The Race That Began Before It Started
Seven Life Lessons for Achieving your goals
I woke up on race day somewhat nervous about the 10k run. For a Goalaholic like me, this first milestone for the year would validate my new year’s resolutions. But I decided to sign up for the Lagos city marathon only eighteen days to the race.
Totally unprepared I was, I left running over two decades ago. What could have been my comeback to running two years ago when I took part in my organisations’ sports competition left me with the 6km silver medal and no drive to continue running. It must have been the realities of mid-life that gave me the jerk-up to hit the streets again this year. After a two-week crash training at the gym, the pace picked up but my lungs still needed strengthening. Strenuous as it was for a woman my age, I pressed on with the squats, deadlifts, broad jumps and any other routine the trainer put me on.
Running was recreational for me. Whether it was the occasional 50 meter dash at the Inter-house sports of my children’s school or the Saturday 5k runs. I just ran for the sheer joy of the sport. It was liberating to set off 6.15am on Saturday, feeling the air swirl against you as you breeze past strangers. Some of them giving you the thumbs up and the shared camaraderie of other runners along the route. Some runners accompany you for a while and you can leave them behind as you pick up speed. What remained constant for me was that I never ran with the same person from start to finish.
Competing in a 10k race at first attempt was a lofty goal for a recreational runner my age. My goal should just have been to finish the race and not to compete. It wasn’t. Something was different about this race. There was a nagging thought I kept shoving aside that would not stop asking me to acknowledge my innermost aspiration for the race.
During the weeks to the race, there had been colorful outdoor banners and billboards advertising the Lagos city marathon. Every time I passed by the banners which carried different taglines, they seemed to be prodding me to “pick one, pick one”. Each banner was designed with images of athletes in different poses that conveyed the message of the tagline. There was the ‘run to win’, ‘run for the camera’, ‘run to smash records’ and so on. Something in me identified most with the ‘run to win’ posters which had the athlete crossing the ribbon at the finish line with his hands raised ecstatically; ‘run for the camera’ was a runner taking a selfie while ‘run to smash records’ had an elderly man schlepping along with determination.
As part of my preparation I joined a WhatsApp group with the more consistent runners in my workplace believing it would help motivate and build confidence for my first real competitive run as an adult. On the group it was common for runners to share Fitbit or Pacer progress so I thought “okay, this will inspire me a lot”. On this day it was Angela’s post I woke up to see . . . 21.9km from the previous day and just this morning she had completed 23.2 km. To think that I had barely completed a 5km run without gasping helplessly for breath and I was competing in the same race as this lady made me feel half-witted to say the least. Angela was training for the full marathon but everyone else I knew doing the 10k run like me said they would run for the camera or for fun. Responding to my thumbs up to her post on the group, Angela asked me how prepared I was for the race this weekend. What was a girl to say? I suddenly became finger-tied. My training records which I had been so proud of seconds earlier swung between 55minutes and 59minutes for 9.5k runs on the treadmill which was the longest distance I ever did. Here was Mrs 24km Runner, asking me how I was doing. “Well, nothing serious. I’m just running for the camera” was my timid response. I lied.
On the eve of race day, a friend coming to the race from another state asked me to drop off her race vest at a hotel close to the race venue. I let her know that I didn’t want to be unsettled on race morning if I had to go first looking for her hotel. She assured me that I wouldn’t be unsettled if I didn’t take the race too seriously. This was her second time at the Lagos city marathon. “Girl, we are all here to run for the fun of it”, Stephanie said in her usual spirited manner. Inside of me I didn’t quite agree because there was still an unspoken desire in me to run competitively. I tried to explain that I had been training and my aim was to finish the race without making too many stops. “Don’t worry girl! Just come and have fun…let us aim to finish the race no matter how many stops we make. No pressures!’’ She had a point, having fun was a part of the 10km race. It was also called the ‘family race’. However, being a goal-oriented person, it just wasn’t my thing to have fun at this time of the year when I was set on ticking off milestones.
I took a cab to Stephanie’s hotel on race morning and down to the race venue we strolled to find hundreds of excited runners gathered. It appeared that I had settled to run for fun, for the camera, or for whatever the majority of runners were running for. Before today, I had always run alone but whom would it hurt to run along with some company this time? This was how I rationalized it.
Music blared from the DJ’s branded podium where people of different colors, shapes, sizes, adults, children…everyone was connecting before the race. Adrenaline must have pumped so hard I forgot about the nagging feeling that reminded me to be true to myself. The bottling water company and other sponsors were at hand to distribute towels, head and wrist bands as well as t-shirts. It became really rowdy as runners scrambled for the gifts. Standing adjacent to the start line, we watched the chaos as we posed for selfies.
