“So, what are your personal goals for tomorrow’s race?” she asked.
We were on a pseudo-girls-weekend – which is a girls’ weekend where a penis inevitably becomes involved (see Real Housewives, various) (Also, hey Jason, no worries if you’re reading this, love you! Great to see you!) – in San Francisco to run a 12k, but really to eat, drink, shop, and maybe run a 12k hung-over on little sleep.
The friend-of-a-friend on said trip was asking me about my goals for the race, but really, I sensed, she wanted to talk hard numbers. I mumbled a vague hope for my run, something about how I’d be happy just to able to shove through the crowds at under ten minutes a mile, no visions of personal records jogging through my head. “What about you?” I asked.
“I’ve been doing eight miles at an eight-minute mile average for training,” she replied chirpily.
“Wow, we’ve got a fast one here, guys,” I said to the others in our hotel room. The tone was a bit bitchy, even for me. She was faster than me, as many people are, but I hadn’t known she was that fast. And here I’d gone and honestly told her my slow, steady intentions, when really, I was training at a faster pace. Should I tell her that? Get into specifics about my best times at various distances? Note how I was still mending from a strained hip? And breaking in new custom orthotics?! Oh, the indignity of it all…
Is it just me, or does your average mile pace fall in with a collection of key numbers polite society does not discuss outright: salary, weight, how you pay for rent or mortgage (except in New York, let’s talk about that shit!), often age? The numbers game can feel uniquely awkward between women, I’ve found. Here’s another measuring stick we can use to compete against and judge each other and maybe hate ourselves in that special feminine way. Fun times! I know guys get competitive with each other too, but I also imagine they would deal with it by keeping up with one and other to the point of vomiting, getting in a fist fight, or sleeping with someone’s ex-girlfriend. That would all seem healthier than this awkward hotel room conversation.
If ever there were a race not to talk pace or personal record aspirations, it was the one we were running last weekend:San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers. Not only were we running as part of a weekend getaway, the rest of which inevitably involved booze, more carbs than fueling twelve kilometers required, and perhaps walking around for hours in calf-tightening heels (the better for shin splints in the morning), but Bay to Breakers isn’t that sort of race. Each year I have to remind my mother, that yes, I actually do run it. No, not drunk. No, not everyone’s drunk. Yes, some people are naked. Most people are dressed up. Yeah, I think a lot about their chafing issues too.
Like a serious race, somebody inevitably runs it quite fast and takes home a prize. (Congrats to this year’s winners: Ridouane Harroufi, who finished the 12 kilometers at 34:36 and Lineth Chepkurui at 39:12!) But for many of the 40,000 plus participants, it’s more of a mobile human zoo. At the start line, people traditionally throw tortillas. It’s unclear why. Because a Mexican restaurant used to sponsor it? A Rocky Horror Picture Show allusion with south-of-the-border flare? Some opt to run it as a centipede, where several runners are tied together to form a giant human insect to block single runners from easily passing them.
This year, after neighbor complaints — in 2010, 32 people were taken away in ambulances, most for alcohol-related “injuries” and 47 tons of trash were left behind — there were big efforts to keep things from being quite so crazy. Organizers changed the slightly annoyingly early 8 a.m. start time to an inhumane 7 a.m. start. More portable toilets were brought in, and those who used the pissoirs instead of the sidewalk were given congratulatory stickers like toddlers being potty trained. Numbers were checked at the start to ensure that people had actually paid their fees and weren’t just joining the fun gratis, a common occurrence.
We all started together – me, my friend, and her friend with the 8-minute miles. Initially, we pushed through the crowds together. Then I looked up and found myself alone in the crowd. I felt relieved. Seven miles of costumes (seemingly half of them “black swan” or “white swan”) and colorful San Francisco neighborhoods stretched out before me: The famously daunting Hayes hill up ahead, my shins flaring, my old blisters not, my best running mix merging with the sounds of the crowd.
Due to a poorly-timed iPhone malfunction at the start, I couldn’t use the RunKeeper app that typically feeds my neurosis with updates on pace and distance every five minutes. Thankfully, there were plenty of other distractions. Despite the crackdowns on booze and public urination, there was plenty of nudity, predominantly among thin, but slightly paunchy fifty-something-year-old men, doing that fast, older-man-run shuffle, genitalia bouncing gently in the early morning breeze. The big hill behind me (actually, not as big as I remember it), I bounded into Golden Gate Park, my shins obedient at last, legs surprisingly fresh, reveling in the downhill slope. The crowd had thinned and dispersed, and I picked past (or shall I say gingerly elbowed) runner after runner, knowing I was nearing the ocean, and the finish line. I don’t know how fast I was going at that stretch, but it felt fast man, real fast…maybe even 8-minute mile fast. In that sailing moment, I thought how numbers didn’t really matter, how I was happy just to have my legs feel good and strong. Then I crossed the finish line, grabbed some water (sponsored by Crystal Geyser!), a quick stretch, and began looking for my friends. Had they finished already? Had I come in before them? I didn’t want to know, because I’m a better person than that… or so I pretend.
If you must know, Hailey Eber achieved her goal of running Bay to Breakers without vomiting and averaging under 10-minute miles. She is training for the New York Marathon with similarly lofty goals. She is on Twitter. Her dog is on Tumblr.