Revisiting an old friend: The Rush Hour Run

As mentioned in an earlier post, I haven’t been running much since cycling season started; when I do run, I’ve been trying to run trails as much as possible. However, that isn’t how I got started. My first runs were all on the treadmill at the gym (using the Couch25k program on my iPod). Eventually, I joined a half- and full-marathon training group, and that’s when I started running on pavement. Most of our long runs used trails like the Perkiomen Trail (which has both gravel and paved sections), the Schuylkill River Trail and the paved loop at Valley Forge National Historic Park. All of my first races were on pavement: from my first 5k (hosted by the Pottstown YMCA) to the ten-mile Broad Street Run to my first half-marathon in Philadelphia, I either ran on paved paths or on the road.

My second 5k was the Rush Hour Run, which is hosted every year by SEI to benefit local charities. The race is an out-and-back on the Perkiomen Trail, which is right behind the SEI campus. The first time I ran this race, the draw for me was that it was local, it was a familiar path, and many of the folks I’d gotten to know through the training group would be there. As I found out that first year, the real draw is the post-race party, which features beer, cocktails and all manner of tasty treats from local restaurants and caterers.

I’ve done the race every year since then, and this year was no exception. Even though my running frequency is way down since cycling season began — and even though I had been knocked down with a pretty nasty cold and was still struggling with breathing difficulty and a cough the day of the race — I’d be lying if I said I went into it with no expectations. Sure, I told myself I’d do run/walk intervals based on “whenever I cough”. I told myself I’d go easy. I told myself (and my friends, and my boyfriend) that I wouldn’t overdo it. I told myself.

But there was something lingering in the back of my head, something I tried not to acknowledge: the way I’d felt the last time I’d gone running, the week before I got sick. The way the first mile flew by and how I’d forced myself to slow down for the second mile. Forced myself to take walk breaks because that’s what I do. I’ve been using run/walk intervals of varying measures since 2010. It’s part of my mindset. But even as I took walk breaks that day, I just felt fast. As I neared the end point of my run, I glanced down at my watch and realized that I was almost at a 5k distance … and my time was under 30 minutes. Have I mentioned that I’m not a fast runner? I’m not even a little bit fast. My fastest official 5k was a smidge over 31 minutes.

So, at this year’s Rush Hour Run, of course I told myself I’d take it easy. Of course, I told myself I’d listen to my lungs and my body and walk as soon as the exertion brought on the horrible, wracking cough again. I placed myself way at the back of the pack on purpose, intending to stick myself behind someone running at an easy pace and let them set my pace for me.

 

The race starts out down a slight grade, exiting the rear of SEI’s campus and down the short stretch of Upper Indian Head Road to turn right onto the Perkiomen Trail. From there, the trail is mostly flat — there’s a short, steep incline where the trail rises above the Perkiomen Creek to meet the parking lot at New Mill Road, then a gentle decline after the soccer fields. There’s a water station at the turn-around, and then you return to SEI, with the finish line on the trail before Upper Indian Head Road (so there’s no charging uphill to the finish).

I started out nice and easy on the descent to the trail, and it felt too easy. My lungs seemed to open up almost as soon as I started moving, and my breathing felt easier and easier — better than it had all week! After we turned onto the trail, I tried to ease my pace back a little and take it easy, but found it frustrating and soon began to pass people. At one point, I looked for my long-legged, fleet-footed boyfriend, who had been running right at my side, and discovered he was 30 feet or so behind me. I knew he would have no problem catching me if he wanted to, so I kept moving up. I’d pass a gaggle of people, then settle in behind someone to pace myself — but I’d soon find myself running too close to their heels, and would peel off to the left edge of the pavement to pass. Before too long, the lead runners were on their way back, flying down the left side of the pavement, and I started using the grassy verge to the right of the pavement to pass.

I took a walk break at the water station and walked the turn-around while drinking a cup of water, then got myself going again. My boyfriend had caught up to me again, and commented that we were “doing really good”, and I just had to grin. Good? I was breathing! I was running! It was AWESOME!

