I loved my first experience of this race in 2016, but it was so hot and humid that I knew I’d do better this year no matter what. I exceeded my expectations! Seven minutes faster than last year and I didn’t walk once, even on the killer Crittenden Hill. Look at this thing:
The forecast had been saying 50% chance of showers, but by the morning-of it was down to foggy with a high around 78. Perfect–at least 15 degrees cooler than last year.
My favorite thing about last year’s race was the giant goat at the top of the hill, who had escaped onto the road and was staring at the runners, ignoring its human bleating to try and get it back under control. So when I was a little slow getting ready to leave, as usual, to motivate myself I told Jonathan “The goat is waiting!” I figured that might help me up the hill as well. Nonetheless I hit the road later than I meant to and approached the Mechanic Street intersection around 8:30 for a 9am race, with registration fairly far from the start. And the traffic wasn’t moving at all. It turned out there were so many walkers in the 3K that the road wasn’t clear. I pulled out of the line and parked across Route 2 near the Arms Cemetery along with some other cars.
Because I have the wonderful Brompton folding bike in the trunk at all times, I was able to zip over to the school and get my packet, pick up my shirt (they had the option of paying extra for a technical shirt, and it’s a gorgeous blue this year), use the porta-potties, and still get to the start in plenty of time. They announced the start would be delayed by eight minutes because of the backups, so I got a chance to enjoy the Bridge of Flowers.
The start lineup is along the Iron Bridge that crosses into Buckland, with a great view of the Bridge of Flowers. I no longer necessarily go to the very very back as I’ve become a more average runner, so I positioned myself ahead of the Strollers area. I admired the shirt a guy next to me was wearing, for the Roseville Cemetery Crypt 5K. I asked where it was and he said Chicago. His partner said the shirt (purple with white print) glows in the dark! It’s a night run and looks like so much fun… maybe someday.
A cheer went up and we started to the sounds of “We Got the Beat,” making it tough to go out slow! My plan for the first section was to treat it like a long slow distance run. The easiest way for me to pace myself is to watch my breaths—three in/three out is slow, three/two a little faster, two/two medium-to-fast. This race in particular, because it’s free once you turn 70 and it draws a lot of great masters runners, makes me think about the relationship between age and speed. I’ve long planned on running into my eighties or later and used to have the fantasy that someday I could qualify for Boston based on age grading. But seeing the reality of aging for people who were truly fast, which I’ve never been, makes me more intent on enjoying running while I can. There’s a couple who run this race every year, Hall of Famers and age-group record holders. Last year I passed Anny, then 84, around the first mile, and this year she was walking on the very first hill out of town. Yet she got the “Under USATF Age-Group guideline” asterisk in the results, meaning she’s still setting potential records: she finished more than 45 minutes faster than the guidelines! Mad respect to her—I hope I’ll be out there three decades from now, but presumably I won’t be getting any asterisks.
After the first turn, there was a nutty-looking one-man band playing “Build Me Up Buttercup,” one of my favorite songs and that I just sang at karaoke a few weeks ago. Last year I’d averaged 12:20 miles, so when I was at 11:40 at the first mile that was a good sign. We started up a steeper hill and I heard a woman wondering if this was the hill she’d been warned about (hah!) A few blocks later, a stereo playing “Chariots of Fire”—a runner next to me pantomimed the slo-mo sprint—and then live musicians I remembered from last year, a bagpipe player and later a woman on vuvuzela with friends using cowbells. Shelburne Falls is very pretty and full of beautiful gardens and nice architecture. I heard someone shout “Gershon!” and realized he was running right next to me–an acquaintance from karaoke who’s an amazing singer. It was his first time running the race, but he had been training on the course so we discussed the hill. Our paces were similar but I prefer running by myself so wished him a good race and dropped behind temporarily. We passed the start again, where the new wave/alternative playlist had moved on to Bryan Ferry’s “Don’t Stop the Dance.”
We crossed the Iron Bridge again and onto Clement Street, where the railroad overpass marks the beginning of the infamous hill. My goal was not to walk until/unless my two/two breathing turned from effortful panting into actual vocalization, which means I’m nearing my limit. I was running very very slowly but still running, as most everyone around me started walking. At one of the curves a volunteer was shouting encouragement, along the lines of “You’re ready! This hill is yours!” and it actually helped. The road rose and turned and rose again. A young woman said “You’re 80% there–you’ve almost conquered this dragon!” Everyone but me was walking and I gradually pulled past a few people. At the top there’s a “TOP OF CRITTENDEN HILL” sign and I whooped as I passed it!
I kept my eyes open for the goat, but alas, no sign and not even a paddock or fenced area that might hold one. The woods smelled wonderful, with huge white pines and mossy boulders. On the downslope many people started passing me. It might make sense strategically to walk the hill and have more energy after, but part of the fun of races for me is their sub-challenges, and not walking is worth a slower overall time for me. As we approached the mile 3 marker I wondered if I might be under 36 minutes; I laughed when my watch showed 35:59. The rest of the course is downhill so I hoped I might break 1:10. I allowed my breathing to slow to 3/3 and then started speeding up again. I hadn’t planned this out in advance, but decided I’d aim for 60% effort in the fourth mile and gradually speed up for a sprint at the finish.
