This weekend, I ran the Hot Chocolate Run to benefit Safe Passage. This is a 5K run/walk event to benefit a domestic violence charity, run in my old home town of Northampton. This was its sixth running and over 4000 people participated, raising $90,000.
This race was not about me, nor about my fitness. It was about my wife. When she started running again after a baby-induced hiatus, she realized she wanted to set a race as a training goal. She signed up for this one, with her cousin (who was on a similar post-baby fitness plan). I joined in as well, and promised to run with them. This was my third road race, and their first.
The weekend of the race was interesting for a number of reasons, but I'll confine this post to the race itself. We arrived early (8:30 for a 10 AM race), and paced around outside in the cloudy 30-degree weather. The air was damp and there was an intermittent breeze that made it feel cooler than 30. We paced around outside, watching the super-fit run around to loosen up. We did half-hearted stretches and watched the crowds fill in. The atmosphere was festive with loud music, energetic announcers, and costumed competitors.
We dashed off to register my wife's brother and his entire family, who had decided at the last minute to run as well. They arrived as the crowds were getting thick, and soon afterwards the walkers departed on their 2-mile route. This race separates the walkers from the runners, which means that nobody is walking the 5K. Unlike many casual fun runs, you won't find people walking the entire 5K route. Anybody walking is someone who intended to run but isn't running at the moment.
With a sizable portion of the crowd gone, we started to get excited. There were 8 of us, all together, with varying degrees of fitness and experience. Some ran off to use the bathrooms (I saw the line and figured it was only a 5K and I could hold it!), some started chowing down on the cookies which were set out for post-race snacks (figuring perhaps they'd be all gone by the time we got back). I tried to make sure my wife was okay and not too nervous, while keeping an eye out for anyone I might know (didn't see any) and generally feeling motivated by being in the presence of so many fit competitors.
We self-placed in the chute at the "32:00+" mark. My wife's projected chip time was closer to 45:00, which was a shock to our extended family, who were thinking more like 30-35:00. Her cousin and I both knew her projected time, though, and we lined up with that pace in mind. Of course, it's telling that there's no placement difference in the chute between 35:00 and 45:00.
The energy in the chute was contagious. The music over the PA was getting livelier, people were dancing in place, clapping their hands, laughing and joking. We were all wearing ear-warmers and gloves, and the sky was starting to spit tiny snowflakes on us. We were all smiles.
Shortly after 10 AM, the cheers erupted as the runners surged forward. It took us almost five minutes to clear the chute and pour out onto the street. Our first obstacle was dead ahead -- a 500-foot section of road with about 50 feet of vertical climb. The steepest hill of the race was in the first quarter mile, and Jessica was completely unprepared. Though she had done some outdoor training, the majority of her runs had been on flat ground. She ran up the hill and completely out of gas; over the next relatively flat half-mile, most of the people who started behind us passed us. I realized before we passed mile one that there was a real possibility we'd finish last.
There was a certain freedom in accepting that. I realized my job was to keep my wife's spirits up as she powered through what for her was probably her toughest run ever. Having been pushed beyond my limits in my first race and having it almost ruin me from running, I knew I had to take a different approach.
I carried her gloves and her outermost sweatshirt, I advised her of her pace when she asked (I was wearing the Garmin), I told her distance numbers when she asked, and I offered occasional words of encouragement. But I didn't push. I couldn't help it, though -- this was a walking pace for me, and her cousin was used to running faster as well. So we were able to maintain an easy conversation, and did -- we remarked on when certain businesses had been sold and changed, talked about things we saw on the road, joked about the snow, and so on. But we kept our pace in check and tried to be encouraging without pressuring her.
The second mile was mainly recovery from the first. We got back into the pace which my wife had expected to run, but it was apparent how much harder it was than she expected. Near us, a man ran with his young daughter. She would sprint as fast as she could, exhaust herself, and ask to be carried. He would stop, pick her up, and trudge along until she asked to be put down. In this way they would leapfrog past us, and then we past them. We laughed when she would race past us; clearly she was "racing" while we were just running! Somewhere behind us a pair of middle-aged women ran with a runner in a full-body turtle costume. Not far from us, another pair of women were doing run/walk swaps. Other than these half-dozen people, though, we felt alone on the course. We passed occasional volunteers who were closing up their stations.
The third mile was the heart-breaker. We turned up a familiar road from our years in Northampton and ran through the campus of Smith College. It's a long slow uphill, nearly a hundred feet of climb in about three quarters of a mile. It's even worse than that, though, as the first hill ends with a slight downhill, before the last, steeper section begins. Jess had to walk a few times as the hill got rough, and to make things worse we began seeing people who had finished the race walking away from downtown and to who-knows-where. While they shouted encouragement it added to the feeling of separation from the rest of the racers.
We turned from Smith College onto Main Street, and the number of people along the road increased dramatically. Many shouted encouragement, "It's all downhill from here," and we put on our bravest faces and promised to run the rest of the way. We steadily increased our pace as we got closer to the finish. We knew there were a couple people behind us, and we vowed not to let them get by.
Of course, only in Northampton would a race to benefit a domestic violence charity get disrupted by anti-war protesters. A group of marchers in full black cloaks and white masks beating drums and waving signs crossed the street and threatened to block our path. Jess said, in dead earnest, "If they get in my way, I'm knocking them over." One of the women right behind us said, "I'll help." The marchers wisely waited for us to pass before resuming, so violence was averted.
There was one last moment of panic as the volunteers had already left this area and the police had removed the traffic cones as well. We weren't sure if we were supposed to turn down one side street or the next, and the man with his daughter was heading towards the second. We shouted to people milling around wearing race numbers, "Which way is it?" They pointed us down the first street, and we turned just in time, shouting to our leapfrogging partner. Our final few hundred feet were down the same hill that broke Jess at the start. She ran with all her heart, and we pounded through the chute to the cheering of the remaining spectators.
Our clock time was around 51:00. While our chip times aren't finalized yet, I suspect we will be around 46:00. Based on gun time results, 7 racers finished after us. Our extended family, who had bolted ahead at the start, finished 10 to 15 minutes ahead of us. But if my guess on chip time is right, we finished just a few minutes behind Jess's target time, which is great considering how unprepared she was for the hills.
But none of that mattered. Moments later, as we drank water and ate orange slices, we were just three more finishers among a happy crowd. We had set a goal as a family and worked towards it, and achieved it. And we're already scouting spring races and talking about training through the winter.
(On a personal note, my outdoors hilly run route definitely prepared me for this course. Combined with the pace, I finished the race feeling light on my feet and itching for more. It was definitely motivating, not in a "you have to get better" way but in a "look what you've accomplished, don't let it go away again" way. Having run in two large races and a small one, I definitely prefer the huge crowds. I'm scouting races and feeling disappointed when I see less than 200 people in most of them. So it goes.)