Friday snuck up on me and, as usual, being the procrastinating kind of guy that I am, I had yet to register for the race that I had planned to run for about a year now. With online registration past, I drove to Omega Sports on Park Road to sign up.
I stood at the registration table in Omega and chatted with Laura’s buddy Katie who was the race chair. She was working to raise awareness for lung cancer, the horrific disease that had claimed the life of her mother.
One year earlier, I had stood in nearly the same spot, registering for the same race. At that time, someone had left a list of participants laying around so I picked it up and perused it. I was able to find out in advance which local speedsters, folks like Rob Ducsay and Anna Donlan, were running. I felt a little guilty, maybe a little too much like Walter White reading Hank’s case notes. But this year I could find no such list so I had no idea who else was running. I interrogated, er asked, Katie what fast folks had signed up but she had no idea. Someone mentioned that there were some 300 participants registered. I thought, “That’s a lot. There is most likely somebody faster than me in that crowd.”
After registering, I shot over to nearby Park Road Park, site of the starting line. I pulled up the course map on my phone and then set off to run, and memorize, the course. It was faster than I remembered – for nearly the first 2 miles, the course shot straight down, although the third had a pretty nasty series of hills. I formulated a little race strategy just in case some miracle were to occur and I would battle for the lead – blaze the first 2 miles and hang on for dear life for the third. Okay, so I’m not exactly Coach Salazar.
Saturday morning rolled around and I went through my standard pre-race rituals while Laura wrangled her two boys. I was antsy to make sure I arrived on time so we drove separately – I wanted to get there about an hour before the start so I had ample time to warm up, etc.
I pulled into the park and things seemed identical to the year before, with a few notable exceptions. Namely, I didn’t see any of the ‘usual suspects’ – none of the fast folks to be found anywhere, including 3 that ran last year who could beat me – no Rob, no Anna, no kid whose name I don’t know who won it all. Maybe the stars were finally aligning – maybe, for once, luck was on my side. Maybe the “super lucky” Reckless Running singlet would live up to its name – I had gotten mine Thursday and this race would mark the first time I’d ever worn it. I took this to be a good omen.
I was taking this thing seriously – I wore a different pair of shoes and a different shirt to warm up in – I’d trade out just before race time. This way, my lucky singlet wouldn’t get drenched with perspiration until the actual race. Laura with boys in tow showed up a few minutes later and she and I got ready to warm up. Suddenly, the first setback hit.
“Where’s your chip?” Laura asked, noticing that my d-chip was not attached to my shoe like it should have been. The right answer would have been, “It’s attached to my racing shoes”. The wrong, but true, answer was, “Shit. I left it at the house.” Business as usual – maybe the stars weren’t aligned in my favor after all. It was pushing 8:00 with the race set to start at 8:15 and suddenly I was not an official participant.
In search of a D-chip, I rushed to the registration tent. I spotted Katie but she had bigger fish to fry. I ran to the desk and told the guy, “Hey, I’m registered but I forgot my chip. Can you give me another one?” No answer, just a confused deer-in-the-headlights look. Damn it. I grabbed a registration form and filled it out completely, rapid fire, and handed it to him, and this time said, “I already paid but I lost my chip. I need another chip and bib please.” That worked – he handed me one and I very quickly ripped off my original bib, attached the new one, and finally got a chip on my shoe. Whew, catastrophe averted. Laura and I warmed up for maybe five minutes then headed to the starting line.
Katie and gang made several announcements about lung cancer while I did strides and anxiously awaited the start. I continued to survey the crowd for potential fast folks. Laura was the most obvious contender, but I knew this was her first race back from injury – she was not 100%. I spotted one svelte guy, but he didn’t have racing clothes on and was actually wearing a cotton t-shirt. He could be a Joe Rao / John Filiette kinda guy, but I wasn’t getting that vibe – the fact that he was standing still (not warming up – no strides, no dynamic stretches, etc.) led me to believe he wasn’t legit. I couldn’t find one “uh-oh-that-dude-looks-fast” kind of person. I started actually believing, “I’ve got a shot here!”
Finally we lined up. I got on the inside until one guy squeezed in to steal the spot. Really? I was miffed for a split second but then just moved over. Katie said a few words and then called out, “On your mark, get set, go!” and I, amped up, shot to the front.
I was careful to hop over the speed bumps through the park as I tucked in behind the police car there to lead us along the course. I needn’t have worried about memorizing the course – there were cones marking the entire length of the course along with the lead cop car. But it was nice to know exactly where the turns were – it helped comfort me – it can be a little disconcerting up there when you’re not used to this leading business.
