We all know one. And at a bare minimum, we’ve all seen one.
I noticed them the most in my early 20’s. Usually it was into the wee hours of a debaucherous night, drunk in the back of a taxi cab approaching my apartment. Or perhaps it would be on a Friday evening on my way out to the bar with my friends. Whenever it was, they always seemed to catch me when I was doing nothing with my life, as if they knew that we could be two ships crossing in the night at my absolute worst. And yet my first instinct was always to be the one judging them, joking to my friends that these purveyors of the sidewalks were the real lowlife nerds. But deep down I knew it was really them glaring back into my soul and screaming I am better than you.
As the years passed, the circumstances of my life changed but the runners of the night stayed the same. Instead of seeing them on my way to the bar (or on my way back), it was over a fortune cookie from my window, on my early morning walk to complain to my therapist, or if I was particularly lucky, during a New York City Uber ride ten blocks away because it was cold out outside. I guess you might even say they evolved — newer thermalwear, thinner gogurts, shorter shorts — but one thing remained constant: they were better than me.
I never pegged myself as a guy who would willingly get up early on the weekend to be a part of the elitist running community. I never felt like I belonged. These were the most Alpha of the Alphas. They literally allow the best runners to have “AA” on their bibs (I think it stands for “Alpha Alpha”). But something deep inside me spoke to me one day. “Those people are honestly still really just a bunch of nerds,” that voice said to me, “you can be a nerd, too, if you want.”
Now, I grew up playing sports all of my life. I played on a team every single season until I was 18, managing to play soccer at a very high level and walking on to a D1 wrestling team in college. I even got into running on and off in my post-college life, participating in work 5k events and things like that. But I wasn’t part of the running community, and I never enjoyed running long distance. I just knew it was good for me. Like broccoli. And so my runs were always spent in isolation, sometimes getting hit by people on bikes who screamed at me for not following the proper runner protocol, and wondering what I needed to do to Level Up to the people running the same streets as me — what gear did I need, what were their buzzwords, who were their idols? I had just begun to sniff out who they were and what they did. Now it was time to truly be amongst them. Alas, I recently signed up for my first official road race.
I started small with a 5k. For all of you non-running-community noobs, a 5k is 3.1 miles or so. The race was held very early on a Sunday. The leaders of the very elitist running community intentionally schedule the races at times that are otherwise very inconvenient so that you can feel the utmost level of smugness when you are finished, and to give you the best chance of catching commonfolk off-guard after the race as those plebeians are merely starting their day.
Leading up to Race Day, the VERC leaders send out several emails with very detailed instructions on where you need to be and exactly what you need to do. It’s kind of like when you get instructions to go to a rave in a secret warehouse, except with a lot more details. The VERC folks expect a high level of reading comprehension and therefore diligence in following through on these instructions.
First step is to place all of your valuables in a clear, plastic bag with a copy of your bib number taped to the front of it. You are to drop this off at a bag dropoff location. After disposing of my wallet, keys, and post-race Gatorade, I proceeded to the port-a-potty. You’ve got a 50% shot of guessing what happens next.
Now, the next part was awfully confusing for me at first. There is this awkward period where for the time leading up to the race, you kind of just stretch out. This is where I also started to understand the hierarchies within the VERC. Every person gets a letter on the front of their bib. The letter basically denotes how important you are within the community. The better runner you are, the more important you are. The letters start with AA on to A and all the way down to Z. I started as a letter “H” in my first race based upon a time I had provided to the VERC guessing as to what my pace might be. It turns out the VERC is somewhat understanding and takes these guesses at face value. Regardless, I was disappointed to see that “H” seemingly placed me in the middle of the pack. As you walk around doing the stretches, members of the VERC glance up at each other’s letters to ascertain their value relative to the person next to them. I found myself judging the strangers around me, asking how it was possible that that person could be faster than me. Self-doubt set in right away.
More foreign concepts emerged. I found myself with no appetite, but VERC veterans around me were crushing apples and little gogurt-looking things. It’s still unclear to me if that’s a drink or a food or both. To be determined. Many of the members were high-fiving and socializing. “How did they know each other?” I wondered, and what were they talking about? How flat the course would be? If they liked the left or the right side of the road? Were they judging me? Surely I stood out like a sore thumb. My shorts were too long, my sneakers were not purchased at JackRabbit, and my bib was crooked. Whatever. It was go time.
As racetime beckons, VERC members are encouraged to get into their “corral.” You may recall earlier we discussed the hierarchy of the VERC members. Well, they literally place you based on your importance at the start of the race and put you into a corral like a farm animal. Important people up front, slow-pokes in the back. I sheepishly crawled into the back corner of my corral. A very (overly) enthusiastic woman on a megaphone started shouting at people to jog in place, do arm stretches, touch your toes, and a variety of other pre-race warmups. I did none of these things. I checked my fantasy football lineup (it was a Sunday) and got my music ready. Obviously I had to go with AC/DC for the first time. We did the National Anthem and then they started the race.
The beginning is kind of anti-climactic because all of the superior runners go first. The people in the cattle car (me) have a staggered start thereafter. I trudged up to the start line, crossed the starting line, “For Those About to Rock, We Salute You” kicked off, and I started my timer.
The race itself is unpleasant and filled with decisions. My shins hurt. J/K, they’re good now. Thigh is a little sore. Oh nice, there’s a water station to the left. Guess I’m not that thirsty though. Plus I gotta keep a good time so I can move up to letter “G.” Do I need to pee? Nah. This kind of stinks. It’s only been a mile? I can’t believe I haven’t passed this person, they are faster than they look, I guess. AC/DC is kind of repetitive. And so on and so forth. Eventually, after at least 100 questions, I finished the race. At the finish line, you’d think you were at a refugee crisis center with all of the people with bags of food and water and the overwhelming number of staff to check on people. It made me feel pretty accomplished that this level of care and attention was needed after such strenuous activity. This Sunday was going to be my oyster.
Upon completing my first race, I decided that I needed more. I started signing up for more races, upping the ante. 4 miles. 5 miles. 10K! Nothing could scare me (except for whatever comes after 10K). Whenever I picked up my new bib, I waited with feverish anticipation to see which letter the VERC staff member would peel off for me. I became a “G”, then an “F”, and now I am an “E.” Many have fallen before me. And yet more remain in my path. I even disputed my fastest time with the VERC leaders through the contact form on their website.
And so it is. When you sleep at night, unsure of what to do with your life or where your life is going, think of me. I am the one in the darkness, with the subscription to the running magazine (I made this part up), with the running app on my iPhone, and the freshly minted gear. I am not your nightmare, I am the night mare. I am the one who runs.
Me in my most recent run. I was too cheap to buy this photo.