I don’t usually call myself a runner. I consider myself more of a “runner,” and the real runners out there get the distinction. Real runners enter races hoping to set personal records; “runners” enter races hoping to finish upright, ahead of the police escort, before the roads are re-opened to car traffic. Staying out of the ambulance would be nice, too.
I don’t enter races because the fires of competition burn within me. I enter races because, if I didn’t, sitting on the sofa with a big bag of Doritos would always take precedence over my scheduled workout. If I don’t have to be able to run a certain distance, you can be sure I won’t be able to do so.
In race situations, I have been passed by women pushing strollers, sometimes with more than one child onboard. I’ve been beaten by small children, people with knee braces, and even a 90-year-old woman. It’s not that I couldn’t possibly be slower, but I could also be a hell of a lot faster. A ten-and-a-half-minute mile is just fine by me, though. I mean, it’s not like they’re going to pull up the finish line. (Are they?)
But my “running” accomplishments do give me pleasure. My proudest moments have been those times when I’ve been able to run the Tufts 10K for Women in Boston. This Columbus Day tradition is an inspiring celebration of women’s fitness, and I’ve run it eleven times in the past fourteen years. I hope to do so again, but it won’t be this year. And I’m OK with that. Running for an hour isn’t quite as easy as falling off a log, though it might be equally painful.
When it became clear, in early September, that the 10K was out of my reach, my running partner (aka “Mr. Frump”) and I decided to sign up for a few 5K races instead. Fall is the best time to run here in New England, but it’s also my busiest time at work. You haven’t seen many blog posts from me because I barely have time to choose what to wear, let alone write about it. That’s why races in the fall are so important to me — they keep me honest, forcing me to show up for those workouts.
When we made this decision, the first race was still several weeks away. Then, about a week and a half ago, Mr. Frump turned to me and said, “You know, that race is a week from Sunday.” When he said this, it had been almost a week since my last run, less than 20 minutes long. I’d been walking regularly, and keeping up with my stretching and weights, but I was definitely behind schedule on working toward the running goals. So this news was unwelcome, at best.
But then he said the magic words: “We can get free beer.”
Turns out, a tavern just down the road from the race is also one of its sponsors. A free beer was promised to any runner showing up with race number in hand. So even though my workouts had been lagging, my joints creaking, my hamstrings tightening, and my lower back stiffening, I turned to my partner and said what any self-respecting “runner” in my position would say:
“Bring it on, bitch.”
That was a week ago this past Friday. I ran 25 minutes that day. On Sunday, I ran 33 minutes; on Wednesday, 40 minutes. Two days later, on Friday again, I did my last run before the race, covering the 5K distance on the treadmill, in about 34 minutes. I was tired and cranky, but I did it anyway. And since my usual 5K race time is anywhere between 32 and 34 minutes, I was content.
Now, the real runners out there are probably shaking their heads, because you’re not supposed to add distance during the final week before your race. At that point, you’re supposed to have already been doing the distance, regularly, so that you can taper off before the race.
To which I say: “Ha!” That would be far too sensible for me. I need to live out here on the edge. Because that’s just how I roll. And if the real runners disapprove, I’m sure it’s because they envy my badass ways.
As an added wrinkle, this particular race — The Holdenwood Trail Run in Shirley, MA — is not a road race but a trail run. Now, trail runs are a whole different thing. People wear special trail shoes for them, and everything. I’ve only done one before. But I’d heard that this one was fairly accessible. The trails are specially groomed. It’s a low-key community event and a fundraiser for the local schools. Children participate. The prizes aren’t big enough to draw those pesky elite runners.
I checked two things on the website before committing: the pictures and last year’s finishing times. The photos showed some normal-looking people in normal-looking running gear. And when I scanned the race times, I didn’t look to see the winners’ times. Why would that information be relevant? No, I scrolled down to the back of the pack, because these are my people. And I saw times of 45 minutes and up.
Whew. Not only were there a lot of runners with more modest speeds, there were probably walkers, as well. And that’s usually a good sign for participants like me.
So we registered, and I started looking forward to a lovely run in the woods on a beautiful fall day. Thanks to my final week of crash training, I wasn’t worried about covering the distance. I was a little worried about the terrain, the weather, and the hills.
Because that’s another thing. My training runs have no hills in them. These days, I run on a fairly level bike path (built on a former railroad bed), or I run on a treadmill. Sure, I used to train for hills, on the rather steep roads near my house, competing for road space with fast-moving cars and cyclists and branches hanging over the road. But that was just so tedious. And unnecessary. Under race conditions, the adrenaline is usually enough to get me up those hills. If it’s a really hot day, I walk them, instead.
At one point, a scary thought occurred to me. Maybe the more modest times for this race aren’t because it’s dominated by “runners,” regular people and children. Maybe the course is, you know, challenging.
I put that thought aside.
Race day dawned. The forecast, “partly cloudy with chance of showers,” had been changed to “steady rain early.” And it was, in fact, steadily raining. But the radar showed signs that it might stop, so we persevered. Off to the race we went. All signs were good — friendly people, a festive atmosphere, cute dogs everywhere. The rain was down to a slow drizzle by then, and it seemed to be stopping as we lined up at the start. I tried to banish thoughts of slippery roots and fallen leaves trying to trip me up. I resolved to go slowly and cautiously.
And then we were off! I needn’t have worried about going too fast and losing my footing. Because this course was hard. Going too fast was not an option. I’d forgotten that trails are harder to run on than pavement. And after the pleasantly meandering first mile, the hills started. And more hills. And then, just for a change of pace, a few hills. And just as the real runners could have told me, my “strategy” of never running hills was perhaps ill-advised. Because these hills kicked my ass, even though I walked most of them.
But I have to say, it was fun. The course was beautiful. There were just enough level, “recovery” sections so that I never thought I wasn’t going to finish. And when I crossed the finish line, the number on the clock was just past 35 minutes. I thought this wasn’t too shabby, considering.
More importantly, no beer has ever tasted as good to me as this one:
The historic Bull Run restaurant was full of race participants, so I didn’t worry about sitting my stinky self next to others at the bar. We were able to chat with a few of the other runners, including two super fit guys who assured us that they, too, don’t run trails regularly, and that they, too, felt the challenges of this particular course. “It sure ain’t no treadmill,” said one.
But I’m totally going back next year. Keep the beer cold for me.