Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Boilermaker 15k Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 6; 23rd Edition 
315.1 miles raced, 5550 meters swam and 146.3 miles biked in 2011
Race: Boilermaker 15k
Place: Utica, NY     
Miles from home: 2108 miles
Weather: 60-70 degrees; bright sunshine; slightly humid

For some reason I like the 15k distance. This is an odd declaration as until 366 days ago I had only run the distance twice in my life. However, as one of the turning points in my life was the 2005 PT Cruiser Challenge (a race consisting of a 5k, 15k and a marathon run in 24 hours) it is not difficult to see why my fondness for it prevails regardless of the number of times I have run it.

Last year I ran the famed Boilermaker 15k in Utica, a race I had wanted to run for quite some time.  I did so in a less than stellar time. In fact, of the three 15ks I had run my 1:01:26 was the slowest ever. I was determined to change that this year.

As I was in July of 2010, at the Boilermaker this year I was the guest of New York Beef Industry Council. Doing what I have done in numerous places with various state beef councils, I continued to spread the word of how healthy a diet of lean beef is for all athletes, especially runners of all distances.  Also like last year, the people and places in rustic Utica reminded me of my own hometown in not-so-far away Titusville, PA. It felt nice to be “home.”

This year I was fortunate enough to take part in a Runner’s Forum with storied runners Bill Rodgers, Roger Robinson and last, but certainly not least, Kathrine Switzer. My luck has put me in a position where I can call all three "friends" and it was wonderful to share the dais with them, learn from them, and hopefully add a modicum of knowledge from my own experiences. (Amongst many other things we had in common, it was fun to know that Roger shares my complete disdain for stretching. Got an extra 5 minutes? Jog slowly.)
Last year’s race had been punctuated by exceedingly high temperatures and humidity. This year looked to be much better which boded well for my attempt to break a time set by Ed Whitlock (read more here.) What did not bode so well was running three half marathons seven days prior.  But life is short and when presented with opportunities, one must grab them. So I may be going into the race with less than rested legs, but if we waited for the day when we felt, perfect we would never ace at all.

Race Day:

The Boilermaker has grown exponentially the last few years, echoing the trend with races across the nation. The course is not an easy one. There are not necessarily that many things to see along the course to please the eyes. So why is it selling out and bring 13,000 runners to a 60,000 person town.  Well, mostly because of those 60,000 people. The rule in Utica appears to be that if you aren’t running the race, your better be on the side of the streets cheering on everyone else who is. Not an inch of this course is devoid of spectators, sometimes six deep, screaming and cheering on people they know well and others they have never seen before. There is a pride in the race which is rarely seen outside of small towns anymore. It is nestled deep in the notion that something large is owned by all.  To let down the race lets down the town.  And the town is not a large entity which is unknown and distant.  It is the guy you see at church. The woman who makes the pies at the local bakery. It is your neighbors and friends.  And for one second Sunday in July, 13,000 more of become neighbors and friends.

That is the Boilermaker.

The Uphill: 6:17, 6:31, 6:37, 6:48

I knew my goal for the day would be tough. Very tough. I wanted to run around 6:05-6:10 for the first three miles, all which are on a slow steady incline. Then on the biggest, but not necessarily the hardest, hill of the day cresting at mile 4, I was hoping to run right around 6:30. This would leave me with a deficit of about a minute to make up in the second half which is, for all but one mile, downhill or flat. A negative split is what needs to be run on this course if you have any intention on running fast. Take out the first few miles recklessly and you will pay for it. So when the gigantic cannon fired starting the race precisely at 8 AM, I wanted to run solid and fast but keep it in check.

Unfortunately, in spite of my efforts to run a strong feel-good first mile, when I hit the first mile markers I was far slower than what I was hoping for.  I chalked this slowness up to spending a few hundred yards weaving my way through some of the hundreds of runners in front of me. As a side note, this first mile is punctuated by a house on the hill with a sign that says “.1 down, 9.2 to go!”  While this is always worth a chuckle no matter how many times you see it, the residents need to check a map – they are obviously .2 of a mile from the start.

My second mile more or less doomed any hopes for the day for my main goal. I was pushing even more than I wanted to and simply was not moving at the speeds I was hoping to run.  By the third mile, a full 70 seconds off my goal, I had to completely re-evaluate my race. Now, all I wanted to do was set a personal best and get under an hour. There would be no 55:xx today and if I did not play my cards right, I would not get my “C” and “D” goals either.

The announcers at the start had jokingly called this the “Brrrlermaker” as the reported started temperature was the lowest in Boilermaker history.  That is all well and good until you realize that comparative adjectives need to be compared to something.  Here, “lowest temperature ever” means we are comparing it against other mid-July temps in sweltering Utica temperatures. The low 60s thermometer reading might be “cooler” but no one on the starting line was wishing for a scarf. In fact, no more than a mile in and I was already heavily perspiring. Of course, I have heavily perspired wearing nothing but a Speedo on a New Year’s Eve 5k race in 18-degree weather before (not a joke) but still.

I fully expected the climb to the top of mile 4 to be over 7 minutes. I did not feel fast, I was sweating and I was grumpy. Even as I passed a few runners going up the hill, I was beginning to try and figure out why exactly I liked the 15k in the first place. Nine point three miles? Heck, I don’t even get warmed up until the first six are in the bag.  July? Why would I want to run then? Running is stupid. You have to get out of a perfectly comfortable bed and go make yourself hurt. I am quitting right here. I really don’t see the point of this sport.  There isn’t even a ball.

Then I ran a 6:48.  Funny what 12 seconds will do to your psyche.