About a quarter-mile before the finish, it was my boyfriend’s turn to leave me behind. He kicked into high gear — I don’t seem to have that extra gear when it comes to running — and crossed the finish line well ahead of me. The digital readout at the finish line said 29:4something as I crossed, and I knew my chip time would be less, since I had been way at the back of the pack when the gun went off. My official chip time was 29:19, and my boyfriend’s was 29:01.

One of the reasons I come back to this race year after year, aside from how they spoil us after the run, is because it’s become a good touchstone for me. This is the only race I’ve done every single year, from my first year running, and I’ve never missed it. I’ve shaved at least a little time off every year, so it’s become a marker of my progress. And, now that I’m not training for distance, my results in the shorter races are improving more dramatically. Don’t get me wrong — I am still firmly in the middle of the field at best when it comes to my age group. But placing isn’t a thing that has ever mattered to me — the only person I really want to beat is myself, and I am happy with my consistent improvement at this annual race.

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Catching Up With the Philly Cycling Classic

On Sunday, June 1, I was signed up to volunteer at Velothon Philadelphia, the amateur ride that preceded the Philly Cycling Classic pro race. I needed to be there a little before 6am (the Velothon was scheduled to kick off at 6:30am, and riders had to be off the pro-race portion of the course by 8:30am). I really didn’t want to drive down to Philadelphia — I knew getting down there that early and finding parking would be no problem, but getting home in the afternoon would be a lot less fun, with roads closed for the race into the early evening. Another way to get into the city, for me, has been to drive over to Conshohocken and park near the Schuylkill River Trail, then ride my bike down the trail into Philadelphia.

However, lately I’ve been looking at the miles between home and the trail, and paying close attention to traffic on the local roads with an eye to figuring out which ones I feel safest riding. The planets aligned for me when one of my club rides circled right past my house and out one of the roads I had pegged as my best bet for riding — so I got to pre-ride my tentative route with friends, and that made it feel more do-able.

Of course, everything feels more doable when you’re riding in a group in the middle of the day. To get to Boathouse Row in Philadelphia in time for the Velothon, I left my house at 4:45 in the morning! It was still mostly dark, so I had a headlight on my handlebars, one on my helmet, and a bright, blinking red light on my rear. I had a small backpack with some snacks and a pair of comfy sandals so that I could hang out on Lemon Hill to watch the pros race after marshaling on the Velothon course. The ride down was a breeze — a chilly one, in fact! I found myself wishing I’d worn my full-finger gloves. My mind was taken off the chill, however, when my headlamp started showing me what’s in my usually-busy area that early on a Sunday morning: I saw foxes, deer, bunnies and, I’m almost positive, a coyote. (It was either a coyote or the biggest darn fox I’ve ever seen. However, after living in Arizona for 10 years and seeing my fair share of coyotes, I feel pretty confident calling it a ‘yote.)

I had no trouble getting over to the SRT and down to Manayunk, where I left the trail for roads. Riding through Manayunk prior to the race was really fun — the streets were full of workers setting up the barricades, and the flatbeds carrying the barriers and tow trucks hauling away the cars of people who had ignored the “no parking” signs and left their vehicles parked along the street. From Manayunk, I swept up Kelly Drive — again, had the whole thing to myself, aside from a few police vehicles and work trucks — and met up with my friends Kurt and Denise, who were coordinating course volunteers, near Lloyd Hall. I checked in, got my neon green volunteer t-shirt, a traffic flag and a map, and was sent out on the course.

The best part of volunteering was getting to pre-ride most of the course before the Velothon officially started. Yes, that means I got to ride the infamous Manayunk Wall! I almost made it all the way up without stopping — until I dropped the %$@! traffic flag! I had to stop, put a foot down and lean over to pick it up. I had started out the ride with the flag tucked into my backpack — but pulled it out because it was banging on my helmet, making it hard to turn my head to the left. I rode with it gripped in my right hand against the handlebar, and lost it when I shifted that one last time into granny gear. On the plus side, the spot where I stopped was midway up the Wall, where the grade eases out just a bit, so once I picked up the flag (and caught my breath), I was able to get myself started again. This is the first time I’ve ridden the wall without having to walk a portion of it!

