[I always say that every race, no matter how humble, provides an opportunity to learn something. On Saturday, Joni and I ran in a 4th of July race in Cazenovia, New York, a picturesque town 30 minutes Southeast of Syracuse. Here’s a race report from that humble effort.]
As any runner knows, the 4th of July is a great day for local road races. In small towns around the country, local booster clubs and civic organizations host races that attract large summer crowds that include little kids, high school students, collegiate runners home for the summer, “serious” runners, adult recreational types (including parents pushing strollers), geriatric wonders, and always a few walkers taking their time and enjoying the leisurely journey.
Most years, I stay close to home, and if I run a race it’s in Concord or Dedham or Needham or somewhere else nearby so that I can make it back home for afternoon relaxation or a neighbor’s barbecue. But this year I was on the road for the holiday weekend, helping my older brother and sister-in-law celebrate at a “Circa 60” birthday party they were throwing for family and friends at their home in Cazenovia, NY.
Since it’s a five-hour drive from Boston to Cazenovia, Ann and I decided to drive up on Friday, even though the actual party wouldn’t start until noon or so on Saturday. We weren’t the only ones arriving early. Joni had also decided to drive up from Washington on Friday afternoon, and as she astutely pointed out, this left Saturday morning free for running. It didn’t take her long to find out that Cazenovia puts on an annual 10-Mile run and companion 5K. After discussing the pros and cons, we opted to be wimps and enter the 5K, which started at 8:00 a.m. (usually a good thing on July 4th) and would leave us a little fresher for enjoying the party planned for the afternoon.
On Friday night, we readied everything for an early departure on Saturday morning. Since we were staying in a hotel about 25 minutes away from the start of the race, we decided it would be best to leave the hotel at half past six, pick up our numbers, and then jog the whole 5k course as a warmup. It was pretty late — past midnight — when we finally got to bed, and I didn’t sleep particularly well. Nevertheless, we were up shortly after 6:00, changed quickly into racing gear, grabbed some coffee from the motel breakfast room, and were on the road just after 6:30. With almost no traffic, we arrived at the race at about 7:00.
I was relieved to see that there were no crowds at either the registration table or the port-o-potties, and within fifteen minutes we were all set and off on our warm-up/course tour. Our first rude discovery was that the race began with a crazy 100m sprint to a corner, followed by a sharp left turn, and an immediate climb up a nasty hill about 400-500m long…. Yuk. On principle, I’ve always disliked uphill starts, and I’ve become even less enamored of them recently because it seems to my body a few minutes at the beginning of any race to remember how to breathe properly. I made a mental note to take the hill very easy, and we continued jogging.
After the hill, the course ran in a straight line for another mile or so, and then turned left at about the 2K mark, leading to a steep downhill that gave back all the elevation gained in the first 600m. At the bottom of the hill, the course turned left onto East Lake Street, which — as its name implied — followed the Eastern shore of Cazenovia Lake for another 2K, passing near the start of the race before continuing down a final hill, where the course map showed a sharp right turn into a town park, followed by a final sprint of about 80-100 meters or so. Perhaps unwisely, when we had reached the start area, we decided we didn’t need to see the actual finish (we could see the final turn a few hundred meters down the hill), and instead went back to the car to change into racing shoes and make our final preparations.
After drills, strides, and taking our places in the crowd, which had grown to about 400 runners, we listened to a local student sing the national anthem, and were ready to go.
As expected, the start was a frantic rush forward, whipped into a froth by the presence of so many teenagers, who had no fear of hills or anything else. I tried not to get trampled, but was aware of runners passing me on either side. I saw that Joni was doing a better job of maintaining her position in the mob, and I noted that she hit the corner a couple of seconds before I got there. I still felt very sluggish, as I began climbing the hill with what I hoped were short, quick, energy-saving steps.
Two minutes later the hill was behind me and I could survey the whole front of the race with ease. The leaders were already far ahead, and I estimated that there were about fifty runners trailing them but still in front of me — not so encouraging in a local 5K that wasn’t even the main event of the morning! I could also see that Joni was running really well, about 50 meters ahead of me. It looked like there was one woman in front of her and one right behind her. As for my division, I could see at least a couple of white-haired heads that I assumed were over 50. One of them seemed to be pulling away, and I thought, “crap,” this is going to be tough.
When I start a race conservatively, I count on starting to feel good after a half mile or so. At that point, early hesitation is replaced by confidence and I start targeting the backs of runners I want to catch. But after a half mile, 1K, and then a mile, I still didn’t feel that good. There was no mile split, but when I reached the 2k mark, I heard the time — 8:10 — and realized that I was on pace to run 20:25 for 5k, about a minute and a half slower than I was hoping for! I knew that the final 3K were mostly downhill, but still…
At this point, Joni was about 20 seconds ahead and had caught the lead woman. She told me later that she actually pushed the downhill, and that she had opened a significant gap by the time she reached East Lake street. As for me, I had been gradually moving up and passing high school kids and others who had gone out too fast, but I could still see an old guy well ahead of me. I managed to run the downhill ok, but as I turned for the long, straight final 2k, I still didn’t feel great. Or to be more precise, it would have been fine to feel the way I was feeling if I were running 6:00 pace, but the knowledge that I was considerably slower made my effort feel burdensome.
With about 1k to go (passed in 15:47), I knew I wasn’t going to catch the geezer up ahead and focused on running competitively with the two or three people around me. I pushed hard the final kilometer, and actually caught a high school girl who had been several seconds in front of me for most of the final mile. I made the final right hand turn just ahead of her, but then watched as she flew by me with an impressive kick. I crossed the line in 19:19, about thirty seconds slower than my goal.
I quickly found Joni, and heard from her the good news that she had won the race in a PR-equaling time of 18:50. We headed back to our car, changed shoes, and ran the entire course one more time for a cool down. A half hour after we had finished, we headed back to look at the official results and collect whatever prizes were being handed out. The folks at the prize table were very excited to hear from Joni, and presented her with a nice gift certificate for a local eatery, along with a commemorative mug. They then had her pose for a picture, presumably for the local paper. Not expecting much, I inquired about my division and discovered to my delight that I had also earned mug. No pictures, though.
So, what did I learn from this race? Well, it was really fun to do it with Joni. Perhaps it’s not surprising that we have very similar and compatible ways of preparing for a race, but it makes it that much more fun. I suppose I also learned that lots of driving and lack of sleep affects me more than I’d like to think when it comes to racing even a short race like a 5k. But I think the most important take-away is that it’s possible to run hard and have fun, even when your search for WMDs (Win My Division) fails and you run a slow time.
Memo to self: keep training, get more sleep, and enjoy your mug. You can have a good day even when you don’t have a good day.