the most unusual race

When I run races, it usually involves signing up months ahead of time and paying a substantial fee. Then there’s the stress of arriving early to find parking and get to the start line, chip tied to my shoelace, number pinned to my shirt, the cold air on my bare legs, as I elbow past other runners to find my perfect starting point.

On Saturday, A., C. and I went to the annual 5K Jingle Jog put on by the Ridgecrest Over the Hill Track Club (that’s OTHTC, for locals). We were running late, and I was anxious. My face was oily from sunscreen,  and I was drinking furiously to get hydrated in the desert air.

We pulled into the dirt parking lot at 9 a.m. I was sure I was going to miss the start of the race.

“You go ahead,” A. said. “I’ll get the boy.”

So I jumped out of the Fiesta, and ran in the direction of the arrows on the hand-made sign. I followed a wooden fence to a family’s backyard.

And there stood a woman in her early 50s with dark curly hair dressed head-to-toe as an Elf: red and green and tights and bells and pointy hat. She stood on a large deck, next to a fire pit and a bucket of marshmallows the size of my fist.

“Welcome to the annual Jingle Jog,” she called out to the 40 or so people gathered below the deck in the dirt, many gripping baby jogging strollers, a handful holding dog leashes. They were young, old and very old. Instead of chips, several had Christmas bells dangling from their shoelaces. One woman wore candy-cane socks pulled up to her knees and short shorts.

“This is our home, and we’re happy you’re here,” the Elf said. “Please make yourself comfortable. As you can see, we have a zip-line, mounds of dirt for bikes and a trampoline for the kids. All I ask is that you sign a waiver.”

The zip-line was connected to a 10-foot homemade wooden platform. The mountains loomed in the distance.

“The course is unmarked,” the Elf continued. “You go out of the parking lot, take a left, make the first right, run up the hill until you see a green car, where my husband will be there directing you, and then you turn around and come back.

“For those who want to do the Jingle Jog Ultra, you’ll leave 15 minutes after everyone else. You’ll climb a hill where the others turn around. You’ll come back here and do 100 sit-ups and 30 push-ups on the deck. Then you’ll take the zip-line, which has been tested up to 160 pounds. After, you’ll do jumping jacks on the dirt mound, and then you’ll come back to the deck where you can either do more sit-ups and push-ups or [she cued music] dance with the Elf.”

Everyone laughed.

“Afterward, we’re having a potluck. If you didn’t come prepared, I made two hams and have more than enough orange juice and champagne for mimosas. So please stay and mingle.”

So, it wasn’t really a race. It was a friendly jog with other Ridgecrest families. I came in fourth of the non-Ultra people — and I wasn’t running hard. The views were stunning, the sky was bright blue and I felt refreshed. A. ran half of it, pushing C. in the stroller, and waited for me where the road turned from pavement to dirt.

When I returned, the Elf and a few others cheered.

A. and I stretched and chatted with the woman with the candy-cane stockings, who was there with her 7-month-old and helicopter-flying husband. She teaches yoga at the local gym on Wednesday evenings. They moved here in July for a three-year post.

We sat on the driveway in the shade with the babies and ate ham, chocolate-chip muffins and sausage quiche. And then everyone gathered around the fire and a man played an accordion and sang a song about the Old West as a finale.

A. and I agreed we had fun. We loved the low-stress fun-loving no-chip no-fog horn vibe from the crowd. We’ll definitely go to the next gathering, whenever that may be.


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