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Racing with a runner: Getting into the head and heart of an athlete

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Fast friends: First Islanders of their gender across the line, from left, Justine Karen, Emma Gallagher and Lindsey Gallagher.
Fast friends: First Islanders of their gender across the line, from left, Justine Karen, Emma Gallagher and Lindsey Gallagher.

Starting line: Saturday, before the start of the Shelter Island 5K, I stood in a huddle of my teammates, with Emma Martinez Majdisova on my right who was still shaking with adrenaline from singing the national anthem. Our male teammates stood in front of us.

Jack Lang turned to glance back over his shoulder one last time. “Good luck,” he said. The other girls and I wished him the same. Dr. Frank Adipietro called the start, and we were off.

When I run I always hit a point somewhere around a mile where my brain catches up to my feet and is baffled why I am choosing to do this to myself. Each foot is an anvil, and I am bored beyond belief. One mile, like clockwork.

The task becomes, depending on whether it is a race or practice, to either distract or to motivate myself. I have pre-selected thoughts, games and scenarios that I play out in my head, not unlike playlists. I shuffle through unreal conjurings of the people in my life who believe in me. I imagine them a few yards before me, sometimes speaking, sometimes not, always urging me forward.

Every runner stocks an arsenal with individualized content, but I’ve found that fundamental race habits typically resemble one another. For instance, when Emma runs she relies on looped lyrics of her favorite songs to drive her to the finish line. Francesca Frasco finds the necessary force to keep pushing by replaying the words of our coaches over again in her mind.

Passing Perlman: My opinion of the course’s rolling hills was ever-changing. On the ups I found myself wishing for a flat road, on the downs I was thrilled to have the helping boost of momentum. A panting dog and his owner came up on my left side.

At one point, the dog and owner ran parallel to one another, one at each shoulder of the road connected by an extendable leash. “Trip wire,” whispered Emma Gallagher.

She and her sister, Lindsey, ran along side my right. Saturday was practice for them, so they stayed to pace me.

Mile 1.5: I found myself incapable of producing an effective inner cheerleader.

Instead, I distracted myself by counting the steps that Emma took beside me. I attempted to synchronize our steps, copy the shortness of her stride and rapid rate of her turnover. I thought of my breathing, trying — mostly in vain — to slow it. At various points I created short-lived scenes in my head, and at others I made an effort not to think at all. A blank mind, and fast turnover are a girl-runner’s best friends.

Mile 2: “No more hills, it’s down and then flat from here,” Lindsey said, encouraging me. We were a few feet from turning off Nostrand Parkway, onto the road that runs the boundaries of Camp Quinipet and would lead us along Crescent Beach to the finish line.

My breathing was deteriorating. I’m asthmatic, and this year it had been more of an issue than ever before. “Slow your breathing,” Emma suggested. I inhaled deeply through my nose, exhaled through my mouth, doing my best to regulate each frantic breath.

When we reached Herrmann’s Castle, Lindsey and Emma began to call out the distance from the finish in meters.

“Less than 1,000 now!”

“Less than 800!”

“Only 400 more!”

The closer we got, the faster we moved. Lindsey and Emma could have outsprinted me without question, but they didn’t and we crossed the finish line together as a single unit.