Runners often end up having a favorite race that they return to each year. For me it’s the Chilmark Road Race 5K on Martha’s Vineyard. My love affair with the race started in 1978 when a Chilmark summer resident named Hugh Weisman organized a road race to benefit the Chilmark Community Center. In addition to being community oriented, Hugh has great artistic talent, so iconic T-shirt designs were to be had every year. Nobody back then even imagined that my 1978 T-shirt would become an envied collector’s item.

For the first Chilmark race, about 180 entrants aged four to 64 showed up, a pretty good first-time turnout. Runners are bused up Middle Road and dropped off about a half-mile from the starting line from which they then race back to Beetlebung Corner.

After the runners are all at the starting line, Hugh drives up in his old red pickup truck, honks the horn for the start, and then zooms away with the pack in pursuit. That first year I hadn’t been racing much but was in good enough shape to find myself among the front pack of runners. The undulating road is seriously hilly around the two-mile mark, so I was really struggling on the uphills. As we crested the last hill with a tenth of a mile downhill plunge to the finish, I set my eyes on a younger runner about 20 yards ahead of me. Full steam! Closing the gap! A big lunge at the finish line!

The all-out effort by both of us created a great photo finish. I just nipped him. Ever since then Gary and I have enjoyed a friendship fused at that finish line by the heat of competition. The event had a wonderfully fun spirit to it and captured my heart. From then on running Chilmark became an essential part of my summer biorhythms.

As the years passed, a collective sense of camaraderie emerged among the returning runners as we all participate in the same annual ritual. As the race grew to its current limit of 1,600 runners, the start time became somewhat elastic. On a good year it would begin 10 minutes late; the longest delay was about 40 minutes, in part because they couldn’t find the keys to the van that was parked in the middle of the road in front of the starting line.

This process has actually given rise to one of the distinctive and enjoyable features of the race. When buses drop the runners off about a mile from the start, they begin walking back to where the race begins. The flowing river of entrants creates the opportunity to greet old friends and other runners who after many repeat years recognize each other. There is an embracing sense of community.

There is also, of course, fierce competition once the race begins, albeit respectful and friendly. Mutual support abounds. After one race when I was hitchhiking back home, the guy that I had outkicked at the finish line happily congratulated me and gave me a ride.

The 1992 race was a different experience than all previous years. One week before the race, I nearly blew out my Achilles tendon doing intervals up Skiff avenue, the steepest long hill in Vineyard Haven. Even though the doc said I should not run, tradition dictated that I had to at least show up for the race and make an effort to finish.

Knowing that I could only walk (or more accurately hobble), and being even uncertain about if I could make it made me very laid back and ready to discover life at the back of the pack. I greeted all my running buddies at the start, moaned about my Achilles, and then walked through the throngs of waiting runners — 100 yards deep. Back, back, back . . . . finally, I reached the end. Lo and behold, porta potties! All these years I had been liquid fertilizing the woods when at the end of the line luxury facilities were available.

Pre-race announcements floated over the horde and the starting gun was a faint crack. The pack began to quiver, then bobbed up and down, finally creeping forward. Several minutes passed before I made it past the starting line. People at the back of the pack walk not run. Stroll, saunter, skip, stop, but not run, except for a rare burst of bustle. Most of the rear contingent consists of parents with small children, including several being pushed in strollers. One grandfatherly type was carrying a boom box playing children’s songs especially made for the Vineyard.

Old McDonald had a farm and on this farm he had some ticks. Here a tick, there a tick, everywhere a tick, tick.

Suddenly from up ahead a shout rang out. “Jim! What are you doing back here?” It was one of my veteran racing buddies from the Island. Bill, in past years, had pushed his baby daughter Raleigh in a stroller. This year she was doing it on foot for the first time. Bill’s strategy was to make the outing fun. So we sauntered off together, exploring innumerable attractions, including a caterpillar crossing the road, dipping our fingers in the roadside stream. The walking part was not high on Raleigh’s interest list, so Bill put her on his shoulders and strode up the hills. A good work out for this triathlete.

We passed the one-mile mark in 22 minutes. We communed with the other walkers, mostly parents. I concluded that the parenting approach of choice as the trek advances is to accelerate the journey to shorten the amount of complaining.

A trailing police car passed us. You know that you are really going slowly when even your rear guard abandons you. We passed the two-mile mark in 40 minutes. The two-mile mark timers also started walking toward the finish and passed us.

At the two-and-a-half-mile water stop, the crew was in the process of picking up the discarded cups the runners had tossed down as they gulped their water and ran on. We helped them.

The cows in the field before the last hill perked up Raleigh’s interest. And for the first time we passed another runner, Vincent, a demoralized and pooped kid about eight years old.

About 100 yards ahead, two spectators were walking back toward Vincent calling out encouragement and coming to accompany him. At the top of the last hill, with the finish line in sight below, Bill and Raleigh took off running. They dusted me! Bill wasn’t going to let the chance to beat Austin slip away. Okay, I thought, I still won’t be last because poor Vincent was behind me. As I hobbled forward about 100 yards from the finish line, a group of family members began cheering wildly and chanting, “Vince! Vince! Vince!” Vince flew right by me.

I trundled across the finish line in 1:03:53, dead last.

Hugh announced that there were two new course records set: men’s with a 14:46 and women’s at 17:20. To my surprise and embarrassment, Hugh called me up, saying that I had run in all the Chilmark races and made it through this one on an injured Achilles to keep the tradition alive. He gave me the Wilcox College Award, an award apparently given to the person who comes in last. There really isn’t such a college but I think Morgan, one of the race veterans and in my age group, created the award. It comes with a great prize: a case of beer, to be enjoyed by slow and swift alike. On the cover of the case of beer was scrawled the following inscription:

“Wilcox College Award 1992: To the spirit of the Chilmark Road Race’s Final Finisher, running unencumbered and in the spirit of road racing. Nice work and congratulations!”

First, last, or in between, running the Chilmark Road Race is special for all.

Jim Austin is a seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven and a lifelong runner. He recently published a memoir: Gone Running: the Adventures, Joys, Challenges, and Lessons of a Running Life, from which this essay has been adapted. The book is available at the Bunch of Grapes; proceeds benefit the Achilles Kids Program.