I will own it: I am often a basket of neuroses before a race. Despite being late to just about everything else in my life, when it comes to race day, I want to get there AT LEAST half an hour early. That way I have plenty of time to use the bathroom (maybe even more than once!), make sure my shoes are double-knotted, fiddle with my race bib, have some water, do some dynamic warm-ups, and get lined up without feeling rushed. Though I’m not an elite runner, I have my pre-race rituals, and I feel way more relaxed and in the zone when I have enough time to do them.
Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also tried to embrace flexibility and the ability to roll with the punches a bit more. One quip I have frequently used to calm my nerves before a race is, “Relax! You aren’t going to win the race.” It might sound pessimistic, but for me, it takes the pressure off. It reminds me that running is just something fun that I do for myself, and that’s it. The worst thing that happens is *gasp* I STOP RUNNING. I’m not going to lose a sponsorship/my livelihood, no one’s life is hanging in the balance, and my worth as a person in no way depends on my race results.
The only thing is, today the mantra broke down. I cannot believe that I, once the caboose of my middle school cross-country team, am writing these words, but: this morning, I actually did win the (women’s) race for the 5K I ran in.
Was it part luck? Absolutely. It was a small community race with only 40-50 entrants, and the really fast ladies obviously had other things to do this morning.
Even so, I want to take some credit. I PR’d by over 45 seconds, and am now tantalizingly close to my long-term goal of breaking 25 minutes in the 5K. Fingers crossed that I can keep up the consistent training I’ve been doing, because I think that will get me there.
In the meantime, though, I may need to tweak my pre-race mantra a bit. I may not be a likely contender in most races that I do, but as I learned today, it’s now possible that conditions could align just right, and I might, in fact, win the race!
After an extended absence, I’m happy to report that I’m still here and still working through my 50 state challenge. My first new state in a long time was New Jersey, which I’ll tell you all about after filling you in on the 2018 season-that-really-wasn’t.
Where I’ve Been
Essentially, last year really got away from me, as did some of this year. Though I’d had my eye on several races, life and injuries kept getting in the way. Most notably, there was the situation with my cat. As you might remember, she had her first bout of major illness around the time I started this blog in 2017. Though she mostly bounced back from that, she had been touch-and-go since then. Trying to plan trips around flare-ups, though not impossible, definitely got tricky, especially while also taking her medical expenses into account. Then this year around April, she had a worse flare-up than usual. Long story short, it turned out she actually had a rare presentation of aggressive feline lymphoma, which ultimately took her to the Rainbow Bridge a few weeks ago.
For my own part, I spent most of the 2018 running season battling a frustrating case of IT band syndrome. Though it only flared up intermittently, usually at longer distances, I could not seem to shake it, no matter how much stretching or foam rolling I did. Finally, after feeling the familiar stabbing pain two miles into a treadmill run this past winter, I went back to see my awesome physical therapist.
Within five minutes, she determined the problem was actually that my hips were out of alignment, thanks to poor sitting habits (don’t cross your legs at the knee or sit on your feet, kids!). I’m happy to say that after improving how I sit at work, continuing with my glute-strengthening “pre-hab” exercises as I now call them, and upping my foam-rolling game to include substantial work on the glutes, I’ve mostly been free of the IT band beast.
With that, onto the New Jersey race report!
The Stone Harbor Hustle 5K
My adventures this summer included a short trip with the family to the Jersey Shore. Ocean City was a favorite vacation spot when my sister and I were kids, and we all still love visiting even though everyone is all grown up now.
My grown-up way to have fun at the Jersey Shore, of course, involved morning runs on the boardwalk and a race. Lucky for me, the Sunday we were there overlapped with the annual Stone Harbor Hustle 5K, about 30 minutes from where we were staying.
