It was cold last Saturday when I got out of bed and out the door at 6:30 in the morning. I headed over to the Stonecrest Shopping Center in Ballantyne to run the Shamrock 4 Miler, a race organized by Run For Your Life stores located throughout Charlotte (see blog post "Run For Your Life").
I don't like running in the morning. I see people running in the dark, dressed from head to toe, slugging along the sidewalk when I take my wife to work. The little reflective patches on their running gear flash in the headlights as I pass by in my warm car, still in my PJ's. I understand that some people have to run early because they don't have that kind of time to put the miles in after work. But for me: I don't like running early in the morning. If I have to watch the sun come up I like wearing my moccasins, drinking coffee.
So here I was out in Ballantyne*, in the cold, ready to run a race that stretched four miles, down one side of Ballantyne Commons Parkway and back up the other. I showed up early because I've had some injuries in the past and now have to take a lot of time to warm up and stretch. The Shamrock festival ground was filled with all sorts of runners and their family members. There were booths from The Flying Biscuit restaurant, a radio station, The Great Harvest bread company, a coffee company, there was a bounce house for the kids, and a booth from Run For Your Life. The thought crossed my mind that I could just skip the race and hang around the booths eating biscuits and drinking coffee, but I had paid the entry fee and didn't want to chicken out so easily.
I haven't run a foot race in about 5 years. And the only races I've run have been the cross country races in high school (many, many years ago) and a few 10k's after that in my hometown. I wasn't used to all the fancy racing stuff that bigger cities provide on race day. I wasn't used to picking up a "chip" before the race. A chip is a little electronic doo-dad that fastens to the top of your shoe and records the exact time you pass over a sensor pad at the starting and finish lines. That's because in a race there can be so many people crowded up to the starting line that when the gun goes off folks in the back may not even get to the starting line until several seconds or several minutes after. I was not used to this. In the little farm town where I grew up, unless things have changed recently, there are usually only about 100 runners at the starting line so it isn't that difficult for everyone to start at the same time. I was not used to the nifty digital clock at the 1st mile marker either. I was only familiar with our town's attorney, Mr. Spot, riding his bicycle ahead of the runners and standing at the mile marker shouting out times from his stopwatch as we ran by.
The runners, all 850 of us, huddled close together like a bunch of arctic penguins at the starting line. We shivered and stretched and jumped up and down to stay warm. The runners with jogging strollers (baby joggers) started a minute before the other racers. And then it was our turn. The penguins crammed closer to the line and I heard someone yell "go" and we were off!
The thing I noticed immediately was how quiet everything got. Just a few minutes prior, people were talking and laughing, telling stories about past races or whether so and so would be racing in other events coming up. But as soon as the race started all you could hear was breathing and running shoes striking the pavement. My adrenaline kicked in and I was running pretty fast--too fast. My first mile time was 6:54, which is good for me but the first mile was downhill. The entire morning I had been telling myself to take it easy. This is your first race in awhile. You don't have to go out there and kill yourself. Just run easy and finish strong. As soon as the pack took off from the starting line all that wise advice flew right out the window.
I was excited about competing again. It was kind of a rush. I'm not a thrill-seeker, so for me, this is as good as it gets. I smiled for the first few seconds, but then my lungs became filled with that sharp frigid air and the smile turned to a grimace. My stiff legs, which had been warmed just a few minutes earlier, ached as I tried to get a better position in the group. Runners passed me by, male and female, young and old.
I passed a baby jogger during the second mile. It was an entertaining little moment. A little girl, all bundled up in a soft, puffy, pink outfit sat in the jogging stroller as her dad pushed. He asked her how she was doing. With her face flushed from the cold wind and in her little voice she answered quietly,"Gooood."
It was kind of a lonely race. I played organized team sports in the past as well and there were always spectators in the audience cheering. Last Saturday's race didn't have any of that. It was chilly, it was early and the only spectators that were there along the course were a few police officers and race volunteers. The police officers gave you a look of indifference as if to say, "Well, you brought this on yourself." And even when the race volunteers tried to be encouraging and enthusiastic you still didn't get much because they were freezing out there too and their clapping was muffled by their gloves and mittens.
Three weeks ago, I began coming out to the shopping center to run the course and get a feel for the distance. According to the Run For Your Life website the course extends to John Delaney Dr. and then crosses over and continues up the other side of the street. So I trained on that course about three times, always going down to John Delaney Dr., crossing the median and heading back up the hill. But on race day, before John Delaney was even in sight I saw police barricades at the intersection before JD! Then the thought passed through my mind, "Is there another, shorter race? Do the 4 miler's continue on past the barricades?" I didn't know what to do. I turned to a gentlemen who had been running off my left shoulder to ask him about it, but because I was fatigued and my face was so cold when I opened my mouth it sounded like, "Duhs ev-wee one ton heah?" He said yeah, but was probably thinking, "What's wrong with this guy?"
When I realized that the race was shorter than I had been training I got all excited again and turned up the heat to luke-warm which at that point was really all the heat I had left. I pushed hard up the hill, but it seemed like I still wasn't going anywhere. I eventually passed another baby jogger. This guy was pushing 3 kids in his jogging stroller! He's huffing and puffing, leaning forward pretty far to keep the stroller moving up hill, sweat pouring off his face. The kids were getting restless, all crowded in that thing and I guess were misbehaving because the runner, in his exhaustion said, "Lulu! I said knock it off! *huffing* Leave him alone! *puffing* Sit still. We'll be done soon. *huffing & puffing*" It was the running equivalent of long car rides on your family vacation. Are we there yet, Dad? We'll get there when we get there! Don't make me pull this jogging stroller over! That guy should've won some special award. The rest of us had it easy. We just had to run, but this guy had already run three miles with the fourth up hill pushing three squirmy kids in a stroller.
With the third mile behind me and just about to complete the fourth I finally made it to the top of the last slope and turned the corner and into the homestretch (do they call it that in the running world?). I could see the finish line, but it still seemed a good distance. There were two other guys ahead of me that I wanted to try to beat. I didn't want to start my sprint early and fade before the finish and I didn't want to wait too long to sprint and have them too far ahead to beat. The time came for my final kick and I rushed past the finish line. My time on the digital clock read 28:37.
I was officially addicted to running races again and when I got home that morning I wanted to run some more. But reason got the better of me and so I opted for having some breakfast and going out to mow the lawn. There would be plenty of time for more running.
*Ballantyne is an area/neighborhood right outside of Charlotte.
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