I've never cracked the twenty minute mark in a 5K race. Except this one time, when I didn't.
5K's are usually pretty detailed affairs. Most have computerized timing, fancy sports drinks on tables, sliced oranges on platters and slick promotional doo-dads for upcoming races. At the very least, they have numbers you pin on your shirt.
I ran a race in West Virginia a few years ago that had none of that.
Instead, this one had popsicle sticks with numbers on them. When you crossed the finish line, you got one. Then, you took it to some nice lady sitting at a table inside a firehouse, who asked you your name and then wrote it next to the number in your hand. If you crossed the line first, your popsicle stick had a one written on it. Second had two, and so on.
I'm not sure exactly when I finished that day. It had to be somewhere in the mid-20's. I took my popsicle stick to the firehouse and the nice lady wrote down my name.
A friend had an interesting strategy of running as fast as he possibly could from the starting line, then absolutely dying about a mile in and having to drag himself for the final two. At some point I passed him. I waited around to see how he finished.
I'm standing there as the lady and the other folks in charge of the race start calling out names. Overall winner. Masters winner. Men from 25-29. That's when I heard my name.
They called me up to the front. People clapped. They handed me my reward (a glass mug). Somebody took my picture for the newspaper. I looked confused.
They said my time was 17:14 when I knew it wasn't. They said I was the fastest 25-to-29-year-old in St. Albans that day. I knew I wasn't. But I didn't know what to say.
People started to go home as I stood there, speechless, mug in hand. And that's when I figured it out.
I had come in 60th place. I remembered that from the popsicle stick. I also remembered the zero looked surprisingly small. The nice lady in the firehouse had written my name next to the six. Whoever really came in sixth ran a blistering 17:14 5K.
I walked back to the firehouse. By then, the folks in charge were packing up and heading for home.
"I didn't win this," I said, trying to hand her my mug.
"Sure you did," the nice lady smile back.
I told her what I thought had happened, with the popsicle stick and the wrong time and the confused look on my face.
"Oh, it's ok honey," she said as she walked away. She didn't care.
Today, I ran a 20:37, and it took everything I could to get there. I'm probably in better shape now than I was then, and today was the first race that's nearly caused me to vomit afterward. I don't know if I'll ever get down to 17:34. But if I don't, at least I have my mug.