“It is one of the strange ironies of this strange life that those who work the hardest, who subject themselves to the strictest discipline, who give up certain pleasurable things in order to achieve a goal, are the happiest. When you see 20 or 30 runners line up for a distance race in some meet in the mud and the rain, don’t pity them, don’t feel sorry for them. Better envy them instead.” – Brutus Hamilton
This morning I found myself trying to shake a minor case of writer’s block brought on by excessive exposure to media coverage of the Chicago Marathon. I felt that any self-respecting running blogger should have something to say about Kipchoge, Bekele, and Jeptoo, but I found my heart wasn’t in it. Everything I wrote ended up being a variation of “these guys are really fast.”
And then I thought, well, I have an excuse. Obviously, I wasn’t really paying attention to Chicago because on Saturday I was so preoccupied with Tyler running the Hartford half marathon. I suppose that’s partially true. On Saturday morning, I was swearing at the defective athlete tracking app for not giving me his splits, and it was a huge relief when I finally got the word that, in spite of the steady rain and rolling course, he had come through with a big PR of 1:05:47 to place 5th.
But to be totally honest, I think the main reason that my thoughts kept straying from marathons and half marathons was several hours I spent at Franklin Park on Saturday afternoon. While the rain was making roads slick in Hartford, it was turning the cross country course at Franklin Park to mud. The rain had help from the thousand or so collegiate athletes running in the NEICAAAA Cross Country Championships, known informally as “Open New Englands.” The meet, which brings together D1, D2, and D3 schools to compete in the same races, is a staple on the Fall XC calendar for New England colleges and universities, and is one of the few chances I get to see my former high school athletes running for their college teams.
I got to Franklin Park a little before 11:00 a.m. and was just in time to see the first race of the day, the women’s JV 5k.
At Franklin Park, the best way to follow the races is to run the course backwards while the competitors are running it forward. This strategy, which takes advantage of the overlapping loops and unique geometry of the course, allows a resolute jogger to see the runners five or six times on the 5k course, including time to stop and clap or cheer. Watching four races — two 5ks and two 8ks — a spectator can get quite a good fartlek workout.
In addition to the races themselves, the event is quite a social occasion. Anyone who would show up to watch so many runners splashing their way around the sodden fields, or charging up Bear Cage Hill like soldiers making one last attempt to break the enemy’s line, is either a coach, a teammate, a relative, or a REALLY big fan of college cross country. It usually happens that I know a high proportion of these people, so I stop often to chat.
By the end of the third race, I was pretty soaked and starting to get seriously chilled. However, I had planned ahead and returned to my car and changed just about everything I was wearing — shoes, socks, shirts, outer shell, gloves, hat — and managed to watch the final race in relative comfort.
I don’t actually know how far I ran on Saturday. It felt like I was circling the course more or less constantly for two and half hours, but it was probably more like an hour of jogging punctuated by long periods of standing and talking.
When I was jogging, I had lots of company. What with all the teams warming up or cooling down, there were always a lot of non-competitors shuffling about the course in tight tribes, identified by their mud-splattered college-issued warmups. I found myself wondering what they thought of dreary weather, and what they were thinking as they trudged through the mud, either anxiously awaiting or starkly reliving their races. I thought of the Brutus Hamilton quote, above, and I wondered.
After the last race, I headed home, where it took me all afternoon to get warm again.
The next day, the sun came out, and my run in Concord was glorious and picturesque. The afternoon at Franklin park seemed like a dream, but I couldn’t get it completely out of my mind.