Spills and thrills – Percy Sutton Harlem 5K (August 27, 2016)

img_4443For the last race of the summer (as defined by Labor Day, not the autumnal equinox), I headed uptown to Harlem.

I had company from the start. A couple of PPTC teammates were entering the F/G station at the same time as me, and another two joined us shortly after that. We talked, mainly, about coffee. My insulated travel mug, which I’d filled before running out of the apartment so that I could sip my morning coffee on the train, was quite the conversation-starter. 

Teammates #1 and #2 were shocked that I drank coffee before racing. I was shocked that they didn’t (and even more shocked that they were shocked that I did). Teammate #3 confessed that she was thinking of experimenting with pre-race coffee as she chases her next 5K PR, and we discussed what would be required for a valid experiment. Teammate #4, a medical man, asked me if I experienced physical symptoms when I didn’t drink coffee for a day or two.

A day or two? What planet was he living on?

More like an hour or two after I wake up, I told him. To which he replied: hmmmmm.

I was, by now, feeling ever-so-slightly self-conscious about my coffee consumption and decided to cut myself off. To avoid temptation, I closed the spout on my mostly-empty-anyhow mug and stowed it in the plastic bag that held my towel, change of clothes, and unread New York Times magazine from last week.

I had assumed, based on the difficulty I experienced wrenching off the top of the mug to fill it, that the seal was tight. I assumed wrong. At Hoyt-Schermerhorn, we crossed over to board an uptown A, and once on board, as I settled into a seat, I glanced down at my bag and saw that it was sloshing.

It’s impressive, really, the extent to which a pair of running shorts absorbs liquid. Not to mention the way a small amount of coffee perfumes everything it touches: my shorts, shirt, towel, and reading material were now fragrant with Fair Trade Peruvian Dark Roast.

This was spill #1.

Spill #2 came 4 minutes and 53 seconds into the first mile of the race. We had made the left turn onto 145th street –  one of those climbs that make your legs feel as though they’re mired in cement – followed by a quick right onto Edgecombe Avenue, where the climb continued. I was looking at the runners around me (a man with really bad form, a woman in a shocking pink tank top, the heavyset guy from North Brooklyn Runners whose name I don’t know, despite seeing him at nearly every race), mentally composing this blog post (I planned to contrast the different climbs, how that short charge up 145th is frustrating but the long slog up Edgecombe really kills you), and preparing to pick up the pace – when my right foot grazed the pavement and I pitched forward and down.

That, reader, was spill #2.

It wasn’t a bad fall. I was so surprised to find myself falling (it’s been some time since my last tumble) that I didn’t have time to tense myself up before I hit the asphalt. That, I think, was a good thing: it meant I didn’t pull anything in a futile effort to stay upright. A few kind runners stopped to make sure I was OK – someone may have given me a hand – and I assured them I was, even before I was totally sure. Mainly, I was grateful no one had tripped and fallen on top of me. I glanced down at my knee, which was scraped but not gushing blood, and at my elbow, ditto. And then I continued on my way.

Mile 1, including the fall, was 7:57.

The beauty of the Percy Sutton course is that all of the climbing is front-loaded into the first mile. The second mile has a few gentle rollers but is otherwise flat, heading down Convent Avenue toward the Gothic spires of City College. That mile was 7:22.

The payoff comes in mile 3, when runners head back down to the avenue from the heights of St. Nicholas Park. All that earlier climbing is reversed in one long, thrilling, flying descent down St. Nicholas Terrace.  The last half mile of the race is flat – the better to see, first the “3 Mile” sign and then, even more welcome, the finish.

I ran the last mile in 7:02, for a 23:05 finish.


If I wasn’t completely thrilled with my time, I was at least reasonably satisfied. The thrill came from watching the other finishers. Although the race is a cast-of-thousands NYRR production, it retains a strong community feel that you don’t find in NYRR’s Central Park races. That’s true from its name (after the former Manhattan Borough President), to its timing (at the end of Harlem Week), to its course (through primarily residential streets) – and especially, in the participants. They included a group of 72 girls from NYC high schools, all of them with little to no running experience, who spent the last two months training with NYRR coaches to complete a 5K; they also included a big “Lean, Strong, Fast” contingent dressed as superheroes while running as a pack . . . why look, there’s Wonder Woman, and who’s the guy with a hammer? Thor? and, hey, isn’t that my friend and teammate? Wave and cheer!

. . . 

I got one last thrill later that night, when I checked the results and learned, much to my surprise, that I’d finished second in my age group.

Now, if only my battered elbow would stop hurting each time I try to rest it on a hard surface.




2 thoughts on “Spills and thrills – Percy Sutton Harlem 5K (August 27, 2016)

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