That’s what the girl at the I-84 Diner asked us as we milled around waiting for our meals to be brought out at 11:00 on a Saturday night. Well, yeah, when you put it that way, it does sound a little bit foolish. But we didn’t come just to run. We came to race. And a race is very different from a run. Even if you aren’t racing to win, per se, or to place or even to PR, a race is energizing, exciting, exhilarating. And even though running a race is an individual kind of thing — even in a relay you are all alone on the road — a race is pretty much the only time you get to be cheered on, or cheer others on. It’s the energy of the herd that makes a race something worth getting up at 5:30 in the morning for, and only in a race does standing in line for a portajohn becomes “part of the experience” rather than an annoying necessity.

I run a lot, but I don’t race much. Racing a lot is expensive, of course, and being “in training” is exhausting. But every time I finish a race, no matter how big or small, I wonder why I don’t do it more frequently. There is, inevitably, a moment of camaraderie that I miss on my solo runs, even though my fellow runners are strangers. During my first marathon it came at mile 19, when I just had to walk a bit and some runners came up behind my husband and I and cheered us on, “Come on Hawaii, you can do it. Don’t give up.” With the Ragnar Relay I just finished, it was on my last leg, when I was hanging tight with the runner from another team. He kept me on the course when I would have missed a turn, and we crossed the line together, passed off our bracelets, and high-fived — a run made more interesting by some friendly competition.

But it is still a race, and there is also the element of straight competition, whether with yourself or the guy you’ve been gaining on for the past half mile and really just want to pass already. When you finally do, you feel like a rockstar. “I just passed someone! Someone who was running! Someone who was going fast!” (Or maybe not so fast . . . it’s hard to tell when you’re on the course.) For their part, they either think you’re a rockstar, too, because obviously anyone who passes them is a serious runner, or they didn’t even notice, so consumed are they by the necessity of putting one foot in front of the other, or by the power of the song playing on their iPod, or by the internal monologue they are running to: “Two more miles till I can eat another granola bar. Two more miles till the bagels. Two more miles to the end. Two more miles. Two more miles.”

As you come up on the end, you suddenly are a rockstar. People are shouting your name, complimenting your form, graciously ignoring the redness of your face and the sweat dripping down your neck as they tell you how great you look out there and how you’re almost there, just half a mile, just around the bend, just at the top of the hill. This never happens on your normal run. Except maybe in your head when you cheer yourself on. Which I do, of course. Which is why it’s nice to race sometimes and have someone else doing the cheering for me.

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