The weather forecast was perfect for a run; 45 degrees and sunny.
We were on the road by 9, and by 10 had reached Holyoka MA, site of the 30th Annual Holyoke St. Patrick's Day Parade 10K Road Race.
Our first stop was to retrieve my T-shirt and timing chip. Already the place was alive with runners, gray haired fit-looking men, tall thin brunettes in ponytails, college-aged guys who clearly spent more time lifting than running ... and more. Everybody was represented.
We soon met up with Steve & Brenda and their 3 kids, and we strolled around the area. This is a huge event; last year over 2400 runners completed the race. It's the first day of a 2-day St. Patrick's event that culminates in a huge parade televised nationwide on armed forces television. In other words, the town was hopping. Runners, spectators, and support crew were everywhere. It felt really surreal to be walking around in full running gear and be smelling the hot grease smells you normally associate with fairgrounds. Sausage vendors, french fry carts, vendors of cheesy Irish toys; you name it, it was there.
And it was all green, of course.
First we watched the kids run their "fun run" race; a couple hundred feet through the actual finish line we'd all go through later. Then we milled about some more as the crowd grew thicker and more diverse; music playing from a half-dozen directions at once, Irish drinking songs being the order of the day. A crowd gathered in the outdoor area near a bar, enjoying a few lunchtime Guinesses and getting ready to cheer us on.
I was getting antsy. My stomach wasn't really settled; I hadn't eaten lunch, I felt off-kilter. I never run at 1:00; always either first thing in the morning or a couple hours after a light breakfast. It was a weird time for me. The kids were getting antsy too; they knew they had a long afternoon ahead of them, with a lot of waiting.
12:30. The call came out. "Runners to the starting line." We ambled over there, and hundreds of others followed. Over the next half hour more and more runners would crowd behind the starting line. Nervous snippets of conversation, folks catching up with each other, talking about the race, talking about running, talking about family. A group of high school girls formed in front of us, wearing shirts saying, "Kiss me if you catch me." Steve joked that he'd sprint ahead and trip them so I had a chance to test their pledge.
The sheer variety of runners was amazing. The sun beat down on a motley crew of single-minded individuals from a thousand backgrounds. 12-year old kids giggled nervously, grandfathers stretched calmly, and we shifted our weight from foot to foot and wished we had worn shorts.
When the starting gun fired, it took us all by surprise. No announcements, no buildup, just "bang!" As an event chopper buzzed the crowd the elite runners took off at an intimidating pace. A few hundred people back, we slowly shuffled our feet for a hundred yards until it opened up enough that we could begin an easy jog. We ran past Jess who was watching the kids, waved with stupid grins, and took off.
Right away, I knew the pace was too fast. We were pounding the pavement, keeping up with everyone around us without a problem. My breath was coming fast and heavy, but my legs were fine. "You'll be fine once your muscles loosen up," Steve assured me. I wasn't so sure. When we passed mile one, I knew I was right: it had only taken us 10 minutes. I had never maintained that pace for more than 3 miles before.
At the first water station, I grabbed an ice-cold plastic cup of water, gunned it, and tossed it aside like a true runner. I must admit, that felt pretty cool.
It felt even cooler to be part of this huge mass of runners, filling up a city street with poice barriers keeping traffic away. On the sides of the route, like spectators at a parade, random onlookers cheered us on, some calling names, others just shouting encouragement. I'll comment more on this later; it's a memory that will last forever.
Soon, the hills started. Or, I should say, hill. The middle 2.5-3 miles of the race is one long uphill. Sure, it has steeper and almost level sections, but it's a hill. And running the second mile in only 11:00 did nothing to make the hill easier. Add to this that I had never drank water mid-run before, and I felt like the whole glass of water was still sitting at the very base of my throat, ready to be puked up at any instant.
I was in real trouble, a fact which I tried to express to Steve without much success. I had developed a cramp in my side in the middle of the second mile, and after running with it for about a mile I knew it was going to really mess me up. That and the puke-feeling was too much. I slowed down. "I think I need to walk for a second." Steve refused. He grilled me. Where did it hurt, what was wrong? "Just change how you're running." I tried what he suggested, and it helped a little, but after less than a minute it was overwhelming. "I'm serious," I said, and dropped to a walk.
