By MARY EKSTRAND
POULSBO — The Viking Fest Road Race has become one of my spring rituals. It ranks right up there with unpacking the spring clothes and cheering on the cherry tree blossoms.
Several months before the event, I make sure I’m going to be in town. It goes on my calendar in big letters. This past year was perhaps my best year.
The Viking Fest website describes the race course, “Five miles of roadway along scenic Liberty Bay… with some gentle incline, but for the most part, a flat course.” A piece of cake, even for seniors like me.
I am up early the morning of the race. I eat a light breakfast and do my morning stretches. Unlike past years, it’s going to be warm, so I put on a tank top and shorts. But I’m starting the race with a light pullover for the cool Washington morning.
I never know how many runners have signed up, but I’m ready to go as the crowd assembles. Two paramedic vans drive slowly by to get positioned along the route. I’m watching the time. It’s getting close. My heart is beating a little faster even before the race starts. I’ve been anticipating this all year long. I take a few slow, deep breaths.
The race begins, and it catches me off guard just as it does every year. The runners spread out on the road in some unspoken agreement. Those first runners who break away from the pack with their long, focused strides take command of the road. Some run right down the middle, even though the road hasn’t been closed to traffic. What confidence! They are the silent, serious ones. All you can hear is the slap of their shoes hitting the pavement.
The next groups tend to hug the side of the road, aiming for the right side of the fog line, but not always making it. Like schools of fish, they flow back and forth, first to the right hand side, and then a little later over to the left hand side. The morning is still cool, so I see lots of caps. I still have my pullover. Some children are running too. But caps and kids are outnumbered by bouncing ponytails. I’m guessing nine out of 10 women in this race have ponytails.
Today even a few dads with strollers are running, but they’re not out in front. I think I spotted a runner with a dog on a leash. I love to see the sleek bicycle monitors race by, watching the runners, keeping a close eye. They’re reassuring to me.
A group of teenage boys runs by together, laughing and jostling each other. Back here, far back from those first focused silent runners, social exchanges outrank athletic drive. If a scientific study were conducted, I suspect voice noise could be correlated directly to position in the race. First come the silent runners, then a little murmuring, some giggling, then some louder talk and laughter. These runners, not quite so driven as the leaders, have time and breath for chit chat and chuckles.
Now is the high point of the race for me. It’s warming some and I can shed my pullover. I stretch and reach for my cup of tea on the porch railing and then lean back in the lawn chair. Now I can relax. I’ve managed once again this year to keep count through all the excitement.
Number 365 is an old man! He’s stooped over, but he’s running! Numbers 377 through 381 are a group of young women walking and talking together. One of them is actually carrying a baby. Besides giving me a chance to relax a little with my counting, these stragglers at the end always earn my admiration for sticking with it.
Now there’s a long gap. Is it over? Have they all gone by? Nope, here comes a walker, strolling along, enjoying the sunshine and the sound of the waves lapping at the shore of Liberty Bay.
The runners make a loop further down the road, and then come back by my house, now going in the opposite direction. The first 10 or so are flying. One of them will win this race. I always lose interest right about this point. I’m embarrassed to admit that I never finish the race. I’ve seen each of them through the first leg of the course even though few of them have noticed me. Even the slower joggers are serious enough to keep their eyes straight ahead on the road.
My runner’s high has passed. I take a last drink of tea to empty my cup and head back into the house. I’m exhausted.
— Mary Ekstrand, a Poulsbo-based writer, is the author of “Keepers of the Beach: Gulls of the Pacific Northwest” (Welcome Press, Seattle, 1981), and “Where Does the Tide Go Out?” (Welcome Press, Seattle, 1983). Her article, “Bee Smart,” about mason bees, is published in the March/April edition of Back Home magazine. www.maryekstrand.com.