The week before my 47th birthday, I found myself running up a steep hill at 4:30 in the morning. It was raining, and so dark that the road disappeared an inch beyond my flashlight. The funny thing is, I was smiling. I was nearing mile 60 in a running relay in New Hampshire, with 140 more miles to go before my team would reach the finish line. Until this race, I had never been an athlete, and I never thought I would be. Now I believe in seizing the chance to join a team no matter how late in life it becomes possible.
When I was growing up, I avoided running because it gave me a stitch in my side. In gym class, I cowered whenever anything larger than a ping pong ball came towards me. I always admired the school athletes, but the coaches and captains saw absolutely no potential in me. I stayed fit by riding my bike everywhere.
When I moved to Boston, I stood on the sidelines of the marathon each April, cheering until I was hoarse. I thought the runners were gods of grace and resilience. I was a clumsy mortal. Something changed the year I turned 40 and my 10-year-old son began training for a one-mile road race. When parents were invited to run along, I sat in the parking lot, hating myself for setting a lazy example.
I started running stealthily so no one would know if I failed. It took me a month before I could go five minutes without stopping. A few months later, I ambitiously decided to train for a marathon, and managed to finish in dead last place. Still, I wanted to keep running because I had grown to count on the strength it gave me.
I was the runner of last resort when my neighbor asked me to join his relay squad. Some of his top picks had dropped out, and the race was only three weeks away. I warned him that I was slow, but I thought I could run 15 miles. The next thing I knew, I had a race number and a seat in a van. Two days with 11 others, all of us going without sleep or showers, gave me a crash course in what I had been missing all these years. Working together, we made it through injuries, wrong turns, and a running shoe that vanished (it probably fell out of the van).
Our group has run the relay for three years straight, and my teammates – all of us over age 40 – have become my closest friends. Now I can confidently say that my glory days of being a team player are not behind me. I find them when my legs pump uphill through the dark, and my graying hair sticks to my cheeks in the rain.
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