A year ago, Laura and I ran our first Gate River Run 15K. And while we had a great time, I left Jacksonville with the tiniest of grudges against the race. Don’t get me wrong, I loved our first Gate River Run experience – our buddy Keith had turned us onto it and his friends Bill and Donna were incredible hosts. But I was coming off injury and had walked a lot in that race – I left town feeling like I had some unfinished business.
The Gate River Run has a neat little perk – the top ten percent of finishers win a baseball cap. I missed out on the cap in 2016. I was determined to win one this year. And so a goal was born.
As is our custom, we scrambled to leave on time Friday morning, rushing to pack and to herd the dogs into the car for their first time spending a weekend at Noda Bark and Board. As always, the dogs seemed ecstatic to leave us which still hurts a little, every single time. But we somehow managed to pull it all together and show up, miraculously on time, at our designated meeting place, the Dunkin Donuts in Rock Hill, to meet Keith, Sue, and Randy.
We had a lovely drive in unseasonably warm weather – thanks climate-change deniers! (I jokingly told Laura that the earth is like a cancer patient who has lost enough weight to be in that deceptively attractive stage “Wow, she looks great!” before things get really bad. That’s what these spring-like winter days are. Enjoy them while you can.)
We drove straight to the expo where Laura scrambled to find a Strassburg sock to help with a recent bout of plantar fasciitis.
With no luck finding the sock at the expo, we left and headed to the nearest running store, 1st Place Sports – jackpot, Laura found and purchased the sock.
Race packets and Strassburg sock acquired, we headed over to Bill and Donna’s house. Once again, Donna cooked us a great carb-loading pasta dinner and she and Bill graciously accommodated me by letting me take my plate into the living room where I watched the Carolina/Duke ACC tournament game. I wish I hadn’t bothered as the evil dark-blue empire, led by the ref-working svengali-emperor K, somehow managed to beat us. Again. Ugh, very ugh – I was left in a foul mood before retiring for the evening. I can only hope I didn’t ruin the evening for everyone because god knows I was no ray of sunshine after that most painful of losses. Laura tried to console me as we went to bed.
I had a fitful night of sleep after the upsetting loss. I tossed and turned. Mercifully, the alarm sounded at 5:30 and I jumped up and went through my standard race-day preparations. The only snafu – I’d forgotten my Aquaphor. Luckily, Laura had her chafe-resisting go-to, Trader Joe’s Head to Toe Balm. I was a little concerned how well it would work, but as the old adage goes, beggars can’t be choosers so I applied it liberally and hoped for the best. And before I knew it, we were all piling into the car and heading to the start.
Laura and I were using this race as another supported long run, so the gameplan involved quite a few pre and post-race miles, but Mother Nature had other ideas as we queued up at the first restroom we saw. This took longer than expected so that we didn’t make it to bag check until nearly 8:10 with our race starting at 8:30. Oh well, an abbreviated warm-up it would be.
We made it to the corrals in time to watch the elite women, given a 6-minute head start to create an ‘equalizer’ race between women and men with the winner getting an additional five grand. That’s a nice little incentive! And while we hadn’t seen her, we’d heard that our BRR JITFO teammate Laurie would be running so when the gun fired, we screamed, “Go Laurie! JITFO!” (We never saw her and I couldn’t find her in the results so I’m guessing she actually didn’t make it down this year.)
With the elite women off and racing, it was time to enter our corral. Laura and I found our open entrance and made our way in. Moments later the gun fired and it was go time.
As Laura’s coach, I’d given her a progression tempo assignment – 3 miles at 7:50 pace, 3 at 7:40, 3 at 7:30. If she stuck to the plan, we could run together for the first 3 miles. So we set out together.
Very early on, she asked me, “Isn’t this the race with the Frozen backpack kid?” And as if she were psychic, mere seconds after she asked, we spotted a blonde-headed kid, wearing said Frozen backpack, seated on the side of the road and wailing. “That’s him!” I yelled. I think it was actually him – I mean how many 11 or 12-year-old boys run this same race wearing a Frozen backpack?!? I gotta believe the answer is one. Laura and I freaked out about this development for the next mile or so. I took it as an omen. “Not this year, Frozen boy!” (But seriously, I hope he’s okay – not sure what had happened. Twisted ankle perhaps? He was surrounded by adults helping him.)
