By Jose Servin
I’ve been running for years, but then I slacked off.
After three days, I am still sore from running in the second city-sponsored Plaza Wellness 5K.
We began Saturday at about 6:30a.m., well before the sweltering 89 degree temperature hit. Any later and the runners would have melted into the asphalt.
The corner of Fourth and French streets served as the starting line for about 1,200 runners, ranging from toddlers to senior citizens.
The high school cross-country runners who began doing laps around downtown an hour before the race were most intimidating. Upon seeing them, I felt the sudden urge to stretch every muscle in my body. This friendly race awoke my competitive spirit that had gone in to hibernation after years of inactivity.
I thought taking a job as a valet after high school would help me keep my runners edge, but instead it slowed me down. I developed shin splints after years of running on cement with torn up shoes and gave up running until recently.
I knew I could finish this race. I was worried by how long it might take.
I guzzled the 32-ounce water bottle I bought in one giant gulp then jumped in line to register and receive my runners bib. Fortunately, there were plenty of replacements for my drained water bottle, as vendors from local businesses and city agencies were handing out cups of water along with bananas to prevent post-race cramps.
While in line to receive my bib, City Council member Roman Reyna, who took part in the race along with other local officials, announced that the first 1,000 runners to cross the finish line would receive a medal. Now I had a goal.
As the race drew near, everyone began awkwardly standing behind the two large inflatable arches that marked the starting line. After a few motivational words from an unnamed parks and recreation employee and the announcement that our runner bibs would electronically track our time, we were off.
Once I passed by walkers, I transitioned into a steady pace interrupted only when faster runners passed and I tried to match their pace, which was a bad idea. I realized that to finish the race I had to run at my own pace.
The route stretched through Santa Ana Boulevard up to Flower Street, where orange street cones formed a loop around the Santa Ana Stadium.
Everything up to this point was fine. I can remember feeling a sense of pride in my community and rhythmically controlling my breathing to the beat of “Eye of the Tiger” in my head.
But then I reached the loop and I hit a wall. The sun seemed to hit its peak and I became drenched in sweat. I also realized I was only halfway to the finish line.
I slowed my pace but refused to stop, out of pride but partly out of embarrassment. Two elementary grade girls kept passing me up thanks to the motivational cheers from their mom. I hijacked the mom’s motivational words and pushed forward.
I finally reached downtown and, excited to see the street where we started, I sped forward to an almost sprint like when I chased ice cream trucks as a kid. To my dismay, there was another loop towards the Ronald Reagan Federal Building before I could give my legs a break at the finish line. At this point I regretted every ice cream cone I had ever eaten.
Between the buildings, I could see the real athletes on the other side of this final loop, dashing towards the finish line. They seemed absent of exhaustion with a look of determination that I envied, hated and admired at the same time.
I finished the loop as my breathing was getting heavier and my legs felt like they were going to fall off. One of the little girls that had been behind me the whole race passed me like a blur and I started to feel the medal slip away.
Just then the finish line appeared in front of me. I sped forward, crossed the double arches for the final time, and received my medal.
Putting it over my head and around my neck brought back memories of my high school graduation and the first time I ever had Korean barbecue. In short, I was happy.
I finished in 24 minutes, much better than I anticipated.
I picked up a complementary water bottle and banana, and began to watch the rest of the runners finish.
The sight of everyone around me with medals on and the reactions of the people who finished the race taught me an important lesson.
The greatest reward for me was not beating a time or getting a medal. It was seeing the sense of accomplishment radiating from the guy who finished first place in 15 minutes, the fireman who walked the 5k in full gear and the senior citizen group who finished the race cheering and smiling.
It’s the sense of community that Santa Ana residents always try to promote, and the happiness that comes with seeing 1,200 of your neighbors set and achieve their goals.