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