This weekend’s Jingle Bell run was not the usual meticulously planned Brian race. It started with a text from Richie on Thursday. I was feeling pretty sick earlier in the week and had been sticking to easy runs with Alice in the afternoons, so my training plan for the week was pretty shot anyway. During the last couple of years, my periods of peak fitness have always been centered around a half marathon or marathon, so it’s been a while since I’ve really had a good shot at improving my 5K PR. I was curious about what I could do.
On Saturday morning, I joined Richie and Justin for the car ride over to Tampa. The race took place at a mall near the airport. It consisted of two laps around the outside of the mall, weaving in and out of the parking areas. There were actually hills (a rarity in Florida) and lots of sharp turns.
When we arrived, we registered and were joined by Bret. We ran a 3 mile warm up around the course in sweats, hats and gloves. It was 45 degrees (another Florida rarity). We headed back to the car and stripped down to our racing clothes. I went with a singlet and a shorts, but held onto the gloves if only to wipe my nose.
The start is fairly disorganized. Justin heads to the middle of the pack, while Richie, Bret and I stand about one row of people back from the front. Richie has talked up breaking 19 minutes and encourages me not to look at my Garmin and to just follow his lead. After a national anthem sung through a megaphone, we’re off to the sound of Jingle Bells.
The race starts about 75% of the way up a hill. We’re quickly to the top in the excitement of the start. I settle in behind Richie and Bret as the course flattens out. We make a right turn and the course quickly dips downhill past the finish line. There is a group of about ten runners that is rapidly pulling away from the pack and we sit comfortably in the second pack. We make another right turn at the bottom of the hill and maneuver through some traffic islands. Pinched by the crowd, Bret hops one of the traffic islands and Richie follows. I negotiate the turn, but have lost contact with them. I calmly weave around a few more runners and surge forward, pulling up behind Brett.
Through a few more turns, I’m blocked by slower runners and lose contact with Richie and Brett again. We make a hairpin turn and head up a hill. I’m about 10-15 yards behind them as we come through the 1 mile mark. I look at my watch. It reads 5:40. So much for “going out easy” and running a 6:10 mile.
I can already see Richie putting a small gap on Bret and I decide to ease back up the hill. At the top, Richie is surging forward, running in no man’s land, starting to bridge the gap to the lead group. We round another corner and then another, before heading back uphill through the start. I back off a little on the hill and make it to the top. My mind is still racing about the 5:40 first mile, but I decide to remain disciplined and not look at my watch again until the 2 mile mark. At the top of the hill, I pass a couple of runners, make the right turn and begin the charge downhill.
From my vantage point at the top of the hill, I’m curious to see where Richie is relative to the lead runners, but everyone in front of me is lost in a crowd of walkers. They’re barely a quarter mile into the course and we’re running right into the back of them. I charge down the hill and into the fray. There are people yelling at the walkers to stay right to allow the runners through, but the course twists left and right, so it becomes an exercise in weaving around moving targets. On top of that, there are small children and dogs moving in random directions with no clue what’s going on.
I pick my way through the crowd, feeling more and more tired and wondering if I’ll ever reach the two mile mark. I finally give in and glance at my watch, which reads 2.34 miles. It’s a huge relief. Somehow, I’ve missed the two mile mark, but I’m much closer to the finish than I thought. I make a hairpin turn and climb back up past the 1 mile mark again. I ease back to about 6:45 pace on the hill, and find that I’ve recovered a little by the time I get to the top.
I drive my legs forward for the last half mile, turning toward the start and climbing the final hill. As I pass the start, I note that I’ve got about a quarter mile to go and my watch reads 17:30.
“You can break 19 with a 1:30 quarter,” I think to myself. It somehow seems impossible. It doesn’t occur to me that I completed 10 quarters in less than 1:30 just last week and ran the first mile of this very race at a faster pace. I reach the top of the hill, drive my legs harder and finally pass the guy who’s back I’ve been staring at for just about the entire race. I turn the corner and focus solely on not letting him pass me back. I look at the finish clock and I’m surprised to see it ticking away at about 18:30. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a finishing clock in the 18’s while I was running toward it. I drive my arms and sprint down the relatively steep slope to the finish line. Richie is there yelling at me to sprint all the way through. I do, and I cross the finish line in 18:55 – a new PR.
In the end, Richie ran a 17:53, Bret ran 18:34 (I think) and Justin came in in 22:20. Richie won the master’s level, but unfortunately his age got listed as 71, instead of 41. After breakfast, we made it to the awards ceremony a little late, just in time for them to announce the Grand Master’s award. The man stood on a table with a megaphone, announcing the winner.
“And in the Grand Master category, ” he said looking down at his results sheet with a somewhat surprised look on his face, “with a phenomenal time for a 71 years old – 17:53 – Richie T!”.
A collective gasp rode through the crowd like a wave at the incredible time laid down by this remarkable senior citizen. Richie quickly approached the “stage” and explained the situation to the embarrassed race director. He was further embarrassed by the fact that he had already given Richie’s first place master’s award to someone else. Fortunately, that man came forward from the back of the room and gave the award to Richie (a nice plaque and a $50 gift certificate to the American Running Company).
Overall, Richie was 9th place, Bret was about 13th place and I was 20th. I finished 2nd in my age group in a pretty disorganized race. I don’t mean to sound elitist, and I encourage everyone to participate in events like this but having walkers in a race that consists of two laps around the course is a little dangerous – especially when that race involves prizes. There were several times I had to make an evasive move to avoid a toddler or pet that had no idea I was approaching at a rapid rate from behind. It’s one thing to negotiate around a few stragglers at the back of a race, but running full speed into a crowd of hundreds is pretty crazy.