Monday, November 30, 2015

Run for the Diamonds Recap

A Runner's Ramblings: Volume 10; 24th Edition 
311.1 miles run; 16 miles biked; 800 meters swam in 2015 races
Race: Run for the Diamonds
Place: Berwick, PA
Miles from home: 2757
Weather: 50s; Dry; Sunny

Making a living that, in some part, incorporates running sounds wonderful. For the most part, it is.  However, when you are still in the "racing" part of your life, just running is not enough to keep the appetite whetted.  Nevertheless, with only so many weekends in the year, and a desire to experience as much as possible, in order to run all the races you would like you must accept that most of them will not be your "A" day. If you can swallow that pride, then you will be fine. Now, I haven't really been able to do that just yet. But I am working on it.

Fortunately, I knew that the Run for the Diamonds would not be a great race for me from the start. Having spent the most time home in quite some time, I have been putting in hard, longer miles. As such, I was aware this would be a very hard workout with an official time attached to it. More importantly, however, was experiencing this, little slice of racing heaven.

I have lamented often that the best and worst thing about running is how it is a participatory sport. So many people run and take part in races these days and their desire to do so is a wonderful one indeed.  With regards to knowing anything about the rich history of the sport, or its current stars, most runners draw a blank. When I mentioned I would be running this race to my running friends, 1 in 10 had even heard of it, let alone knew what it was all about. That is why I hope its inclusions in my newest book, which will detail the greatest races to run in North America, will help raise its profile to be included in every "must do" list for runners nationwide.

I will not get into too much of the history of the race as there already is a book dedicated to just that, but let's just say a race doesn't get run 106 times if they aren't doing something right. I will point out that the race is known for a couple of things, namely, the fact that the top runners are presented with diamond rings or necklaces and the big honking hill starting at mile two.

On the day before the race, I was given a course tour by the race directors. Couldn't have been more glad I accepted that as it ended up being not the course I thought it would be. Without a doubt there is a reason why so many who have run this race do better the second time they have run it.  Or, as so many do who are local enough to be afforded the opportunity, they run the course repeatedly on trial runs. In fact, the organizers put a few portapotties out at the start/finish a few weeks in advance so anyone running the race has a place to relieve themselves.  That sort of small town charm is pretty amazing.

As the dinner before the race wound down, I was scheduled to say a few words about some of my accomplishments and why I chose to be in Berwick for this particular race so far from where I live. In addition, I was pleasantly surprised to see friends I had known for years, run into people who knew high school teachers of mine when they were growing up, and make the acquaintance of more than a few people who I had only met through social media.  Always so nice to put a face and a voice to a name who you only see in race results.

First two miles:

This first two-mile stretch is the appetizer for the rest of the race.  Starting on the double-laned, tree-centered Market Street, runners slope slightly downhill through the main street heading out of downtown.  Then you slope ever-so-slightly uphill before turning right and leaving the friendly confines. One mile has passed and  you will not run a flat portion again for nearly seven miles.  The next mile winds you through a small cropping out neighborhood houses with a sizable crowd out cheering you on the lawns of their homes.  To your left you see a sprawling meadow with a few horses and a hill still high atop the Berwick Heights.  Above that, where you can't see just yet, is Berwick Heights and the hills you must climb.  You loop around, first to your right an then to your left and then the hills begin.

I ran the first two miles at a good but not great pace, hoping to average around a 6:25.  I was a little fast on the first mile and a little slow on the second one. It was difficult not to think too far ahead when I knew what was in store but I focused on the task at hand. More than a few runners had shot out in the first mile and were coming back into my sights. I think it would be great to have timing mats at the halfway point of this race to see how many people overestimated their ability to tackle these hills. A comparison of how much one died would be good incentive to not do it again once the memory of the pain has been erased by turkey and gravy and time.

To Mile 5:

If you read the history of the races and when it has been won or lost, it is rarely done at any other point than the middle miles. Even if you are not in contention for any sort of prize you can see why these miles here give most people the shivers.  First and foremost there is the hill for which the race is know. Second, there is the false summit of that hill, a small downhill and then a steep up again.  Following this you are treated to a screaming downhill to the point of the arrowhead (what the course resembles) before one last long but gradual uphill to the end of the 5th mile.

Many times in the previous years, the weather conditions for this race have been rather abysmal.  It is Thanksgiving in Central Pennsylvania. The old adage about having Halloween costumes designed to fit over snommobile suits makes us laugh because it is true. So for the temperature to be nearly 60 at race start (a late 10:30 a.m.) was obviously something different. I can only imagine trying to summit these big hills in slippery snowy conditions. However, with perfect footing, I have no excuse other than the 500 feet we climbed for an extremely slow mile. As the sun beat down and the smattering of fans with beer and other libations for runners cheered us on, I was simply trying to conserve energy as best as possible knowing this was not the only hill. As a journalist of the event as well, I was also doing my best to suck in the ambiance even as I sucked wind.

