I started running again, tentatively and furtively (what my doctor and physical therapists don’t know won’t hurt them, right?) at the end of July. My arm felt fine; my legs felt like two tree stumps. Those first 3 and 4 mile runs left me as spent as a 16-miler at the end of an 80-mile training week.
The big concern, of course, was that I’d take another fall and re-damage my mostly, but maybe not totally, healed humerus. But after surviving two scary falls while walking – once on a metal cellar grate, once on the polished terrazzo sidewalk of some fancy Manhattan building, both slicked with rain – my latent fatalism came to the fore, and I decided: screw it. If I’m going to go down, let me go down running.
By mid-August, I was racing again. Or, should I say, I was entering races, and no doubt annoying more motivated runners by disclaiming any competitive intent – “Nah, I’m not really racing, I’m just here to have fun and see where I’m at” – which was kind of, but not entirely, the truth. I longed to run fast, but I also feared not just the pain that comes with running fast, but also the evidence of my body’s decline.
So much easier to just take it easy . . . and also so unsatisfying.
Still, when you’re not really racing, you sure can pile on the races. From August 16 to September 10, I ran five – count ’em – races. Two were 5Ks, two were miles, and one was an alley cat race of undetermined distance.
The good news: while I’ve slowed considerably, I was able to improve my times from week to week. In each individual event (well, except for the alley cat race), I ran significant negative splits. Some of my race pictures actually show me with at least one foot off the ground and decent leg extension. I did not fall, and I did not collapse at the finish, not even when it was hot and humid.
The only bad news was that the alley cat race confirmed my sense of direction to be as bad as ever.
Details follow, for those that want ’em.
Al Goldstein Summer Speed Series 5K (August 16). This was the last race in my running club’s biweekly evening series. I’d run the first one back in May, missed the second because of travel, and then – crash, snap – I broke my arm. By the second half of July, I was mobile enough to volunteer. The first week in August, I actually jogged to my volunteer assignment (wondering if there might not be a way to volunteer and run), only to find that the race had been canceled. This night was my last chance.
It was hot and humid, and I was so very, very glad not to be racing that I tactlessly informed everyone around me (including, no doubt, some folks who were gunning for PRs) how good it was not to have to worry about a silly thing like time in such miserable conditions. I trotted up Zoo Hill at a leisurely pace for a 9:00 first mile and then – God help me – I decided to see what I could do in the downhill second mile, which turned out to be 8:15. What I could not do in the second mile, I discovered, was take water on the run. I grabbed a cup with my right hand, pinched it, tried to raise it above my mouth – and confronted the limits to my range of motion.
I switched the cup to my left hand, spilling most of its contents in the process. Who needs water in a 5K, anyhow?
I did, as it turns out. By the bottom of the hill, I was still seeing (and running) straight, but feared that at any moment, I might not be. My most urgent concern wasn’t my pace (which, to my surprise, I was holding); it wasn’t catching other runners; it wasn’t even getting to the finish. It was getting to the drinking fountain at the bottom of the park.
And so, in the only competition that mattered to me, I outsprinted another runner who seemed to have the same idea, and drank deeply while she waited.
Then, sighing, I kicked back into gear for the last ~1K to my 26:25 finish.
The Brooklyn Mile (August 20). In last year’s inaugural race, I astonished myself by running 6:44 when I had been hoping to barely break 7:00. This year, I just wanted to get as low as possible in the 7’s while (my constant refrain these days) enjoying myself.
Enjoying oneself at this race isn’t hard. First off, it’s a mile. But more importantly, Williamsburg, for all its faults and pretensions, knows how to throw a party. There was music. There was a charismatic DJ/announcer. There was cold-brewed coffee. There were doughnuts. There were healthy juices and teas. There was ionized, high-pH, reverse osmosis water.
Most Williamsburg of all was the T-shirt: “Brooklyn” spelled out in old-school graffiti lettering across the back, the logo of the “Two Trees” real estate development and management company on the right sleeve.
As usual, I lagged in the first quarter, then spent the rest of the race catching – or at least making a valiant effort to catch – other runners in the female masters heat. I’m not sure of my quarter mile splits, just that they got faster as I went, finishing in 7:28.
I rewarded myself with a turmeric lemonade (made with alkaline water, of course).
Percy Sutton Harlem 5K (August 26). This is a tough course, zigzagging up a series of steep hills in the first two miles, then careening downhill to St. Nicholas Avenue and the finish. It was particularly tough for me this year, bringing back memories of the tumble I took on Edgecombe Avenue in last year’s race. I did not want another bloody-kneed finish, and I certainly did not want to have to explain another broken arm to my doctor.
