I traveled to Northern Virginia and ran in a short race in Arlington with my daughter and several hundred other people. The only races I have ever run in (excepting those embarrassments in Junior High gym class for which I am still in counseling), have been a series of 10k races when we lived in Ethiopia. These were organized by Haile Gebre Selassie, Ethiopia’s magnificent long-distance world champion, and were run through the streets of Addis Ababa, one of the highest capital cities in the world at nearly 8000 feet above sea level. I ran this race almost every November with my daughters between 2001 and 2007, us and about 25,000 others. The Great Ethiopian Run was and likely is the largest mass-participation race on the continent (Africa) and a lot of fun.
|NOT a Little Race - The Great Ethiopian Run through the streets of Addis Ababa|
Because 2007 was the last time I participated in any kind of race, I was glad to remind myself, or rather, become reacquainted with the American culture of running races before I find myself at the starting line of a marathon in Richmond next month. I was also thrilled to be able to run with my oldest daughter. She herself is training for the half-marathon in Richmond, and she runs faster than I ever have.
Anyway, this was a little charity event, a five-mile/8k jog through the upscale urban landscape of one of DC’s satellite dependencies. The weather was supposed to be cool (50s) and cloudy, with rain later in the morning. I woke up early – we had to leave at 6:45 AM to be there with plenty of time before our 8 AM start. I checked the weather again and the radar and all looked good. Imagine our surprise when we walked out of the apartment block into a downpour! It rained the entire drive down I-66, stopping only as we were looking for parking. A rain race had not been part of my calculations, but we gamely decided to make it a learning experience. To my relief, once it stopped, it merely looked threatening through the race, with another shower punctuating our walk back to the car after it was over.
|This wasn't us. You can tell by the beautiful weather.|
So here are a few observations from my morning at the race. First, it takes a lot of courage to decide one is going to do something like this. The vast majority of the good people of Arlington stayed home in the dry and cozy comfort of their Sunday morning beds. Even so, there were all kinds of people who did participate, from the flock of Ethiopians who we (rightly) assumed would take all the top first positions, to the NoVa professional class who were kitted out in all the latest shoes, tights, shorts, shirts, jackets and electronic apparati – special running watches, ipods and special ways to plug them into one’s ears and affix them to one’s body, not to mention the curiously (to me) ubiquitous mobile phones (why would anyone want to take their phone on a race with them?). I saw more than one person texting during the race! Surely that’s illegal? This seems pathological to me, but that’s not my generation and who am I to throw stones?…. Of course there was the usual collection of super-fit men and women. My favorite way to describe them is as ‘impossibly thin’. But there were a number of more traditionally shaped men and women who were giving it a go as well. I was particularly proud of the older men and women, set apart by their greying hair. I kept thinking that I hoped I was in as good a shape as they are when I get ‘that old’, until I realized that I’m sort of ‘that old’ myself.
|Pre-race me, before I lost my mind.|
My second observation, based on my own experience, is that these races lend themselves to temporary insanity on the part of at least this participant. I have a pace. I’ve honed it over hundreds and hundreds of miles. It’s my zone, where I feel most comfortable running. But put me in a race, or at least in this race, and I ran as if I had lost my mind. By which I mean I let my adrenalin overrule my brain and set my speed way too fast. The reason I know this is because I was running with my daughter the first two miles, and she is way faster than me. I ran the first mile in 8 minutes, which is faster than I had ever run anything. I ran the second mile at the same pace. And the third. By this time, I realized that I was committing the classic mistake of amateur runners and overdoing matters at the beginning, which normally results in having nothing left midway through the race. So I realized this as I was running along, but I also realized that I’ve been training with crazy distances, so I’m not the same runner that I was even a year ago. Moreover, I only had two miles to go. I realized my fast pace (for me) was not going to hurt me over this short (for me at this point in my training) distance. So I decided to keep it up and see if I could push myself this hard to the end. In the meantime I kept passing the usual collection of people who had pulled up to a walk, who had made the mistake of starting off way too fast at the beginning only to discover that 5 miles is a significant distance. Unsurprisingly, the burnouts were almost entirely young males. There’s a PhD thesis there someplace. Happily for me, I was able to keep my pace to the end and finished with an 8:11 mile composite, which is my best time ever. To put this into perspective, though, I was the 98th male to finish, which put me in the top third. The top Ethiopians ran 4:20 minute miles, which seems to me to be super-human. There were also about 45 women in front of me, including my daughter who finished more than a minute ahead.
|Finisher medals for the London Marathon|
My final observation is that race organizers have rightly divined that race participants like to get congratulatory and seemingly free stuff. Never mind that our entrance fees have paid for most of it! The impression given, however, is that all this ‘free’ stuff is a reward for a job well done. Sort of like contemporary elementary school where everybody is special! Tons of free food, water, water bottles, the obligatory t-shirt (which was disappointingly grey, not unlike the threatening clouds) and all kinds of little knick knacks from a flock of sponsors. The event ended up a net weight-gain morning for me. This kind of reward-me attitude fuels my binge eating after a lot of my running feats. So everyone is walking around happy to have run and finished, and happy to be eating all this ‘free’ food and collecting all of this ‘free’ stuff. Everybody is in a bonhomie mood. I can see how all this might be addictive.
I, too, had a great time (getting lots of what appears to be free stuff always does this to me). And it was fun to do it with my daughter. But it struck me more than once that running these days is a whole lot more than just running.