This was an interesting weekend. The West Rock Challenge benefits Habitat for Humanity, but they don't advertise it very well. I happened to see a small ad for the race in a newspaper about a month ago, and put it on the calendar. When I looked up last year's results and saw the small field and slow times, I though I might have a shot at winning an age-group prize. Plus, the race is run at West Rock State Park in Hamden, which I know very well. I got excited about this run.
Then the kids told us about a camp-out at our pool club -- which, of course, was scheduled for last night. Fine. I can deal. I knew from experience that we wouldn't get to sleep before midnight on of these camp-outs, and that sleeping in a tent on an air mattress won't necessarily mean a good night's sleep, but I figured as long as I could get a little nap in during the afternoon, I'd be OK, even with the race starting at 7:45am. After we decided we would do the camp-out, we realized that Peter's jazz band was the opening act for this year's New Haven Jazz Festival (I'll post video in the next day or two). The 3pm start for their gig meant that I wouldn't be napping at all. Darn it. Well, as long as my air mattress held out, I'd be OK, and not too sore for the race from sleeping on the ground.
(The air mattress did hold out, thank goodness.)
West Rock is beautiful. We've been taking the kids there since they were tiny. We still go every now and then, and we always see something interesting on our walks -- newts to catch with nets, the occasional deer or snake. Once we saw (and heard) hundreds of mating frogs. (That was really interesting.) The path around Lake Wintergreen is about two miles long, and while it has some rolling hills, it's reasonably easy to walk, even with an enthusiastic dog and a reluctant girl. Only one tough spot, where the trail goes up and through some large rocks that require a lot of balance and a little muscle. (That's Strudel's favorite part -- makes her feel like a wolf.) We don't usually do the side trails, so I'm not really familiar with the terrain, but I could see from the race map that we'd be doing that two miles around the lake, so I felt OK about it overall. I assumed we'd take a longer route around those rocks that Strudel likes so much, since the race was described as "mostly flat with some rolling hills."
Registration was at a school about a quarter mile from the park, so we had to walk to the starting line after we registered. This race also include a 9 miler, in addition to the 5k. The niner goes up to the top of West Rock Ridge. No way I was doing that. I've been running pretty well all summer, but I usually stop at 3 or 4 miles. We all saw the 9 milers take off at 7:30, and then prepared to wait around for 15 minutes until our race started. At least that was what I expected. Turned out we had to walk another half mile to our own starting line, down a trail. Had I known I was going to walk nearly a mile before we even started, I would have done a shorter warm-up run.
We got to the 5k start, and I sized up the competition. I like to identify a few people that I think I can beat. Mostly these folks are old and fat like me, though I occasionally challenge myself. And I am often surprised by how fast some people are who look slow. I picked out a couple of old fat people to try to hang with. As we were getting close to starting, a couple of stragglers came to the line. I noticed one immediately; it was hard not to, since he was about 6'3" with the body of a former athlete, muscular but covered in a layer of fat. He was wearing no shirt, and had a yellow bandana on his shaved head. The first two words that came to mind were "Meat Head." He struck me as someone who was trying too hard to look the part of a runner. I identified him as someone that I might want to beat, especially when he lined up just behind me.
The pack started off pretty fast, and we followed the trail around the lake, the one that we usually walk with the kids and the dog. It was a gorgeous day for a run -- overcast and about 65 degrees. Can't ask for more than that in the middle of August.
As we got close to the first fork in the trail, I thought for sure we'd break to the left, but we stayed close to the lake, which meant we'd be going over Strudel's Favorite Rocks. This is not an easy thing to walk, and less easy, I was imagining, to run. At this point in the race, we had all spread out a bit, and I was staying close behind a woman about my age, who slowed down as we started climbing these rocks. I can't say we were "running" at this point -- it involved actual climbing. Not enough to have to grab on with our hands and pull ourselves up, but we did have to stop for a second and pick out someplace to put your foot. The woman offered to let me pass her, but I declined. After the climb, my legs and lungs were burning a bit, and it was too early in the race to start with that.
Suddenly, someone came up behind us -- it was the Meat Head! He huffed his way past, but the woman and I stayed close behind him as the trail leveled out.
After a couple more minutes, I got into a groove, my breathing getting smoother again. But the Meat Head started walking, done in by his sprint up the rocks, so the woman and I passed him. We were maybe a mile into the race by now, and I was starting to pass a few other people who had started too fast. I was feeling good, enjoying the scenery, and gaining some confidence. As we came to the second mile marker, we were directed off the Lake Trail, and into the woods. I was hoping for something similarly flat.
My hopes were dashed. We were immediately put onto a trail that was carved into the side of the ridge, so it kind of angles downward on the right side, covered in roots and small rocks, and in spots, very steep. The woman I was running with dropped to a walk. Another woman just ahead who had passed us earlier did the same thing, walking the steep trail.
But I couldn't stop. I've never walked during a race (and there's no shame in doing so), but I feel like, for myself, I can't walk. I said to myself, "I'm a cancer patient -- I can't ever stop." I was near-walking, it was so steep, but my arms were pumping like I was sprinting, willing me up the darn trail. This trail eventually leveled out, too, with about a half-mile left in the race. A volunteer directed me to the proper trail as we changed direction at a junction. A few seconds later, I heard the volunteer talking with someone, a very deep-voiced man. I looked back.
It was the Meat Head! He was gaining!
The last part of the race was flat, but I was so spent by this point. The Meat Head gained on me, little by little, and eventually passed me. He beat me by six seconds.
I've never felt that tired at the end of a race. It took me a few minutes to get my breath back, and when I did, I went to the Meat Head, who was still bent over. I patted him on his wide, naked, sweaty back, and congratulated him on a good race. He shook my hand.
When I went to the support tent and got a banana and gatorade, the Meat Head came up to me and told me he didn't think he was going to catch me. We chatted for a few minutes. Turned out he'd torn up his ankle a year ago, and this was his first race since the injury. I didn't mention that I was a cancer patient; he seemed like a nice guy who might feel guilty about beating me.
Numbers, as I know all too well, can never tell the whole story. So, statistically, it was my "worst" race ever. But on the other hand, I came in 4th or 5th in my age group (a good 5 minutes after the 3rd place runner), so that's a pretty good statistic, too.
Good or bad, it was certainly one that I feel proud of. My guess is that the number of runners being so small is not so much about bad publicity as it is about people knowing the trail will give them a good butt-kicking....