When it comes to envisaging what the future may bring, our parents, peers, and even Justin Bieber teach us to “Never say never.” We should not be so self-assured to offer up certainties about the things that we have no control over. We cannot be certain of the blueprint we create, as chance and circumstances are so apt to change. Yet, many of us constantly and consistently fail to heed this warning, working so hard to schedule our lives with precision and grace.
Despite innumerable instances of being completely off base in my predictions, I’m just as guilty of feeling overly confident about my future. It doesn’t help that I’m intensively Type-A and prone to chronically over-organizing and over-analyzing. I’m one of “those people” who owns an actual planner (yes the kind you actually have to write events in rather than tap on a touchscreen.) Even if I only possess an illusion of knowing what the next few hours, days, weeks, and months will bring, I function more efficiently when I’ve got a plan in place and stick to it.
Anyone who knows me well enough, has heard me state innumerable times over the past 10 years or so, I would “never live on Long Island again.” In fact, the thought of spending any amount of time there would trigger a near visceral reaction of revulsion and nausea combined with anger.
Despite growing up “on the Island”, I’ve nearly completely lost my identity as a native Long Islander over the past decade and a half. I no longer possess the grating accent. I’d managed to free myself from the terrible drivers, aggressive and boisterous attitudes, big hair, and vapid wasteland of never-ending strip malls. I left many years ago, and swore I’d only return for important life cycle events. Even then, severe consideration would have to be given to the exact nature of the celebration (or in cases of sadder events, mourning) before I would commit myself to attending.
In what can only be described as a pitiful irony of sorts, somehow I currently find myself not only geographically back on Long Island, but also living here. Truthfully, I’m a mere few weeks from owning a home here, and working here. How could this happen when I had my whole life planned in earnest opposition?
I’ve spent the better part of the past month or so unhappy with my living situation. I’ve pretty much behaved as akin to a toddler stuck in a state of perpetual temper tantrum-ness. I’ve made a few feeble attempts to make the best of things, searching for random events or activities to help me pass the time. One such effort I made was signing up to run The Great Cow Harbor 10K, which was held this past Saturday.
The Cow Harbor 10K is considered to be one of the most prestigious road races in the country. Through what is euphemistically dubbed as a series of “rolling” hills, interspersed with stretches of flat terrain, the course takes runners through the town of Northport, which is located along the north short of the island. The route provides some of the most spectacular panoramic views of the Long Island sound, if you can remember to take the time to look at your surroundings. It’s a unique combination of a small-town race combined with national-class competition, and pretty darn-near famous around these parts.
I first ran this race in 1999, when I’d only been running for about a year, and it was my inaugural 10K. I was living in the East Village in New York City, and spent my entire summer training for the race. Those were the days before I possessed disposable income to spend on fancy running clothes, supersonic sneakers, or a GPS watch. I would simply set out from my apartment wearing plain shorts and a t-shirt, and run for some sort of pre-set time interval, without a specific navigation plan or destination in mind. I didn’t keep tract of pace or distance. I figured if I could run for about an hour straight by the end of the summer, I would be ok. It took several months for me to build up the endurance, and I remember feeling incredibly accomplished when I completed the race in a time of 53:53.
Fifteen years (and countless races later), I no longer require as much training to run a 10K. I’ve completed a 2 marathons and numerous half marathons, and at a peak of my running career about 2 years ago, when I was in great shape and running faster than I’d ever imagined I could, I could finish 6.2 miles in 45 minutes and change.
The weather for Cow Harbor 2014 was absolutely perfect; clear blue skies and temperatures in the low to mid-60’s. The race was well-organized, with a key point being runners really need to be on time for the shuttle buses running from Northport High School to the start area a few miles away. The narrow and winding streets are not conducive to parking near the actual start line, and many of the immediate roads are closed to traffic as well.
The wave-start is also essential to the organization and success of the race as well. Fairly small groups of runners are sent off at successive 1-minute intervals, with about 16 waves heading out in total. This really helps keep the congestion down, especially during on the previously mentioned narrow roadways so prevalent near the start line.
The majority of the first mile was a long decline, which was great for making up time, but terrible when it came to the voices in my head that screamed, “What goes down, must come up!” I am not a good hill runner – never have been, and quite likely, never will be. I’m that person on the treadmill who looks and sounds as though they’re about to implode when they set the incline higher than 3% for more than 30 seconds. There’s just such a gigantic difference between possessing the endurance required to run distances and possessing the conditioning necessary for tackling hills. I’ve got the former, lack the latter, and despite my best efforts, can’t seem to change my wiring for the better.
I’ve run Cow Harbor twice before, and when I think of this race, what is stuck most prominently in my mind is the hill extending nearly the entire length of the second mile of the race. My eyes had not physically observed the course terrain in over a decade, yet as soon as we made the right hand turn at the base of James Street and faced the incline, it was as familiar to me as if it were a road I travel on daily.
As I pushed myself upwards and onwards, another nagging memory attempted to come forward from the deeper recesses of my mind. Something vaguely reminiscent of an additional, steeper hill on the horizon, that was only visible following hitting the crest of the initial ascent…
My aged mind was unfortunately correct in it’s memory. I gasped and sputtered up the first hill, while silently cursing those runners who forged ahead of me during the climb, and outwardly cursing my poorly trained cardiovascular system for failing me once again when the forces of gravity and physics reared their ugly heads. The second, shorter incline proved too daunting and I had to walk part of it. I continued swearing and feeling bitter at now what was certain to be a poor finish time. Most of all, I cursed Long Island because when it came down to it, I was never supposed to live here again. Ever.
The remainder of the race fit well the previous description of “rolling hills”. They were interspersed with flat stretches of pretty scenery, great crowd support, and plenty of water stops. I’m a big fan of races where the streets are lined with people bearing amusing signs, noisemakers, and alcohol before 9am. For this, Cow Harbor did not disappoint.
I ran over another particularly infuriating hill near the end of mile 5, but once I crossed over that hurdle, as one of the spectators so aptly wrote out on their sign, it was “all downhill from there.” The race finished fast, along the crowded stretch of Main Street that lead directly to Northport Memorial Park and the Northport Harbor.
The post-race party was a big one, with a ridiculous amount of free snacks, water, live music, and unlimited complimentary beer. Yes, I said unlimited free beer.
As I traveled the course and took in my surroundings, I paused to consider my current dilemma. I don’t like Long Island. I take issue with the rude people who live here. It’s expensive and crowded, and it seems as though some of the basic life “rules” I’ve come to appreciate such as being patient, recycling, and caring about the environment are completely unimportant to most inhabitants. But amidst all the negativity, as mile after mile passed beneath the soles of my shoes, I managed to absorb my surroundings, and observed there was also great beauty here, in both a physical and emotional sense.
I no longer have to travel 3 + hours to see a beach, but rather I can now head out my door in any direction and face water and sand within 20 minutes.
I have unlimited access to the best pizza and bagels, and never have to touch a chain restaurant for either of those ever again.
I finally have a yard and a pool and space to garden and a home of my own.
There are countless museums and landmarks I’m rediscovering as an adult.
New York City is a simple train ride away.
And there are many miles of roads to be tackled with the camaraderie of a new running group.
Maybe one day I’ll learn my lesson and stop spending so much time filling in the hours and days and weeks with events and plans that I ultimately have no control over. In the meantime, I’m secretly hoping I’ll be a liar if I said, “I’m never going to move again.” If you think you’re going to win me over, Long Island, you’ve got a tough job ahead of you.
In the meantime, I’ll keep facing you one day, one mile, and one hill at a time.
If you liked this post, take a look at Ocean City Half Marathon 2014