As dawn arrived at camp on the day of the Great Race, I yelled into the big tent to wake the teenagers. Nocturnal creatures, they had not been sleeping for long. In fact my oldest son, Boy in Black, had said that the only way he could possibly be up in time for the race was if he stayed up all night.
"This is the stupidest idea our family has had yet," my daughter declared. "It’s vacation! Let's wake up at 6 a.m. and run six miles! WHAT KIND OF FAMILY DOES THAT?" She was smiling, though, and looking bright-eyed. Her brothers, on the other hand, stumbled about in slow motion like weird dead pirates, pulling off their black band t-shirts and pulling on their official periwinkle blue race t-shirts.
To warm everyone up, my niece opened the door of her car and cranked up the music. The runners danced wildly for a few minutes, some of them adding in a few stretching exercises. Many of the volunteers danced, too, in solidarity with the runners. The sun was already started to feel hot.
We’d made all the plans the evening before, even driving around to pound in mile markers. You would be surprised to see how many families in a rural area sit outside on a warm summer evening, all watching curiously as the pick-up truck filled with screaming teenagers and children went by. Dandelion Niece and Suburban Nephew had made medals for everyone who finished the race, but the medals were carefully hidden and kept secret until the day of the race.
"They look like Olympic medals," Dandelion Niece had confided in me.
"Is the first place medal made of real gold?" I asked.
She gave me a serious look. "It’s authentic foam."
The whole family was participating. We had eleven runners in all and nine volunteers who would help with the race details, plus four dogs who were likely to get in the way. Blond Brother-in-law, a runner sidelined by injuries, took charge of the volunteers. I’d given my spot on a relay team to my husband, whose plantar fascitis flared up to prevent him from running the full race. This move was less noble than it sounds, since I really don’t like running, preferring to drive around and take photos instead. Since the other five members of my family were running, I knew I could snag a t-shirt when they came through the wash.
Urban Sophisticate Sister, the experienced runner who had planned the race, told me she intended to run eight-minute miles, which would be a challenging but achievable pace for the rest of the family, most of whom are not runners. She predicted that my brother, the other runner in the family, would try to stay twenty paces ahead of her. “It’s the testosterone factor.”
She teased Boy in Black and Shaggy Hair Boy, who both went running a few times in April and gave then gave it up as a boring sport, preferring to play Ultimate Frisbee with their friends instead. She wasn’t sure that playing frisbee was sufficient training for a 10K race. Boy in Black himself said he had no way of knowing how well he would do, but he did have a secret plan for the race, which he told me in the boat on the way home from an afternoon swim the day before. He was just going to stick with whoever the front runner was and save some energy for sprinting at the end. He had no chance of beating Urban Sophisticate at distance – she is a marathon runner – but his long legs give him a big advantage when it comes to sprinting.
Since our camp is on the river, the terrain would be inevitably difficult for the first half of the race – 3.1 miles uphill, leaving behind the marshes and shady woods and climbing up to the high farmland with cow pastures and cornfields. The Midpoint Volunteer Team (mainly Red-haired Sister, her two little kids, and my mother) parked a discreet distance from the white farmhouse that marked the turning point and got ready with cups of water for the runners. We tied balloons to a couple of lawn chairs to indicate to anyone who happened by with a shotgun (the owners of the land, for instance) that we had come in peace.
The race began with an official "Ready, Set, Go" and the runners were off. By the end of the first mile, they had spread out and were running in packs. Some cousins chose slower times just to keep pace with their favorite running partners. Drama Niece and Blonde Niece ran the first couple of miles together, using a debatable strategy of singing loudly as they went up the hills. Schoolteacher Niece and Shaggy Hair Boy stayed together, with her shouting encouragement as he attempted to run through stomach cramps. He’d been feeling poorly anyhow, and at the midpoint, he looked so green that my sister tried to convince him to drop out, but he refused, finishing the race a valiant fifth just behind Schoolteacher Niece.
The matching shirts that Urban Sophisticate had brought, plus the numbered running bibs that my brother had provided, helped make the runners look official as they moved along the country roads. As she had predicted, my sister ran eight-minute miles, keeping a steady pace, running comfortably. My brother stayed just ahead of her – and at his elbow, Boy in Black. During the last mile, my brother began picking up the pace – and so did Boy in Black. They did not stop to check for traffic as they crossed the highway near camp, and my sister claims she heard my brother say to his nephew, "If we cross now, we can lose her in the traffic."
As they came down the stretch, both running full speed toward the yellow tape that I had stretched between two trees, Boy in Black pulled ahead of my brother. But then one of my sister’s annoying dogs leapt into his path, giving my brother an advantage, and the two runners were even as they approached the finish line. With a final surge of energy, Boy in Black threw himself at the yellow tape, reaching just ahead of his uncle to grab it, diving ahead of him and rolling to the ground with the finish line wrapped around him. A close win.
As each runner came across the finish line, we cheered and clapped and took photos. My mother dumped water on runners who lay sprawled on the grass. Red-haired Niece, who crossed the line last, decided to do it in style by running backwards and pulling her shorts down so that she would break the yellow tape with her bare butt. Urban Sophisticate Sister took the traditional plunge off the dock but most of the kids just flopped facedown in the grass, unwilling to move even one more step.
The medal ceremony was held near the firepit, with Dandelion Niece presenting a medal to each person who completed the race. As Boy in Black, Brother, and Urban Sophisticate Sister, the top three runners, stood on the picnic bench that was serving as podium, wearing their foam medals proudly, we all sang the national anthem, some members of the crowd swaying back and forth. Boy in Black held a frisbee in his hand, in tribute to the sport that had served him well in training.