Running on Tilt

Firecrackers

Youth rules at the Brighton July 4th 5k

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Half a mile in to the Brighton Chamber of Commerce Fourth of July 5k in Rochester, NY, I was surprised to see a little girl in a billowy, bright yellow tee-shirt – she could have been lifted from a game of hopscotch – running ahead of me. It was time to start the race in earnest. I passed the girl and looked ahead to the lead pack. The girl sped up and passed me right back.

I had high hopes for this race. Training for the New York City Marathon had been going well, and given the flat terrain, I figured I could break 18 minutes. In high school I ran between 17 and 18 minutes for 5k, and going sub-18 was one of my goals when I signed up for the Central Park Track Club two years ago.

In addition to breaking 18 minutes, I was hoping to finish in the top-ten overall and to win my age group. If age groups are defined narrowly enough, we’re all winners, but the 35-39 year-old bracket is usually heavily populated and somewhat competitive. In 2009, the winner for the 35-39 year-old age group ran a 17:33.

But then there was this little kid messing with me.

Two days prior to the race I had a temperature of 101.5, and I’d been unable to eat much, so though I lined up that morning with my temperature again normal and my optimism restored, this Tweety Bird gave me doubts.

I was able to pass the girl shortly before the mile mark, but I had lost sight of the leaders. I did not check my watch for the mile split. If Luke Skywalker were a runner, Yoda would forbid it.

The struggle was on. I was passed by a twentysomething, and he proceeded to gain on a chase pack, but I could not will myself to go with him. The neighborhood streets were dappled with shade, but the heat and humidity were rising and I was parched. I tried to keep my form intact, with hips forward and forefoot strikes. I veered to a water stop with the intention of drinking one cup of water and pouring another on my head. It doesn’t sound that difficult, really, drinking water from a cup or splashing a little atop one’s coconut. But it was about as simple for me as eating pizza with my toes, and nearly all of the water spilled helplessly to the ground.

Runners use various coping mechanisms. Imagine the world rotating beneath your feet. Or, when facing a daunting hill, imagine you are pulling on a rope. I tried a mantra that I had learned from CPTC teammate Dan Gercke – run faster, not harder. The thought quickly evaporated, replaced with the inexorable countdown: Less than ten minutes left, I told myself.

I soon was passed by a guy who looked like Anderson Cooper. It was tough to tell his age, of course, but despite the possibility that he was in my age group, I failed to latch on. Only five more minutes of this godforsaken torture, I thought.

With half a mile to go I heard cheers for the second and third placed women, who then passed me. Over the final 400 meters I closed in on a fellow struggler. It seemed he could be in my age group. I was able to accelerate slightly and outkick him. He was the first person I had passed since the girl at the mile mark.

When I saw the clock at the finish line, the time made sense – high 18s. My official time was 19:02. The mile splits, which I checked on my watch after the race was done, were 5:56, 6:12, and 6:16. Usually I am able to run even or negative splits, and the overall time was disappointing, but the race helped me appreciate how difficult the sport can be. It ain’t badminton.

In a sign of a well-organized event, age-group awards were given out promptly after the race. The Anderson Cooper guy must have been a bit older and the 17:33 guy sitting on a couch somewhere, because lo and behold I won first place for the 35-39s. With my seven-month old son Oscar slung over my shoulder, I accepted the plaque from town supervisor Sandra Frankel. Oscar pawed the plaque and smiled for pictures taken by my wife and my friend Dan. Oscar is not likely to remember the moment – I mean, who remembers anything from that age? Babies are present-minded creatures, though, and a happy baby is a wonderful thing.

While teenagers are scarce in New York City Road Runners races, they dominated the Brighton 5k. Twenty of the top thirty finishers were 19 and under. I don’t recall that sort of participation when I was in high school. Nearly nine percent of the finishers in the race were 14 and under, including Tishae Griffin, the girl who was kicking my butt during the first mile. She finished in an impressive 19:58, after having run a five-mile race the day before.