My sister agreed to run it with me. We have a friendly rivalry going on after the last couple of Turkey Trots we’ve done together, in particular the one we did in 2018. That race was not my best ever by any stretch. For one, I failed to officially sign up before the race sold out, so I ended up banditing the race (shhh…) with my mom’s bib. Somewhere out in cyberspace, there is a relatively impressive 5K time recorded for my mom, who I should point out does not run. I still am being made fun of for that one and probably will be for the rest of my life. Worse, I caught a cold in the flying germ tube on my way to Ohio, so really the only thing I wanted to be doing on race morning was sleeping, not running. But I ran the race anyway. In the end, what felt to be a Herculean effort on my part barely got me to the finish line in under 30 minutes, and once I crossed it, I immediately began dry heaving into the bushes off to the side. Meanwhile, my sister who hadn’t even really trained for the race happily trotted over the finish line a couple minutes later. So not cool.
The gauntlet had been thrown, so Stone Harbor was going to be our “final showdown.” Who cared that race morning had dawned 76 degrees with about 80% humidity? It was ON. After a short drive down to Stone Harbor, of course with the family along for the adventure, we stripped into the legal minimum of clothing at the start line. I also took the extra step of pouring half a bottle of water over my head as a pre-cooling measure.
“Oh my god you are so dramatic!” My sister jabbed playfully in our final round of trash-talking.
“Um, you’re going to WISH you were so dramatic!” I teased back.
Despite the heat, once the race started, I took off and never looked back (or so my sister tells it). The course itself was almost completely flat, which helped make up for the feeling of running through atmospheric soup. Even so, I felt better about the heat than I did during my Swarthmore race two years ago. At the finish line, I ended up posting my second-best 5K time ever and still broke 9:00/mile pace. Most importantly, I scored a decisive victory in the sibling rivalry (though it should be said that my sister finished strong, even if feeling a bit warm).
“Yeah, you weren’t being dramatic,” my sister admitted at the finish line.
I smiled to myself, however I will not be resting on my laurels. After all, the 2019 Turkey Trot is just around the corner!
When I think “Delaware,” I’m not really sure what comes to mind most of the time. First state in the Union? Joe Biden? That time when I was nine or so and my grandfather took us flying in a Cessna out of a tiny airport somewhere in the state? Basically, it’s a state that I know exists, but despite its proximity to my birth city of Philadelphia, I’ve never spent a whole lot of time there, except the aforementioned time when I was nine and occasionally when I’ve passed through on I-95.
At any rate, I certainly don’t automatically associate Delaware with outdoorsy sports like trail running, so when I did a search for Delaware races on St. Patrick’s Day weekend, when my sister and I would be visiting family in Philadelphia, I was somewhat surprised to come across the Beau Biden Foundation Trail Run. Huh, that sounds fun. How bad could it be? I thought. Sure, it wouldn’t exactly be my usual fare of flat road running, but my philosophy is that you can survive just about anything for 3.1 miles, and this was only a 5K. Besides, it would be for a good cause and would be a good challenge to look forward to post-physical therapy. So, I signed us up.
Training required a bit of creativity, as Chicago is not exactly known for its rugged, mountainous terrain. Mostly just happy to be back out running again, I made do with my usual routine (intervals, tempo runs, and long runs, plus strength training on my off days) with some “hill” repeats thrown into my long runs. I use the term “hill” loosely, but Cricket Hill over by Montrose Beach does provide a slight elevation change and, at least strictly speaking, qualifies as a hill. It was going to have to get the job done; I really didn’t have much else to work with. Besides, the race was going to be in Delaware, not the Rockies, right? Again I thought to myself, How bad could it be?
Turns out, I underestimated the difficulty of this race a tad. I got my first inkling of what we were in for as my sister and I stood atop the hill by the starting line, taking in the beautiful panoramic view of fields, rolling hills, and woods. Scenic for sure, but whoo-ey, this was gonna be rougher than expected!
Fortunately, I didn’t have much in the way of expectations going in. My main concern was finishing without rolling an ankle and ending up back in physical therapy. Besides, it had already become abundantly clear that any “hill” training I had done was woefully inadequate for the terrain at hand. So as we set off from the starting line, we had no real time goal or goals around if/when we might want to walk.
