At first, I thought I had a chance.
A chance for glory. A chance to be the first runner, the first reporter to cross the finish line of the St. Peter's Fiesta 5K road race.
I peered at last year's results, saw the winning time of 15:51 and stepped out my apartment for a training run, determined to match it.
I ran flat out. My lungs screamed for me to stop but my legs sped forward. I'd been training for months, when a New Year's resolution got me running again. This 5K was going to be cake.
I snuck a peek at my watch. The analog letters read 16:12, 2.2 miles. Wait — 5 kilometers is 3.1 miles. I was a mile behind. Already, if this were the real race, I'd be toast.
A week later, when I stepped to the starting line behind hundreds of others, I felt relaxed. There was no reason to push forward; I could run comfortably.
This was my first St. Peter's Fiesta, my first summer in Gloucester and the first road race of my life. Why not enjoy it?
The horn sounded; I didn't move. I couldn't. Sweating bodies were packed like sardines into Commercial Street, slowly filtering down the road like sand crystals in a hourglass. The crawling start gave me time to scan our surroundings. Hey, it's not everyday you start a race packed at the edge of a carnival.
Finally, after several stalled seconds, my feet started moving. I saw an opening up ahead and went for it, desperate to reinflate my personal space bubble.
I squeezed between runners and cars and spectators and barely saw the upcoming stroller out of the corner of my eye. I twisted left to avoid it, but I felt my heel clip the wheel. An infant's cry rang out in the background. Bad start. I kept moving.
Nearing the half-way turnaround, I saw the leaders coming at us, only minutes ahead. I picked up the pace. The competition gripped me. Hope entered my mind again.
Then, a few steps after I made the turn, I saw a man jogging along and juggling three tennis balls without the slightest flinch. He couldn't have been more than a minute behind me, and he was "joggling." Talk about gaining some perspective. I slowed back down.
The race settled down. I relaxed once more. The runners dispersed. The fastest group flew out of sight, and I found my niche in the middle of the pack. That was where I found the true spirit of Fiesta.
I saw runners big and small, young and old. There were runners in bare feet and runners in stocking feet. Some ran with tunes and some ran on fumes. The diversity was unlike anything I'd seen at a sporting event.
It wasn't about winning; I had it wrong from the beginning. The race is only one part of the week-long celebration of St. Peter and Gloucester's fishermen. Hundreds of runners competed, but an even larger group stood on the sidelines to recognize tradition, heritage and a collective sense of pure happiness on a warm Gloucester evening.
Kids held self-made signs for their relatives and parents, adults in lawn chairs applauded from the grass and groups of helpful volunteers yelled encouraging words as they handed out cups of water.
Locals waved Italian flags from their homes and cars honked their horns as they passed by. From the sidewalk near one of the final turns, a man in a wheelchair yelled, "Come on guys, you can do it!"
None of these people ran the race. But there they were, cheering on strangers and supporting the community. They were all smiles — all playing their part in Fiesta.
I didn't look at my time as I crossed the finish; I passed the clock before I could make out the numbers. I was too busy looking around at all the excited faces packing the closing chute.
I found out later that I finished the race in 24:09 — 121st out of 454 runners and 8 minutes, 26 seconds behind the winner.
But it didn't matter. The importance of winning was lost. I had my own piece of Fiesta to cherish, and I know I'd be welcomed back if I decide to do it again.
Now, if only I could learn how to juggle ...
Cameron Kittle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org