Update: A Turkey Trot and WISCONSIN!

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.

Thanksgiving Wattle

Runners mingling in front of an orange banner reading "The Thanksgiving Wattle"
Waiting at the starting line for the Grove City Thanksgiving Wattle.

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

Nighttime; a sparse crowd of runners by an inflatable "Start" arch in the middle of a city street with assorted Christmas decorations.
At the starting line of the 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 Seinfeld over 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!

Arkansas Traveler

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

Banner reading "Running for Cover 5K Run / Walk, HSC Homeless Coalition" hanging on the front of the stage.

The Chicago Half Marathon 2017: Hell with a Blast of Satan’s Steamy Breath

This year, I really seem to have had a knack for picking some really hot race days. Yesterday’s Chicago Half Marathon was no exception. When I signed up, I was expecting, oh, I don’t know, late September in Chicago? You know, 60-70 degrees, breezy, low humidity, maybe some rain if we got unlucky?

No. What we got instead was (in the mind of a Northerner) what can only be described as Hell with a blast of Satan’s steamy breath. When I saw the forecast earlier in the week, I had to do a double take. Low of 70?! High of 87?! 80 percent humidity in the morning?! Are you freaking kidding me?!?!? Never mind trying to PR, from that point on it was about survival. As if it weren’t clear enough on the face of it, the race organizers blasted out an email on Thursday essentially telling us to start hydrating yesterday, and “prepare [our minds] for the possibility of adjusting [our] goals and outcome expectations for race day.” No kidding!

Alas, there is no changing the weather, and one has to play the hand they are dealt on race day. With that, I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday chowing down on carbs and chugging water like I was about to cross the Sahara (“Lynx imitates a camel,” one of my friends ribbed me upon hearing of my prep rituals). Because the race takes place on the total opposite side of town from where I live, I made the trek down to the South Side the night before, where I stayed with a friend. There, I continued Carbapalooza 2017, and hoped to get a slightly better night’s sleep than I would have if I had needed to catch a 4 a.m. shuttle to the race.

Naturally, when my alarm went off just after 5 a.m. on race day, I awoke in a total panic from a dream that I was late to the race and didn’t make it to my starting corral in time. Desperate to avoid that scenario in real life, I quickly rinsed off in a cold shower in a last-ditch effort to pre-cool, prepped a bagel with peanut butter and frozen banana slices, filled up the water bottles on my hydration belt (one with water, one with Gatorade), and downed my remaining Gatorade and some water before throwing on my running clothes and heading out the door.

Outside, it hadn’t yet gotten uncomfortably hot. The sky in the east glowed a dim orange in anticipation of sunrise, and I followed a crowd of fellow runners about half a mile towards the starting line while noshing on my bagel. Once I got there, I had just enough time to stop at gear check before sprinting over to my corral way, way in the back of the pack (yeah, slow runners!) before the 6:45 a.m. corral closing time. I get why they needed us in place when they did, though being that far back, it was kind of annoying to have to wait around as long as we did in close quarters as the temperature started to climb. Just as I thought about getting cranky, though, my mom texted me. “Good luck today! Love you!” Aww. At least I knew she would be cheering for me from afar, and I looked forward to seeing my friends who I knew were coming down to cheer me on around miles 2 and 12.

Finally, the race officially started and my group gradually moved up to the starting line. I cranked up my Spotify playlist made especially for the occasion, and I was off! The first 3 miles sailed by. I jammed to my tunes, a mix of 80s classic rock and some contemporary pop/rock, felt good about my pace, and got even more pumped when I passed my friends waving their signs. Maybe this won’t be so bad! I thought. Then in a nod to one of my favorite comics by The Oatmeal, “The Dos and Do Nots of Running Your First Marathon,” There’s only like 10 miles to go! I totally got this! Ha! “Only”…

After making the turn onto Lake Shore Drive, I still felt pretty solid. Since I had my own water and Gatorade with me, I didn’t have to stop at the first few aid stations, which definitely helped me keep things moving along, even if a little on the slower side of my usual pace. For the most part, it felt like a typical weekend long run, with the exception of running in the middle of what is typically one of Chicago’s busiest roads. At this point, I decided my strategy would be to run steady to mile 8, which was just before the turnaround to head back south, then mentally break the last few miles into a 5k + 2 extra miles. That would get me through what I assumed would be the worst of it, based on my previous half marathon experience where miles 7-9 felt like an endless slog through no-man’s land.

I hit the 8 mile mark still feeling good, even though by that point I had stopped at a few aid stations just to grab cups of water to dump over my head in the hopes of cooling off as much as possible. Gotta hand it to the volunteers…they killed it given the weather. Even by the time we slower folks got there, they still had plenty of Gatorade, water, and even the occasional cups of ice or garden hoses, both of which provided a glorious respite from the beating sun.

But speaking of the beating sun, the real struggle began for me after the turnaround between miles 8 and 9. Facing south, the sun was now angled almost right in our faces. I was SO glad I had decided to wear sunglasses that morning…it was almost dizzyingly bright even with them on. By now, the mercury had also risen into the 80s, the humidity hadn’t really dissipated, and since we were on Lake Shore Drive, we had very little shade save for shadows cast by the occasional trees in the median. The last few miles became all about survival. I didn’t care how slow I had to take it, I just wanted to make it to the finish line without fainting, puking, or otherwise requiring medical assistance. To that end, I stopped at every single aid station on the final stretch for water, ice, and whatever other means they had for cooling us off. A few times I wanted desperately to walk, but I knew if I gave in, it would be that much harder to pick up the pace again. Plus, when I hit mile 11, I felt I had enough left in me to gut out the last couple of miles, even if I had to shuffle-jog them. It also helped that I knew my “cheering section” was going to be near mile 12, and seeing them (and their fantastic signs!) definitely gave me a much-needed boost going into the final stretch.