The first mile or so of the race was about what I expected, mostly rolling fields, a couple of hills, nothing too wild. Where things got exciting though was around 1.5 miles in, where the trail entered a wooded area and narrowed to the point where we had to run single-file. I already hadn’t been running full-blast, but I really had to slow my pace here to avoid slipping in the mud as we scrambled downhill, and to avoid tripping over tree roots and rocks along the way.
As I uttered aloud after a particularly gnarly stretch, “Chicago did not prepare me for this.”
Little did I know, it would get EVEN GNARLIER. We emerged from the woods only to be faced with a massive, almost-literally-impossible-to-run-up hill. Well, probably the people who actually won the race could do it, but those of us bringing up the rear definitely ate a slice of humble pie, with most of us slowing to a walk on this portion and the subsequent steep downhill portion. Again, much more important not to break any body parts than to set speed records!
Following that portion, my legs felt like rubber. Though we hadn’t yet finished even the 5K distance, exertion-wise I felt more like I had already run at least a 10K, if not further. I willed myself back into a run for the last flat portion and for the last stretch of woods. Figuring that we had to be close to the finish line at this point, I more or less held pace on the hill as we emerged from the woods, turned the final bend, then headed up the last hill to the finish line. Despite having to slow down considerably for much of the race and even walk a fair bit, I finished in just under 39 minutes with my sister right there with me. Champs!
Though I am now back in Philadelphia and will sleep exceedingly well tonight, thanks to the combination of post-race exhaustion (and let’s be real, post-race cheesesteaks and hoagies), I had a great time checking off Delaware off my list today. Even better? My new associations with “Delaware” are “shockingly beautiful scenery,” and “a gnarlier-than-expected trail race.” Lesson learned: never underestimate unfamiliar terrain!
Not much has been going on in my day-to-day running life since my October updates, and with the holiday season in full swing plus some other projects I have going, I haven’t been updating as much as I would like. But, I did get to run two fun races in the last few weeks. First was the Grove City Thanksgiving Wattle 5K on Thanksgiving, which I ran back in my home state of Ohio (alas, I have done several Ohio races already, so it didn’t count toward the state tally). Second was Saturday night’s Festivus One-Miler in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which did indeed count toward the state tally. Race recaps below.
About two weeks before Thanksgiving, I got a text from my sister.
“Are you running a 5k in cbus for thanksgiving?”
Thinking nothing of it, I answered, “8k but yes planning to!” (At the time, I was fairly certain I’d be doing the Columbus Turkey Trot 8K in Upper Arlington).
“Noo I was gonna say we should do a 5k together”
*cue record scratch sound effect*
For a brief moment, I thought to peek outside in case there were pigs flying by my window. My sister, who hates running (although she is a fitness buff in all kinds of other ways), and has complained vocally to me every time she’s had to run for any reason, was asking me…VOLUNTARILY!…to run a 5k. Could this actually be real?!
She was not kidding, so I delightedly scrapped my plans for the 8K and found us the Thanksgiving Wattle 5K in Grove City, and my sister began a two-week Couch-to-5K redux training regimen to get ready for the big day (the rest of you, don’t try this at home).
Race morning dawned a tropical 30 or so degrees, but sunny. Mom agreed to put Thanksgiving prep on hold for a couple of hours to watch the live comedy show that was about to unfold, Dad packed up the camera, and at around 7am, the family schlepped over to Grove City for packet pick-up. I definitely miscalculated here. Being used to the chaos and bedlam of Chicago traffic and parking, when the organizers sent an email cautioning us to get there early in order to find parking, I took it to mean REALLY early, lest we end up parked a gazillion miles away from the starting line. Alas with the giant mall parking lot available by the AMC theater, it turns out I catastrophized way too hard in my time estimates. So, we all ended up sitting in the car for about an hour and a half after my sister and I picked up our packets, waiting for the race start at 9am. Oops. At least the car was warm?