I hated to do it. I knew I could do this race without walking. I knew it. But this was too much to handle. I was walking; walking fast, but walking. And so early in the race. I was discouraged, but the pain immediately lessened. After only about ten seconds I got back into an easy jog pace. The cramp was loosening, and then it was gone. I sped up a little, but there was no way I was getting back into a 10:00 pace, not up that hill.
Even at 48 degrees, the sun was HOT as we climbed the hill. It was a real labor. I can't remember what time it was when we passed 3 miles, but I was seriously questioning my sanity and my decision to even take up running at that point. I knew I was halfway done but I was so much more than halfway drained. Still, the hill's end was close, or so I kept hearing. I just knew that if I had 3 more miles of that hill, I was going to die.
But they were right. By mile 4, things had changed. Gravity was working for us, not against us. Steve kept trying to get me to speed up, but even with the hill helping me I couldn't really get it going. Still, I was stunned by the time: 4 miles in around 45 minutes, give or take. At this point, I realized something: even at my slowest run, or even a brisk walk, I could finish this race in around 1:15, my earlier goal. This flipped a switch in my head, and the mental weariness began to melt off a little. Of course, the physical weariness was getting stronger. While the cramp and nausea had subsided, I had been running long enough where my body was starting to tire. My knees were sore, my feet were starting to ache, and the repeated shock of hitting the ground, especially down hill, was echoing in my head.
But we were on the home stretch. As we neared mile 5, more and more people crowded along the side of the course. Kids would stand on the curb with their hands out, for us to slap as we ran by. Random folks on their porches with beers in their hands would yell, "Looking good! You can do this! All downhill from here!" Every single time this happened I smiled; those people helped more than they know.
I did speed up. Of course, so did everyone else. Mile 5. 56 minutes. Brenda said that if we managed a 4 minute mile we'd just about break the 60 minute mark. I laughed, or tried to. It was getting hard to communicate. My head was starting to hurt; I felt like I could feel my pulse in my entire scalp.
The attitude among the other racers was great, though. Folks would yell back at the spectators; we all talked about what we were waiting for at the finish. Around mile 4, someone said, "come on, 2 more miles and you can have a beer." After agreeing this was a good idea, I said what I really wanted was to lie down. A woman near me said, "No, beer's good." I offered a compromise. How about lying down with a beer?
Between mile 5 and mile 6, we poured it on. They just kept speeding up. Steve and Brenda kept pointing out where we could pass someone, kept talking about how close we were. Finally, we could see the marker for mile 6. A couple runners next to me slowed way down; I overheard them say they wanted to sprint the final .2 and needed to rest up. I think if I had stopped like that I would never have started again.
We rounded the corner, and I literally shivered all over. It was awesome. We could see the finish, the huge marker over the road. The final .2 was all uphill, but we could see the end. And thousands of people lined the final part of the course, from already-finished runners to random revelers, they were all applauding. "We finish together," Steve said, and turned on the gas. I gave it all I had.
I have never pushed myself as hard as I did right then. Every step hurt, but every step took me past a dozen or more people applauding and hollering. I could feel every heartbeat in my temples. My body was rebelling, but I wasn't listening.
We passed the finish mark together with the clock overhead somewhere around 1:09:30. My wife stood right at the finish, cheering me on, and I didn't even see her. I couldn't think about anything but how good it was going to feel to stop. We crossed the line, and we slowed immediately to a walk. "Keep going, to the back of the chute," we were told, and we moved, slowly, achingly, gasping for air.
We grasped each others' hands, we half-hugged, we took off our timing chips and walked like wounded soldiers leaning on each other towards the water table, where we drank up and tried to catch our breath. My headache went away immediately, but the pain in my feet and knee just got worse. Exhaustion caught up with me; everything caught up with me.
It's been 6 hours since then.
My feet still hurt, my knee still hurts, and I'm exhausted.
But what I'll remember forever is the way that last turn felt, seeing all those people and that finish line.
My goal for this race was 1:15, and I thought it was an aggressive but reachable goal. We beat that time by over 5 minutes. I'm not sure it was the smartest idea to keep that pace up, but it worked (this time).
They're already talking about their next race, a 4-mile in West Springfield sometime in April.
Right now I'll be thrilled just to get another normal training run in. I doubt any race will top this one, for a long time. Maybe ever.
Thanks, everybody, who helped make this possible for me. Who encouraged me or gave me a reason to keep doing it.
(and we never did catch those girls; those young kids are faster than you'd think)