I have had many a gratifying moment in my running life. Many an ‘Oh, crap! I just did that?!’ moment, many an ‘Oh s#%&, that was tough but totally worth it!’ moment, many an ‘Aaaahhhh I LOVE running!’ moment. One of my greatest running moments to date, though, happened this past weekend; and it had nothing at all to do with something I had accomplished.
Ever since my niece was born, I told my sister that I was going to make her a nerd and a runner just like her auntie. Little Aimee is pretty smart all on her own. I didn’t have to do anything to make that happen. I will take credit, though, for helping to plant the running seed in her sweet little head.
I first mentioned it to her over a year ago as sort of a joke, didn’t think she’d take it seriously. “Would you like to run a race like auntie?” “Mmm hmm,” she nodded; and I laughed. How cute! Surely, though, she wouldn’t remember anything about a race if I never mentioned it again. I asked her a few more times at random, and the answer was the same. “Mmm hmm!”
Then, once, while talking on the phone, I knew she meant it. Out of nowhere, completely changing the subject of our loose conversation, she asked me, “Are you ready to run a race?” HUH?! Did you really just ask me that?! I was taken aback. “Uh, sure! Are you ready to run a race?” “Mmm hmm!” “OK, auntie will find you a race.” “K.”
That race - the Coyote Classic mile – finally came last Sunday. Aimee wanted me to run it with her. Who could say ‘no’ to that?!
Aimee was revved up and ready to go early Sunday morning, running around my apartment living room and kitchen while waiting for everyone to get ready to head out to Golden for the big day. She was too cute in her spandex three-quarter black and hot pink pants and matching shirt, ponytail, black and hot pink Nike running shoes, and sunglasses. She was ready to go.
We had reviewed our game plan several times the night before as well as that morning. “Auntie, tell me again.” “Our racing strategy?” She nodded. “OK. We’re going to start out conservative – that means not too fast. Other people might run fast and pass us, but that’s OK. We will catch them later when they get tired, and we’ll pass them. Then, at the end, we’ll run as hard as we can to the finish. Got it?” She nodded. She had it.
She was her cheery, chatty, four-year-old self nearly the whole drive to Golden but then suddenly got quiet and looked a bit a little fawn in headlights when we pulled into the Shelton Elementary School parking lot. “You ready for your race?” “Aimee, are you ready?” We must have asked her about ten times while walking behind the building to the grassy, open soccer field. We got not a single response to any one question.
Once we reached the field near the start line, I tried to get her to relax. “Come on, Aimers. Stretch!” I said while stretching my legs. “Like this. See?” Everyone else tried talking to her too to encourage her. She said nothing, did nothing, just stood there frozen.
Finally, the race director made the announcement that the mile was about to start. Everybody else wandered off to find a good spectating spot and left me and Aimee to ourselves with the other kids and their parents running alongside them. She reached for my hand and held it as we stood there waiting for the race to start.
“OK, remember, we’re not going to run too fast when we start. We can speed up at the end. Got it?” Nothing. I squeezed her little hand to offer reassurance and to be sure she could hear me over the hustle and bustle at the starting line. “Just stick with auntie, and we’ll be OK.” Still nothing. So I knelt down to look her in the face through the dark lenses of her sunglasses for some sign that she had heard me.
“Aimers?” Lips pressed together, eyes wide, she made not a sound. If she was anything like me – and, Lord help that baby, she’s exactly like me, poor little thing - she was more than just nervous. She was petrified. I knew that look and the feeling that went with it and, just then, wondered if I looked that scared before races. “Just stick with auntie, and you’ll be OK.” I squeezed her hand again, then stood to wait for the start of the race.
The director was talking again, this time describing the course. “OK, Dolly, you’re going to have to let go of my hand. The race is about to start.” She still didn’t respond, didn’t move, didn’t loosen her firm little grip, which was just fine with auntie. Guess we’re running this mile hand in hand! And so we did.
