Sunday, May 11, 2008
Like the 1985 Mets, a step closer
I’m not an especially fast runner.
It’s a bad sign when the people at the race registration table hand me a number to pin to the front of my shirt and a reflective red triangle to pin to the back.
It's also not encouraging when they say, “Remember race etiquette. Yield to things that are faster, like roadkill.”
Nevertheless, I boldly signed up to participate in the 31st River Bank Run, a huge festival of races here in Grand Rapids.
I’ve participated in small, charity races over the years. But the River Bank Run attracted a record 15,940 people, including a handful of athletes headed to Beijing this summer. Of course, the famous folks are competing in the 25K event, and I entered in the 5K, which is just over 3 miles.
I have two racing goals this year: To participate in three events, and to break 30 minutes.
My previous times have been between 38 and 35 minutes, so it’s a pretty bold goal. But I’ve been running six miles a night, five nights a week on the treadmill, and it takes about 65 minutes. So you think 3 miles and change would be a sprint.
But each night it seems like the first three miles are the hardest, and once I hit that mark, I feel like I could go forever. My pattern in past races has been to go all out for the first two thirds then slip into a race-walk pattern for a while, then pick it up at the end. My goal heading into this race was to keep running the whole time.
I also heard that it helps to eat a pasta dinner the night before. So I did – a little too much, as evidenced by the 4 a.m. hurling incident.
But I got up a couple hours later and headed to downtown Grand Rapids with thousands of others. The people in the 25K race started first, then the people in the 10K, and the wheelchair racers.
I was standing with about 5,000 others ready for the 5K, looked over and saw Michigan’s secretary of state. She is from the area, and we’ve spoken over the years. We had a nice conversation. A lot of times VIPs call attention themselves at an event like this. But Secretary Land was just huddled with the regular folks. The governor travels with a police escort, but the secretary of state can stand in a crowd of 5,000 people in her running shorts, and no one gives her a hard time. I thought that was pretty cool.
Finally, I could hear the race start … and we just stood there. There were so many people packed so tightly that there was nowhere to move. It eased up for a little bit, then stopped again. “This is not going to help my time,” I thought. Note to self: Next race, stand closer to the starting line.
After starting to move, I switched on the iPod and focused on my strategy. I’d look for someone running ahead of me, and think “I’m not going to let that person beat me.” And when I’d pass them I’d look for someone else. And it seemed like I was passing as many people as were passing me, so I was feeling pretty good.
The iPod is essential. I made a playlist of fast-paced God rock songs. But there are a couple things to keep in mind when racing with tunes. First, it’s OK to sing along as long as it’s not loud – humming level seems about right.
Then, air-guitar is right out. But you can sneak in a little air-drumming if it looks like you’re just pumping your arms as you run.
Having never run this race before I was not sure where the course would twist and turn. And there were no mile markers that I could see, so I was never really sure how far along I was. There was one big hill that had my calves barking, and it seemed like the point where I would usually drop into race-walk mode. But I kept pushing it, hoping to make it a little longer.
And it was pretty exciting. My other big race, the Komen Race for the Cure, starts and ends in a mall parking lot, and the scenery doesn't improve too much. The course runs through downtown Grand Rapids, starting down the block from my newspaper, and passing all the landmarks -- and a president.
Then I turned a corner on Monroe Center, and there, down the street, was the big banner reading “Finish.”
Yes! I hadn’t dropped into a walk, and still had energy, so I tried to sprint all-out for the last three blocks. But there were so many people, and all of them slowing down, that I had to zig-zag my way along. I felt like Barry Sanders weaving through the slow-pokes.
Crossing the line, I saw a time of 34 minutes, 19 seconds. That's about a minute better than my best time, but not even close to my goal. All the congestion at the start no doubt robbed me of precious time, but I didn’t know how much.
But I remembered someone talking about “chip time.” Runners attach a small piece of black plastic with a computer chip that activates a timer when you cross the finish line. Turns out they also keep track of time from when you cross the starting line through when you cross at the end – so you don’t get penalized for being stuck back in the throng. That would be posted later in the day on the race Web site.
The end of the race is pretty cool because there was someone from Panera Bread handing me a bagel, which pretty much happens every day. But this time they didn’t charge me. Plus there was free granola bars and bananas. I also tried free Red Bull. Yuck.
I was pretty giddy had having run all the way through, and was happy that the posted time was a minute better than my best.
Checking out the Web site later, I found that the chip time was 31 minutes, 21 seconds – about four minutes faster than my best-ever time. And with a 10:07 minute pace, way ahead of my previous best pace, 11:21 from the Thanksgiving Run this past November.
So it’s kind of like that 1985 season for the Mets – falling short of the goal but making substantial progress.
And I might soon be able to shed the reflective red triangle.