“Ready, Set, Go!!!”
As the gun went off Zara popped up and sprung into action. She could feel the adrenaline coursing through her veins. She had been training for this marathon – changing her eating habits, lifting weights to strengthen her legs and running; boy had she been running! She went for early morning runs, after work runs, lunchtime treadmill sessions at her office gym (when she could fit them in). She had put in so much and had seen her body, strength and even her thinking change. Today was the day and she was off to a good start.
Running Your Own Race
This was going to be a 5-kilometer marathon and she was about a kilometer in. She felt great. She had built her body for this and it was responding with strength and grace. As she glanced at the big neon lettering on the digital stopwatch on her wrist she realized she was slightly ahead of her scheduled practice time. She smiled and kept pounding the path with her bright red Nike sneakers. She distractedly thought about how she would look and feel at the finish line. Her friends were waiting to capture the moment when she crossed it and she was ready. Matching black Nike shorts and sports bra, hair sleeked back in a ponytail for functionality and aesthetics, and Ruby Woo lipstick faithfully gracing her full lips ready to enhance her winning smile.
Her friends had initially laughed when she discussed her outfit and the aesthetics, but she eventually brought them round to her way of thinking – ‘Everyone is allowed to be equal parts serious and silly. We really do have full control over what we allow to make us happy and to inspire us. We are allowed to care about clothing and causes at the same time.’
To which these were met with accepting ‘ooohs, ahhhhs,’ and chants of ‘say it louder for the ones in the back girl!’
Zara loved her friends. With them, she could discuss anything from mastering the art of positivity, to raising funds for boreholes in South Sudan, to what percentage body fat their perfectly sculpted yoga instructor had, to speculations on his relationship status, to the health benefits of doing the 6-week vegan challenge. So when Zara finally won them over in this argument she was pleased, but not surprised.
This was Zara’s first marathon ever. She was in it more for the cause – a charity that raised money to find cures for cancer, than the fitness element. Even though she always had, “work out more” firmly pencilled in on every to-do-list and new year’s resolution list, this was the first time Zara had faithfully trained. She was participating in this marathon because she had finally found her why. Zara had lost her baby brother and her uncle to cancer, the younger had a 5-year heart breaking battle with leukaemia and the latter’s rapidly deteriorating health came as a sudden shock. The distance between living a full life and death was less than 4 months in its entirety for her beloved uncle who had been a support, a friend and a counselor to Zara.
As Zara clocked kilometer two she began to excitedly think about how she would feel at the finish line. Her outfit might seem ditsy or unimportant, but there was a method even to this madness. Red had been her little brother’s favourite color and her uncle had always teased her whenever she wore her Ruby Woo “war paint” as he called it. He jokingly reminded her that there was nothing she could not achieve when she had it on and no battle in which she could not succeed.
She had never been much of an athlete but the pain of loss, the presence of life, and the pursuit of a fuller existence had caused her to step, no, run, out of her comfort zone and do things she never had – hence, this marathon.
Distractions and Diversions
Just as she slowed her pace ever so slightly at the 2.5km marker a tall, dark, lean and well-toned body sped by. The lady had skin the color of dark chocolate and a majestic jet black, tightly curled fro that formed an 18-inch crown around her head. Zara opened her eyes widely in surprise, “goals!” she whispered. She switched lanes to ensure she was right behind this woman and sped up a little to ensure she kept her in perfect view.
The lady had on a bright yellow sports bodysuit that stretched up her long torso, crisscrossing the length and breadth of her lean back, and wrapped itself delicately around her muscular calves, contrasting brilliantly with her dark skin. Zara wondered what the front looked like and where she had bought it. Her thoughts wandered to how she would love to wear something similar in her next marathon, and even to her training sessions at the gym.