“Go!” yelled the race director. “OK, let’s go!” I said. Right away, we found ourselves running up a small hill. “OK, let’s get up this hill! Good job!” Then, we hit a flat sidewalk at the top of the hill. “Are you OK? Tell auntie if you want to slow down or if you need to walk, OK?” Still no response. But then she did offer some verbalization that she was all right. She held up her left hand and said, “I’ve got a frog.” A frog? Huh?!
Sure enough, pinched between her little thumb and index finger was a tiny neon greenish rubber frog. “Oh, you brought your frog, huh?” Gotta love four-year-olds. Random! “Hold on to it!”
Then, we took a left turn left past the parking lot to a short decline before another incline – another incline she took like a champ! I was following her lead, and she was gaining on everybody directly in front of her – even bigger kids! – and passed them one parent-child pair at a time.
At about this point was the second of only three times she spoke during the race. “Are you getting thirsty?” Luckily, we were approaching a water fountain along the course. “Do you want a drink?” “Sure.” So, we took a short water break. A few people had passed us back; but a few guzzles later, she was ready again. “OK, let’s go!”
And, just like before, we were playing ‘Frogger’ to weave in, out, and around those just ahead along the course. I couldn’t believe it!
We took another left to head back toward the direction of the soccer field where we started and then found ourselves picking up speed on a steeper downhill. She was a natural striding down the decline and using the momentum at the bottom to propel herself around the next right turn toward a residential neighborhood just behind the school. “Good job, Aimers!” I was impressed.
A few feet later, we hit an aid station with water ready and waiting. “Go get some more water.” She guzzled an entire cup full of water, then threw the empty plastic into the bin that I was pointing out. “Good girl! We’re almost done, just a little more.” We kept running hand in hand to reach volunteers directing us up a final short but steeper hill back to the soccer field and on to the finish line.
“OK, last hill. Let’s go, we’re almost done! As soon as we get up that hill, we’ll see mommy and grandma and grandpa and Daniel. Let’s go!” And, she took that hill like a little champ too. “Good girl, Aimers! Now let’s speed up a little bit. Almost done!”
We ran along the fence outlining a short side of the field and took one final left to the straight away leading to the finish line. “Can I walk?” “We’re almost there! Just a little further, then you can rest. Let’s go!” And, she did. She picked up the pace and finally let go of my hand about ten feet from the finish line:
“Keep going! Just a little more!” And then, she made it. I snuck outside of the line of plastic flags between bright orange construction cones marking the finish line chute and walked alongside my little racer. “You did SO good! Auntie is so proud of you!” And, at the end of the chute, a volunteer handed me a medal that I oh so proudly placed around her neck. “Good job, Dolly!”
Lots and LOTS of congratulations; lots of posing for pictures; one hummingbird temporary tattoo, about fifteen minutes of good, quality time running around the playground; and one lunch later, we were on our way back to my apartment; and Aimee was, well, a little wiped out:
I asked her twice after the race, “Would you want to run another race?” The answer came only with the shake of her head. As per my sister’s report, though, she changed her mind and said she would run another race and had many more a running moment the next day when she brought her race medal to preschool to show her friends and excitedly told them her tale and accepted ‘high fives.’
“Her face was so cute. I wish you could have seen it,” read my sister’s text on Monday morning. I smiled broadly to myself. I could picture her facial expressions and hear her high pitched little voice as she talked to her friends, could imagine her smiling as big as I’ve ever seen her smile in my mind’s eye.
Had she been bitten by the running bug? That remains to be seen. It goes without saying that I would absolutely LOVE for her to pick up running and racing more as she gets older. And, if she doesn’t, that’s fine too. Really, I am just happy that she had the guts to give it a ‘go’ despite that unforgettable fear written all over her cute little face.
Either way, I hope she learned from the experience and remembers that day for the rest of her life as one when she faced and conquered a fear and came out victorious on the other end. And, I was overjoyed to be a part of it, both as a proud auntie and a runner myself.
Whether she races ever again or not matter not in the end. Seeing her smile after the race, and still hearing stories of how excited she is about having run the race - days later – make for quite a memorable running moment for me.
Melissa Mincic, Ph.D., a long-time road and trail runner, conducts applied child development research and works to influence child development policy at the University of Denver. Follow Melissa on Twitter at @nerdinrunshoes.