Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Run Jim Run.

Image by Patrick Brough.

It probably seems a distant memory as you look out your window right now, but was that some weekend or what. Temps well into the 70’s. Bright sunshine. Warm breezes. Doesn’t get much better than that around here. And for it to fall right on St. Paddy’s Day weekend, well, what more could you ask for in March. Here at Mt. Tom’s, we had lines out there door all weekend and shattered all the ‘off-season’ records. It was something, and our forearms are all still recovering. I know it seems odd to hope for rain on your day off, but Monday’s weather the perfect rest for the weary. No pressure to open up shop for another unseasonably warm day. A much needed recovery day for one slightly beat up ice cream guy and crew.

I hope you got outside to enjoy it. If you were like many around here, you probably spent a good part of your weekend in Holyoke at either the St. Paddy’s Day parade, one of the largest in the United States, or at the annual St. Paddy’s Day 10K race. I wasn’t able to get to the parade this year, but I was there for the race on Saturday. I will defer to my friend Patrick Brough, Easthampton’s photo/video man about town, for coverage of that. If you haven’t heard, there’s a group of folks organizing, planning, and fund-raising for a summer celebration to commemorate Easthampton's 225th Anniversary. I’ll have much more on that soon. For now, click here for more info or join their group on Facebook. The group put together an awesome float for the parade, masterminded by local sign extraordinaire Clay Crow.

Image by Patrick Brough.

I’m sure the parade was a blast as always, but I’m here to talk about the race. It was a 10K (6.2 miles for non-metric types). I’d often heard it was a really fun race. Thousands of runners and spectators. Huge party at the end. A few friends had been talking about it for a month or two and were not-so-subtly exerting peer pressure on me to run with them. It was a tempting idea, but 10K just always seemed out of my range. Heck, I’d never run more than 4 miles in my entire life. I’m a casual jogger, although I will get a little more serious a few weeks before one of local 5K’s I do most years. Thanks to fairly decent late winter weather and a bit more free time with the off-season pace, I was able to extend my usual 2 ½ to 3 mile jogs to 3 ½ sometimes 4 miles, although I never actually measured it. With race day weather shaping up to be one of the best ever, I figured it was now or never. Next thing I knew I was nervously picking up my number, t-shirt, and timing chip at the Wherehouse in Holyoke.

I won’t deny my anxiety level was high as I anxiously waited along with 5200 others for the announcement to line up at the starting line. I’d heard all the stories about what a tough course it was – the two mile uphill climb near Holyoke Community College (HCC) then another decent-sized hill just before the finish. ‘6.2 miles’ rattled around in my head. I wasn’t sure how my legs and lungs would feel after I pushed past my usual 3.1 mile finishing point. I’d trained for it, but was just three weeks or so of running, three times a week enough? And what about this crazy weather – was it actually too warm? Should I drink water now or not? When should I start stretching? I commiserated with a couple friends and fellow runners. One said ‘don’t worry, it’ll be fine’ and the other seemed to share my pre-race jitters.

After what seemed like forever, the announcement finally came. ‘First call for runners to line up at the starting line.’ In calm, cool fashion, my friends and I waited for second call before we started our wander over to the now jam-packed starting line. It’s hard to imagine five thousand people standing together on a small stretch of road until you’re actually in the middle of it. A sea of humanity in gym shorts and running shoes, hopping in place and chattering anxiously. I just wanted it to finally start. I was more than ready to convert my nervous energy into forward motion. A helicopter flew overhead. Not the F15 flyover I’d been hoping for, but still kind of cool. ‘Bang!’ and the race was on.

We didn’t actually start moving for a couple minutes, about the time the elite runners were nearly a mile into the course. This was fine, since we all had little chips on our shoes to click on our own individual time clocks when we passed the electronic starting line and finally click off when we crossed the finish – a place that felt about as far away as China at that moment.

The first mile was pretty sweet. Thousands of people lined the street. The cheering was deafening. A slight incline on that first straightaway gave you a view of the incredible mass of runners tightly making their way up the street. It was an amazing site and one that made me happy I pushed through my apprehensions about running it. I was still nervous about the next 5 miles, particularly the HCC hill, but I was running which felt much better than the idle waiting I’d endured for the past couple hours.

I had two goals in my head when I started. To finish and to not walk. I secretly hoped to break one hour, but having never run a full 10K, I had no idea whether that was in my realm of possibility, especially for such a warm day on such a hilly course. Having trained primarily in Easthampton, Ferry Street was the biggest hill I’d seen in the past month. I began the run with a few buddies but quickly lost them in the crowd of runners and noise of the spectators. This was planned. If I had any strategy at all, it was that I was just going to ‘run my own race’. I had hoped to find inspiration and motivation from the crowds and fellow runners, but I was competing with no one but myself. I had nothing to prove to anyone but me. A hilly, warm 10K in front of thousands of people was my challenge, and although I knew pain was coming, like most things in life worth doing, it felt good to step off the sidelines and participate.

