The Charlotte Running Club Winter Classic 8K, aka How My Progression Run Died a Tragic Death

When my alarm sounded Saturday morning at 5:30, the first thing I did was curse Caitlin and Aaron.  I had somehow succumbed to their peer pressure (although it might be a little inaccurate of me to call two low-2:40’s marathoners ‘peers’) at last week’s Charlotte Running Club social when I let them talk me into signing up for the inaugural Charlotte Running Club Winter Classic 8K.  It sounded like a good idea at the time, but now, being ripped from the warm embrace of a pleasant dream to go run in the cold, I was rethinking things.

I groggily fumbled about, looking for all the items that I’d need for a race on a chilly morning – gloves, sweats, hat, jacket, etc.  2 cups of coffee weren’t enough to bring me to an alert state, and I was frustrated to find my cupboards basically devoid of any food-like items.  I was forced to settle for a couple of slices of toast with strawberry jam.  I eventually pulled myself together enough to head out.

I love running races but they tend to wreak havoc on a marathon training plan.  I always have to do some creative juggling to try and work in a race without doing significant damage to my ultimate goal.  I failed miserably at this leading up to the Savannah marathon when I basically raced until my Achilles were turned into a couple of useless tendons.  I ended up bailing on Savannah altogether.  I cannot afford to let this happen again leading up to Boston.

So I came up with a simple plan for the Winter Classic.  As I was scheduled to run a 10-mile progression run on Friday, I would just postpone it a day and work the 8K into a progression.  Here’s what I decided to do: Run 5 miles of progression just before the race so that by post time I’d be starting at about 7:30 pace and each mile would get subsequently faster, culminating with a last mile that was under 7 minutes.  That was the plan.

But my simple-enough plan had all but disintegrated  by the time I left my condo.  I was running late so that there wouldn’t be enough time to run 5 miles before the race began.  Oh well, best laid plans.  It looked like I’d be tacking on some mileage afterward – always a tough thing for me to do.

Luckily, the drive down to McAlpine went smoothly.  The parking lot was nearly full when I arrived at 7:20.  I hoofed it down to the stage to get my bib and chip.  On the way down, I realized very quickly that the odds of an age-group or masters award, slim before, were basically non-existent now.  I spotted several of my faster masters compadres, including Clayton Venhuizen, Gordon Bynum, and Chris Page,  jogging around.

At the stage, where the registration tent stood, various board members and volunteers kept the mood jovial and light, something I greatly appreciate as it helps ease pre-race jitters.  Aaron greeted me jovially and Ben Hovis was kind enough to take a break from his duties to explain the course to me.  Mike “That’s Not” Beigay called out, “If your name starts with A through L, pick up your packet here.  M through Z, to your left.  If your name is Strickland, go over there” where he pointed off into the wilderness.

2 friends, Kathy Seavers and Thomas Eggar, quite a visual juxtaposition, handed me my bib and chip, respectively.  These things in hand, I raced back to the parking lot, attached my chip to my shoe so I wouldn’t forget the one vital component, and then threw everything else into my car and took off to warm up.  During the warm-up, I discovered that nearly all the local big guns were present – Compton, Mainwaring, Lamperski, Shue, etc. etc.  If I finished in the top 100 today, I’d be happy.

I followed the 5K course and near the 1-mile mark, I crossed paths with Megan Hovis, fresh off the Olympic Trials, with an entourage which included Jason Blackwood.  We all waved and then I carried on, making my first of what would eventually be 3 trips up the lone, but tough, hill on the course.  I cruised down and took note of the lovely surreal view of the backside of the lake – the cooling water put off steam, providing a hazy, surreal view of a cross amidst the dead trees that dotted the lake.  I wanted to direct someone with a camera over there to snap a pic, but I had other business to attend to.  I ran around the lake, found out where we’d make our turn away from the standard 5K course in the first loop, and then headed back towards the parking lot.  I was confident that I now knew the course so no anxiety over potential directional mishaps.

I knew I had to be getting short on time, but I didn’t know how short as my stupid Garmin malfunctioned again – no display whatsoever (I’m starting to think it has to do with temperature – the colder it is, the more it seems to have issues).  Back in the parking lot, I shed my warm layers, pulled on some sleeves, and pinned my bib to my singlet.  I encountered Ben Meredith, a guy I first met and last spoke to at the Angels of ’97 5K in Huntersville.  “How much time do we have?  About 10 minutes?”, he asked.  “Yeah, that sounds about right”, I said, forced to guess thanks to my worthless watch.

I was all ready to head to the start when Mother Nature had other plans for me.  I felt a rumbling down below and so detoured to the McAlpine restrooms before making my way to the starting line.

