If Aging Racefully, my 2022 Beach to Bay Relay Marathon team, were a horse, it would have been scratched from the race. If it were a building, it would have been condemned. An airliner, it would have been grounded. And yet, inspired by our perpetually sunny, 84-year-old, triple bypass and cancer survivor team captain, Herman Vacca, we somehow hobbled to the finish line.
My five teammates and I are all over sixty, so our replacement parts outnumber our original equipment. And while our rate of decay is accelerating, so is our determination to face down aging’s deleterious effects: Two of us delayed lower body surgeries until shortly after the race, and I was having great difficulty breathing after running three miles. Not exactly the makings of a dream team.
So, what’s behind our mad compulsion to finish our four-to-five-mile legs against all medical advice? What gets our creaky joints out of bed to train through South Texas’ pea soup summers and gazpacho winters? Why do we care so much about a meaningless race?
The answer is our ten-year captain, Herman Vacca. How can we bow to the ravages of age and quit training knowing that Herman, who is at least fourteen years older than any of us, runs five miles every other day to prepare for the race? How can we not finish our legs knowing he always finishes his? And how can we ever thank Herman enough for inspiring us to keep running when it would make so much more sense to stop?
All that’s true, but it’s still up to each of us to finish our leg despite an underappreciated phenomenon about Beach to Bay that needs to be more, er, appreciated: While four or five miles might not sound like much, the grinding heat and humidity of mid-May Corpus Christi make it a bucket list test for any runner.
Several years ago, after completing the five-mile last leg, I was sitting on a curb, semi-conscious, struggling to catch my breath when I was joined by a much younger, Austinite runner in a similar state. For several minutes, we were incapable of speaking to each other, but after we regained our faculties, he looked at me and asked between gulps of air, “What’s the deal? I can run a marathon in Austin and not be this beat. I don’t know if I can make it to my car.”
I squinted up at our white giant sun in our blowtorch blue sky and answered, “It’s always like this.”
“Do you ever get used to it?”
“No,” I replied and pointed him toward the beer tent.
This year, because our team was slowed by medical issues, I ran the last leg from about 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. After three miles, there was a physical sensation of pushing against a wall of heat and humidity. There was also a menacing pinprick sensation along the top of my head as my feet burned on the asphalt. Unable to breathe the soupy air, I stopped for a minute to retch and then began walking while struggling to catch my breath.
I was forced to intermittently run and walk the last two miles. The saintly volunteers at the water stations provided me much needed kind words and desperately needed hydration. A few of the many people who drove by shouted encouragement, and a few die-hard Ocean Drive homeowners endured the sauna-like conditions to douse me with water. I thanked each of them profusely; I’m not sure I’d have made it without their support. While I understand the impulse to cheer on the winners, if you’re looking to help people who are really suffering, stick around to root for us in-over-our-heads nonathletes struggling to finish our legs in the midday sun.
Slowed by our medical issues, my team completed the race in 6 hours and 25 minutes, a mere 4 hours behind the winners. Overtaken by several glaciers along the way, we finished 974th. I couldn’t help but think how proud my father would have been; he always told me whatever I do in life, strive to finish 974th.
As lousy as our time was, we were okay with it. We knew we’d done our best under difficult circumstances. And the satisfaction that comes from that is what all those postrace Beach to Bay revelers are celebrating.
It’s a well organized race with a fun atmosphere that every runner should experience at least once.
But be prepared.