interminably slow. She’d hate it if someone did this to her. She’d pity the person!
The pack thinned as they all found their paces. Ahead of her, the last racer she could see any longer just disappeared around a turn. Good thing she had been watching, for the tiny orange cone in the middle of the street was apparently the only other sign she had of where
to go. And when she made the turn, she peered into the gray mist to find the pack again, to see what her next turn would be.
Soon enough she’d lost even that guidance and she had to watch for cones or orange tape or bleeding, drizzle-soaked cardboard signs telling her where to turn. She weaved through residential streets. A few beleaguered spectators in front yards, under umbrellas, cheered to her, and she mustered a smile and a wave to hide her embarrassment, stepping in a puddle one time when she looked up to return a wave. Why was she doing this to herself?
But then the way straightened on the main commercial street and far ahead – did she still have that far to go? – she saw the last of the pack, so she guessed that by some good fortune or lucky coincidence she was still on the course. She could see them far ahead, and if they didn’t turn around, they wouldn’t see her far behind. And she’d have to stay on the course because she was truly lost now and didn’t know any other way back to the gritty parking lot in front of the seedy liquor store that was to blame for this insanity.
Her socks were soaked, her shoes filthy. And she was sweating under the windbreaker that she didn’t want to take off so the drizzle didn’t soak her further. She was supposed to keep her race bib visible, but she wasn’t going to open her jacket now. Why do people do this to themselves? Why did she do it to herself?
She came to the end of the long stretch and guessed the course turned. An overturned cone sat on the sidewalk, but as she looked up and down the cross street she could see no runners or walkers in either direction. She had a vague sense that the liquor store was somewhere off to the left, and with nothing more to go on than that, she pointed her feet to the left. The drizzle on her face collected into drops that fell from her nose.
This was a grim, industrial stretch past faceless warehouses with fenced, weedy parking lots. No tidy yards here with intrepid spectators. No dutiful policeman to steer her steps. She could be going completely the wrong way, and she had no idea at all. Left alone. Abandoned on the course.
Surely even her silly, trotting husband had crossed the finish line by this time. He’d had the pack to guide him. He done this kind of foolishness before and knew what he was doing. She had no experience and no idea what she was doing.
She called him.
“I’m lost,” she snarled. “I hate this. I can’t tell you how much I hate this.”
“Did you turn at the gas station?”
“I didn’t see any stupid gas station.”
“Okay, I’ll run back over the course and find you. We’ll walk it in together.”
“I hate this.”
“You may have mentioned that.”
“That’s because I do!”
When he reached her, not all that far from the finish line, the first thing he noticed was that her cap was gone. The second thing he noticed was the scowl on her face.
“This is the stupidest sport on the planet, you know!”
He walked beside her, not in the street any longer but on the cracked and crumbling sidewalk. A car hissed past them on the wet pavement, on the course prematurely, but then who was going to stop it? She might have gotten run down for her trouble. That certainly wouldn’t happen if she’d just stayed in her chair before the television at home.
“I am never, ever going to do this kind of foolishness again. Do you hear me?”
He knew enough not to respond. There was no response, really. She was in a state.
“We’re very close to the finish line, actually,” he finally dared.
“Good. I’m ready to be done with this!”
They walked up the small hill to the last turn before an easy descent into the parking lot and the finish line.
“I really don’t know why people think this is fun.”
And he was polite. He didn’t argue or contradict. He didn’t try to make a case. He simply suffered her insufferableness.
More steps in the chilly silence, and then, “This is stupid. It’s a stupid thing to do.”
But not far ahead of them was the finish line. Most of the other runners appeared to have left, but a few race officials still lingered, obligated, she guessed, to wait for the very last person to stagger in. Grumbling, no doubt, that some poky old lady was making them stand around longer in the drizzle.
“Want to run it in?”
She turned to him, half in surprise and half in contempt. Did he really think that trotting the last twenty feet of this nonsense would somehow salvage it?
But she stepped up her stride, and, with what her husband praised as a decent running pace, took herself over the first and absolutely last finish line of her life.
She didn’t feel the relief that floods runners when they’re done. No satisfaction. No elation. No achievement. She felt nothing. She wanted go home and take a hot shower and put on dry clothes and never speak of this.
They sheltered from the spitting wind beside a tall sign, and she looked with disgust at the brown banana and dried out granola bar that were the prizes for her mighty achievement. No, not a drop of bourbon at all.
One of the race officials hurried over.
“Congratulations! You finished second in your age group.” And he threw a medal around her neck. A silly little medal on a slim satin ribbon, and as she clutched it in her disbelieving hand, it transformed into the most beautiful jewel she had ever seen!
Her husband watched as her eyes pinched into a calculating squint and her lips curled into a wicked smile. He realized then that he hadn’t even begun to know what insufferableness is.
Paul Lamb lives near Kansas City but escapes to his Ozark cabin whenever the gets the chance. His debut novel, One-Match Fire, was published by Blue Cedar Press in 2022. His short stories have appeared in dozens of literary journals. He rarely strays far from his laptop. You can find him at paullambwriter.com.