Evidently, I wasn’t the only person to fall last year. This year’s event featured a new volunteer assignment: repeating “watch the bump” over and over again as runners approached the half dozen or so speed bumps along the course.
If there were any casualties, I didn’t see them.
My 25:38 finish was two and a half minutes slower than last year (and last year, recall, included time to pick myself up off the ground, brush myself off, and point my bloodied and slightly stunned self in the direction of traffic), but it was fun, and wasn’t that the point?
Superfund Super Run (September 7). This just may be my favorite race of the year. It starts in Greenpoint, at the little park at Franklin Avenue and DuPont Street, at 10 pm – an hour when I am normally either in bed, brushing my teeth before bed, or lying semi-comatose on the couch thinking about brushing my teeth before bed. What were all these people who weren’t even in the race doing on the G train? Why were the bars on Manhattan Avenue so full? What’s going on here?
The only structured part of the race is a mandatory out-and-back to polluted Newtown Creek via Commercial Street and the butt-end of Manhattan Avenue. Once you hit Franklin for the second time, you’re free to take any route you choose to the finish alongside the toxic Gowanus Canal.
While many of my teammates had researched the shortest possible routes, however convoluted, I had vowed to stick to the tried and true. If I hugged the Navy Yard until Vanderbilt, then turned south to Lafayette, it would be a straight shot across Flatbush to Third Avenue. Remembering how the area around BAM messed me up last year, I had done a practice run of that final stretch earlier in the week, so that key landmarks would be imprinted in my brain.
Isn’t it interesting, how different everything looks at night?
Full of confidence as I crossed Flatbush, I didn’t let the unfamiliarity of the playground to my left throw me. There are lots of playgrounds in Brooklyn, who could possibly remember them all? The sight of the EVEN hotel did, though. I couldn’t remember what street it was on, but I did know it wasn’t Third Avenue. And what’s with the Holiday Inn? It’s on Nevins, right? I’d be OK, then. Just stay on Nevins until . . .
Bond Street? I’ve run the Gowanus area enough times to know that Bond and Nevins are parallel. So where was I? Bond would get me to Union Street, and to the finish at Pig Beach, but which way to turn?
Thoroughly befuddled, I went left, just because. And for once in my directionally-challenged existence, it was the right choice. State, Atlantic, Pacific, Dean . . . almost there . . . Degraw, Sackett, Union.
Most of my teammates had already collected their popsicle sticks (timing was old school), turned them in, received their drink tokens and were enjoying post-race beers by the time I crossed the finish line just inside the Pig Beach entrance. But who cared – it was fun.
(Postscript: the mystery street was Schermerhorn.)
Fifth Avenue Mile (September 10). Did I say the Superfund race was my favorite event of the year? Hold that thought, because the Fifth Avenue Mile is up there, too. I had avoided this storied race for many years, for many reasons. Because I’m not a miler. Because it doesn’t fit with a fall marathon training program. But mainly, because I imagined that a mile race featuring a cast of thousands would be a logistical nightmare that I would want no part of.
While I have great respect for New York Road Runners’ race management smarts, I also find there to be an inverse relationship between quality and distance in their races. As NYC’s running behemoth, whose “9+1” program offers area runners a coveted spot in the New York City Marathon, NYRR typically gets capacity crowds at its events. I can deal with congestion in the first mile or two of a half marathon, but for distances of four miles and less, I much prefer smaller races organized by local running clubs or community groups. A mile, divided into a zillion heats? It’s bound to be chaos.
In fact, it was brilliant. Each heat, organized by age and gender, was its own mini-race. I could cheer for the runners in earlier heats before sauntering to the start for my own. The only real hitch was of my own making: I was overly modest in where I chose to line up, positioning myself in the middle of the pack in my mixed-gender heat. That meant weaving around other runners in the first quarter (1:49) and finding myself boxed in a few times on the mild incline in the second (1:55), before flying downhill in the third (1:45) and then holding that pace for a 7:13 finish.
I attribute that second half to the teammate (she knows who she is) who screamed “Linda, show ’em how it’s done!” as I ran past. I didn’t see her, but I got the message loud and clear, and lifted my knees just a little higher (I believe that’s how it’s supposed to be done) in response.
So there you have it: four weeks, five races, lots of fun, some improvement. I’m not sure how much longer it’s going to be before I line up at the start of a race, jittery and mildly queasy, fully back in the game and prepared to hurt in the pursuit of a fast time.
But I’m pretty sure it’s coming.