Before we exited the park, some kid, I’d guess somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12, jetted past me. For a split second, I was afraid I’d come in second to a 9-year-old and be the butt of a lot of jokes for years to come, but luckily he was a firework kid – he shot out ahead and then quickly fizzled. He came right back to me and by the quarter mile mark, only the police car was in front of me.
We exited the park and I glanced at my watch for the first time. 5:21 pace – oops. Being pretty sure that I wasn’t in 16:30ish shape, I backed off. I felt like I could break 20, 6:25ish pace, if things went well, and since this first mile was a fast downhill, I backed off to about 6:15ish pace and tried to get comfortable.
I was overly concerned with what was happening behind me. As I neared the first police officer, I called out, “Hey, how far back is second place?” but he just sheepishly grinned at me. Okay. I tried again with the cop at the next intersection, as I asked the same question. He responded, “About 20 feet.” Shit, I had no idea they were that close – I couldn’t hear footsteps and had assumed they were farther back. Remain calm, don’t panic.
My garmin beeped for the first mile split – 6:15. Perfect. I told myself to relax.
As I made the right onto Huntingtowne Farms Lane, I began to employ a few old cross country / road race tricks. It’s not often that an old fart like me gets to use race strategy, but every time it happens, I relish it. So when I turned right, I threw in a little surge. This is meant to psyche out your opponent a little so that when he/she makes the turn and looks up, they notice that your lead has grown. I did this on every turn and every time I crested a hill, especially when I crested a hill – I would sprint down, utilizing, not fighting, gravity. So whoever was in second, every time they looked up after a turn, or after the apex of a hill, if they were maintaining pace, they should notice that my lead was growing. That was the plan anyway.
I was having fun. It was so cool to run directly behind the lead car, something that I may never get to do again so I made sure to enjoy and appreciate this feeling. I slowed down a little by mile 2 and came through in 6:32. “Hang on!” my internal coach screamed.
Mile 2 and I was still in the lead. I started readying myself for the possibility of someone passing. “Allen, listen. You’re 2 miles in and you’re leading. Anybody that passes you now is in your wheelhouse – they are not some vastly superior athlete. If you get passed, you lock on and go with them and make it a sprint finish.” When I approached the next volunteer, I again asked, “Hey, how far back is second place?” and they answered, “I don’t see anybody yet.”
Then the climbing began – I had the series of tough hills, a little mini-Newton area, standing between me and victory. I told myself to remain calm because as I started climbing, so did my heart rate. Now it was all about not screwing up. This race was mine for the taking as long as I didn’t self destruct. Be cool. Be like Fonzie.
I made it up the hills without my heart exploding and as I had done all race, when I crested, I surged. I made the left turn back onto Park Road. I told myself not to get too complacent. After all, a year ago at this very same spot, I was still in contention – Rob was a little bit ahead and the eventual winner had not yet passed me. So don’t get cocky. I sped up.
The little stretch down Park was rolling. I tried to pick up the pace – if somebody was going to pass me, I wanted to at least make them work for it. Keep those legs churning. Speed up. So close now – hang on!
With about a quarter to go, I forced myself to accelerate. After all, Rob had the lead at this point too and still lost. I made the turn back into the park and I started kicking. I glanced around and saw no one, but I wanted to make sure – I didn’t want someone to Rob me of the victory (sorry Rob, I couldn’t resist), so I sprinted. I told myself “Don’t trip over the speed bumps! Don’t trip over the speed bumps!” and luckily I didn’t.
Laura’s boys, Warren and Wilson, saw me in the lead and they got excited and ran toward me and cheered. I kicked through the finish line and triumphantly raised my arms in victory. After 30 years of running road races, I finally won. My time was nothing to write home about and was actually a little slower than the year before, but on this day, in this place, it was good enough to win.
Laura finished and asked me if I won and when I said yes, she hugged me tightly and congratulated me.
Here are a couple of pics taken shortly after the race:
I’ve spent the last 24 hours basking in the glory of my one and only road win. I think I will retire the Super Lucky singlet from racing, never having lost in it. If I die soon, y’all be sure to bury me in that thing.
Last night, I went to the Charlotte Running Club social where I was greeted with congratulations and high fives and smiles all around. It was good timing.
And that’s that. One quest down, one to go. Now it’s all about getting back into Boston. I pulled the trigger and signed up for the Santa Rosa marathon in August. I’m afraid my 3:24:49 won’t be fast enough to get me into the 2014 Boston marathon, so I’m shooting for a faster time. Wish me luck. Maybe I’ll need to break out the Super Lucky singlet one more time.