Sweaty pilgrims and other uncomfortable truths

by juli boggs

What did nearly 28,000 runners have in common as they gathered along an East Sacramento street early on Thanksgiving morning? A sadistic idea of a good time bolstered by the karmic bonus of helping out the Sacramento Food Bank & Family Services.

The 19th annual Run to Feed the Hungry took form as a sprawling, giggling mob of eager, bleary-eyed joggers prepared to display their physical prowess for the KCRA helicopters circling above. And while some may balk at the notion that 9 a.m. is early or chide that 5 kilometers is not that far, it was an epic scene to behold, and, for nonrunners who rarely rise before noon (and I speak mainly for myself here), a physical challenge paramount to any we had ever faced before 10 a.m. on a Thanksgiving Thursday.

What they don’t tell you about a 5k race with 28,000 participants is that it takes a little while to get going. It’s the Los Angeles rush hour of joggers. The pace is halting or nonexistent for the first several hundred meters before the crowd begins to spread apart, the walkers falling back after their initial spirited burst and the high-school track stars pulling forward with pure, aerobic concentration. By the end of kilometer one, an elaborate ballet of running, dodging and ducking ensues, the participants motivated by a combined excitement of finishing first and the very real fear of being trampled by others. Grown men cut through yards in the Fabulous 40s neighborhood, leaping over hedges and carefully manicured lawns, as children look around wild-eyed for a safe place to bend down and tie their shoe.

Certain runners dressed up for the event, which is difficult when it comes to such a conceptual holiday. You don’t necessarily decorate for Thanksgiving, just as you don’t dress up in commemoration of it. Regardless, runners in headdresses and moccasins pushed full-bore ahead followed closely by a group of solemn, sweaty pilgrims. It was a scene that reminded the contemplative jogger of the distasteful historical atrocities associated with the holiday in question. Uncomfortable truths we choose to forget in lieu of pie and family and the dull throbbing behind your left knee after only a few kilometers.

Turning onto the final straightaway, the amateur jogger’s true colors emerged. There were side cramps, expressions of concern and a palpable shared sense of desperation. The finish-line banner glimmered in the morning sun like a white flag of athletic surrender, a promise of immediate respite lingering just there in the middle distance. I pushed myself to finish strong, my feet pounding the pavement across the finish line as I raised my fists to the sky in triumph and immediately wanted to puke. I did not puke. Instead, I was a champion, one of 28,000 other individuals who woke up early to prove themselves to the world as capable and strong and worthy of all the glories that come with completing an optional 5k or 10k race before 10 a.m. on an American holiday morning otherwise known for gluttony and repose. And, of course, it was for a good cause.

*As appeared in the Sacramento News & Review on 11-29-12