Having finished my necessary business, I trotted back in the direction of the start.  Still in the parking lot, I could hear the undeniable hoots and hollers from one Aaron Linz.  Insert curse words here – I knew the race had started without me.  So I broke into a sprint – looked like I’d be racing an extra 1K or so.

I flew across the bridge leading back into the park.  As soon as I hit the gravel trail, I heard it from the peanut gallery.  “Strickland!  What are you doing?!” yelled Hovis (Ben, not Megan, lest there be any confusion) through his bullhorn.  Aaron and a host of others chimed in.  I just waved and smiled, content in the knowledge that this was not meant to be a PR race for me.  But I rushed to catch the racing crowd.

Andrew Swistak, complete with baby stroller and child, ran up beside me and said, “You’re about a minute and 40 seconds behind.”  Thanks, Stak!  We chatted for a sec and I was impressed that he had so effortlessly caught up – I had to be running about 6:30 pace (of course I couldn’t be sure because, did I mention, my stupid Garmin showed no display – 2 races in a row!)

I caught up to the back of the pack pretty quickly and began weaving and dodging my way through.  A lot of people drifted, or worse, weaved, from one side to the other.  I wanted to yell, “Do you realize you could probably shave a minute off your time if you would just run in a straight line?!”  But there was no time for that.

Nearly a mile in, I came upon Tom (Patania) and Laura (Sudduth).  I slapped Tom on the back (hope I didn’t scare you, Tom), and cried out, “I missed the start!” as I passed.  Tom and Laura just laughed, both familiar with my silly antics.

As I worked my way up, I passed a group and heard someone behind me call out to question, “Running your progression?”  I didn’t see who it was and I was struggling to catch my breath so I just shot the thumbs up sign and carried on.  But yeah, truth be told, I already had a pretty good idea that I was probably going out too fast – the progression plan was in dire jeopardy at this point.  I didn’t have the air or the time to try and explain this though, so I just went on my merry way.

I made my way past the pull-up bars (another lifetime ago, I used to cross-train here by stopping and doing chin-ups) where Emily B. and gang (I was already too race-loopy to recognize the others) were hanging out as course monitors.  They offered up cheers of encouragement and support and I waved even as things were starting to get quite painful.

This grin and wave belie the pain that I am already experiencing.

I continued my foray through the crowds and thought, “Damn!  How many people are in this thing?!”  I hit the hill where Aaron cheered me on again.  I got my first big clue that I was going significantly too fast at the bottom of the hill when I took a big gasp for air and instead tasted bile and strawberry.  Uh-oh.

But when I hit the lake section, crowds of friends were there.  Ben sounded through the bullhorn, “And Strickland works his way through the field!”  I made the turn off the lake, backtracking onto the 5K course.  Man, pain had seriously set in by the 2-mile mark.  My progression plan was clearly dead, complete with a “do not resuscitate”  order.  My pace slowed.

The crowd was finally beginning to thin.  I saw Jamaar ahead, off in the distance, and he yelled and waved to me.  I waved back but I didn’t have enough air in my old-man-asthma-ravaged lungs to respond with any sound.  I spotted a woman up ahead that had good form and looked to be moving along well so I made a conscious effort to reel her in.

When I finally caught up to the woman, I realized it was my pal Eimear.  I waved and she tried to say something that came out like “grunt…good…grunt”.  She was doing better than me – I couldn’t say a word.  I  made my third trip of the day up the hill, fighting back vomit again on the way down.  I was finally up in my normal neck of the woods, running with those in my wheelhouse.  I tried to gather myself enough to pick it up to hit the lake where everyone would see me again.

Back on the lake to more cheers interspersed with wise-cracks about my late start.  I struggled to make my way around.  I didn’t need a watch to tell me that my pace had slowed considerably.  Billy lapped me and I tried to lock on and match his stride.  He finished as I rounded the curve.

As I neared the turnoff from the lake into the woods, Mike Kahn came bounding up and yelled, “Strickland, don’t get lapped!”  to which I responded, “I won’t and even if I did, it wouldn’t count – I spotted you 2 minutes!”  Then, just as I started to make the right turn, Kahn screamed, “Go left!  Turn left!”

I’ve run the McAlpine 5K Cross Country course a million times.  Okay, maybe not a million times, but I’m willing to wager that I ran cross country meets at McAlpine before many of you reading this were born.  I know the course.  After speaking with one Mr. Hovis earlier, and after warming up on the course, I knew that after the first 3K, you just ran the 5K route the rest of the way in.  The 5K course would have me turning right here – I knew this.  But when you’re as directionally challenged as I am and someone yells a direction at you, you pause, which is what I did.  If I was turning right into my own driveway and someone in the car said, “No, wrong way!”, I would question myself.

