Like many runners, fall is my favorite time of year to log miles. Temperatures are friendly, there’s no longer daily thunderstorms and tornado warnings in Atlanta, and with the holidays coming up there are plenty of calories around to fuel runs. Additionally, goal races have passed and there’s no stress to nail workouts or pressure to make it 16 miles instead of 14.5. It’s just fun to crunch leaves and not drown in sweat and have a social life again. Like a Friendsgiving celebration, for instance. Which was two Saturdays ago. The night before the Atlanta Lab Rescue 5k in fact, where I had an age group title to defend. So OK, maybe there was a little pressure. Not wanting to stress over results, I decided to indulge in plenty of spicy Bangladeshi food and Atlanta beer to help temper expectations for the race and keep it fun.
This is a small race (~600 people this year, it’s biggest yet) and it’s only my second year running it, but it’s climbing my list of favorites. First off, dogs. There are literally dozens of dogs at this race, most of them Labrador Retrievers, including mine. Secondly, it benefits a dog rescue organization. Third, there’s a fancy doughnut truck selling freshly made doughnuts and coffee. Fourth, indoor bathrooms with real plumbing. And lastly, it’s small enough and outside the city enough I can actually compete for age group awards which I really have no business winning. Also, dogs. SO MANY DOGS.
We arrived in plenty of time to pick up our bibs (The Wife and The Dog were running together), make a bathroom stop, and jog a warmup mile. That mile revealed some creakiness in a hip and my feet and a little bit of everywhere else, but I wasn’t sure if it was leftover marathon soreness or the six-pack I used to dull the heat of the delicious lamb vindaloo I enjoyed the night before. I made my way over to The Wife in the crowd and tried to do some leg swings and glute activation exercises to stay loose and keep myself occupied. We discussed what kind of doughnuts we wanted and where we’d meet as I eyed up the competition and assessed my chances of repeating a podium finish. It was then that I noticed a woman purposefully walking towards us with a look on her face that suggested a familiarity I should be reciprocating. I began wracking my brain to place who this was until I was jarred back into the moment by her outstretched hand. “Hi, I’m Kelly. You look like you’re gonna win this race!”. Huh. Relieved of my guilt at forgetting an acquaintance, I shook her hand and introduced myself. With unsettling intensity she tells me “I ran the Soldier Marathon yesterday, so I’m a little tired.” Uh-huh. “It’s his first 5k, he’s so excited!” she says, gesturing at her little dog. I tell her how much The Dog loves to run with us and how she loves races, making sure to gesture at The Dog and The Wife standing mere feet away. “So are you a big runner around here? You look pretty fast.” I tell her I run a lot of races in the area and before the last syllable left my lips she says “Well good luck nice meeting you” and disappears back into to the crowd. I turn to The Wife, and we share a puzzled look. Maybe she noticed my activated glutes.
We got the signal to line up at the start and I made my way to the front of the pack, the gangly contingent from the local high school track and XC teams from which the winner would almost certainly emerge on my left, and on my right a couple in their early 60s wearing jeans and at the opposite end of a leash from a small terrier. I chatted with the nice couple while looking over their shoulders to see how many people I could find without acne or jeans who might be age group competition. I didn’t see many who looked to be my age, so despite feeling an age group or two older at the moment, I thought the odds might be in my favor. We got the 30 second warning, the grand marshal (a former rescue dog recently placed by the race’s beneficiaries) ran the ceremonial first 10 yards, and the air horn sent us on our way.
As the pack narrowed from the width of the road to a single file along the tangent line I fell in behind roughly 20 or so runners. The HS kids led the way and I knew the only time I’d be close to most of them again would be as they passed the turn around. I also knew many of those ahead of me would begin dropping as we climbed the long hill that makes up most of the out section of the course, so at this point I just focused on settling into what felt like race pace. After weeks of marathon training opening up my stride and doing some fast running was liberating, and like a frozen bolt wrenched loose my joints finally felt the freedom of movement, the stiffness falling away like flecks of rust with each turn of my stride.