‘Showing up is half the battle.’

My self-congratulating stage of the race was soon interrupted by the start of the dreaded two mile uphill climb. I settled into a comfortable pace and tried not to look forward too far at foreboding mountain that lay ahead. The sun beat down on my face as I turned up the music to distract me from the impending pain. The crowd had thinned considerably, but we runners were still pretty tightly packed together. As it would turn out, the field never really spread out much. There were just too many runners. The first uphill mile wasn’t bad. I scanned the crowd for familiar faces and interesting characters. It seemed I was enjoying the ride. Who would have thought. I turned up the music and wondered if I was actually in that runner’s ‘high’ people always talk about.

That first big hill flattened out, just as it was starting to hurt. ‘Hey, this course isn’t so bad,’ I thought to myself. As if it heard me mutter this, it started to incline again. And it wouldn’t stop for a good mile and a half. I dug in as the pain I’d dreaded arrived like an uninvited guest at dinnertime. A number of runners around me became walkers. Others stopped and crowded around the first water station like a lost band of desert wanderers to a watery oasis. I mumbled my first mantra ‘I will not walk. I will not walk.’ I tried to remain in the moment and focus on everything around me and not the thought of the pain of the next mile’s climb or the three miles of pavement that lay beyond that. I thought of Lance Armstrong. ‘Pain is temporary. Quitting is permanent.’ I thought of my friend with cancer and what kind of pain he endured on a daily basis. I thought of what it would feel like to be at the finish line, savoring the accomplishment with a cold beer and good friends. I drank up the metaphor like a tall glass of iced tea. Challenges in life hurt, but they make you stronger. They are what you prepare for. They are also what make you appreciate the good stuff. I exhaled my metaphoric moment and took inspiration from a man cheering from the side of the road. He had a U.S. Army t-shirt on and a pair of fatigue shorts that did nothing to conceal the prosthesis leg that kept him upright. I was in fairly significant pain, but grateful at the same time. The next half hour wouldn’t be much fun, but I would get through it, feel good about it, and perhaps even write about it.

I eventually did make it up that hill, rewarding myself with a little plastic cup of water and a dash through a sprinkler spray at the next water stop. I smiled as I looked ahead, for the first time in about a mile, to see a very happy sight, a welcoming long downhill. I picked up my pace a little, using the decline to make up a little time. I knew there was one more decent sized hill to go, so I was careful not to get too carried away. And the vain side of me wanted to be able to have a little left in the tank for what I expected would be huge crowds and a few familiar faces along the final finish. That downhill mile was almost fun. As the pain subsided from the big climb, I took the opportunity to enjoy the moment, the crowd, the other runners, and the simple fact I had survived the toughest part of the race.

Well, you’re probably tired of being in my head by now, so I’ll try to wrap things up. There was one more hill before the final turn onto the home stretch. It wasn’t nearly as long and steep as the HCC climb, but in some ways, even tougher. There just wasn’t much left in the tank, I had no idea how big the hill was, and I just wanted my running metaphor to be over. But despite my mind and body screaming, ‘just walk, who cares!’ I kept running. The crowd started to get bigger. I dug deep.

Then came the final turn. Like an answer to my prayer, the first thing that came into view was the giant banner hanging across the street, ‘Finish’. The second thing I saw was the huge crowd lining the final stretch. Thousands of cheering fans - clapping, yelling, blowing horns, banging cowbells. It was pure and delightful mayhem. That was all I needed. My body hurt, but a dose of adrenaline kicked in as I turned it on for the final dash to the finish line. I was exhausted and overheated, but my goal was in sight. I looked up at the time clock as I crossed the finish and smiled as my lungs took in as much air as I could supply. I smiled, not because of the time on the clock, but simply because I had done it. The time was irrelevant. Like money or trophies, it’s a way to keep score, but it’s a happiness that’s fleeting. Doing something you’d never done before, something that’s not easy, yah, that felt pretty good.

Image by Patrick Brough.

As did the cold beverage with friends and thousands of strangers at the finish line.

Thanks for staying with me on that, have a great day. So are you in for next year’s race?



Anonymous said...

I am in next year Jim!!

Pat B

Jim Ingram said...

Ok Pat, I'll check in with you on that in February. And thanks again for the images.