Pre-race, my sister and I decided we would try to run it together. Her “dream goal” was to break 30 minutes, but her more “realistic” goal based on her two weeks of training was to finish between 30-35 minutes. We agreed that we’d start off a little easier than my usual race pace, which would put us just under 30 minutes if we held it, and see how that felt. If we had to slow down, no big deal. It was a turkey trot, not the Olympic trials.
About 15 minutes before the race start time, we made our way over to the starting line across the parking lot, marveling at the runners braving the frigid morning in shorts and tank tops as we pulled on our gloves and hats (pretty sure the tank top- and short-clad runners were the ones who actually won). Even just standing outside for 15 minutes made my feet go numb, so once the race started and we took off, I spent a good quarter mile feeling like a particularly uncoordinated Bigfoot.
Once I got the feeling back in my feet, though, I had a great time. The course itself was a quick out-and-back route, and featured a couple of rolling hills back through the neighborhood behind the mall. I ran what I gauged to be a medium-hard pace, about what I would do for a tempo run (certainly not slacking), and my sister kept up like a champ. I checked in every so often to see how she felt, but she never wavered in her insistence that we keep the pace, even on the tougher uphill stretches.
With no expectations whatsoever, we made the turn onto the final straightaway. I spotted the finish line clock, and much to my surprise, it had just ticked over 28 minutes. Not bad…a time that once required nearly an all-out, PR pace was now apparently just “medium hard” for me, effort-wise…hooray for improvements!
At that moment though, I was more excited that my sister’s dream goal of breaking 30 was solidly within reach. “Yo, we’re gonna break 30!” I said, hardly able to contain myself.
She immediately perked up out of her mile-3 drudgery.
“Feel like you can sprint to the end?” I asked.
“YES!” she exclaimed, and gleefully took off in a sprint.
Following her lead, I dashed as quickly as my feet would carry me for that last tenth of a mile, and the two of us finished in just slightly over 28.5 minutes…a fantastic first 5K time for my sister. Mom and Dad met us at the finish line to celebrate, and the best part? Getting our pumpkin pie “finisher prize” to take home for dessert!
Festivus One Miler
You could say that from my home base of Chicago, checking off a race in Wisconsin is relatively low-hanging fruit, and you would be correct, especially for a race in Milwaukee, which is only about an hour and a half away. That said, sometimes it’s nice to throw in an “easy” state, so I figured I would end my 2017 season with a December race in Milwaukee.
When I came across the Festivus One Miler on runningintheusa.com, it immediately jumped out as the race to do. I’d never raced just a straight mile before, and was curious what sort of time I could post. At the same time, the spirit of the race was fundamentally lighthearted, featuring a ceremonial “airing of grievances” before the start, and a beer stop at the half-mile mark. So really, my goal became seeing how fast I could run a mile while stopping for a beer halfway through (and ideally not puking on the way to the finish line).
I’d originally planned to run the race with a friend and his wife, but alas, they had to bail last minute due to the dreaded December crud going around. Fortunately, it wasn’t too difficult to make last-minute arrangements to get myself to Wisconsin…I reserved a rental car for later that day, and around 3pm I headed up to Milwaukee, giving myself plenty of time to find parking near the race and pick up my packet.
Truth be told, I spent more time driving to and from the race than at the race itself, but for the short time I was there, the Festivus One Miler certainly delivered on what I anticipated to be its humor and lightheartedness. A couple of minutes before the race start, they played excerpts from Seinfeldover the loudspeakers as an “intro” to the holiday made famous by the show, and true to the promise in their advertising, we then all partook in a collective airing (read: indistinct shouting) of grievances. Then, we got on our way, dashing up Brady Street toward the awaiting libations.
Perhaps my only grievance about the race itself was that at the beer stop, the beer was warm. They had warned us about this ahead of time, but nothing can really adequately prepare a person for the flavor of warm Bud Light, which can only be described as…unfortunate. My original intent was to finish the beer before continuing on, but I got a few sips in before I just couldn’t. But! I thought brilliantly to myself. Maybe I can sip it WHILE I run the last half mile!
