Right up there with the OrthoCarolina Classic 10K, the LungStrong 15K stands out as one of my favorite Charlotte-area races. A distance other than the ubiquitous 5K, a beautiful course featuring colorful fall foliage and lovely views of Lake Norman, a post-race spread that would make All-World tailgaters envious (this year there was beer, Brooklyn Pizza, and Jersey Mike’s subs) – all these things make it one of the, arguably the, best local races. Add the fact that the starting line is about a mile and a half from my home and you know I would be found there on Saturday morning. I looked forward to running it for the 5th year in a row (my longest streak at any race).
I came into this one with modest goals. I had, borrowing a phrase from Aaron, a ‘soft’ PR at this distance, a 1:07:49, or about 7:15 pace, set way back in 2009. I thought I should be able to break that pretty easily, so that became the primary goal. I believed I was fit enough to break 1:05, just under 7:00 pace, so that became the aggressive goal.
Pre-race went pretty smoothly. Laura and I made the long drive from my place, leaving at 6:44 and arriving at 6:48 – it took so long because we had to stop at the light at Jetton. We parked at the Wells Fargo and headed to get our chips. Quick aside – Tim, can we please graduate from using the antiquated timing chips? Can you not get the bibs with the built in chips or at least a D-chip? It’s a bit of a pain to wait in line to get a chip before the race, and I don’t enjoy being harassed for the chip at the end of the race, bending over to remove it, and nearly passing out. It’s kind of like insisting on using a pay phone – sure, they still work, but it would be much more convenient to use a cell phone. That’s my one and only complaint about LungStrong – now back to your regularly scheduled blog.
Heading from the car to the chip line, we ran into my pals Dean and Bill and I introduced them to Laura. Another thing I love about LungStrong – it brings out representatives from all the diverse running communities out there. Before the day was through, I would see friends from all the running groups that I would typically encounter separately – UCRR (arch-rival Brian Sammons, running his first race in nearly a year), DART (Chas, Cliff Weston, and Sarah Keen), Charlotte Running Club (more than I can name, but here are a few – Emily Barrett, John Fillette, Eric Bilbrey, Caleb Boyd, Billy Shue. Mike Beigay, while not running, was on hand to peddle gear), friends that have moved in nearby – Karin Helmbrecht and Chris Lamperski, and friends that have moved ‘far’ away, Michelle Hazelton and Thomas Eggar. It was quite a hodgepodge of runners and I loved seeing them all in one place.
We got our chips and ran a little warm-up with Dean, and suddenly it was go time. We lined up near the front where one of the fastest local runners in my age group, Jim McKeon, shook my hand and we chatted about the Wineglass Marathon, site of his first marathon. All morning, I had been counting the masters that I knew I couldn’t hang with – Stephen Spada, Jim McKeon, etc. etc. What were my odds of winning an age group award on this day? I had a better chance of being struck by a meteor.
And then someone sounded the start and just like that we were racing. Earlier in the week, I discussed race strategy with Coach Stanford and he recommended taking things out nice and orderly, about a 7:15-7:20 first mile before settling into goal pace of sub-7’s, so that’s what I attempted to do. Regular readers know that I have a very difficult time going out slowly, but today I was determined.
5 steps in, Sarah cut me off and I cried out, “Is that Sarah Keen cutting me off?!” and she pointed to a little kid that had ostensibly cut her off. This guy was tiny, I mean like 5 or 6 years old tiny, but he was cruising at sub-7 pace and he had a pace tattoo on his arm. He obviously meant business as he pulled away.
Nearing Jetton Road, a firetruck, sirens blaring, came barreling out of the firehouse. This was the same place where a firetruck nearly derailed my 2009 PR race near the finish as a race volunteer screamed for us to stop while a firetruck departed the station, but instead, Christi Cranford and I and a bunch of other runners ran off the road, up on the grass hill adjacent to the road, and continued on. If Jesus himself had been in the road and screamed for me to stop, I would have run around him. What the hell, is this the busiest firestation in America, or is this a bizarre coincidence? Regardless, nobody asked us to stop this time, and the hordes of runners just moved over to the right and the truck and the runners continued on their respective missions.
I kept checking my pace and struggled to throttle back as hundreds of old, chubby, and infirmed folks blazed by. Oh how I wanted to pick up the pace, but I refused. Sarah was probably a hundred meters ahead of me within the first half mile, but I resisted the temptation to speed up and catch her. Laura was relying on me to be the early pacesetter and ran just off my right shoulder. Apparently, she too was struggling to hold back because she passed me.
We turned left into Jetton Park and I was too focused on pace and the race to appreciate the beautiful autumn scenery. I had my eyes on the clock at the 1-mile mark which clicked on 7:15 just as I crossed the line. “Perfect!” I cried out loud as I gave myself permission to start accelerating on this rare flat section of the course. I sped past Laura who called out “Goodbye!” and I waved.
I reeled Sarah in as we neared the first water stop, just outside of the park, as we turned left onto Jetton Road. I quickly downed some water and continued to push the pace. I still felt fine which was to be expected at this, the easiest, flattest, part of the tough course.
I was cruising now, running a 6:58 second mile, but I felt like I was pushing maybe a little harder than I should be – the heart rate read in the 160’s. I wasn’t sure I could maintain that level of effort, but I was going to try. Shortly after the second mile, Sarah eased up beside me and accused me of shooting her with a snot rocket. I maintained my innocence, but needing to fire off another one, I surged ahead to make sure I was in the clear before launching the next.
