I wait until I get to the top of the hill.
“Excuse me,” I pant, my faded Akureyri, Iceland t-shirt dripping with sweat.
“Where’s the finish for the 5k?”
The volunteer, an older man with a thick, tangled grey beard looks at me quizzically.
“5k? Miss, this is the half-marathon,” he says, pulling out a walkie-talkie.
“Your race is over.”
He relays my dilemma over the radio, with crackled, faint voices responding in kind.
I take a step away, speechless, blankly staring over the sun-soaked fields of Hilo, Hawaii.
I had been training for this 5k since November.
“Don’t write about this,” my now-ex boyfriend had requested the week before I left for Hilo.
It wasn’t the first time someone asked me to do that during a breakup. I suppose on the exterior, that says something about me as a writer. I write what I feel, often going into grueling, self-reflective detail. In real-time, I’m often mentally cataloguing and logging details, notes to reference later when I decide to craft moments into a story.
My family and friends wouldn’t be surprised by the split. Not because of any obvious incompatibility between me and my partner, but because I am often the butt of too-single-for-her-own-good jokes at graduations, on family vacations, and during weddings.
The target of concern. A problem that almost hilariously, cannot be fixed. When I was 27, a family friend approached me at a barbeque and told me it was time to settle.
“You’ve got to get yourself a husband, girl.” he said, holding a lopsided plate of potato salad. “You’ve had your fun and time is running out.”
“But it’s okay,” he said, following up with the same thing that people always say after making these kind of comments. “Until you do, you have your travel.”
And serendipitously, the week after this recent breakup, there was indeed my travel. Back in November, I had planned a trip to visit Hawaii for March, my first time beyond California. I was seriously stoked, mapping out a 5k that I’d in turn, train for and absolutely crush. It would finally motivate me to exercise on a regular basis.
And it worked.
For the next few months, I listened to Anthony Bourdain’s “Medium Raw,” and went for long walks on a trail near my house. I ran in the pouring rain, hiding my iPhone up my sleeve so it wouldn’t get wet. On warmer days, I ran in just a sports bra, ignoring my little muffin top peeking out from above my shorts.
My mom bought me a Fitbit for Christmas, which I used to meticulously track my average time, which started between a 15–16 minute mile, and gradually declined between 10 and 12.
I was proud. Mostly red-faced after each run, but proud.
So the 5k, which was a part of The Big Island International Marathon in Hilo, Hawaii, was already delivering a return. I looked forward to my runs and I felt good about them, even when they weren’t good. The fact that I was committing to a regular exercise routine, which grew to include weekly yoga sessions, kept me optimistic and happy.
And best of all, my friend Claire, who I had gone to Ireland with the year before, joined the trip. We’d start on the island of Kauai, where Claire had a friend who worked in tourism and knew all of the best spots to go. We’d snorkel, hike, and tan.
As it turns out, we’d also lament the demise of my relationship, which ended only a few days before we left.
I don’t want to sound too conflicted or angry about the split. At the end, we agreed, as many couples in their 30s do, that we simply weren’t as compatible as we’d like to be. It was more preferable to one of us running out on the other one, or seeing things through to an engagement, only to end it later.
But it meant that I was losing a friend. It meant that I’d have the same shame, the same questions from mutual friends. There would be the same lingering feeling that I am simply too stubborn, too selective, and too wild to hang on to a partner. Too insatiable, as every trip inspires a new one. Too unsatisfied, as every bit of self-improvement requires more.
Because I am never done. I am never complete.
(I suspect this stems from some bullying I experienced during middle and high school, though I’ve never quite identified the root of it.)
Today’s predicament, running in the wrong race, reflected another flaw. I am constantly in my own head. I’m always thinking about work, about writing.
“I wish you were more present,” my ex often said.
He was referring to the early mornings when I whirled around our kitchen, half-paying attention to what he said. The afternoons where I was on call after call, pushing back our lunch plans. The late evenings where I mindlessly searched for cheap flights on my laptop as we watched a movie and thought of ideas for trips.
“Is this a movie I like, need to actively pay attention to?” I asked before we’d watch a film. “I have some trip research I want to do.”
The last time he made the request was a Tuesday afternoon. We were grabbing pizza, and I was mindlessly skimming through Slack, occasionally giving one-word answers to his questions.
With exhaustion and desperation in his voice, he asked, “Don’t you even like talking to me?”
I looked up from my phone, bewildered, and gave the worst, but most telling response.
“Huh?” I said.
I hadn’t heard what he said.
When I arrived at the 5k, it was nearly six AM and I was deep in thought about the run. I was late, a volunteer told me, unpacking a box or two to find the registration forms. He signed me in and told me that the race would be starting soon.
I was pinning my number, 728, on my chest and repeating my goal time in my head (under 10 minutes a mile, under 10 minutes a mile), when a voice boomed over a loudspeaker.
“One minute, fifteen seconds,” it bellowed.
I snapped back to reality.
Wasn’t it only 6:15 AM? I thought so. Our race wasn’t supposed to start until 6:30 AM, but the volunteer was insistent.
“You only have a minute,” the volunteer rushed me. “Quick, don’t miss it.”