So I headed out from the beer stop, warm mini Bud Light in hand. This turned out to be a terrible life choice, because running=shaking, and shaking beer=foamy disaster. My gloves probably still smell like booze. At any rate, I choked down a few more sips of foamy, warm beer mid-run before finally deciding the multitasking involved was not worth the effort, and without missing a beat, tossed the rest into a trashcan that I passed by in the last quarter mile.
Having bailed on the beer, I could fully focus on finishing strong, though I really didn’t have too high of expectations. Much to my surprise, though, I ended up finishing in 7:24, well below my previous mile PR of 8 minutes (which, it should be noted, I had done on a treadmill without trying to drink a beer halfway through). Success? I’d say so!
So, after solidly breaking the 8-minute mile barrier for my last 2017 race, I am heading into the holiday season feeling energized and excited. Wishing you all a happy Festivus/Hanukkah/Christmas/Kwanzaa/New Year’s/etc., and looking forward to seeing 2018 takes us all!
One of the things I love most about running is the people. Though I mostly train solo and wouldn’t have it any other way, on race day, I get such a rush from the camaraderie of my fellow runners, the race staff and volunteers, and the friends and family who come to cheer us all on. Very little in the world compares to that feeling of unity, common cause, and all-around positive energy, whether it’s an 80,000-person race or 80-person race. The race I ended up doing in Arkansas this past weekend definitely fell on the 80-person side of the spectrum, but I have truly never encountered a friendlier, more charming group of people, from fellow participants to volunteers, in any race I’ve ever done.
To start from the beginning, I stumbled into the Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition’s Running for Cover 5K Run and Fun Walk by sheer coincidence. For the past few months, I have been trying to visit a friend of mine in Arkansas, but the trip kept getting derailed for one reason or another, most recently because of my cat being sick and not stable enough to leave with a sitter. Fortunately, by late September Kitty Girl had stabilized enough that I felt ok about scheduling the trip, so we finally set a date for this past weekend.
With plane tickets in hand at last, I did a quick search on runningintheusa.com for races within a 50-mile radius of Little Rock the weekend I was scheduled to be there. My options were either the Soaring Wings of Conway Half Marathon/10K or the Running for Cover 5K. While I am sure the Soaring Wings of Conway Half Marathon/10K is a wonderful event (and I am itching to take another crack at the 10K distance sooner rather than later), the Running for Cover 5K won out for having a 9:00am start time as opposed to a 7:00am start time. When you are Not A Morning Person and ON VACATION to boot, such considerations matter. Especially when your friend, who is also Not A Morning Person, has very graciously agreed to chauffeur and accompany you on your adventure!
After my most recent two hellaciously hot and humid slogs in Pennsylvania and Chicago, I am happy to report that race day dawned 65 degrees and overcast. As I ate my pre-race bagel with peanut butter, I silently gave thanks to the weather gods that I had finally gotten a race day with reasonably ideal weather conditions. Hooray for being able to aim higher than mere survival! I had no idea what course conditions would be like, but if it was flat, I was hoping to break 28 minutes. Barring that, PR-ing would be the next best thing, or maintaining a sub-30 minute pace if the course was particularly hilly. Or at least if I had to drop down to “survival” as my goal, it would be because the course turned out to be something reminiscent of the Leadville 100, not because the weather was too hot. A different kind of challenge!
Besides the info provided on the registration page when I signed up, I hadn’t been able to find out much about this race ahead of time. All I knew was that we were supposed to meet in the Malvern Taco Bell parking lot sometime before the 9am start time. A colleague at work pointed out that this sounded like the beginning of a murder mystery. My worries centered less on being murdered and more on showing up at this random parking lot in Malvern, AR, and finding no one else there. However, I’m happy to report that (spoiler alert) I did not get murdered, and when we arrived at the designated Taco Bell shortly after 8, a good-sized crowd had already gathered.
