I visited my father in May, which served as my base camp to undertake a mountain of work on a major book project after completing the semiannual grind of spring semester grading. For diversion and fitness during that month, I had logged 80 miles of hard runs on grueling hills in mostly warm weather in the hilly town of Colchester, CT, and I also did 27K of hard rowing training on the indoor rowing machine. I was eager to test myself in a local road race to see how much athletic benefit I had gained from all that hard work. Bad move.
I debated long and hard about whether to run this Hamden 5K Road Race because I knew it would be hilly and I knew that the weather forecast for race day called for some seriously runner-unfriendly weather. I was proud of myself for not bailing out and proceeding with my plan to conquer this challenge. (Note to self – stay in bed next time.) After sweating profusely at the starting line in near-80 degree heat and grueling 75% humidity, the race finally began at 9:00 AM, which was far too late for a race scheduled for June. As I started along “Evergreen” Avenue for this misadventure in competitive distance running, I wanted to whip out a can of spray paint and rename this street “Everscream” Avenue to more accurately reflect the impact that this course had on my legs, even within a few hundred yards from the start. As the hills unfolded into the sky before my weary eyes and stiff neck, I braced myself for this rapid descent into hell that was masquerading as a stairway to heaven.
As I trudged up this mountain of a hill in the first mile (rope and pickaxe not included), my breathing soon became ragged, gasping and gagging like someone who was had just been removed from a respirator. My split for the first mile was 8:45. Just to give you a sense of how slow that is, it’s a pace that is comparable to my training pace for longer runs on hot days in Florida. I literally could have eaten a large pizza and pounded a few beers and still have completed my first mile in training in the time that it took me to complete the first mile of this course. An 8:45 mile split is slow for me at mile 23 of a marathon and yet this was the first mile of a 5K! I literally wanted to stop and walk at least three times in this race. I can count on one hand the number of times that I wanted to walk during races at the half marathon distance or less. And yet here I wanted to walk within the first mile in part because I wanted to hold on to a tree to overcome my fear that I might fall over backwards from the extreme grade of the incline. Most American-made cars would struggle to crest this hill.
But I finally made it to the top of that interminable ascent — more out of anger and fear than gritty determination — only to soon learn that mile 2 featured even more of a challenge for my spent legs –- rolling hills. So now I had a “royal flush” of all the factors that destroy me in road races: steep inclines, rolling hills, and savage heat and humidity. Remind me again why I decided to pay $30 and drive two hours round trip for a piece of this pleasure?
After barely surviving the steep incline and the rolling hills, I eagerly awaited the “return on investment” –- the downhill segment in the third mile of the race. Downhill running used to be my specialty, but alas those days are gone. Now in my ripe old age, the downhill segments hurt as much as the uphill climbs. I was worried every step of the way on those treacherous downhill stretches that my legs would give out and I would somersault down the pavement to the finish like a runaway meatball (and that probably would have improved my finish time). It was only by virtue of the laws of physics (“an object in motion tends to remain in motion, etc.”) that I was able to break 8:00 in that third mile (a whopping 7:50 – again, ridiculously slow). And I can’t even claim any credit for that negative split –- I was just the living incarnation of that kid on the bunny slope at the ski resort who missed the class on how to snow plow and just hopes that some benevolent force will cause him to slow down before he suffers a fatal crash. It was truly an out-of-body experience of the worst kind in that last mile as my legs had no choice to keep moving at a jet engine-level of RPMs and somehow not disintegrate as I barreled toward the finish line.
The results are in. The good news is that I finished 39th of 297 runners (top 13%) and placed 3rd (only 9 seconds away from 2nd) of the 20 runners in my 50-59 age group in an abysmal time of 25:36 (8:15 pace). And now for some brutally honest commentary. Let me begin by noting that I have never left a road race prior to an awards ceremony when I was in the running to receive an age group award as I was for this race. This race was a step back in time in terms of efficiency and use of technology. The race finished in a narrow chute, like most races do, to funnel the weary runners to a buffet of refreshments and support. But this race was different for runners in that chute. The volunteers in the chute were removing the tabs from our race numbers BY HAND to calculate the results. The last time someone removed a tab from my race number at the end of a race was at the height of the disco era in the late 70s. I suppose that (barely) “Stayin’ Alive” would have been a good theme song for my race experience. I knew those bell bottom pants would become fashionable again one day. To add insult to injury, other volunteers in the chute were handing out nice, glitzy-looking medals that said “Girls on the Run” for the little girls who finished the race today. Conspicuously absent from the volunteers hands were batches of “Old Men Who Almost Died on the Run” medals. The finishing chute also was devoid of any Gatorade, which was a first in as long as I can remember in running hundreds of races in the past four decades. But who needs electrolyte replacement after a nice easy run like that on a cool pleasant day? I grumbled and stumbled away from the finish area as sweat erupted from my every pore as if expelled from a fire hose.
The “feel good” slogan of the Hamden 5K Road Race is “Bringing Our Town Together.” Kind of makes you feel warm inside, doesn’t it? Well, here are a few friendly tips for the race organizers if they would like to do a better job of bringing the town together in the future.
- Post the race results online within 24 hrs after the race occurs. Come on, this is 2016! A team of preschoolers could have delivered the race results faster than the race organizers did for this race. I didn’t see results online until almost FOUR DAYS after the race! And this was after the race organizers said that results would be delivered by e-mail the day after the race, which did not occur. Even though I still use a flip phone, I’m nonetheless entitled to technological efficiency from others who greedily seize $30 from me to deliver a service.
- Consider offering cookies as post-race refreshments for runners and not as “trophies” for the top 3 runners in each division (especially after some of those runners narrowly dodged cardiac arrest while trying to navigate your Mt. Everest-esqe race course). And it’s a good thing I didn’t experience cardiac arrest on those hills because I surely would have died – I don’t recall seeing any medical personnel onsite as is the case for all road races. The cookies were donated by a local bakery (a nice touch), but the race organizers decided to cut yet another corner and offer these goodies that they received for free as the race awards rather than investing a few bucks (like every other race in the country) on actual trophies, medals, etc. for the age group winners.
- Perhaps slip the police officers on duty a few of those donated cookies to ensure that they know where the start of the course is located. This is a small race and there were police officers stationed at the edge of a major road that runners had to cross to access the starting line for the race. They were the “crossing guards” for the runners to access the start. Yet when I asked one of them where the starting line was located, he replied, pointing westward, “I’m not sure – somewhere over there.” Good thing I brought my compass. But I can’t blame the police officers for their ignorance because this low-budget event didn’t even have a sign that said “start” or “finish” on the course. No, I’m not kidding.
And here’s one final musing that encapsulates my race experience.
This is my face …..
… and this is my face at the top of that monster hill in mile 1 of this race:
Needless to say, the next time I see a course profile for a race that looks like the one in the link below, I will be sure to run (in the opposite direction!)
But to end on an upbeat note, my blog was recently selected as a Top 100 Running Blog for Fitness Inspiration: http://blog.feedspot.com/2016/01/25/running-blogs/ That is why you now see the nifty Top 100 ribbon logo at the top right sidebar of my blog. I am comforted to know that at least my writing ability hasn’t declined with age!