Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Loneliness of the 10k Runner

A 5K is a playful jaunt, nothing to write home about, but double it and I believe you earn some bragging rights. The Nike Women Victory Tour was my second 10K. The first was in Thessaloniki, Greece, where it was such a warm and inclusive introduction to racing that I thought I would like to do it again. If I had started with the run I did this morning in Istanbul, I may have been intimidated by the whole experience and gone back to being a reclusive treadmill runner. When I arrived at the starting point this morning, I had an alarming realization. Every woman in sight was young and athletic. During the warmup I was struck by the euphoric looks on some of the women’s faces, as if they were excited about running a 10K! I actually don’t like running, but as with eating bananas, I do it because I think it’s good for me. Bananas and running, both dislikes of mine, seem to go hand-in-hand since at both races I’ve finished, bananas are the mediocre snack that gets doled out. (No pun intended.) The experience of being surrounded by so many happy athletes was similar to being in a church and noticing everyone but me is spiritually moved. I felt extremely out of place.

At the back of the throng of women, farthest from the starting point, was a human signpost clad in neon green running gear. The sign sticking out of her back brace read, “8 min. km.” A modest army of women milled around her and I heard another woman voice my concern to the human signpost. “What if we’re slower than you? Is there any other pacer who will be running slower than you?” The signpost said a little too cheerfully that if we ran slower than her, we’d have to run alone. I introduced myself to the woman who asked our unsympathetic signpost about speed, thinking that if everyone else deserted us, we could at least run with each other. We chatted and she seemed to share my view that the women surrounding us were the ruling elite and we were the brave Bolsheviks who were going to fight our way to the front.

At some point during the run, plugged into my music and contemplating that the only understandable word from Rihanna’s song “Work” is “work,” I lost my friend. I found out later that she had accidentally followed all the 5K runners, a mistake I kind of envied her for. While running along Bagdat Caddesi, I had to run into a Mado coffee shop and follow the dark and winding Indiana-Jones-esque passageway to the bathroom, an interval that cost me a few minutes. When I re-entered the race I was almost dead last, with just a few women behind me. I tried to catch up and realized my situation was dire when the ambulance and motorcycles were inching behind me like vultures zeroing in a lame wildebeest. I’m pretty sure the only person who suffered a worse indignity than me along the route was the little boy whose father pulled down his pants in front of everyone and chastised him with the disapproving, “Allah Allah,” for, I presume, wetting himself.

By the time I came to the end of the race, I had finally caught up with the unsympathetic signpost. People disharmonized on drums in an effort to increase runners’ tempos. Handsome Mediterranean men, who were placed near the end as motivation, clapped their hands, gave me the thumbs up and yelled, “Super!” One man escorted me to the finish line, saying, “You ran in one hour and 15 minutes.” For me this was great news. I had beaten my previous time by eight minutes. But I was a little discouraged when he waved his hand in a so-so gesture. I devoured my ice cream at the end of the race and was happy to see my friend from the beginning approach me and tell me the story of how she’d accidentally run a 5K. We went out for crepes and met up with my two other friends, who hadn’t run but just wanted to chill. They were kind in extending their congratulations and supportive of the fact that I had even finished the race, never mind what my time was.

My support team! 
Istanbul is a lot like me in that it runs at a slower pace than other big cities. I have to practice patience when I’m trying to buy my groceries and the clerk is too busy playing games on her phone to acknowledge me or ring up my items, or when I’m at a restaurant and the waiters are having a conversation and not bringing me a menu. I guess I should also practice patience with myself and just be proud of my achievements, even if I’m the athletic equivalent of an unmotivated grocery clerk.

I’ve thought about why the race in Istanbul was so different than the race in Greece. My only explanation is that running in Turkey, especially among women, hasn’t really caught on yet. The only people who do it are the ones who take it very seriously. My mom, who lived in Istanbul in the 70’s, told me stories about how she would go jogging and men would follow her, just curious to see where she was going in such a hurry. Now women joggers aren’t such an endangered species, but on occasion are still preyed upon by creepy men, which is why I don’t usually like to run in public. Hopefully, running will become a more inclusive activity in the future and more women will feel safe and encouraged to go out and release their inner Olympian. 

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