I’ve spent the last decade running in invitational half-marathons so exclusive that I’m the only entrant. I claimed I’d never entered a race because I like to run alone, first as a student escaping her dissertation and later as a mom escaping her preschooler. But really, it was because of the what ifs.
What if I’m too slow? What if I put my bib on wrong and have to run the race with a hole in my shirt? What if my timing chip doesn’t work? What if I get injured and have to forfeit my registration? What if my kid gets sick on race day? What if I’m sick on race day? What if I look like Phoebe flail-running through Central Park? What if I’m wearing the wrong running clothes? What if I have to walk? What if I get lost? What if I lose my hotel key? What if I get a post-race migraine and can’t properly celebrate my accomplishment? What if I forget to ask for no ice in a restaurant in a new city the day before the race and end up having to use the porta-potties? What if the line is too long? What if there’s no toilet paper? What if there’s no hand sanitizer?
My awfulizing convinced me to avoid racing. Better to not enter than to withdraw. Better to run indoors than to use a porta-potty.
This fall, my sister told me it was time to start running with other people, specifically, her. It’s impossible to get lost. No one cares what your running clothes look like. Just use the porta-potty. She noted that while most of my fears were ridiculous, some of them could very well happen, but that all of them were stupid reasons not to do something I enjoyed with someone I loved. We signed up to run the Baltimore Half.
On race day, just as the local water and my nerves were catching up with me, my sister and I came up to a porta-potty just as a runner was exiting. There had been nothing to fear. Here was the universe opening a door just as I needed it.
I closed the door before I saw the soft-serve of feces behind the seat.
Instead of facing my fear, I turned my back on it and kept to the front, grateful for toilet paper and hand sanitizer. I opened the door in the first of the day’s tiny triumphs: a “What if?” turned “So What?” I’d done the scary thing and probably wouldn’t contract cholera.
I joined my sister who, I realized to a horror worse than the threat of fecal contamination, was standing at the front of the dozens-long porta-potty line. I hadn’t even started the race and already I was cheating. I hurried past the line, grateful that my nondescript black gear wouldn’t identify me as the line-cutter to all those runners when they passed me later.
I was now a porta-potty survivor and unintentional line-cutter, but despite these setbacks was soon to be a half-marathon starter. And then all sorts of what-ifs I hadn’t even considered happened. What if the starting gate falls down right in front of my wave? The course organizers will swiftly re-inflate it. What if an ambulance needs to go to a house on the course route? A crowd of runners will wordlessly shift to the right and pause their race to let emergency workers through. What if I didn’t really look at the course elevation and feel despondent on the hills? What seems like the entire population of Baltimore will be out on the course, offering high fives, Halloween candy, mimosas, and cheers of support.
It wasn’t just that I had little to fear. It’s that I had a lot to gain. What if running will make me a less fearful, better person? I’m running my first marathon to find out. Cleveland 2019 runners, I promise not to skip the line.