11:00 am. Race day. I tighten the laces of my running shoes and try to keep my nerves under control. Breathe. I ran track in high school and am no stranger to road races, so this should be easy. A single mile. No need to set a personal record. I have one goal: keep track of a single seven-year-old…in a crowd of thousands. Piece of cake, right?
I work as the personal care attendant for Alice, an extremely precocious girl with Asperger’s. As a full-time student, I wanted a job that pays expenses while allowing time for classes and homework. Over the past seven months, my duties have grown: babysitter, hygiene assistant, hair stylist, cook, housecleaner, pet-sitter, tutor, yoga instructor, and now, running buddy.
Every St. Patrick’s Day, Virginia Beach holds the Shamrock Marathon. As part of that event, local elementary school kids are given the opportunity to run the Smile Final Mile with adult chaperones.
Alice, being a competitive, lively little girl, likes to run with all her might, and she often forgets she needs to stay with her chaperone. Last year, she ran ahead of her mother in the race, and was lost for over an hour Not wanting a repeat, we spent the week leading up to the race reminding Alice to stay with me.
Packed shoulder-to-shoulder on Atlantic Avenue, Alice and I shuffled toward the starting line as the announcer shouted the countdown. “Ten minutes…five minutes…two minutes …” I squeezed Alice’s hand and murmured, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Even after all ofthe reminders, I still wasn’t sure that she would remember her promise to stay with me.
Sure enough, the minute the air horn sounded, signaling the start of the race, Alice wrenched her arm away from me. She took off, darting through crowds of children and parents. When I caught up with her, I shouted above the din, “Hold onto my hand! I’ll lead you through!” It’s easier to fit a child through an adult-sized hole than the other way around. After a harrowing few minutes, the crowd thinned and we both could run freely.
Now that the worst was over, I felt exhilarated. I could focus more on Alice’s excitement and determination. We rounded a corner—half done already!—and took off down the boardwalk. It was perfect. A warm, salty breeze whipped our hair back. Alice’s face was red, and she was gasping for air, but she set her jaw and stared at the finish line, her skinny legs pumping as fast as they could go. Knowing just what she needed, I started cheering her on. “You’ve got this! Come on, Alice! Great work!”
She crossed the finish line—with a perfect Rocky photo finish, I might add—and we walked to the sandpit where her mom was waiting.
I had plenty of schoolwork to do when I got home that night, but the morning’s excitement had given me tons of energy. I had never had so much fun in a race. Old experiences are made new with children.