Then we got the whiff of coffee as we passed the Maxwell House plant and stared up at this:
Some random guy – there’s always someone who desperately wants to be the comedian in every crowd – shouted, “Coffee anyone?” and I resisted the overwhelming urge to answer with “Good to the last…drop!” before shoving him to the ground. But the smell really was quite lovely and reminded me of the old S&D plant in my hometown of Concord.
A few moments later, Laura started pointing to her right, at what, I wasn’t sure when I spotted this:
So I asked, “What, the bar?” and Laura answered, “No! It’s a brewery!” Oh! Cool!
During mile 2, Laura noticeably picked up the pace. Very early on, I switched the screen on my watch from time/pace to heart rate. As I tried to stick with Laura here in the early stages, my heart rate rocketed upwards. When it hit the 160s, I decided it was time to back off. Laura looked super comfortable as I watched her pull away. Wisely, I stayed back and kept a close eye on my heart rate.
Unlike the Charlotte 10-Miler a couple of weeks earlier, I felt comfortable. I felt that I could pick up the pace if I so desired, but I resisted the temptation and ran strictly by heart rate. As long as I was in the 150s, I maintained the pace – as soon as I saw 160-anything (hovering dangerously close to lactic acid threshold), I backed off.
And so it went. I made sure to enjoy my surroundings more this year. I had looked to my right and left earlier when we crossed the Main Street bridge, relishing in the incredible water views. And I made sure to check out the water again as we ran parallel to it around mile four.
Somewhere around this point, there was a crowd of spectators throwing doughnut holes to runners, most of whom dropped them. I decided to channel my inner Kelvin Benjamin so I raised my hand and made eye contact with this kid who obliged me by tossing a doughnut hole in my direction:
It was a perfect toss and I caught it effortlessly. But when I took a bite, it didn’t go down well. I choked, gagged, and coughed up doughnut fragments. My sticky fingers reiterated the fact that this had been a bad idea. “You big dummy!” screamed my inner voice.
But I eventually coughed up those doughnut bits I hadn’t swallowed and I soldiered on.
By mile five, things no longer felt effortless. I was going to have to earn my keep on this day. And while it wasn’t as warm as the previous year, it wasn’t exactly cool either with temperatures hovering towards the high sixties and shade coming at a premium. Not only was a top ten percent not a given, beating last year’s time (1:18ish, or ~8:20 pace) was not guaranteed either. I had to dig down a little and start focusing.
I started worrying less about the top ten percent and more about beating my previous time. I told myself, “Watch your heart rate, do the best you can, and let the chips fall where they may.” At every mile marker, I feebly attempted to do math, settling on just paying attention to “are you under 8-minute pace?”, knowing that if the answer was always yes, I’d beat last year’s time.
As we neared mile 8, I knew the “Green Monster” lay ahead, the nickname given to the one really tough stretch of this course, the Hart bridge. At the base stood a woman holding the same sign I’d seen in the same spot one year ago:
“Here we go.” I had to steel myself for the task ahead. While it was no Mountain Goat leg, it was no Sunday walk in the park either. Time to grit your teeth.
I told myself to just keep running. I was well under last year’s pace and I thought I should be sniffing a top ten percent finish. Just don’t walk. Keep churning.
At this point, heart rate be damned. I quit looking at my watch, opting instead to try to enjoy another breathtaking view. I peeked over the bridge and soaked in the beautiful vista, even while the pain overtook me.
Finally, after what seemed like an hour and was in reality maybe three or four minutes, I crested the apex. “Now go!” I told myself, underestimating the toll the last 8+ miles had taken on my legs. I tried.
I pushed nearly as hard as I could go, fully expecting to be greeted with a “Top Ten Percent!” hat. But when I crossed the finish line and made a beeline towards the men’s hat area, I made eye contact with a volunteer who called out, “We’re all out of men’s hats!” Womp womp. “Fuck!” I screamed. Fail.
Laura was waiting just past the finish line where she yelled out to me, “Allen! Don’t forget your hat!” Open wound, insert salt. “I didn’t get one”, I answered and as ashamed as I am to admit it, I choked back tears. Intellectually, I know how ridiculous this is, but emotionally, I was a little devastated after working so hard and yet still coming up short. Oh well, what can you do? Move on, that’s what – shove that pain deep down inside and try to forget about it. (Clearly, they didn’t have Let Me Run when I was a boy.)
