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When my father persuaded me to run Washington, D.C.'s famed Army Ten-Miler back in April, my immediate thought was that, since I'd be surrounded by thousands of military personnel and their supporters, I should do something a little political.
This wasn't going to be something to undermine the honoring of our troops or something disrespectful. I come from a long line of service members -- at least one person in every generation of my family dating all the way back to the Civil War has fought on the front lines. That includes my grandmother, who was in the Women's Army Corps in WWII, and my little sister, who's shipping off with the Navy in a few months to become an officer. Hell, our family (of mostly progressive Christians, mind you) raised me to be so patriotic I sometimes choke up when I hear the National Anthem. Seriously.
But since the military's ban on openly gay and lesbian soldiers has discharged thousands of capable soldiers, and since countless others who took the chance of serving their country anyway have had to hide, or worse, become victims of harassment, I figured I could make a little statement in their honor. Besides, being a black woman, it was clear to those who came before me that open discrimination in the military does not help troop morale, even though the old curmudgeons who run the military believe it does.
So I decided on a T-shirt.
At first I was going to wear a shirt I had from American Apparel that says "Legalize Gay," but the message was too vague, and would probably be covered up by my racing number. Instead, the night before the race, I bought a plain white T-shirt and borrowed my youngest sister's fat-tipped Sharpie. I held the shirt taut and simply wrote "End 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'" across its chest and "Equality" across its shoulders. When I told one of our editors at work my plan a few days before, she said, "No one's going to be able to read it with your gigantic boobs bouncing all over the place." True, but it was a chance I was willing to take.
The next morning, my father woke me up at 5 a.m. I wrangled myself into my outfit -- sports bra, running shorts, and the T-Shirt. To stay warm until the gun went off, I slipped on a pair of jogging pants and a long-sleeve Brown University Relay Invitational shirt, a relic from my high school track-and-field days.
From the suburbs of D.C., where he lives, Dad and I hopped onto the Metro with a load of other runners, all filled with the racing spirit -- pumped up, sharing their racing strategies, chowing down on bananas and bagels.
When we got off the train, we had to split up according to racing number to check in all of our non-racing items. "Meet me right at this clock when you're done," Dad said. I went off and realized it was time to woman up. Among thousands of military personnel, I, a civilian who had lacked any firsthand experience with capture the flag, let alone combat, had to make a rather political statement among people who work with this policy during their everyday lives. That's a little bit like if some random soldier walked into my job and held up a sign telling me he didn't like the vacation policies our company enforced.
Among the thousands of other runners working in the last stretches and taping up weak ankles, I stripped off my pants and long-sleeve shirt to reveal my brand-new running shorts and racing shirt. I awaited a gasp or a look of shock immediately -- but nothing. I handed my stuff over to a volunteer at a counter, but all he did was give me a smile and say, "Thanks, ma'am. Have a good race!"
As I approached the Dad and Daughter rendezvous point, I thought about my father's possible reaction to the shirt. Sergeant Garcia served in the Army for 27 years, spending about a year of his tenure in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. We had a great discussion on ending "don't ask, don't tell" in the backyard the previous afternoon, but I still wasn't 100% sure if he would freak out, especially if his old unit was supposed to be there as a sponsor.
I broke through the crowd of people stretching on the ground, taping up their joints and doing warm-up exercises that non-runners might find circus-like, to find Dad, who was scanning the crowd for me. When he saw my shirt, he immediately let out a big laugh and gave me a hug. At least I had the support of one veteran, so I felt pretty OK.
We took the long walk through the crowd right outside the Pentagon to the starting corral. As we waited, we joked around with some of the other racers, as you do waiting for any other race to start: "Yeah, I think I'm going to run this at a four-minute-mile pace." "Put me with the other fat slow runners." "See that gray-haired old broad up there? She's going to come in so far ahead of me that she's going to beat me with her walker when I reach the finish line." But still, no one really gave me a problem.
Now, I've run a few races in my life, but what sets this race apart was the pure atmosphere -- soldiers in digital camo worked the course as volunteers, directing runners to the right places and handing out water; spouses wore T-shirts memorializing their fallen husbands and wives; some veterans with artificial limbs made their way through the course; military helicopters coasted low over the crowd as a singer finished "The Star-Spangled Banner," giving me the teensiest tear in the corner of my right eye. Meanwhile, no one gave me a look. No one in the corral gave me a mean glance. If anything, I was just another runner in the pack of 23,000 who turned out that day.
And then we were off. A small Army band played next to the first mile marker clock. I cheered to them as I ran by, and the drummer gave me a wink and a smile. Perhaps, I thought, the bouncing-boob theory was right -- maybe no one can read my shirt.
Through the course, I got a small batch of runners here and there passing me and then turning around to look at my shirt. A couple of them smiled, one of them cheered, and the rest just kept going. Nonetheless, I was feeling safer than I thought I would.
Then we got to the middle of the fifth mile, where runners ran parallel
to each other on opposite sides of the road for an out-and-back portion
of the race. This is when I got a lot of reaction from the runners on
the other side of the road -- to my delight, many of them were smiles.
One girl on the opposing side of the turnaround even gave me a high
five. I think I saw another (way faster) comrade wearing a National Gay
and Lesbian Task Force tank top pass me by, but he was in the zone and
could not have possibly seen me.
By the time my father and I circled around on the other side of the street, he became amused at the reactions. Every time he saw someone looking at my shirt, he would point them out. Even that one woman who gave me the dirtiest look at some point on the course.
When we reached the middle of mile 8, I was starving, my feet were completely cramped, knees aching from the impact, and back reeling from, well, the boobs. But Dad kept me going, despite my depressingly slow trot for the last bit of the race. And I didn't want to be "that girl" who went and made a to-do out of things only to come in last, or not finish at all. Somehow, the adrenaline kicked in for the last 100 meters -- like I said, I was a sprinter -- and we finished strong together, weaving through the others coming down the chute, to finish at two hours and eight minutes... an hour and 20 minutes after the winning female, Samia Akbar, who effortlessly strolled in at 56 minutes.
I sat on the asphalt parking lot of the Pentagon, which was converted into a finish expo. I sucked down a banana and cookies before taking a long stretch, where I completely zoned out for an undetermined amount of time. When I finally got my energy up, my dad walked me all over the finish expo. It was mainly to find his old unit, but it was also so he could get a kick out of the basically nonexistent reaction of my now-soaked T-shirt.