I haven’t raced in six months and a day, and the Gaza 5K was the perfect way to ease back in. The emphasis of this race is on fundraising (to support community mental health services for kids in Gaza) and community. It doesn’t start on time, the course isn’t accurately measured, there are no mile markers, and the chaotic starting area is crowded with kids and strollers – but so what? How many other races do you know that culminate in a dabke dance party?
I’d picked up my race number yesterday afternoon, so all I had to do this morning was show up by Prospect Park’s Grecian pavilion before 10 am, ready to run. Naturally, I spent the early morning birding (pine warblers! golden-crowned kinglets! amorous wood ducks!) before stashing my binoculars and long-sleeved shirt in one of the lockers at Lakeside, pinning my number on my race shirt, and jogging to the start.
The area under and around the pavilion was a sea of red, black, white and green. I met up with some teammates, posed for the obligatory pre-race PPTC selfies, and then just milled happily about. There was the huge, flag-draped Team “Peace for Palestine” contingent, the fundraising champions. There was a man draped in both the Palestinian and rainbow flags. There was a gender-queer person in a Wayne State University T-shirt (Detroit is in the house!). There were stroller-pushing hijabi women. There were keffiyehs galore. And there were approximately 500 little kids in 500 shades of adorable, most of them sporting Palestinian flag face paint.
A bit after 10, the indefatigable woman who’d been at the mic during all that milling about instructed us to move toward the start. I made a beeline for a position that was far enough from the front to acknowledge my age and general slowness, but close enough to put me (just barely) ahead of a group of three – no, make that four, a friend joined them – women with large strollers. It’s not that I wasn’t zen and relaxed about the race, and I’m hardly in a position to be competitive, but, you know, safety first.
Besides, there’s nothing like having four stroller-pushing moms hot on your heels to spur you along.
“Hi,” said the woman next to me, extending her hand. “I’m Grace.”
I shook her hand, a bit awkwardly. Did I know her? If so, I couldn’t place her. “Hi, Grace,” I said. “I’m Linda.”
Grace, it turns out, was running her first race – she’d been enlisted by her daughter, who had disappeared into the crowd somewhere and left her marooned. I’m not sure why she reached out to me – perhaps it was because we were both older, or perhaps because I wasn’t with a team or family group or anyone else – but it made me wish that extending a hand and introducing oneself to someone you don’t know were a standard pre-race practice. It was nice. It was also nice to have someone to chat with as five minutes stretched into ten minutes stretched into fifteen minutes, with no sign of when, if ever, the race would start.
And then it did.
The start was a shuffle through the taped-off corridor that would later serve as the finish chute, followed by slow weaving, followed by easy running. Grace and I ran side by side for the first quarter mile, until I tried to catch up with another runner (the person in the Wayne State shirt, just to say hello), realized she was no longer beside me, and couldn’t see her in the crowd. From that point on, I ran on my own. I gradually reeled in people I remembered from the start (I may be old, but I’ve learned a thing or two along the way, and I know the park loop cold), powered up Zoo Hill, and wished to hell I’d changed into shorts when I stashed my gear at Lakeside. The day was cool for birding, but warm for racing – especially in the bright sun – and in my leggings and heavy, non-technical T shirt, I was becoming a sweaty mess.
There was also the keffieyeh issue. I’ve run this race a few times before, always in standard racing togs, and I’d vowed that this time, I’d get in the spirit and wear something more, well, solidaristic. Lacking any cool Palestine shirts, not having had the presence of mind to invest in temporary Palestine flag tattoos, and not knowing in advance that on-site face-painting would be a option, I was left with my threadbare and discolored, 45-year-old keffiyeh. I knotted it around my neck so that it would stay put, and envisioned it waving insouciantly behind me as I ran. Which is what it did, kind of, for the first half of the race.
That changed somewhere in the second mile, after I’d crested the hill, rounded the top of the park, and headed back down the west side. I don’t know if it was the change in direction or if the scarf was weighted down with sweat, but the keffiyeh was no longer so insouciant. It was heavy, it was hot, it was twisting and pulling at my neck and trying to strangle me.
But, you know, the race was almost over by then: just the long downhill that I always tell fading runners (and half believe) “runs itself,” then the flat segment where, if you’ve paced yourself, momentum will carry you, and then the finish was in sight and I was sprinting through the chute.
The first thing I did, after grabbing and chugging a water, was to turn around and run back along the course to see if I could find Grace. After a few minutes, there she was: a little worse for wear, as befits a hard effort, but determined, even smiling. We ran the hundred meters or so to the beginning of the finish chute together, then I veered off to the side, she finished, and we lost one another in the crowd once again.
What to do but hit the post-race refreshments . . . where I discovered, in addition to the usual (bagels, bananas, oranges) and the not-so-usual grace notes (cream cheese, peanut butter, jam, cups of trail mix, Starbucks coffee), the downright extraordinary. What’s that – a tray of Middle Eastern pastries? And wait, those aren’t energy bars, they’re . . . ma’amoul?
It was industrially-made ma’amoul, not the greatest, to be honest, but still: how many races have ma’amoul at the finish? Had I known, I might have run a little faster.
All that was left was the dabke dancing. (Note to self, for future reference: it’s left, right, left, right, left, left. Once you master that, I’m told, you can get fancy.)
Oh, since I billed this as a race report, you want a finish time? It was 28:15 for 3.3x miles, or roughly 8:30 pace per mile. You can choose to consider that pathetic – it was my pace for the Brooklyn Half Marathon last year, when I was hardly in great shape – or a good first step back. I’m choosing the latter.
A note to readers: if you are moved to donate to UNRWA’s work with Palestine refugees, you can do so here.