Always best to start Thanksgiving off with a 6.2 mile jog to make all the pie worthwhile! I had a great time at the Bethesda Turkey Chase!
Runners are often considered “crazy” people by non-runners, as if there’s some inherent psychological deficiency associated with our compulsive need to lace up our sneakers, move our legs rapidly to the point of physical exhaustion, and simultaneously gasp for air. You call it madness, but to us it’s completely normal behavior.
I like to think runners exist on a “continuum of craziness”. Ask any of us, and we will tell you though we love to run our particular chosen distance and pace, we can always name a runner who is “really crazy” and runs much farther and much faster than we do, as though this somehow reduces the weirdness of our own activities.
Some runners focus on the duration of their runs; while others emphasize the distance they travel. Some are content to enjoy the competition afforded by the reasonable distances of a 5K or 10K race, while others elect to tackle more lengthy endeavors such as half-marathons or marathons. Then there are examples of what I would consider “really” crazy runners – those that complete ultra-marathons and beyond, or those that run barefoot, or even those that do both. See? It’s all just a continuum of weirdness!
I consider myself a very sane runner. I’m sure I’d score high on someone else’s “scale of relative running craziness”, but the vast majority of my running history is really best archived under “normal to only very slightly deranged”. I typically stick to 10Ks, with the occasional half marathon put in there for good measure. I wouldn’t consider anything in my running repertoire to be particularly edgy (including the two marathons I’ve completed, because those were years apart…)
Despite this, every once in a while, a momentary lapse in judgment that overtakes the healthy synapses in my brain, and I sign up for something that makes even me call my own sanity into judgment. Case in point: Deciding to run in the 29th annual Ocean to Sound Relay this past Sunday on Long Island.
Geographically speaking, Long Island is just that: A very LONG island. The fish-shaped sliver of land stretches more than 118 miles from West to East. Yet is only about 20 miles at its widest point. The name of the race (Ocean to Sound) accurately reflects the intention of the race, which encompasses a course extending indirectly from the “pristine” shoreline of Jones Beach along the South shore to the sleepy northern boating town of Oyster Bay bordering the Long Island Sound.
Its designed to be run as a 50 mile relay race, utilizing a team of 8 runners, each of which complete a single leg that ranges between just under 6 to just over 7 miles in length. This could certainly qualify as “crazy” in the minds of some, but its something I’ve eagerly wished to participate in for many years.
I recently joined the Moriches Bay Running Club, and as fate would have it, several of its members just happened to decide to enter a team for the relay for the first time. Seemed like as good of a excuse as any for me to try to complete my goal!
Long Island, though not known for any particularly awe-inspiring changes in altitude, does possess a noticeable alteration in terrain along the northernmost extent, where hills and inclines prevail. I’ve stated before that I’m not much of a hill-runner, so I knew it was in my best interests to try to run an earlier segment of the race, sticking to the level and even topography of the southern portion of the island. As such, I signed up to run the second leg, which was aptly described as a “flat and fast” 6-mile course.
Unfortunately, a few last-minute injuries required a “restructuring” of our roster and I wound up slated to run the fifth leg of the course, which (in diabolical opposition to the second leg) was described as “mostly hilly with two significant and steep declines.” Any experienced runner will tell you steep declines, though not particularly taxing on the cardiovascular system, can be equally as painful (if not more so) as an uphill climb. Yikes!
Race day arrived with glorious sunshine filled skies and unseasonably high temperatures. I elected to meet up with my team at the beginning of my portion of the race, mainly so I could selfishly have a later start to the day. I was sweating pretty profusely as I anxiously awaited the arrival of my teammates and our support van as the temperature climbed from the high 70’s to low the 80’s.
When I saw the van pull into the lot, I excitedly greeted my team, ready and (0ver)eager to tackle my 6.2 miles.
Unfortunately my enthusiasm waned a bit when I saw the worried looks on my teammate’s faces. Turns out, due to poor signage along the race route, the runner on the leg before mine took a wrong turn at some point, and completely lost his way. He’d run a pretty significant distance before realizing his mistake and was forced call his wife from a random Dunkin Donuts to ask her to come and pick him up. He was upset and frustrated because of the additional time this would add to our finish and also because he felt he let the team down.