A few minutes later, after the lovely “fall from The Wall” descent through Manayunk, I came to a right turn followed immediately by a split that was missing signage. I took the upper side of the split, my attention caught by police lined up across the top. Turned out they were there to prevent cars coming down from the busier road above, and I should have taken the lower side of the split. Shortly after that, I got a call asking me to stay at that split with my flag to direct Velothon riders down the right side of the split. And shortly after THAT, I got a message from a friend telling me that she’d seen me riding up the Wall — on the Channel 10 news! I actually said, “Aaaaaack!” out loud. She attached a picture of her TV screen with me in my neon volunteer finery, my bright blue backpack and traffic flag visible over my shoulder as I came up the crest of the Wall:

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Aaaaack. I look so dorky! But I made it up the Wall, and that’s all that matters.

For the Velothon, riders could do as many laps of the course as they wanted — but had to be off the section of course used for the pro race by 8:30. Once I saw the sweep vehicle go past, I left the split and headed over to the portion of the course on the far side of the Schuylkill river. This portion wouldn’t be used for the pro riders at all, and I tooled around about 10 miles of the course before heading back over to Lemon Hill, where both of my cycling clubs (Suburban Cyclists Unlimited and the Bicycle Club of Philadelphia) had tents set up to hang out, watch the race, and publicize.

I spent the next several hours watching the pro women race, and being amazed (again and again, every year) at how easy they made it look. They surged up Lemon Hill like it was nothing! Friends, I have ridden that hill a few times myself and while it isn’t as long as the Manayunk Wall, I do not mind telling you that IT FELT LIKE A THING. I think it’s the combination of the steepness and the tightness of the curve, and if you’re not lucky enough to have a good amount of speed coming into it, you can really struggle on it.

After the men started racing, I started thinking about how long it was going to take me to get home — and just how I was going to get home, since I had ridden in on roads that were now closed. I knew it would be easy enough to ride up the multi-use path alongside Kelly Drive, just being careful to watch out for spectators along the way; but I had a feeling Manayunk would be more challenging, with heavier crowds. A couple other members of SCU were having the same thoughts, and three of us set out together. Getting up Kelly Drive was, indeed, pretty easy. We stopped and edged off the path when the pro men came around on their next lap, cheering for their impressive effort — they were hauling! It was so amazing, the ROAR that is made by all those skinny tires of a tightly-packed peloton at high speed.

Before too long, we made it up to Manayunk, where we hopped into the empty street and rode up until we were hollered off the course by police. We caught up to another rider doing the same thing; the crowds were thin enough in that area that our little three-person line continued riding up the sidewalk instead of dismounting. As the crowds got gradually thicker, however, I started getting more and more nervous about riding on the sidewalks. I hopped off the sidewalk to avoid one group of pedestrians, then saw the driveway for the Manayunk Brewery just ahead, and thought that would be a good spot to pull in, get off the course and out of the way of spectators to dismount and continue walking.

Unfortunately, I did a couple things wrong: I was going to slow, I had too much weight on my handlebars, and I hit the lip of the driveway at a far too shallow angle. Next thing I knew, my wheels were going sideways out from under me, and I was on the sidewalk. Bam! I was suddenly surrounded by cops and spectators asking me if I was okay. I was fine — more embarrassed than anything else! I got up and checked myself over — I had landed on my left side, and my hip took the brunt of the abuse. Luckily, I was going slowly enough that there was no ‘road rash’ — my shorts were intact, I had a mild scrape on my left elbow, and a quickly-forming bruise on my left hip and one on the heel of my right hand, where it must have slipped up and hit my brake hood.

After that, we wisely decided to walk the rest of the way, just a couple blocks until we could pick up the canal towpath that runs through Manayunk. We didn’t go far before I realized that my front tire was flat, and I was saved by the folks I was riding and walking with — while I’m perfectly capable of changing a tube, I realized I didn’t have anything to patch the tire where the lip of the driveway had rubbed right through it. With their help, we patched the tire, put in a new tube, and got it inflated so that I could ride home.

After that, the rest of the trip home was blessedly uneventful. In fact, I was having such a nice time riding up the SRT and chatting with my ride buddies, that I missed the road I needed in Conshohocken, and had to turn back! I got home a little after 4pm, making a full day indeed — and all of it either on or about the bike! Volunteering for the Velothon was great fun, and watching the pro racers was awe-inspiring.