I continued to maintain sub-7’s, but they felt more difficult than I thought they should. I kept hovering around a heart rate of 160 or higher – going much higher than that was dangerous business, setting myself up to trip the lactic acid time bomb, so I tried to ease off the gas ever so slightly.
I heard someone cheer my name near the next water stop and I looked up to see Anne Marie (aka, “Hard Core”) and Joey. I waved. Buoyed by their cheers, I picked up the pace. Having run the course a week earlier, I knew we were rapidly running out of “flat and easy” so my rationale was “you might as well crank through here before things start getting ugly”.
From miles 3 to 5, I went to war with another runner, a tiny little waif of a lady wearing a perfectly color-coordinated pink outfit, complete with a flowery little top and a short skort. She kept passing me on the uphills, and I would pass her back on the downs. It was unnerving. I would throw in a long surge and think that I had finally dropped her, only to have her casually pass me back moments later.
I was huffing and puffing and grimacing, while she maintained a demure, peaceful little smile. I was all UFC, Semper Fi, and SPARTA – she was all flowers, butterflies, and “Why do birds suddenly appear every time you are near?” But like a stone cold assassin, she killed my will to stay with her. I could only watch from behind as she became a tiny little pink dot on the horizon.
After my epic battle with Veronica, I started feeling the fatigue set in. My sub-7’s turned into over-7’s. Nearing the toughest part of the course, the 4ish rolling miles through the peninsula and back up Jetton Road, suddenly a PR was no longer a sure thing. It didn’t sound easy anymore. Gut check time.
Now I was just hanging on as my splits climbed. 7:12. 7:17. 7:21. Hang on, Gramps, you can still set a PR if you don’t act stupid. While the wheels hadn’t completely fallen off, they were getting mighty wobbly. At the mile 7 water stop, Anne Marie and Joey cheered, giving me another boost.
But that was the last moment of glory. I was completely in damage control for the rest of the race. I just wanted it to be over. I hung on by a thread as I got passed by a big guy in Vibram Five Fingers – while these are technically allowed/appropriate in a race, they’re like wearing a bolo tie at work – they kind of mark you as “that weird guy”. Then someone came by wearing the dreaded water bottle belt – I wanted to yank that thing off, throw it down on the ground, stomp on it and scream, “It’s 45 degrees and they have water nearly every mile! You don’t need a *$#%ing water belt!” But I didn’t have enough energy – I just watched the water belt guy pulling away. The 3 kinds of people to pass you that indicate your race is now going badly – 1) Someone carrying a pace sign. 2) Someone in a costume. 3) Someone wearing a *$#%ing water belt.
Sigh. I had very little left. There was a strong headwind on the final stretch, so I tried to tuck in behind water belt guy and draft, but he quickly buried me.
By this point, I could see the last turn ahead and I was grateful. Again, I just wanted this thing to be over. I was seriously fading.
We made the left turn, and then the right that put us back into Jetton Village. Only a quarter of a mile to go. I was perfectly content to, in the words of the infamous Boston Masshole, “jog it the ^&*$ out”, when somebody tried to pass me. “Damn it!” I thought. “Are you going to make me kick here?” I accelerated, dropping whoever it was making the move, when I spotted the little kid up ahead. Again, damn it. I can’t just let a 6-year-old kid beat me. So I chased him.
Just as I was passing the kid, Mike Beigay showed up to take a pic. I really didn’t want another picture of me, battling it out with a little kid, floating around on the internet, so I desperately cried out to Mike, “Wait! Wait, til I get past this kid!” and I pointed to the boy. Here’s the photo of me pointing to the little boy, just outside the frame:
I turned onto the homestretch and saw the clock rapidly approaching 1:07. I kicked for all I was worth to at least come in under 1:07, and I did, barely. I was ever so grateful it was over.
Sarah finished seconds behind me and said, “I almost caught you!” but apparently snot rocket debris had prevented her from beating me. Then Laura came in seconds later. She is right on my heels with minimal training – I don’t know what I’m going to do when she does beat me, which seems inevitable. I’ve never had a girlfriend beat me in a race and I’m not sure how I’ll react when it happens. But since I’m her unofficial coach, I think I’ll be really proud. Or really upset. One of those two.
Let the games begin – it would be all fun from that point forward. Brooklyn Pizza, beer, Harvey’s chicken wings, and conversation. I only have 2 post-race regrets – 1) I waited too long to get a Jersey Mike’s sub – they were all gone by the time I approached the tent. 2) We didn’t make it to Zada Jane’s for brunch with Thomas and Michelle. Laura and I never ventured too far from the beer truck, and we had a grand old time chatting with various running pals.
At the awards ceremony, Laura picked up her age group medal, a ‘gold’ for finishing first in the 40-44 category, and I picked up my, “nice try, keep dreaming old man” award.
To cap off the day, we got our free picture taken at the Coca Cola truck, where the photographer wouldn’t let us hold our beers in the pic, so we set them down on the table where a little girl nearly drank them, reaching for the cups and saying, “Free Coke?” Here’s the pic:
Not my greatest race ever, but certainly not my worst either. I would dub it ‘acceptable’. All things considered, it was a good day.
Now I have to decide what’s next. I’m mulling over finding another marathon to take a shot at a 2014 Boston qualifier. We’ll see – I’ll let you know.