Laura and I started cooling down when we spotted two young fit guys jogging ahead of us. Laura said, “Look! That’s a Charlotte Running Company singlet!” and without seeing the guy from the front yet, I yelled, “Perez!” and sure enough, he turned around. It was JP, James Perez, one of Charlotte’s fast kids. We hugged and chatted for a minute as he told us he’d run well, just barely over 50 minutes. “Jesus, that’s fast!” I thought.
JP and his cool-down companion continued on their way and I figured their cool-down was faster than my race pace. Sigh. Laura and I cooled down on the water’s edge in hopes of spotting a manatee, but weren’t that lucky. When I hit two miles, I told Laura I’d had enough. I headed to the bag check to retrieve our stuff while she got in a few more miles.
Bag check was infinitely quicker than the year before – no line whatsoever, so in minutes, I had acquired our stuff, toweled off, changed into comfy, dry clothes, and parked myself in front of the wall where we’d all agreed to meet after the race.
I messed around with my watch and phone, fiddling with Garmin Connect and Strava, checking out my race time (1:13:13), looking at splits, and realizing that my 15K time is about the same time as Chad’s half marathon time. “Jesus, Chad can beat me my 4 miles in an hour and change?!?” I thought. I briefly entertained the idea of walking over and getting my free beer until I saw the line. No way was I waiting in that line of hundreds of people for a shitty Miller Lite.
Bill walked up and we chatted about our races. We made the game time decision of, once we’d gathered everyone, skipping the shitty free beer and walking to Intuition (the brewery we’d passed during the race) to buy some good beer. I think that was the best decision of the weekend.
Everybody showed up and we headed out with Bill, Keith, and Randy swinging by the car while Laura and I went to the brewery and saved seats. I grabbed an I-10 IPA while Laura got an Easy on the Eyes session. The guys joined us at the on-the-roof taproom and we sipped beers, basked in the sun, and chatted about our respective races. All was right with the world again. I told Bill, “I think we just established a post-race tradition.” Because the beer was delicious and the food sure as hell looked to be (as difficult as it was, and trust me it was very difficult because I was starving, we held off on eating so we could meet back up with Donna and Sue for lunch later) and the brewery itself, with downstairs and rooftop tap rooms, was simply amazing.
While we were hanging out, Keith chatted with some lady as he waited on his beer. When he finished, he told me how she mentioned that one of her friends currently at the brewery had finished the race just outside of the top ten percent. He’d been so close that he had seen a couple of guys directly in front of him fighting over the last hat. I had to talk to this guy. So I walked over and introduced myself to this gentleman, Peter King. Peter confirmed the story. I asked him his finishing time. “One thirteen something.” So I looked him up in the results – he finished a few spots ahead of me:
|793||1312||Jim Huster||44||Ponte Vedra Beach, FL||1:13:02||7:50|
|794||1421||Zimberlist Hester||49||Middleburg, FL||1:13:03||7:50|
|795||4163||Kevin Nelson||30||New York, NY||1:13:05||7:50|
|796||903||Matthew Gibson||26||Jacksonville, FL||1:13:05||7:50|
|797||1377||Peter King||47||Jacksonville, FL||1:13:05||7:50|
|798||1507||Maverick Brown||56||Jacksonville, FL||1:13:06||7:50|
|799||3155||Lohith Srikakolapu||15||Jacksonville, FL||1:13:08||7:50|
|800||1549||Steve Beard||61||Saint Johns, FL||1:13:09||7:50|
|801||879||Jacob Stenson||24||Jacksonville, FL||1:13:10||7:50|
|802||1090||David Celetti||35||Saint Augustine, FL||1:13:10||7:50|
|803||930||Andrew Gall||28||Ponte Vedra Beach, FL||1:13:10||7:50|
|804||1196||Jesse Rice||39||Saint Augustine, FL||1:13:11||7:51|
|805||1384||Clint Avret||47||Jacksonville, FL||1:13:12||7:51|
|806||696||Christopher Prattos||19||Jacksonville, FL||1:13:12||7:51|
|807||1741||Allen Strickland||50||Charlotte, NC||1:13:13||7:51|
Oh so very close for Peter and me. He told me to remember this piece of strategy for next year – the race doesn’t finish at the finish line, it finishes at the Top Ten Percent line – keep racing through that line.
I can’t wait to go back to Intuition after the 2018 race. And next time, I fully intend to be wearing a Top Ten Percent finisher hat.