Zara kept her eyes trained on the majestic fro, bobbing up and down as one formidable mass of hair, all strands moving in one accord as if they could not be parted. She unconsciously patted the edges of her own freshly relaxed hair, and wondered once again what her own hair would look and feel like with the absence of chemicals – even though she had no desire to undergo the big chop or carry natural hair. Zara felt her throat getting parched and realized she had failed to collect the water handed to her at the rest stop where volunteers had ran alongside her and her counterparts, offering them a drink. She had been too busy focusing on ‘QueenFro,’ as she had fondly nicknamed her. ‘No matter,’ Zara thought, swallowing more spit. She had trained her body to complete the marathon without water if necessary so she would be okay till the next water stop.
As she started to lose sight of Queen Fro, Zara increased her speed, realizing, with further admiration that the lady in the yellow bodysuit was quite the athlete. She was getting breathless and began to feel a cramp in her lower belly. She shook her arms out beside her as drops of sweat fell to the ground. Zara glanced at her stopwatch again and found herself almost 4 minutes ahead of her training time. She was panting for breath yet she kept pounding the path. Looking ahead she distractedly noticed a fork in the marathon path. She turned her attention back to QueenFro and made sure she followed closely behind her. QueenFro went along the right path, Zara followed. As she ran behind her she wondered what her name was, what her profession was, and if loss had driven her to run this marathon as well.
One hour later, laid out on the paramedics’ emergency stretcher Zara realised how foolish she had been. Queen Fro stood over her, offering her water and placing a sympathetic and perfectly manicured hand on Zara’s sweaty shoulder.
“I’m so sorry sweetie,” she said with gentle genuineness punctuating every word. “I had no idea you were following me.”
Zara stared up, mute and shame faced.
QueenFro continued, “I was running the 22 kilometer marathon today. I’ve been training for 14 months for it,” she explained.
Zara sighed. “I feel so stupid. I don’t know how I veered out of my lane and lost track of the path for my own marathon. I even forgot there were different stretches taking place at the same time,” she said, wincing as another cramp wracked through her swollen calves and ankles.
“It’s okay,” QueenFro said sympathetically. “I heard a loud thud behind me and turned around and saw you crumpled on the ground. I was really worried. I am so happy you’re okay.”
“I am just so sorry,” Zara said, tears pooling in her eyes. “You didn’t even get to finish the marathon!”
“We are running for life. What’s more important? Completing the race or making sure you’re okay?” Queen Fro responded with a smile.
That night as Zara lay in bed, feet rested, iced, elevated and awaiting another round of ice, she had a revelation.
There’s nothing wrong with admiring others, there is nothing wrong with gaining inspiration from strangers and incorporating styles. However, she also ironically realised something fundamental: you’ve literally got to run your own race.
Zara had gotten so distracted by this other runner she immediately admired that she did not pace herself, she did not stop for water, she did not pay attention to the markers that showed the 5km runners what path to follow. She would have finished the race – the one she actually set out to run if she had just kept her focus. After all she ended up running over 7km before her legs gave way and she collapsed without achieving her own goals and also disrupting Chi, or Queen Fro as she kept calling her, much to Chi’s amusement.
Zara shook her head as she thought she could have admired her, gone on about her own way, and found Queen Fro and introduced herself later. She could have initiated the friendship without all the drama, asked Chi where she got her outfit and how she’d managed to grow and maintain her natural hair and anything else she was curious about…later!
Even though Chi was extremely courteous and thoughtful, and that incident turned them into fast friends, there could have been a better way.
As Zara reapplied the ice packs on her swollen calves she swore to herself that from now on she would stay in her own lane. She would not allow the progress or elegance of others cause her to doubt her own choices, step out of her purpose, or miss her own opportunities and finish lines. After all, no two people were meant to follow the same exact path. Zara had learned the hard way the importance of simply and literally staying in her own lane, keeping her eyes on her own prize and pacing herself. She shook her head and smiled.
Her phone flashed. She had a text message.
“Hey lovely. Hope you’re feeling better. How about lunch tomorrow? I’m buying. xoxo, #QueenFro.”
Zara smiled as she quickly typed a response, “Count me in! I might be coming with crutches, but I’ll be there. 1:30 p.m.?”