The Downhill (ish): 5:48, 6:22, 6:45, 6:04, 6:31, 1:53

Lesser goals still attainable, I thought that not only would I go under an hour, I might still salvage a 58:XX.  Everything depended on how I ran the next mile. Coming down the other side of the hill up to the fourth mile is glorious.  You spend 200 meters in complete shade, cooling you ever-so-slightly as you regroup yourself from the ascent up the mount. Here the young whippersnappers who bolted out of the gate thinking that they have run plenty of 5ks so a 15k is nothing new are gasping for breath.  The wily old veterans are just getting their joints lubed up and finally waking. This hill is where the two collide and a switch in the pack happens. Being neither young nor wily and wise, I am in the middle of these two and get to see the two change places. I see the fresh faces fall back and the taut older muscles slide forward.  My goal is to simply keep the wily old ones in my sight as long as I can. If I can just run around a 6 minute mile down this hill, I am back in the game. 

I will most assuredly take that 5:48, thank you very much.

If there is a more important mile in the Boilermaker than sixth mile, I do not know what it is. You have just finished the biggest downhill of the course. When you finally see mile marker 6, you will began another mile long climb to 7. That 6th mile is where you decide if you got enough from the downhill to make the push up the uphill.  Or perhaps it is decided for you that you left too much behind you to mount a charge and will flail on the side, grabbing popsicles from the wonderful townspeople and maybe stop and walk for a second, utterly defeated. As we neared the 6th mile, I thought I might be in the popsicle group.

After the elation of the 5:48, I fell back into place. A few runners passed me as the course slowed its descent and I felt a little lethargic. I saw up ahead what I thought was the mile 6 marker.  It seemed forever away and my split for this mile was already at 6 minutes and counting. Just when I assumed I had torn too much out of my legs on the downhill, I saw the actual marker and hit my watch. The 6:22 I saw was not the 6:10 I was hoping for but was also not a 7:xx. I was almost positive I would be running a 7 plus minute mile for this mile and the 5:48 had been a mistake.  However, the sign I originally thought was the mile marker turned out to be just a well-wishing sign on the side of the road which looked remarkably like a mile marker from afar. They often talk of beer goggles for the kids – I am pretty sure that there are running goggles as well.

After getting this brief respite and jolt to the system I knew I had to begin climbing again. I figuratively put my head down and began the climb. Looking at the elevation profile prior to the race, it is the first four miles which catch your attention.  However, it is actually running the course that allows you to know it is the hill at Utica College which grabs at your ankles. The only thing keeping you from stopping are the crowds cheering and yelling.  Like Heartbreak Hill in the Boston Marathon, here the crowds lift you. 

Even though you know 99.9% of the crowd is not there waiting for you or cheering you on specifically, no one wants to disappoint those who have spent all morning cheering and clapping. So you trudge forward the best you can. For me, when I saw that my split for this hill was barely faster than the much steeper hill at mile 4, I was disappointed. But I knew I only had two miles to go. Your gift for fighting through the hill you can’t see (it has two right angle turns on it, and with crowds lining the streets you cannot see how much further up it goes) is a long gradual downhill.  If you are going to make any move, this is where you make it.  So I did.

Employing all the techniques I have learned about running downhill I began to slide down this hill like hot butter on a griddle. Ignoring the pain on the ball of my left foot, which I have had since a half marathon in Santa Barbara, I passed runner after runner. But at this point you are not racing those faceless singlets and high kicks. You are racing the clock. You are racing the sun which ignored the audacity of the thermometer telling it how hot it will not make the day and begins to bake you from the back.  Beating down on your shoulders it begs you to push harder than you can.  It wants to see you wilt so that you can lie on the side of the road. It is begging you to just take a rest and let it soak into your skin. But I refused to listen to the Sun on this day. One mile later, covered in six minutes and four seconds and I knew I had a personal best and a sub one hour time. The question was how much of both.
Credit: Bob Kopac

The last 1.3 miles of this course becomes a congested (but not in a bad way) sea of runners, bagpipers, fans and the occasional spectator who somehow looks completely confused about what the heck is going on. This is what you live for as a runner.  To be gliding along, moved forward only by your own power, pushing to cover a distance faster than you have ever before simply so that you can finish and then immediately dissect your race and find a million places where you could have pushed harder. Until that day when you finish a race before you start it your task is never finished.
With the finish line in sight I realized if I pushed a smidgen harder I would be able to run a slightly faster time that a friend who told me what their personal best was. I decided that extra effort to slip a little below their time and therefore have good-natured bragging rights was worth the hurt. With people on both sides cheering for my Team Beef singlet I slid in under the banner in a new personal best of 59:39.  Good enough for 299th place overall it was an improvement of nearly two minutes from last year and a personal best by over half of a minute. Twenty-one other 35-39 year olds had crossed the line before me and the overall winners could have run another 3 miles at their pace before I finished.  But I was happy.

One of these runners was 4.5 minutes faster than the other. And is on the right.
Content? No. I hope to never be content. I want to always be pushing for more. Pushing on good days and bad. Trying when there is no real reason to try. Doing what I want, like and need to do.

Here’s hoping you do too.


1L said...

Nice run, Dane! Your comments of the course itself pretty much sum it up completely. I, too, loved that downhill mile clocking a 6:38 split which for me is a shade of the old. I thought it warmed up quickly and I was drenched at mile 2 as well. However, I loved the race, and even though I was 30th in the F45-49 group, I actually think I could have a chance to place in the 50-55 when I come back next year.

Anonymous said...

Good recap of another sucessful Boilermaker. I especially liked you last few sentences..."Trying when there is no real reason to try. Doing what I want, like and need to do." Awesome words to read and stay motivated.