At last, we turned the corner off of Lake Shore Drive and I could see the finish line in the distance. Normally I like to kick it up a notch for the final stretch and end strong, but this time when I tried, I just ended up doing an awkward hobble-run, so I let it go and cruised as comfortably as I could to the end, raising my arms in a victory pose as I crossed the line. Sweet relief! All I wanted to do was sit and get some fluid and salt in whatever form. I stopped to get my finishers medal before grabbing a bottle of Gatorade Endurance, a bottle of water, and a bag of chips, then I shuffled with the crowd of runners into the post-race party area, where I sank onto the grass at the first possible opportunity. I had made it! Slower than I had wanted to by a long shot, but I was alive, had managed to stay reasonably cool, and hadn’t even had to walk! It was a feat deserving of Chicago deep-dish pizza, and that, dear readers, is exactly where my friends and I headed for a post-race victory bash.

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Fin. [Image: A slice of Chicago deep-dish pizza]

Pennsylvania: The Shady Streets of Swarthmore

Greetings and Happy Fourth of July from just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, birth city of today’s holiday! The last few days have been an absolute blast as I’ve been having a long-overdue catch up session with my immediate and extended family. We have been passing the time with lots of games, lots of laughs, and most importantly, lots of food! I am fairly certain that over the last 4 days we all have managed to eat our collective weight in Rita’s Italian Ice, cheese dip, burgers, macaroni and cheese, cheese steaks, pizza, and other greasy, salty deliciousness far outside my usual veggie-heavy fare. Worth it? Absolutely. And even after all that debauchery, I still managed to get a Pennsylvania race in the books, finishing my very first 8K last night at the annual Swarthmore Lions Independence Eve 8K.

Swarthmore (locally pronounced “SWAHTH-more,” as I found out when I attempted to pronounce the town name as it appears on paper, like a noob) is a picturesque, rolling, tree-lined borough of Delaware County, to the southwest of Philadelphia proper. Its claim to fame is Swarthmore College, the esteemed liberal arts school situated at the top of it all.

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Park Ave., the main drag where the race started and ended, backlit and hazy from the July sun.

The Independence Eve 8K, a small community affair of around 100 runners, by far the smallest race I’ve run in at least 3 years, starts in the town center, winds its way up through the scenic Swarthmore College campus for the first mile or so, then comes back down and passes through the shady streets of Swarthmore for the remainder of the race.

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Pre-race shot of the front of the Swarthmore Town Center, well-stocked with tables of water bottles for the post-race victory bash. 

I arrived at the Swarthmore Town Center for packet pick up about an hour before start time, because I get nervous like that. I had in tow a good portion of my family as a cheering section (they are all really wonderful sports to put up with my hobbies the way they do). As you can see from the screenshot of my weather app, the temperature was still hovering around 90 degrees in the half hour leading up to the 7 pm start time, with roughly 70% humidity.

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My weather app reading 90 degrees and partly sunny at 6:32 pm. Yikes.

I believe the only scientific way to describe how the ambient temperature felt to this Chicago runner would be something akin to “the sixth circle of Hell,” with the seventh circle being reserved only for truly awful, Death Valley-esque heat. Normally I avoid running at all in such weather, which is easy enough to do when you live in a place where the daytime temperature only cracks 90 a handful of days per year. Turns out though that avoidance maybe isn’t the best plan if you plan to run races anywhere south of the Great Lakes. Womp! Live and learn, I guess.

Due to the heat and hills, not to mention my deplorable diet over the last few days, I knew from the starting airhorn blast that I wasn’t going to be running anything close to my usual race pace (or even tempo pace), so I had already made peace with that reality. Instead, armed with 12 oz. of Gatorade in my trusty old Amphipod handheld bottle, I decided to make the race into a learning experience, a mini-assessment of how well I could run a course quite a bit outside my comfort zone.

Turns out, by that measure it wasn’t so bad. I survived the winding, uphill climb during mile 1 and still felt reasonably strong heading back into town. My sister even caught a picture of me between miles 2 and 3, still going steady if a little slower than usual.

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Me, the blue t-shirt-clad speck in the distance, getting some relief on a downhill stretch.

Mentally, the hardest part was the stretch between miles 3 and 4. Despite steadily sipping on Gatorade and the fact that most of the course was actually pretty shady, by then I could really feel the heat and humidity dragging down my speed. I was getting passed constantly, which I try not to care about, but still find somewhat demoralizing as a naturally competitive person…yeah, gotta work on that. 

Fortunately at this point in the race, a few spectators stood outside their houses with garden hoses at the ready, misting us runners as we passed by. Whoever you all were, you have my eternal, undying love and gratitude! My favorite “aid station” of this type was definitely the small army of children around mile 4, armed with Super Soaker water guns. “Hands up if you want to get sprayed!” a mom (I’m assuming?) called out to us about 30 feet ahead of the awaiting ambush. Didn’t have to tell me twice! My hands went up and a gaggle of gleeful kids took aim, completely soaking me from head to toe and giving me just the relief I needed going into the final mile.

At last, the finish line clock glowed in the distance, and I had just enough energy left to kick it up a notch for the final stretch. My family went bananas as I crossed the finish line (they really are the best), and I got to cheer on the remainder of the runners who came in behind me. With my first 8K behind me, we headed home to gorge ourselves on celebratory pizza, cheesesteaks, and cheesy broccoli bites from Cocco’s Pizza, an old family favorite. It may not have been the fastest race I’ve ever run, but sometimes, the victory is in finishing a challenging course upright, without walking, and still smiling.