At the base of the hill, where the course meets Route 112, there’s an out-and-back stretch where you cross the faster runners. A very old guy ahead of me turned to bypass the loop and I wondered if he was bailing or was just confused (the volunteers didn’t stop him). Part of the loop is on grass, which made a nice change from the asphalt and dirt, and there was a drum circle performing under a tree. I could see a lot of runners ahead of me; that’s one way I know I’m become more average, because in my early racing days I would trail much further behind.
I enjoyed the whole course, but during this section I ended up thinking about why I specifically love racing so much. On long runs I often attain a state of almost perfect happiness. It’s a combination of the mental effects of running, which I liken to “combing out my brain,” the comforting knowledge that there’s no better choice I should have made about how to spend this time, and the physical enjoyment of using my muscles. A race shares those elements but in the service of an over-arching goal. I harness all my energy and thoughts to focus on a single point, the culmination of days or weeks (even months, for a marathon) of planning. The results are tangible and immediate, the outcome measurable and objective, the endpoint unambiguous and final–I cross the finish line and I’m done, time to celebrate! It’s so clear-cut compared to most things in life, but it’s also a microcosm of any big goal or project. There are aspects I was able to control ahead of time, variables that are random, and combined with all of those are the strategies I can execute in response during the race… it’s pleasurable work.
I was also thinking about the mental/physical divisions that running both erases and heightens. Like when I decided to exert 60% effort, then 70%, etc… what does that mean? I don’t need to know exactly. My mind says “60%, then turn up the dial” and I can let my body do the running. My brain is part of my body, and my thoughts affect my physical self (if I have a negative train of thought on a long run, sometimes I’ll slow down or stop without even realizing it), and it flows both ways: when my muscles are deeply engaged, my mind feels good. My ADHD has gotten so much better over the decades, and a big part of that is due to running; it aligns my physical, emotional, and mental selves, and the neural pathways get stronger over time. Not original thoughts!
A volunteer shouted out my number (109) and my shirt (Northampton). On the last mile, there was a solo drummer on a full kit set up next to the road, and then another (different) stereo blasting “Chariots of Fire” again. A spectator said “Looking good! Lone wolf!” which made me smile. I was mostly on my own, but there were several women who had been periodically falling behind and passing me again; my racing style is to be solidly consistent in my pacing, which feels right to me, but alternating walking and running works for plenty of people. The burst of energy in the sprint to the finish line is one of my favorite parts, and I start to look for people I can pass in the last quarter mile. A woman with a safety triangle on the back of her shirt breezed by me as I was speeding up and I figured she would be out of reach. As we approached the bridge for the third and last crossing, there was a man in a gray t-shirt who looked catchable. The clock was just shy of 1:10 so I knew I’d break that for net time! I went full out and passed gray t-shirt, then to my surprise caught up to the safety triangle and another woman who’d passed me a while back, just as we approached the finish mat. The announcers were looking up numbers and calling out names–I got only “Hilary” because the last name must have looked intimidating.
I walked around a bit, getting my breath back, and cheered more finishers. A woman said “Good race! I was following you the whole way!” Then I made my way down to the post-race party: chocolate milk from Our Family Farms, fruit, pizza, and the highlight for me: grilled vegetarian sausage from Lightlife, which is headquartered in Turners Falls. Last year was Smart Dogs–the sausage was much better. I crossed to the Buckland side for the free beer at Blue Rock and was in line when I realized I hadn’t been given a ticket. Oh well. I went upstairs to admire all the gorgeous work at the Salmon Falls Gallery, then instead of beer went to get ice cream at Baker’s Pharmacy.
As a runner I could have gotten a dollar off a cone, but when I asked about the “Baker’s Blitz” (description: hard ice cream, milk, candy), the young woman said I would be the first person to order it ever! She had just posted it the day before and was excited to sell one. How I could I turn that down? I expected it to be kind of like a soft-serve blizzard, but it was a little more like ice cream soup. I got chocolate ripple with Heath Bar, so it was still delicious, and I enjoyed it on the Bridge of Flowers. Finally I impulsively purchased two issues of The Bookman: A Revue of Life and Letters (September and November, 1927) from the dollar cart outside Nancy L Dole Books & Ephemera. Contributions by Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, E. E. Cummings (so capitalized) etc. drew me, but best of all are the many book ads of the time. On the back cover, To the Light-House (“by the author of ‘Mrs. Dalloway.’ $2.50”) is one of eight minor books surrounding the likes of Black Stream (“By the author of ‘Green Forest’ – Nathalie Colby – A dramatic story of New York, the second novel of this remarkable writer.”).
It’s taken far longer for me to write this recap than actually running the race (factor of 3!), and nobody besides the occasional friend or family member reads this blog since it went dark for four years. Plus Charlottesville happened the day of the race and its consequences are unfolding right now, so my privilege to experience and write this feels particularly unearned and arbitrary. But it isn’t wrong to celebrate what’s good and fun; my future self will enjoy this post; it builds the writing muscles I’ve been struggling with this summer (trying to write a second book, not getting as far as I had hoped); it’s a tangible/external record of an experience, which helps me feel like it doesn’t just vanish into the sands of memory; in fact, as writing it’s a microcosm of larger projects, just like a race. So now I’m at this finish line!