The first race of the new year is an exciting occasion where runners get to see where they are after pursuing the decadent Bacchanalias of the holiday season. For some, it’s their first race, a 5K, a long trip from the couch. For the seasoned runner, the benchmark from which all other races could be measured. And some runners put on an astonishing eleven pounds in five weeks, a stunning achievement enabled by a rotten bout with bronchitis that just won’t die. Indeed, it didn’t even respond to antibiotics, so some runners enjoyed a large cache of cookies by the tinful, truffles, and other whatnots. And some runners realize that eating as though one had a cartoon stomach can use the fist race of the year as a low point in an annual cycle of events, a cheap way to “improve” by crashing themselves into the Gibralters of cake and stuffing of December and then miraculously shaving a few seconds off their 10K by April.
So, some runners would not be hitting a PR today, but were quite happy all the same to be enjoying the weather and testing their mettle in a race that attracts some good runners.
This was my third run of the Run to Read Half Marathon held annually in January, at Fort Prickett’s State Park in Fairmont, West Virginia. The crushed limestone trail had ice and snow on it in patches that stretched sometimes fifty yards, but were mostly clear. There were two-turn-abouts. The first one was a bit after two miles, the next one about nine miles into it. The course was fast and attracted people from all over the mid-Atlantic and New England. The first time I ran it, I finished in 1 hr and 49 minutes, which I beat today by 9 minutes. That’s a PB for the course at 01:40:25.
I usually don’t run he day before a race, but Janathon, so I did hill sprints. I’m coming back from the dead in terms of training.I still have a bronchial infection that I picked up in late November. My lungs are all stepped-on and weak. I’ve had zero speed work lately. I just have that nagging conviction that I am capable of a much faster time in this event. And truffles taste like lies!
So, the field consisted of about 267 people total, maybe a dozen of them walkers and a few spotters not wearing anything remotely like bibs or chip timers. I wore a chip on my left ankle, a bib, a t-shirt, shorts, my torn up trainers. I park it about halfway back in the crowd from the starting line. Whn the RD picked up his bullhorn, chatter dropped and the line swarmed with people checking watches, getting their MP3 players ready, shifting anxiously from foot to foot, people craning to hear the RD. I heard a few words here and there, then a woman – she seemed rather ruffled – stepped forward to the crowd, held a giant plastic bag of ankle chip clip bands up for all to see.
“Who needs a chip?” She hollered. “I have never seen so many chips left at a race start in all my time at races. Come get your chip!”
Bullhorn, “Come get your chip.”
“If you don’t wear your chip, it makes it harder for us to accurately record your time!” She’s full-throated yelling, channeling Janis Joplin. “Come get your chip!!!”
Bullhorn, “Please come get your chip.”
“I have easily twenty chips in this bag.” She’s shaking it. The blue anklets are bouncing around in the bag. “I can read off the bib numbers of the chips I have. Please look at your ankles!”
Someone in the crowd goes,”OMG why don’t people just check their ankles?”
She has a clipboard and begins the roll call of no-show chip runners (insert arbitrary bib numbers), “451!”
“451 come get your chip!!!”
Bullhorn, “451, are you there? Come get your chip!”
“Come get your chiiip!”
I started laughing. This was comical. I felt more and more relaxed while this went on for another couple of minutes. Then, the RD said a few words about water stations and hollered GO!
The rail trail is about nine or ten feet across, wide enough for about three runners. So, about seven dozen rows of audible beepings cascaded back through the entrants as they passed the threshold of the starting line. Snow lay on the ground a couple inches deep. Some of it was slush, some of it had turned to ice. The first leg of the race took us up a slight hill, around a bend, through a long, vaulted tunnel, and then hairpins at a table with little paper cups of water or sports beverage handed to you by a pleasant volunteer. The leader pack flew past me on their way back down the asphalt trail back towards the starting line, the bridge across the Monongahela River, and the crushed limestone trail that follows the river like a dirty look. Chatter died, the audible sounds of struggle began. People clearing sinus, throats, gasping. The field began to thin slightly. I took a sip of water at the table and blasted back down through the tunnel. I was going about 7:20 pace at mile 5 once I crossed the wide bridge and hit the sodden limestone.
I tried to run the edge of the trail. It actually was dry, the grit a bit more fixed underneath my feet. When I hit snow and ice, I did strides, which was an alternative to darting left and right to avoid snow, ice and soup. i just took the soup and moved down the line. This is my humble meal of miles. I take my sustenance from the pace until the second turnaround. The neighborhoods I run alongside boast a few spectators, though they looked mostly imported. The brown and slate green of the earth and rock, the shelves of frozen icicles like hands drawn by Dr. Seuss, the grey of the sky and the jade milky river flowed by under its skrim of ice and flotsam in the shallow reaches. by the time I hit the second turnaround around mile 9, the runners fore and aft were more or less locked into pace. A couple pulled ahead of me, a couple fell behind.
I didn’t check my watch. I was running as hard as I was able. The lungs just weren’t there. Every mile I tried to ratchet my pace up a hair, but in all actuality, I was slowing down. The final turn gave me a tenth of a mile to sprint to the finish and I coiled everything I had into my legs and let it go. I finished with my eyes rolled up in my head gasping for breath. I nearly caught someone who’d been right in front of me at the 9 mile mark. He grabbed his medal from the table in the chute – genius, that – gave me a fist bump. “Dude, you were steady!” That’s the art of the sport. That’s it.
If you want to know why I run, it’s that same humble achievement the runner gets from a sporting event. The chance to congratulate the one who pushed you, pushed themselves. Runners thank those who tried. In this effort, this great metric we all bring in proportion to our efforts, we share this solitary sport at the end of a ragged breath, doubled over and staggering off to recover, to wipe away the mud, maybe tears, and vow to do it again, to do it better. I know it’s probably different if you run in the city. You have the added dimension of being able to compare running styles, clothing, gear, chase and race on routes. The culture is different, richer. But in the sticks, a race means a chance to make radio contact with the mothership, to tap into that electric moment when they yell GO and everyone jolts forward as though into a different atmosphere, a headspace where all that training dials into the focused effort of a few minutes, maybe hours if you keep at it.
I do a half mile cool down to match the half mile warm-up. I’m just OCD like that. The light is already dying in the afternoon. I gas up and go home.
I don’t do many 5Ks anymore. I haven’t ever placed a medal at a half marathon. My competition lies here, where I fail, but that’s fine. Many successful endeavors are only a collection of failures interrupted or stalled by success. Improvement is eternal, failure and success but sway and swerve upon the inexorably forward movement of time, points of reference to know where you’re at. Where are you at?
I just know I’m happy with this time. I gather my booty, go home to care for my kids. I tag off with the wife, who goes out for a car wash. I decide to make this absolutely horrible Red Bull float with cranberry-infused Red Bull and vanilla bean ice cream. Nasty. Nasty! Don’t do this.