 

Catching Up

I got knocked down by a pretty nasty cold in the middle of last week, one that started in my sinuses, moved into my chest and still has me coughing gross stuff out of my lungs, getting short of breath quickly, and just generally feeling tired. But even worse than feeling poorly and basically sleeping around the clock is the fact that I’ve been missing all of my favorite rides, runs and workouts! The only positive thing is the fact that Season 2 of Orange Is the New Black was released on Netflix, so I was able to spend some of my waking/drooling hours streaming episodes. Therefore, instead of writing about what I’m up to right now (which would read something like, “to my eyeballs in used tissues”), I’m going to write about the weekend BEFORE the crud attacked. After all, that weekend was pretty fantastic.

I got to do two things I love (run with friends, ride my bike), both of which led to a third thing I like: adventure! I even made the news—which, at the time, kind of horrified me, but I got over that. In fact, after writing the first draft of this post, I had to split it into two: one for the last Saturday of May, and one for the first Sunday of June. There was just too much good stuff to be contained in one trim little post (as if my posts are ever “trim”—ha!).

First up: Saturday, May 31. I joined the Misery Loves Company crew for a run at Valley Forge National Historic Park. I am incredibly fortunate to live nearby, and I never get tired of running there—whether it’s the tried-and-true “loop” (a five-mile paved multi-use path) or whether I get to explore and discover new-to-me trails, I simply love it there. We try to make it over at least once a week.

Saturday’s run was the official “farewell” run for our group’s leader, Pete. Some of us call him “Coach Pete”, some call him “Sensei”, some of us call him “Damnit, Pete!” when he rabbits up a hill that mysteriously appeared on a supposedly-flat run and cheerfully calls out, “That’s not a hill! It’s just an inclined flat!” But you can never hold it against him—he’s also the guy who effortlessly circles back and hangs with the slowest runner (often me), checking in and chatting with pretty much everyone who joins the group for any given run. He’s the one who dispenses good running tips, trail directions, praise and bad jokes with the same easy-going, self-deprecating humor. Pete and his family are moving out of state, and our crew is definitely going to miss his encouragement, inspiration, superior trail-finding abilities, easy-going manner and coaching advice. (I might not miss his nettle-finding abilities, though!)

To send him off, we met at the parking lot at Knox’s Headquarters on route 252 and set out to run, roughly, the perimeter of the park. We ran along Valley Creek, then turned to follow the edge of a rolling meadow where model plane enthusiasts were flying their crafts, crossed route 252, circled around to climb the hillside past the ranger station (where we took a break to brush ticks off our legs — ACK!), bombed down the hill to the lower parking lot to refill bottles and bump into friends who were out running with the local Galloway Group, then crossed route 23 and dodged massive construction vehicles to hop onto “Fisherman’s trail”, a lovely, flowy bit of single-track along the Schuylkill River. We re-emerged behind Washington’s Headquarters, crossed back over route 23 and headed up toward our namesake, Mt. Misery, where the Horseshoe Trail comes through the park. Here, the pack split: some ran up over Misery, and some headed downhill, to the wide, pretty trail that follows Valley Creek back to Yellow Springs Road near its juncture with 252. I was in the latter group, for a couple reasons: this was the longest run I’ve done in over a year (depending on whose measurements you went by, we ran somewhere between 8 and 9 miles; most of my long runs have been in the 5-6 mile range, which barely counts as leg-stretching for many in this group), and I’d rolled my ankle (again) when the trail along the Schuylkill got rockier and more challenging. After that, the easier, flatter trail along Valley Creek sounded lovely.

Happily, my ankle didn’t bother me for long at all. I ended the run feeling energized and excited, instead of tired and over-done, and I had a great time with friends—I don’t think you can ask for better! MLC is definitely going to feel the loss of Coach Pete—but it’s a really great group of people with a great deal of varied trail and ultra experience, and we have more fun and challenging runs ahead of us.

Post-run group picture

Post-run group picture

Next post: Adventure Sunday!