I wasn’t terribly disappointed in the news because, at the time, I wasn’t concerned with how we would finish. My energy was focused solely on my ability to make it through my portion of the race.
I’d never run a relay race before, and though intellectually I knew being part of a group would somehow feel different from my typical running experience, I chose to not expend too much energy thinking about this. I avoided being concerned with not being fast enough, or getting hurt, or letting someone else down because I didn’t perform well. It’s one thing to think about how slow I am moving when it’s just me facing the timer and the finish line and the accountability is only towards myself. It’s an entirely different situation when I have to face the seven other people who are depending on me to keep up my end of the bargain. I chose to ignore the pressure and think of myself. But funny things happen when you sign up to be a part of a team that make it impossible to avoid considering the goals of those you’re working with. Even with a solo sport like running, I was about to learn that when it comes to a team challenge, you’re only ever as good as the weakest link in your chain.
Our runner eventually made his way to the checkpoint, passed the timing chip to me apologetically, and I headed out on my path.
My route started out on a slight to moderate incline that lasted just over a mile. Because of my “late” start, there weren’t many runners near me, so I hustled to try to catch up to the person in front of me in a desperate attempt to avoid making the same mistake as my predecessor. I caught up in no time, which subsequently forced me to speed up towards the next closest runner. This pattern continued throughout the majority of my portion of the run and helped me pass the time and the miles, and quite literally kept me on my toes. I’ll admit I succumbed to a bit of laziness whenever I was able to keep our support vehicle in sight – I knew they wouldn’t let me wander too far off track…
After enduring the inclines, dodging cars along several major roadways, and navigating through some ill-placed construction equipment, I made it to the end of my leg, located along a beautiful stretch of Lloyd Harbor. I successfully passed the timing chip off to our next runner and met up with the remainder of our team, including the two runners slated for legs 7 and 8 who had joined up with us at that point.
After catching my breath, cooling down (it was pretty hot out there!), and donning my flip-flops, we hopped in our cars and continued navigating along the twisty turns (and hills!) of the remainder of the race.
The 7th leg was touted as being the toughest of all 8, and did not disappoint in this capacity. It was not only the longest route, but there were very limited areas considered safe enough for us to pull over and provide water for our runner. There were also two incredibly long and steep and painful inclines located along major roadways as part of the route. Needless to say, our runner wasn’t feeling too great towards the end of his section.
Running may be an individual sport, but I swear I could literally feel his pain and the difficulty he faced in motivating himself to move forward over that last mile. I’d been there before, during races and training runs, when I’d felt as though I had nothing more to give. Though he was out there running his part alone, ultimately he was part of our team, and I couldn’t shake feeling as though there had to be something I could do to help him out. I thought about what would help me overcome the mental monsters if I were literally in his shoes, and realized what he needed was just an ounce of quiet motivation.
I elected to quickly put my sneakers back on and run the last half-mile of his leg with him. I wanted to somehow provide encouragement, while avoiding crossing over the fine line of being annoyingly enthusiastic. I didn’t exactly know how accomplish this, but I knew the one thing I should never say was, “You’re almost there!” Seriously, nothing sounds worse to a runner than when someone shouts that phrase from the sideline. You may as well say, “You have 94 miles left to go!” for all it’s worth.
We started out together slowly, barely faster than a walk, but somehow managed to step it up to a running pace fairly quickly. Once the finish line was in sight, our teammate actually sprinted ahead of me, and passed the chip off to our anchor runner with the grace and ease of someone who had not just run 7 of the hilliest miles in the nation.
Our team finished the relay together, and celebrated afterwards at one of the top post-race parties I’ve been to. Maybe it was the excellent weather, or the free craft beer, or the never-ending dessert table that made this after-party so special. Or maybe it was the fact that it was the first time I ran a race as part of a team and was able to enjoy celebrating our achievement together as a group. Running may be an individual sport, but when you do it as part of a team, it’s impossible to forget those that helped get you to the finish.
Yes, we runners may all be a little bit crazy, but in the end, it’s a good kind of crazy. The kind of crazy where you know we will do anything to get you back on track when you’re lost, and we will help carry you over a big hill when your legs are burning, and most importantly, we will hand you a beer and a cupcake once you’ve crossed over the finish line.
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