During my split second of indecision, I heard Kahn laugh and the guy monitoring the course yell to me, “No, stay right!”  I was mad at myself for even entertaining Kahn for a second as I made the right turn.  But such is the plight of the directionally challenged – I’m used to it and got over it quickly in the woods.

I tried to pick it up as the end drew near, but I was squarely seated on the pain train – the conductor had punched my ticket a few miles back.  My goals were now, basically, in this order: Don’t die.  Don’t puke or crap yourself (thanks for that piece of advice, Caleb).   Don’t get passed by the elderly, the very young, the obese, or the infirmed.  Finish.   None of these were a given.

I made it through the loop without incident and hit the lake again.  Tom and Laura were approaching and Tom yelled some words of encouragement.  I was frustrated that a little girl was in front of me so I made a concerted effort to pass her.  Stak snapped some photographic evidence of this moment:

Battling it out with a little girl. Don't laugh too hard my young and fast friends - this may very well be a glimpse into your own future. I can only hope this girl is the next Alana Hadley.

I gradually picked up the pace around the lake and the little girl picked it up with me.  Insert more curse words here.  If starting late wasn’t embarrassing enough, now I had to try and shake an 8-year-old girl in front of everybody (the results show that she was 12, as if that’s better)?

When we hit the final straightaway, she started to pass me.  What’s worse than battling it out with a 12-year-old girl in front of everyone?  Yep, you guessed it, losing to a 12-year-old girl in front of everyone.  I picked it up some more – so did she.  #$%! ?!  Alright Little Miss Sunshine, let’s dance.  Are you willing to have a heart attack and drop dead at the line?  Because I am.  I’m willing to go as fast as it takes, Boston be damned.  (And yes, I’m well aware how crazy and stupid this sounds, but I’d be dishonest if I wrote anything else.  These were the kind of thoughts actually running through my head.  I can’t help it if I’m crazy and stupid.)  This other weird dynamic was playing out – I wanted to beat her but do it in a way that looked like I wasn’t struggling to beat her, you know?  And of course I totally defeat the purpose of this by writing about it in my blog.  Oh well, I’m sure that one day I’ll share this blog entry with a therapist.

Mr. Bill Shires captured this video of our epic battle to the finish line (the video is on Facebook, so I’m not sure if non-Facebookers, or maybe even those who aren’t friends of Bill’s, can view it).

Anyway, I held her off.  That’s something to be proud of, he said with much sarcasm.  Here’s proof:

Take that, little girl! I wonder who's more embarrassed - me for battling it out with a little girl, or the little girl for losing to an old man?

Past the finish chute, I stopped, doubled over hands on knees, held back the puke, and caught my breath.  I chatted with Stan and a few others for a second or two, grabbed a water, and headed back out to get the rest of my miles in.  The progression run died a hard death, but at least I could run the workout’s prescribed total number of miles.

Back on the trail, on the way to the Old Bell entrance, I  encountered Jason coming towards me.  I joined him – this last bit would go much easier if I had someone to run with.  And it did.  We had a pleasant little chat and I finally finished my day’s running.

I filled my water bottle with Nuun and went back to the parking lot where I put on some warm, dry sweats, then I headed back to the park for the awards ceremony.

During the awards ceremony, I hung out with my Hood to Coast teammate, Hammer, aka Mark Carbone, and Eimear (who won her age group, by the way).  This little Charlotte Running Club race was truly an international affair with Daniel Matena, who hails from Australia, coming in third overall, while Paul, a Brit, finished second.  When John Compton accepted the award for overall winner, I chanted “USA!  USA!” to a few snickers.

After the awards, I ran back to my car (I must have gotten 2 extra miles in from running back and forth to the parking lot) to get Bill Shires‘ age group award from Salem Lake.  I’d been holding on to it since October, continually forgetting to bring it to events where Bill would be present.  I finally remembered.

I stopped to chat to Kahn on my final way out, as he helped break down the set-up.  As he unhooked a bungee cord that held up a race banner, it whipped back and struck him in the temple (don’t fret, he’s fine) – another inch or two over and he might have lost an eye.  That, my friends, is what we in the business call ‘karma’.

And on that note, I will bid you all adieu.  Only 12 more weeks until Boston!

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3 Responses to “The Charlotte Running Club Winter Classic 8K, aka How My Progression Run Died a Tragic Death”

  1. Caitlin Chrisman Says:

    Your battle with little miss sunshine was rather epic. I’m glad i was there to witness such a fine moment of your running career, allen. Great job

  2. Cool Down Runner Says:

    Good recap, Allen. 🙂

    Hey, the videos are also available on youtube at

    http://www.youtube.com/user/shiresb1?blend=1&ob=0

  3. Chris Steinmann Says:

    Allen, you are entirely to funny. It probably took you longer to write this blog entry than it did to run the race itself. Glad you were able to smoke the little girl through.

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