All through this last hard winter, and the one before that as well, I envied other New York City runners their royal blue and white “Scotland Run” hats. They were bright, they looked warm, and they generated friendly nods and waves from other runners rocking the same hat.
So I could claim that I signed up for the Scotland Run as my first race of 2015 because I wanted to honor my Scottish ancestors. Or because I needed to overcome my fear of 10Ks (more on that in a bit). Or because it fit my schedule.
All these things are true. But the main reason I signed up for the race was because I wanted one of those hats.
Imagine my consternation last week when I picked up my race number at New York Road Runners in their spiffy Upper East Side digs and received along with it a wee packet of Walker’s shortbread, a bottle of water from the Scottish Highlands, and a cotton T-shirt of truly spectacular ugliness.
Where was the hat?
A dismayed post to my running club’s Facebook page brought words of reassurance. “They give the hats out at the end,” I was told. Words of advice, too: “you may need to stand in line, and sometimes they run out, so you need to run fast.”
Fair enough. Hats that cool should be earned.
Even with a cool blue-and-white hat to motivate me, my goals for this race were modest. I definitely wanted the first digit of my average pace to be a 7, but beyond that, things got a little vague. A long winter’s hibernation separated me from my 1:16:25 (just under 7:40 pace) at last September’s Bronx 10-miler. Doubtful that I could sustain that 10-mile pace for 10K in my current sluggish state, I more-or-less randomly settled on 7:45 as a goal (and tried not to think about the days when that would have been an easy training run).
5:30 alarm, coffee and cereal, a jog through pre-dawn streets to the F train, exit at 57th street, another jog to the general vicinity of “race central” in the middle of Central Park – and still, an hour to kill before the start.
Naturally, I headed straight for the port-a-johns.
A few red-and-white PPTC shirts had exited the F train with me, and more were now converging in the slightly muddy area between the port-a-johns and baggage check. (Was that really a pile of unmelted snow over there? Why yes, it was.) We milled around, chatted, stripped off our extra layers, and insinuated ourselves into the chaos that was baggage check (if you were there and I cut ahead of you, I’m very sorry, but I honestly couldn’t figure out the system). A few of us went for a short warm-up jog . . . a very short warm-up jog, in my case: after less than half a mile, I took my leave to hit the port-a-johns again (you can never be too prepared for a 10K) before heading to the start.
What would a race morning be without at least one jolt of panic, the kind that speeds up your breathing, lightens your head, and weakens your legs? I got my jolt when I saw the starting corrals on West Drive. Perhaps I had cut it a bit too close. Runners were already packed in tight behind metal gates with no sign of an entrance. I passed the first corral, for those with 3-digit race numbers; the 1000-1999 corral; and my own 2000-2999 corral, my panic mounting, until I found an opening at the very back and squeezed in. Where were the NYRR corral enforcers, I wondered, as I looked around me at all the bibs in the 3000s, 4000s and even 5000s.
Panic and self-righteous disapproval: hardly the emotions of champions.
Mile 1. I am not a nice person in the first mile of a race. I fret and fume at the bros jogging two and three abreast as they chat about their weekends. I sigh audibly at the people whose ears trail iPhone cords. Jesus, is that guy texting? Hey, you with the bouncy blonde ponytail – yes, you, in the day-glo spandex – do you think you could pick up the pace a little? And you, with your race number in the 4000s, why are you in front of me?
Heightening my normal road rage was the fact that these people were between me and my hat.
The run north on West Drive was slow, painfully slow. I slogged along looking for openings, weaving between other runners, speeding up slightly only to run into another wall of iPhoned, spandexed, fuel-belted, chit-chatty humanity. I twisted my head to read the race numbers of other runners as I passed them, glaring at those who had jumped corrals. I glared at those who hadn’t jumped corrals, too, out of general pissiness.
So slow. If this first mile is 9:00, how fast will I have to go to meet my minimally-acceptable finish time? Faster than will be comfortable, that’s for sure. Very possibly faster than I’m capable of. Why even try?
Much to my surprise, I hit the first mile mark in 7:55, just 10 seconds off my goal pace.
Mile 2. If the good news was that I’d been running considerably faster than I’d thought, the bad news was that the second mile was just as congested as the first.
When I previewed the course on Thursday, I’d taken note of the barely-budded trees, the wooded rise up to the Reservoir track on our right, even a cute little tufted titmouse flying across the road. On Saturday, I saw none of that. My focus was entirely on the backs of the runners ahead of me.
So focused was I – so intent on dodging and weaving my way through and past all those backs – that I had a near-collision with one of the orange pylons marking off the running lanes. I stutter-stepped, screamed out something intelligent (“Whoa! Shit!”), but managed to stay upright.
Another 7:55 mile. If nothing else, I was consistent.
