Sunday, July 9, 2017

That Time I Lost My Daughter

I don't run. I will walk, quickly even, vast distances. If you need me to get somewhere fast, you best have a car, or a bike, or a goat cart

I lead a Girl Scout troop and this often gets me into things I wouldn't normally do. One spring we had extra cookie money and my co-leader brought up the idea of participating in the Color Run 5K in the parking lot of our local, mostly defunct mall.

Eight girls out of the eleven in our troop wanted to run and three adults were willing to pay the entry fee to help monitor them. Julia and I purchased our registration packets and embarked on a "training program."

This involved me running down our country road with Julia lagging 10-50 yards behind. Eventually we gave up our "training" in favor of winging it on race day.

The Girl Scout organization is wise. They have a volunteer-to-girl ratio that must be met for all activities. This ratio is four kids to one adult. With three adults and eight girls, we were in compliance with the ratio. What could go wrong?

We assembled in the Pittsburgh Mills parking lot and donned our Color Run t-shirts, sun glasses, and handkerchiefs. Some of the girls opened their chalky color packets and doused anyone within reach. By the time we made it to the starting line, the last "wave" of runners was queuing to be released. We lined up and began at a reasonable jog.

At this moment, I had my daughter and three other girls with me. The other volunteer moms were walking somewhere behind. The three not-my-actual-kid girls wanted to run. And I am young and fun. So I jogged with them.

It was the first time my body didn't feel like it was going to explode from running. Perhaps there's something to the buddy system after all. We'd run for a while and then take a brief walking break. Julia began to fade, but she was keeping us in sight.

A 5K in a mall parking lot has to take a wonky path to attain the required length. There were switch backs through an undeveloped portion of the property that I'll allow were kind of confusing. The running girls had taken a brief break and wanted to sprint through the blue color station. Julia was lagging behind, but maintaining her following distance. 

We took off at a run through the color station. By now, I was sweating profusely and had tucked my t-shirt into an imitation crop top to attempt to get some ventilation. A volunteer splashed my bare belly with double handful of blue chalk. Another person attacked my face. I stumbled through the race course chicane and assembled my Girl Scouts. There were only three.

"Where's Julia?"

And just like that, she was gone.

We went backwards and forwards. We scanned the crowd, searched the blue color station. My own child, my ONLY child, was missing.

About this time, a fourth Girl Scout came huffing onto the scene.

"I've been.... trying... to catch... you...this whole time," she panted.

I didn't even know that one was missing. 

I flagged down a police officer and asked for his help. "She looks just like me," I said. "But shorter."

The officer radioed ahead to the finish line, "in case she shows up there."

I didn't think that was the problem.

I made several calls on my cell phone to other parents that were watching the race. I eventually decided we had to continue toward the finish line. There was no use hanging around the blue station. She wasn't there.

Twelve excruciating minutes later, we rounded a bend and found Julia with a pair of spectating troop parents. I pulled her into a hug. She burst into tears. Through heavy sobs, she managed to communicate that she'd become confused by the race course and "accidentally" crossed over a grassy area that allowed her to skip a big part of the course. In a few steps she went from following behind us to way in front. When she realized her mistake, she stopped and was fortunate to find another girl's parents.

I finished my first (and last) 5K with four bewildered Girl Scouts and one emotionally and physically exhausted daughter.

In retrospect, we should have assigned four girls to my care and four to the other two moms. We should have had a plan in case we became separated. "Experience is something you don't get until just after you need it," my husband often quotes. Post Color Run, we're diligent about emergency planning.

Sadly, it's too late to save our mother-daughter running career.