Throughout the first five miles I either stood pat with regards to where I was in the positioning of the race or passed people. Here and there a lone runner would streak by me which would only make me wonder if they started late.  But for the most part I felt I was running the course well, if not too particularly fast.

When we finally crested the 5th mile, I knew we at least had a little downhill running where I could feel like a half-decent runner. I find it so curious how different runners are and how we can excel at such different things. Time and time again I would have to work hard to keep up with someone on a flat or uphill only to fly by them like it was nothing when the course sloped down. Never ceases to amaze me how contrasting running styles can be from pair of shoes to pair of shoes.

Heading Home to the Diamonds:

While the well-intentioned folks along the course would repeatedly tell you the race was all downhill, they were incorrect or liars. However, for a brief period of time, there was a nice long downhill that those of us who are fortunate to run them well, could take advantage of.  Over this next mile I realized there was no way I was going to break an hour for my race as originally planned.  Yet, I knew if I threw a little of my back into it, I might not be much more than a minute over either. Being in that no-man's land of way off your initial goal but between two lesser-desired goals, of which neither will make you happy no matter how hard you run, is an uncomfortable place to be. You must decide how much pain and exhaustion you can handle even when you know the end result will still be rather unpleasing.  It is a balancing act and a bargain you have to make with your muscles and lungs. Throwing down my fastest mile of the race, I knew I just had three more miles before I could call it a day.

Of course there are a least three smallish uphill sections to contend with over the rest of the course: a small rise right before the 6th mile a screamer of a downhill at mile 7 before a quick down and up halfway betwixt that and mile 8 and an uphill climb right near the finish (positioned next to a graveyard.)  I saw at the mile 7 marker a camera set up on a tripod with a sign that said "Smile!" Not wishing to miss an opportunity, I leaned down into the camera with a cheesy grin masking my pain and exhaustion.  I only found out later that the camera is owned by the race director and my smiling mug was captured crystal clear.

Not soon thereafter, two women whom I had passed earlier, passed me in tandem. As we hit this mostly flat, but lightly uphill section before the turn onto the main drag to head home, I could see a battle brewing. As I have on other occasions, when my "A" race is out the window, I sometimes like to watch battles between other people. Racing is an awesome part of running. I enjoy the chess game that goes on as runners throw in surges and spurts and test the boundaries of those they are trailing or leading. As such, I decided to stay in contact with these ladies and see how their efforts played out.

Hitting the last mile I could see a solid effort would keep me in the 1:01 range but it would also give me a front row seat to watching these women battle. In addition, as we neared the finish, I could see that a third female, faltering slightly, was coming into the mix. Pushing myself, ignoring a desire to dry heave, I watched as one girl, wearing Penn State ribbons in her hair (so she was obviously my favorite) narrowed the gap. It came down to a sprint as this PSU fan nipped one runner by one second and the other by six.  I came in just a few more seconds behind, more than ready for this challenging race to be over and netted a 1:01:43 for this tough 9 miles. Finishing in 7th place in my age group I was a bit bummed I missed a diamond award plaque by two places (and about a minute).  Then I looked at the age group above and below me and realized I would have lost by much more in either of those groups.  So, you take what you can get!

Berwick is a town of roughly 10,000 people. I would say at least 3,000 were out on the streets cheering them on and another 1,000 were running the race. It is no great surprise that anyone running a race likes some crowd support. However, more than cheers warms my heart in this type of race. Seeing a small town continue to get behind a product that is 100% its own is an awesome feeling. This race used to be called the Berwick Marathon in spite of its distance not being quite 26.2 miles. While I am glad it doesn't have the incorrect moniker anymore the race does indeed deserve to have the town name in it because of how much it is a community event.  Runner after runner I spoke to was running their 12th, or 27th or 35th Diamond Run.  In fact, the overall female winner, Marina Orrson all of maybe 24 years old, told me this was the 7th time she had run the race.

But it is not just the locals who frequent the Run for the Diamonds.  A large contingency from Canada has made this race a regular pilgrimage for decades and for a time were the overall winners on many occasions. I was fortunate enough to get to spend a few minutes with a few of those Canadians including the incomparable Ed Whitlock. I would highly suggest you read up on this man and his unbelievable accomplishments.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, the challenging hills in this race, one should definitely experience what it is like to race in this iconic event before your running days have passed you by. I cannot guarantee you will have the pristine, almost too warm weather we had this year but I can guarantee the local feel and flavor will warm your heart nonetheless.

You may also win a diamond.


Bill_Bull said...

Thank you so much for being a part of our race this year! I'm glad you enjoyed it! The course can be very challenging! Your talk the night before was both uplifting and humorous. I heard many, many positive comments about it in the past few days. You are right, the support we receive from our small town is tremendous. I hope to see you again somewhere down the road! Thanks again, Bill Bull

Cdipippa said...

Thank you for a great article, you did both the Berwick community and the runners proud! #31 for me!

Cathy D said...

Great article. I love this race and glad you were able to give some much deserved press!

Read This said...

Sounds like a good race to try. Maybe next year.