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.

Middle School Cross Country Dropout

I am not one of those people who sailed into the world of running, buoyed by endless reserves of natural ability. My first foray into the sport was an ill-fated attempt at cross country during my middle school years. Somehow, I reasoned at the time, getting involved in a sport would rescue my social standing from the depths of nerd-dom, and given that I had absolutely zero ability at any sport involving hand-eye coordination (let’s not talk about the time I accidentally CAUGHT THE BALL during a game of volleyball in 6th grade gym class), cross-country seemed like a safe bet. No flying projectiles to dodge, just me, myself, and I, gracefully galloping through the woods. Or so I envisioned. Nevermind that I had never so much as jogged around the block before attempting this feat, I was gonna be a runner!

Suffice it to say, I started off at the back of the pack during the first day of summer conditioning practice, and really it only went downhill from there. The top runners on our team finished races in times faster than I could even think. Meanwhile, my one and only season as a student athlete was marked with near-constant last place finishes and a whole lot of wheezing. In one particularly egregious instance, I finished (in last place of course) a race on an overcast, 45-50-degree October day. Turns out cold air + asthma + exertion was a pretty gnarly combination for me at the time…I gasped for air like a dying fish at the finish line and could hardly speak, which prompted my parents (thanks Mom and Dad!) to whisk my sorry self straight into the school cafeteria for a 20-minute nebulizer treatment. Remember that part about wanting to improve my social standing and be one of the cool kids? Turns out that “doing a breathing treatment in your school cafeteria after finishing a race in dead last place and nearly collapsing at the finish line” is not generally how you do it, at least in middle school.

Still, I gritted my teeth, toughed out the rest of the season, and got to the end with my dignity mostly intact. Unfortunately with school sports being the overly competitive minefields they have become in modern times, I felt that there was no point in trying again the next year. No one ever said it out loud, but the serious lack of encouragement and ability-appropriate advice from the coaches spoke volumes, heaping an extra layer of shame onto the the humiliation I felt at literally not being able to keep up with my teammates. Perhaps my experience would have been different had I tried again the next year, but at the time I decided to call it a day and focus on other, more promising interests far outside the realm of athletics.

I didn’t attempt to run again for another 8 years, but in college I had a few friends convince me to try the Couch to 5K, and I fell in love with it. I finished my first 5K, then a half-marathon, and a few other 5Ks and 10Ks in the subsequent years, stories which I’m sure will unfold over time on this blog. The world of running I have discovered since my middle school cross country days is so much different than the world of running as an interscholastic sport. It’s a world that’s inclusive of a wide variety of speeds, abilities, goals, and attitudes. Where people cheer each other on, and the person who guts it out for a last-place finish is as worthy of celebration as the person who wins the entire race. I’m not necessarily advocating for “participation trophies” here—winning outright is awesome and shouldn’t be cheapened in any way. But it’s also awesome in its own right when someone who has never run in their life laces up their shoes, trains for, and finishes their first race. Or when people recovering from serious illness or injury get back out on the course, slower but still determined to do what they can, as best they can. Or when people finish a 100-mile race, regardless of how fast they do it.

I hope to capture the best of that world in this blog and as I travel to different places and races across the U.S., with my goal to complete a race in all 50 states. Because I get bored running the same distance and terrain all the time, I’ll be tackling a variety of distances, from the mile to the marathon (and maybe more!). Someday I’d also love to try trail racing. The only rules for a race to count are:

  1. It has to be an official race for which participants register (so, no going for a jaunt around the block and claiming a new state that way).
  2. A race does NOT have to be exclusively running, but it does need to have a running component (i.e., triathlons count, bike races do not).
  3. I have to finish the race, even if it means crawling on all fours across the finish line.

Otherwise, it’s all fair game, and I’ll be documenting my progress on the state map and list of races. Here’s to the start of a wild, wonderful adventure!

-L