Last year, I ran for my son. This year I ran with my son.
I will explain. Every October, Riverhead's Long Island Aquarium & Exhibition Center presents a 5k (3.1 mile) race to fund their efforts to aid an endangered, triangular-headed species of sea turtle, called the Kemps ridley. The race, the Run for the Ridley, is an eagerly anticipated event that attracts several hundred runners, from beginners to elite racers.
As an older runner who's performed pretty well in 10ks (6.2 miles) and half marathons (13.1 miles), I was always hesitant to try a 5k. This may sound odd, but in contrast to the longer distances, a 5k requires a brisk start and a lively pace for the duration of the race. This is not the game plan for a longer race. In a 10k, for example, the runner must start more slowly, gradually build to a good, steady pace and then hopefully have a strong finish.
In 2009, I decided to sign up for the Ridley. I asked my then 15-year-old-son, Eric, a non-runner, to accompany me. The short racing distance would take only 30 minutes out of his busy, teenage day and would be over before most of his friends woke up. To my delight, he agreed to join me.
Driving to Riverhead from my home in Coram, I began to worry that I wouldn't be able to find the parking area. I had left ample time for parking and picking up my race paraphernalia, but still I fretted. As it turned out, I found the parking lot with plenty of time to spare. Unfortunately, in my pre-race mania, I jumped out of the car a bit too eagerly, twisting my ankle on the gravel surface. I didn't want to panic in front of my son, so I put on my Big Girl face as we walked to the registration area.
Finally, it was time to start! I said goodbye to Eric and lined up with the other runners, trying not to think too much about the pain in my left ankle. A half mile into the race, I knew I wouldn't be finishing. My ankle felt hot, like it was burning. Uh oh. By the one-mile mark, I was done, and with a heavy heart, walked off the course. A race volunteer driving an official vehicle noticed me and escorted me back to the finishers' area.
Eric was surprised and a little confused to see me back so soon. I related my tale of woe, and without much ado, we left and drove home.
Fast forward two years. Eric, now a 17-year-old high school senior, gets diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. The fall of 2011 was a blur of chemotherapy, with radiation to follow. Thankfully, he had an excellent prognosis and responded well to the treatments. The best part was that he remained the same smart, sarcastic, musical, New York Jets-loving, thoughtful kid he always was. His positive outlook and wry humor inspired me to try running the Ridley again.
Without mentioning anything to Eric, I registered for the 2011 race, determined to have a better showing this time around. I decided that not only was I going to finish the race, I was going to take first, second or third in my age group (50-54). The winners would receive a medal and a stuffed turtle, and I wanted that turtle!
Race day was cool and crisp. Perfect conditions. I pushed myself pretty hard and won second place in my age group. I couldn't wait to surprise Eric with the news. I posted the info on Facebook, along with a photo of myself accepting the award and stuffed turtle. I also wrote a heartfelt caption, the gist of which described how much of an inspiration Eric was to me. He responded quickly to my post, but his comments were sort of generic, along the lines of, "Good job, Mom!"
When I reminded him of the 2009-twisted ankle debacle, he sheepishly confessed that he didn't really remember that outing very well. It appears that I had been stressing over an incident that wasn't even on this kid's radar!
A few weeks later, Eric and I were at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in New Hyde Park, where he was receiving chemotherapy. I happened to have a running magazine with me and mentioned that if he ever wanted to try racing, a 5k might be a good start. He had been doing a little running before his illness and planned to pick up where he left off, after all the treatments were over.
He said, "Sure, why not?"
On Oct. 20 this year, I ran the Ridley with my son. Now a cancer-free freshman at Ithaca College, Eric came to Long Island for the weekend. He did the driving to Riverhead, which alleviated a good deal of my pre-race stress. He didn't appear to be nervous at all; Eric had been training up at school and knew he could handle the run. The weather conditions were not ideal for a race; it was sunny and unusually warm and humid for late October. But we both did well. I took first place in my age group, and Eric was no slouch himself. He looked very strong and in control as he crossed the finish line of his very first road race. After I accepted my medal and the little stuffed turtle, Eric told me how proud he was of my accomplishment.
"Proud" doesn't begin to describe how I feel about him.
--Robin Ames, Coram