Once we got there, I made a beeline for the registration table while my friend made a beeline for a coffee refill at the nearby Valero station. Turns out that I was one of just a tiny handful of non-locals participating. One of the organizers asked where I was from, and when I replied, I also mentioned that this was my Arkansas stop on my quest to run a race in all 50 states. She absolutely lit up, excitedly asking how I found the race, and what brought me to Arkansas?
I explained the story, and much to my surprise, it led to my becoming something of a mini-celebrity at this little race. When they made the pre-race announcements, I got a shout-out from the stage and wild cheers from the crowd when they learned of my 50-state plan and that I had ended up at their race for my Arkansas stop. I usually try to avoid the limelight whenever I can and go out of my way to fly under the radar, but in this case, the reception was so heartwarming I couldn’t help but enjoy everyone’s enthusiasm, friendliness, and the general air of that famous Southern hospitality.
Not long after the announcements, it was finally time to head over to the starting line and get into position, runners in the front, walkers in the back. I wasn’t quite sure how fast the group was likely to be, so I seeded myself just behind the runners in the very front. As soon as the clock hit 9:00am, one of the race volunteers shouted, “GO!” and we all took off, dashing out of the parking lot and onto the adjacent side road.
Out on the course and taking in the scenery, it reminded me a lot of Nelsonville, OH, a town just outside Athens, OH, where I went to college. The route passed by a few roadside churches and a smattering of mom-and-pop stores, but the surrounding landscape was absolutely stunning with its tree-lined hills rolling majestically into the distance.
Ah yes, hills. Did I mention those? While the course was mostly flat and thus familiar terrain for this Chicagoan, we did have one substantial hill to contend with. The fun part was during the first half of the race, when we got to run down said hill. I just went for it, gleefully flying as fast as I could go without completely losing control and falling on my face. I felt like a small child, and it was all I could do to keep from squealing with delight. The simple pleasures in life, amirite?
After the downhill sprint, I dropped back to my normal race speed, which I figured I would hold through the turnaround point until I had to contend with the uphill climb, then I would maintain perceived effort level. It was some time shortly after the turnaround that I noticed, much to my surprise, that I was actually one of the lead female runners. Holy crap! I realized at that moment. I might actually place! I had never found myself in such a position before (and to be real, likely won’t again for quite some time), but it definitely provided a huge boost of energy and motivation going into the final stretch!
At last, I saw the uphill stretch looming ahead. “All right, you got this,” I said aloud to myself, psyching myself up for what I knew would be the hardest part. Yet, I trusted that the speedwork I’d done for the past few weeks would get me through the climb without too much trouble, and it turned out to be true. Once I got to the top, I stole a peek over my shoulder, and realizing I was home-free with no one in striking distance, I sailed for the finish line about half a mile in the distance, crossing the line 3 seconds under my previous PR time (which, I may add, I set on a very flat course!).
But the best part of all? Y’all, I PLACED, outright winning my age division! As someone who is very used to back-of-the-pack finishes, I could hardly believe it, and I got such a kick out of the fact that I actually for once had to hang around for the awards ceremony. Plus, in waiting around, I got to meet some lovely people, with conversations ranging from what states I was planning to hit next to (more importantly) where my friend and I should go to get breakfast afterwards (the answer, as it turns out, is Randy’s City Cafe, in case you find yourself in Malvern sometime and need somewhere to eat).
In all seriousness, I couldn’t have asked for a better all-around race experience or a friendlier group of folks to run it with, and I will absolutely treasure the memory of this race (and the rest of my time in Arkansas) for a long time to come. To the good people of the Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition, thank you so much for the warm welcome and for putting on such a fantastic event! And more importantly, kudos for the important work you all are doing in your efforts to aid those in need and bring a much-needed homeless shelter to Hot Spring County.
To support the efforts of the HSCHC, mail a tax-deductible donation to: Hot Spring County Homeless Coalition, Inc. P.O. Box 472 Malvern, AR 72104