I fumbled, clumsily pinning my number on. I remember feeling silly for nearly missing my race. So I let my shame take over, ignoring what I had read on the website: the 5k begins at 6:30.
I jumped over a rope fence, joining the hordes of runners just in time. Within seconds, we were off.
The beginning of the race was fine. It was still dark, so it was easy to miss that most of the tags were blue, while mine was red. When it started getting light outside, I noticed the sea of blue paper signs. I guessed the 5k enrollment had been low and that perhaps, they had combined two of the races together. There would be a clear finish line for me, I figured.
So I kept going.
We ran along Hilo Bay. It was serene and lovely, with sweeping overviews of waterfalls and rivers. I was somewhere in the middle of the runners, which made me feel optimistic. I wasn’t the slowest. I didn’t feel as strong as I hoped I would back in November, but I was here. I had shown up.
Near the end of the first mile. I checked my Fitbit. I was running at a decent pace, on track to meet my goal of a ten minute mile. I let my thoughts drift away, with a Beach Boys song playing in my ear.
Around the end of the second mile, my breathing was heavier. It was fine. I only had a mile and change left. I could end on a strong note, hit my personal goal, and go and get pancakes or something. Rachael, a childhood friend of mine, had recommended Ken’s, a local diner.
Mile three came and went. I kept looking for the finish line, thinking that the course was a little over the standard 3.2 miles. At mile four, I felt winded. My heart was pounding. But I was almost done, I told myself. I didn’t let myself take pictures or lose focus. I wouldn’t stop.
Finally, around five and a half miles, we reached a sign that said, “Half-marathon turn.”
It was then I confronted one of the volunteers, and learned that not only was I not running the 5k, the 5k was over and hence, I had not finished my race. I had failed because of a stupid mistake. It was discouraging, but I had still run for almost six miles. That was an achievement in itself, right?
“You want us to take your picture?” another volunteer asked. “To show you made it this far?”
“Sure,” I said half-heartedly.
I’d still have to walk back, they told me. We were in a remote area and most of the roads were closed off for the run.
So I walked along with the runners for awhile, finally indulging in a scenic picture or two. But as I went, all I could think about was the finish line. I had come all this way, and I wouldn’t cross it.
And sure, I had a pretty good reason for not doing so, but…
I don’t know when I decided to keep doing the half-marathon. I just started running again. I knew I wouldn’t get credit. My time would blow. I’d still be registered as a 5k-er who didn’t complete the race.
But I kept going.
The same familiar voices shouted at me as I ran.
I wasn’t athletic enough to run a half-marathon.
My time would suck.
I’d embarrass myself, even if did finish.
All of these half-marathon runners were faster, more experienced.
Eventually, I grew too tired to entertain my insecurities. I hadn’t stopped yet. I had let myself walk, but I had not stopped yet. My body didn’t hurt enough to make me quit, even though I really wanted to about every mile or so.
At this point, I was around ten miles. We passed the finish line (not crossing it yet), and the volunteer (who may have been the same misguided one as before), waved at me with a cup of Gatorade.
“You did it!” He shouted.
I wasn’t even close to done yet.
Tourists in oversized Hawaiian shirts and loafers gave me sympathetic looks as I went by. My face was beet red, and for the most part, I was walking. Volunteers, who glanced at my number and red sign, politely encouraged me, figuring that I was just a slow as fuck 5k runner who got left behind.
Other runners, who were on their way back to the finish, smiled and nodded.
“You’re almost there, c’mon!” said a blonde, who looked like she walked off the pages of a Fabletics catalogue.
She gripped her equally perfect boyfriend’s arm, and waved.
“You’re alllllllllmost THERE!” she grinned.
I bit my tongue and kept going, resisting the urge to push her into the beautiful stream we were passing. At one point, my back, which I had thrown out a few weeks prior on a trip to Malaga, Spain, flashed with pain.
“Please,” I found myself urging my body, almost a desperate plea.
“Just a little further. We have to finish.”
The pain went away.
Finally, the finish line came back into view. Volunteers crowded the finish, cheering and congratulating me as I ran through. Someone flashed a picture, which I assume is probably the most unattractive, but happiest I’ve ever looked.
“Excuse me,” I panted to a volunteer who was handing me a cup of water, finally coming to a stop.
“I believe there’s been a mistake,” I say, the cup trembling in my hand. “I was supposed to run the 5k, but I was told to start with the half-marathon runners.”
“Oh,” he said, his eyes widening. “And you finished it?”
I nodded, my face burning.
“Well, here’s a medal instead of a keychain,” he said, handing me a novelty race medal.
Later, when I spoke to the race coordinator, he laughed.
“You know, we saw you join the wrong group at the beginning and tried to call after you,” he said.
“But you couldn’t be stopped.”
He handed me my free race t-shirt.
“Why did you sign up for a 5k when you could run a half-marathon?” he asked in a softer tone.
“I…. don’t know.” I shrugged, not having a better response.
Tokens in hand, I started to walk back to my Airbnb. The breeze, which had been light and inviting during the run, became stronger. My messy, sweaty hair flew everywhere and my red 728 sign rustled.
I felt wild.