As we turned off the park entry road and onto the main street to begin the long climb I had picked off the over-eager starters and was down to 9 runners ahead of me. I wasn’t really looking at my watch as I had no time goal or expectations, so I just focused on picking off as many people as I could. The closest runner was a girl who looked to be one of the HS contingent. While most of her cohort faded before the first 400, she looked to be running strong. But I could hear her breathing hard on the hill, and knew it was only a matter of time. I focused on my cadence and breathing and passed her not long after passing the first mile in 6:43.
Next up was a guy in a gray shirt. I hadn’t been able to get a good enough look to see how old he was initially, so I had been treating him like competition and tried to quietly sneak up on him before making my move. However as I got closer I noticed his long, loping, effortless stride and seemingly disinterested side to side head bob as he ran. You know the look. All these damn kids make running look so frigging easy, the little bastards. I used the bitterness of lost youth as my fuel to pass him and zeroed in on the next target. The only other runner I could see close enough was a guy I remembered from the start line. He looked roughly my age, had calves the size of my quads, and an orange Clemson shirt. He was moving, but I could see the back of his shirt darkened by sweat and knew he was working harder than I was.
By now the leaders had made the turn around and I started counting. The leader was another damn kid who looked like he was expending the same amount of energy I do chewing soup. Behind him was a guy who looked like an out of shape 50 year old expending enough energy to power a small city. I picked out one other runner who looked about my age, plus Clemson. As he ran by I could see the pain on his face and knew I’d get him on the downhill. I made the turn around and saw no one close behind me, so I decided to risk a little burn out and start to push. Within about a 400 I had halved the gap and gotten close enough that I knew Clemson could hear me behind him. He tried to pick up the pace and shake me, but each time he tried he was unable to hold it and I’d re-close quickly. Garmin signaled mile 2, 6:56 up the hill.
I was still feeling pretty strong at this point, and Clemson and I had pushed each other to gain ground on another runner who happened to also be running the lead dog. I decided to push to pass Clemson now, and see if I could also real in the dog. Just as I was about to swing out and pass, I heard a “GO STEVE!” yell from the other side of the road. It was Kelly, waving and jumping and cheering. I gave her a thumbs up, still a little puzzled, but thankful for the encouragement. Quickly refocusing on the task at hand, I gave myself a few steps to brace for the effort and swung out to pass Clemson. He tried to block me a little bit, but I managed to slip by and did my best to make it look easy. I know my running is as graceful as someone falling down stairs, but in my head during a race I’m Jenny MF-ing Simpson, OK?
I felt good enough passing Clemson, and he faded quickly enough, that I decided to go all in on the pace. I saw The Wife approach on the out and then saw The Dog almost take out a half a dozen runners when she saw me and gave her a passing pat on the head while The Wife confirmed “7th”. I used the last of the downhill to try and gain as much ground on the lead dog as I could, and had made up maybe half of the 200 meter gap as we turned back onto the park access road. The course covers some small rollers on this final stretch, and for the rest of the way he’d pull away a little on the ups and I’d close a little on the downs. I realized I wasn’t going to catch him, and also heard spectators yelling to someone not that far behind me so I focused on maintaining a steady clip to hold off Clemson or whoever was trying to kick. By now though this was no small task. I was suddenly very aware of my raspy desperate breathing, burning legs, and what felt like the memory of every step of the NYC Marathon manifesting on the aching soles of my feet. I watched a spectator who had been gleefully cheering the lead dog ahead of me slow her claps as I came into view and her smile faded into the kind of pitiful look one gives fresh roadkill.
Mile 3 was announced as a 6:28 effort, and the last tenth nearly matched it at a 6:25 pace. I ended up with a 20:48, which was enough to hold off Clemson (who was in a younger age group) for 7th place overall but not enough to beat out the out of shape 50-something looking guy I saw earlier (who was actually 38). After spending my cool down mile wondering what my complete lack of understanding of what 35-39 looks like says about my own appearance, I picked up my age group silver, got cornered by Kelly again, and met up with The Wife and Dog for hot coffee and doughnuts.
There is joy again in my running. Not from times or place or anything other than running for the sake of running. Running to feel the cold air burn the back of my throat and my eyes water from the biting wind. To have control of the pain again, and not feel compelled to push too far in pursuit of an ultimately unimportant goal that is knowingly beyond reach. It’s fun to feel alive again.