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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Race Report: Tyler 10k

My trail running group occasionally runs in Ridley Creek State Park, which butts up against Tyler Arboretum — a few of the trails cross onto the arboretum property, and at least a couple of us have signed up for memberships at the arboretum (I felt bad for trespassing the first time I followed the group through a deer gate into the arboretum property, so I signed up for an annual membership afterward. Plus, it’s a beautiful place with many good programs, so supporting it makes me happy).

Each year, the arboretum hosts a 10k trail race, which is capped at 400 runners and sells out every year. I ran it last year for the first time, and hadn’t done much in the way of trail running (mostly flat, local dirt or gravel trails) prior to the race– that’s a big part of what led me to increasing my time on the trails this past year. I had so much fun at the race that I wanted to come back again and do better.

Race Overview:

The trails in Tyler are really lovely — wide, well-maintained, minimal rocks and roots to worry about (somehow, when I run next door in Ridley Creek State Park, roots and loose rocks seem to magically multiply where-ever I’m about to put a foot down. Does fencing out deer work on rocks, too?) It’s hilly enough to be challenging, but not painfully steep. There are two spots where the trail crosses a stream — and the race course loops back on itself, so you get four total stream crossings. One spot has rocks across the stream, so you can keep your feet dry if you want to balance your way across, or you can just splash through above the rocks. The other stream crossing didn’t have any handy rocks, but it was narrower and pretty shallow — maybe 6″ deep. (I got both feet wet, while my long-legged boyfriend was able to leap it in a single bound.)

Even with the rain leading up to the race this year, there were very few muddy spots on the trail. The trail surface was nice and firm in most areas, with just a couple low spots that actually had good ol’ squelchy, slippery mud.

Of all the hills on the course, the meanest one is at the finish. Not because it’s the steepest, but because you have to bypass the nice, flat area where the start line was set up, then run down a slight hill, cross a bridge over the stream and then run up a wide, grassy slope to finish next to the barn. Last year, this hill was a surprise — I hadn’t been looking around enough to notice that the finish line was not in the same place as the start line, and I sped up too early. This year, I was ready for it.

The general atmosphere of the race is really nice — from the volunteers at check-in to the folks directing you out on course, everyone is positive and encouraging. The folks at the water stations were great, as were the volunteers directing people at intersections and encouraging runners at each of the water crossings (I even saw one guy lending a balancing hand to a runner carefully picking her way across). Since the course does loop back on itself, you eventually reach a point where you’re seeing the head of the pack coming back, and all the runners cheer for each other, too. I got a “Good job, runner!” comment from someone who was somewhere in the top 10 runners, which was cool. (The overall winner finished the course in just over 36 minutes. My mind was BLOWN when I heard that. I can’t even imagine what it must be like to be that fast!)

 

My personal race experience:

The forecast for the day included sun and a high temperature of 60 degrees. The morning temperature was expected to be around 48 degrees, climbing pretty quickly to the mid-50’s. I planned my outfit accordingly: lightweight running capris (I kind of hate shorts, and never wear them), and a light-weight, long-sleeve shirt. When I woke up that morning, I was freezing — I just felt really cold from the moment I woke up, and it felt colder than mid-40’s to me when I first stepped outside. My boyfriend also reminded me that, when we got to the park last year for this race, we discovered it was quite a bit colder there. Another running friend confirmed it was “usually” 10 degrees cooler in the park. I second-guessed my clothing choices, and swapped in my Brooks insulated running tights, and a long-sleeve base layer with a light t-shirt over it. I also threw on a lightweight pair of gloves and a headband to cover my ears. Mistake #1 complete! I was relatively comfortable walking around before the race started, and that should have been a blinking neon warning sign that I was wearing the wrong clothing. In hindsight, while it was too late to change pants before the race started, I could have gone back to my car and gotten rid of the long-sleeve base layer — that would have helped. As it was, I kept all that clothing on and ended up over-heating and not feeling well for most of the race. (I did end up taking off the gloves and headband about a mile into the race, and rolled up the sleeves of my base layer, but I stopped short of stripping off clothing so that I could remove the base layer and just have the t-shirt on.)

I was pretty frustrated over that newbie-style mistake — how many seasons do I have to make the same clothing mistakes before I learn to trust the temperature/weather guidelines instead of my instincts — but that wasn’t the only newbie mistake I made on Saturday. The other one? Not retying my shoes.

No, I’m not joking. At one point, just after the race started, I thought that my left shoe was a tiny bit loose, and maybe I should re-tie the laces. But we were in the thick of the crowd, and I didn’t want to end up all the way at the back of the crowd before we hit the natural bottleneck of the first stream crossing, so I kept going. Were there better places along the way, after the crowd was more spread out on the trail, where I could have stepped off to the side to redo those laces? Yes, there were. Did I do that? No, I did not. By the time the crowd thinned, I was moving along at a good, comfortable pace, focused on running the trail, and completely forgot about my shoe. I twisted my left ankle three or four different times in the first four miles, and I remember glancing at my Garmin to check the distance, seeing 4.19 miles and thinking, “I am going to be walking the last 2.01 miles. THIS SUCKS.” At this point, my boyfriend had dropped back to run with me, and I had to turn my face away from him — I was struggling not to cry. My ankle hurt every time I put my foot down, I was feeling a little nauseous from being overheated, and I was angry with myself for not doing better.

And that’s when I remembered that I had thought, early on, about retying my shoe. I stepped off the trail right then and did it, figuring at least the bit of extra support might help mitigate the pain of my ankle, even if I still had to walk the rest of the way. I was surprised at just what a big difference it made, and was able to pick up the pace again and continue run/walk intervals the remainder of the distance. (To the rhythm of, “IF ONLY YOU HAD DONE THAT TO BEGIN WITH, YOU IDIOT” in the back of my mind.)

With my ankle feeling a little better, and my boyfriend running with me, my spirits picked up considerably. I crossed the finish line to the cheers of a friend who had finished ahead of me, then stayed there to cheer for two other friends (and everyone else who came up the hill to the finish line). Finishing a race at a run instead of a walk is pretty much all it takes to put me back into a good mood, no matter how rough the race itself was, and I can look at any difficulty I had or mistakes I made from a better mindset and move on to the next challenge.

Now that I’ve run the race twice, next year might be my turn to volunteer. Not because I don’t want to run it again, but because I know how hard it can be to find volunteers for an event — and it doesn’t matter how many people register if you can’t wrangle enough volunteers to support them!