When the morning coolness began to fade, we began to look around for officials. People generally seemed more interested in the branded gifts and entertainment than the race officials. I resisted the urge to say out loud “Aren’t they going to address us on what time the race begins?” then I hushed myself again when I remembered, I was here to run for fun, no pressures! Stephanie and I strolled away from the start line area to warm up as we had stood there for a while. We noticed people gravitating to an area ahead of us on the street. We weren’t interested in the freebies but as everyone moved on, we believed the give-aways might have been a strategy to get runners to gather for race instructions. We followed.
As we walked behind the crowd, runners just before us suddenly started running. We heard someone shout “race has started oh!” Really? How? When? Were my instant thoughts but when no answers came, the confused trio of me, Stephanie and Stephanie’s spouse impulsively joined the running mob. We simply jogged behind these tens or possibly hundreds of people in front of us. It took a while for the confusion to wear off as I changed my pace and could no longer keep up with my running partners. There was no flag raised, no gun to indicate that an IAAF race had begun yet everyone was running. Going by Stephanie’s smartwatch, we began the race about 8.57am.
I finished the 10 km race in 1:13:06, approximately thirteen minutes behind my target. After an un-spirited race start and a hurting knee I developed during the race, I wasn’t going to beat up myself for not meeting target so I consoled myself that I ran for fun after all, and not to win. I looked around and it was difficult to find Stephanie and her husband. There were so many runners in the finish area brandishing their medals while spectators waited for the closing ceremony. After what seemed like thirty minutes of looking for Stephanie, someone tapped my shoulder. It was my daughters’ athletics Coach. He was steps away from finish line, wearing a purple t-shirt with ‘Technical official’ boldly inscribed on it. He had a stopwatch in his hand and an open notebook he was writing on.
“Ah! How are you madam? Long time. Happy New Year! How’s my girl now?” As he continued greeting, another lady working with him interrupted. She complained to him that no third female runner was coming, shaking her head in a manner that suggested she had lost hope. Standing by her was a slightly plump lady she introduced as the second place female still panting as if she had just finished the race. I was perplexed. I asked the Coach how it was possible that the second place female just finished the race. He then turned to a lady behind me who was leaning on a restraining tripod as if to introduce us and said in an unassertive tone “this is our winner for the 10k run”.
I acknowledged the lady, congratulating her with a forced smile. You could see she wasn’t an athlete by her physique and she looked as baffled as I was. “Wow, so you won? How did you do it?”. “It was God. I don’t know how God did it”, was all she kept saying in a humble tone. Coach cuts in Nigerian pidgin English saying “Yes o, na she win de Kia Rio motor, look at the mark we put on her number tag to identify those who started the race at the sound of the gun. As far as race is concerned, na she come first”. I peeped into Coach’s notepad and saw written on it 1:23:06- finishing time for first female 10km run. I finished ten minutes earlier. I had no mark on my tag because I ran along with the mob that didn’t wait for the gun. Instantly, I felt dizzy.
There were now very scanty male runners approaching the finish line as most runners had finished and collected medals. To the relief of Coach’s Assistant, another lady came through and she was ushered to him as third female runner.
Slowly, I began to make sense of what had happened. The real race had started at 9.30am. Most runners, many of which had come to run for fun, had taken off about thirty minutes earlier. As embarrassing as it is to admit I was part of that mob of distracted, fun-seeking, no-goal driven runners. The Lagos city marathon was an IAAF monitored race. Regardless of poor crowd management, adherence to the sound of the gun at the official start time was important.
I quickly realized that I may not have been the fastest runner in that race but I could have been the winner if I had stuck to my innermost aspiration of competing not merely finishing _ ‘run to win’.
The Lagos marathon is done and dusted but the lessons I take away will remain with me. Neither my consolatory finishing medal nor a brand new Kia Rio can take these lessons away. A summary of these seven lessons are:
- Always be true to self and honest about your innermost intents and aspirations.
- Do not be pressured to disclose your innermost aspirations but guard them with courage.
- Some goals in life require running solo. Run solo if need be and do not be intimidated by other people’s lofty achievements.
- Have fun, only if it’s truly fun to you but do not be distracted by the ‘mob’ while having fun.
- Speak up. Ask. Clarify. You could be the lone voice that prevents a false start.
- Respect every institution for what they represent, regardless of their antecedents. The discretion to break rules belongs to the maker of the rules.
- The race is not to the swift, neither is the battle to the strong. Have faith.
On a final note, let me add that our goals as individuals are inspired by natural traits and experiences unique to us. The false starts of life may try to derail us but you must trust your instincts more than the ‘mob’. You can only wait for so long before the gun says go!
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