Mile 3. Finally, the runners began to spread out. It’s a long, steep climb up Harlem Hill, but my self-righteousness spurred me on (take that, you corral jumpers! in a bit over your heads, eh?).
In all seriousness, it felt so damn good to run that I didn’t mind the climb. My legs were willing to work a little harder, and as my rage and frustration settled down, so did my breathing. Another curve, and then we hit the top of the park, and after that a long, screaming downhill.
This is what flying feels like, I thought. This is why I run.
My watch surprised me with a 7:32 mile.
Mile 4. I knew from my course preview that this mile was a long, hard uphill slog. And guess what? In race conditions, it’s even longer, harder and sloggier. That’s especially true when you burned through your daily allotment of adrenaline in the first couple of miles, fuming at other runners whose only offense was to be in front of you.
This was my slowest mile, an 8:00. With no other runners to blame, it was all on me.
Mile 5. This mile was supposed to be a victory lap. The hard part of the course was behind me, so all I had to do was hang on and enjoy flying down Cat Hill.
But how could I, when every stride summoned up the ghosts of past running debacles? This was where my intestines rebelled in my last 10K attempt, a sorry DNF at the Oakley mini. (Why, I do believe I recognize those port-a-johns. And isn’t that where I left the course to try to find a real bathroom?) And how could I forget staring down uncomprehendingly at my feet as I limp-jogged this section of the park during last November’s New York City marathon?
Exorcizing ghosts is hard work. I felt some measure of redemption when I saw 7:27 on my watch at the mile marker – but mainly, what I felt was exhausted.
Mile 6. I don’t remember much of this mile, so instead of recapping the race, I’ll share some general thoughts on why 10Ks are so freaking hard. I have run into more (and more serious) problems in 10Ks that any other distance – up to and including a collapse just short of the finish a few years back (“Linda’s going down,” a friend shouted to her quick-thinking and chivalrous husband, who managed to catch me before I hit the cement). I’ve been weak and woozy at the end of 5Ks, too, but the shorter distance means I can (mostly) outrun real trouble. And in longer races, from 15K on up, the less intense pace (it only feels hard) limits the damage. 10Ks seem to me to occupy the perfect danger zone, where “short enough to be stupid” overlaps with “long enough to really, really regret it.”
Was I going to really, really regret this one?
I heard someone cheer “Go, PPTC!” and then, after a beat, “Go, Linda!” To the extent anything could give me a boost at this point, that did. I was far too tired and bleary-eyed to try to spot the cheerer, and hoped they understood when I ran on without acknowledging them. Even a limp wave was beyond me.
We rounded the bottom of the park, and I heaved desperate grunts at random intervals, leading other runners to offer words of pitying encouragement (“you can do it!”) as they passed me. I wondered if some of them were the same runners I’d silently cursed earlier in the race, and if this mile (7:48, for those keeping score) was my punishment.
Final 0.2. Please god let this be over please god let this be over please god I just want this to be over where is the fucking finish pleasegodpleasegodpleasegodpleaseplease please . . .
Finally, the finish mats. The photographic evidence (curses on you, MarathonFoto!) shows me hunched and gray-lipped, i.e., pretty much the same as in all my finish line photos. My official time was 48:19, for an average pace of 7:47.
I trudged through the post-race receiving line, taking a cup of water, an apple and the inevitable pretzels, passing on the bagels, but really wanting just one thing: my hat.
There were no hats.
Allow me to repeat that: There. Were. No. Hats.
It’s not that I’d run too slowly to snag one . That would have been bitter, but understandable. It was a race, after all, and the spoils of victory go to the swift. No; there were no hats, period.
So my whole race experience was based on a bright, shining lie . . . but at least it was over. I had the satisfaction of finishing a 10K. I had taken a measure of my fitness. I had a really ugly T-shirt to add to my collection.
And, after some time out for an awkward change of clothes in a port-a-john, I had my teammates. It was picture time, and a big group of red-and-white shirts surrounded a skinny bald guy in jeans who was smiling broadly. It was Nick, our Nick, a runner and a cop, who was almost killed last year when two guys in a stolen car rammed it into him.
He looked great. Not running yet, but working his way back to it, and eager to cheer the rest of us on. And where better to do that than from a perch in the southern part of the park, somewhere, in, oh, the sixth mile.
The identity of the mystery cheerer stood revealed.
Oh, and the hat? It no longer seemed like such a big deal.
I couldn’t let the hat go entirely. One skill that I took away from my chemo summer was creative head-wrapping, including (thank you, American Cancer Society/”Look Good Feel Better”) turning t-shirts into turbans. And so, when I got home, I gave it a try.
I was a little rusty and the results are imperfect, but in the end, I got my Scotland Run hat.